The winners and losers of the SUPER GT season so far
Strangely, the first half of this year’s championship has been remarkably similar to the opening four races of 2020. Back then, the season started with Toyota dominating the opener but then suffering three straight defeats, two at the hands of Honda (Fuji, Motegi) and one at the hands of Nissan (Suzuka). And, with four races gone, it’s a Honda crew that leads the championship after winning at Motegi. If all of that sounds familiar, it should – it could just as easily describe this year.
Considering the step forward that Toyota had appeared to make on ‘cornering’ tracks, as evidenced by its 1-2-3-4 (almost mirroring the GR Supra 1-2-3-4-5 at the Fuji curtain-raiser last year) at Okayama, this has to be considered a win for Honda, which is aiming for its first-ever successful GT500 title defence.
Since Tadasuke Makino returned from illness in time for the second race of the season at Fuji, the #1 Kunimitsu squad that won last year’s title has looked in as good a shape as ever, with Naoki Yamamoto putting in two excellent drives in the two most recent races at Motegi and Suzuka to give himself a five-point lead over Rookie Racing Toyota duo Kenta Yamashita and Kazuya Oshima. And despite a slightly disappointing run at Suzuka, Real Racing duo Bertrand Baguette and Koudai Tsukakoshi are also still well in the hunt.
That said, Makino and Yamamoto will be lucky to score even a few points in the next two races at Sugo and Autopolis with the stage two fuel flow restrictor, and they certainly can’t bank on a last-corner-of-the-last-lap-style implosion from Toyota again to come away with the silverware. A win for either the #1 or the #17 (or, if it can get its act together beforehand, the #8 ARTA car) at the penultimate round at Motegi, where the success weights are halved, will almost certainly be necessary to give the front-engined NSX-GT its second championship in two years.
If you look at the number of GT500 wins for each tyre maker so far in 2021, there are no surprises: Bridgestone 3, Michelin 1, Yokohama 0, Dunlop 0. But how many would have predicted Yokohama scoring two podiums in the opening four races – the same number as Michelin and two more than Dunlop – given how wretched its cars’ performances were last year, and having lost one of its three partners since?
One of the big stories heading into the season was Honda outfit Mugen ending its relationship with Yokohama in favour of becoming Dunlop’s second team, leaving Yokohama with just the #19 Racing Project Bandoh Toyota GR Supra and the #24 Kondo Racing Nissan GT-R, the least fancied cars in their respective camps. But somehow, both the #19 and the #24 cars have made it on the podium, the former for the first time in two years, the latter for the first time in five.
The hot conditions at Motegi, a track with mostly short, sharp corners that don’t punish the tyres too much, played straight into the hands of Bandoh drivers Ritomo Miyata and Yuji Kunimoto, who came within a slightly tardy pitstop of what would have been an immensely popular win. The bigger shock though was seeing Daiki Sasaki and Mitsunori Takaboshi join their Michelin-shod Nissan colleagues on the podium at Suzuka, where Takaboshi admitted that falling temperatures over the course of the race helped him keep his rubber cool and an all-Nissan podium intact.
Things are also looking up for Yokohama in GT300, where the wins scorecard reads Yokohama 2, Bridgestone 1, Dunlop 1, and the top two cars in the points (#244 Max Racing Toyota and #56 Kondo Racing Nissan) are both Yokohama users. While Kondo was Yokohama’s only serious contender in 2020, the firm’s chances of defending its GT300 title are looking pretty solid at this stage.
Last year, you could argue that every Nissan team bar the #23 NISMO pairing of Ronnie Quintarelli and Tsugio Matsuda underperformed. But fast forward 12 months, and there’s one GT-R crew that’s definitely surpassed pre-season expectations, and that’s NDDP/B-Max Racing’s Kohei Hirate and Katsumasa Chiyo. They were Nissan’s best finishers in each of the first three races, and at Suzuka Hirate led for a decent chunk of the way and wasn’t far from the team’s first win in two years.
It seemed to take the duo, who were placed together in the #3 machine following Frederic Makowiecki’s decision to quit the series ahead of the 2020 campaign, longer than most driver pairings to gel amid a series of mediocre finishes for what effectively amounts to NISMO’s second factory car amid the backdrop of the disruption of the COVID-19 pandemic. But things have gone much more smoothly this year, to the extent that Hirate and Chiyo were putting their more celebrated colleagues in the #23 car, Quintarelli and Matsuda, to shame up until Suzuka.
The Suzuka race took on an extra dimension as the fight for the win boiled down to a showdown between the celebrated incumbent of Nissan’s flagship car and the man that would dearly love to replace him. On that occasion, Matsuda reminded the world that even at 42 years old he can still be a force to be reckoned with, especially at his home track. But with half the season still to go, Hirate will no doubt have more chances to make a case for himself as Nissan prepares to retire the current generation of GT-R in favour of a likely switch to the new ‘Z’ base model.
Chiyo likewise has looked like a much more convincing proposition in his fifth full season in the GT500 ranks, with an aggressive opening stint at Suzuka setting up the team for its second-place finish. The 34-year-old’s place in the Nissan camp, which has been no stranger to a driver shake-up or two in the last few seasons, is certainly looking more secure than it did 12 months ago.
Supra users in GT300
Last year, Saitama Toyopet Green Brave changed the game in the GT300 class with the introduction of its self-built version of the new GR Supra that came within 10 points of winning the title at the first time of asking, helped by a Fuji-centric calendar and the addition of Kohta Kawaai to the team’s driving strength. At the start of this year, two other teams – LM Corsa and Max Racing – took delivery of the car, and at the halfway point of the season both of them have won races with it.
LM Corsa had a truly dreadful 2020 season with the aging Lexus RC F GT3, which now looks like it may not be far away from extinction in Japan following the brand’s virtual disappearance from the European GT3 racing scene. But armed with their new weapon, Hiroki Yoshimoto and Shunsuke Kohno were on the pace in winter testing, further boosted by a switch from Michelin to Dunlop tyres, winning second time out at Fuji (albeit only after Saitama Toyopet suffered a late mechanical failure while leading) and making it three Supra wins in five starts at the track.
Max Racing, which only entered SUPER GT for the first time last year, likewise ditched its Lexus for a Supra, albeit missing the first pre-season test owing to the late delivery of the car. Fifth at Okayama was an auspicious start, but Atsushi Miyake and Yuui Tsutsumi, one of the youngest line-ups in the class, did a sensational job at Suzuka to take the team’s first win and propel themselves to the top of the drivers’ standings by a not-inconsiderable margin of seven points in the process.
Two non-scores in the last two races have left Yoshimoto and Kohno a further 11 points back, one ahead of Saitama Toyopet duo Hiroki Yoshida and Kawaii. But on current form we can expect all three Supra teams to be very much in the mix for the title as they seek to end a run of four GT300 titles for FIA GT3-using teams.
For the second year running, ARTA finds itself on this list on the wrong side of the ledger. The statistics pretty much speak for themselves: while the #1 Kunimitsu and the #17 Real Racing Hondas have won a race apiece, sitting first and fourth in the standings, the #8 machine shared by Tomoki Nojiri and Nirei Fukuzumi languishes in 10th, on less than a third of the points of the #1 car, with a best finish of fifth at Motegi. And that’s despite Nojiri and Fukuzumi both enjoying the best respective seasons of their careers in Super Formula.
Now, it should be pointed out that ARTA’s form in the opening four races of 2020 was even worse, as Nojiri and Fukuzumi managed a miserable three points. But you have to remember that they were only paired up at the start of last year, while chief engineer Ryan Dingle was also new to the ARTA fold. With a year of experience of working together, there are fewer excuses. The only race in which the #8 crew have been competitive so far is the Fuji 500km, where Fukuzumi arguably got unlucky with a yellow flag, resulting in a penalty that probably cost he and Nojiri the win. Elsewhere, they’ve never really looked anywhere near challenging for a podium.
At Okayama and Motegi, the team simply couldn’t recover from below-par showings in qualifying, even though at Motegi in particular the #8 car’s race pace was strong and a podium could have been on the cards with a better grid slot. Then last time out at Suzuka, the hotter temperatures on race day caused a balance change that meant the team’s solid grid slot of P5 went wasted – while Kunimitsu conversely went from a lowly 11th on the grid to fourth at the finish, despite carrying more success ballast.
Next up are Sugo and Autopolis, two tracks where the team has no data. As by far the lightest of the three Bridgestone-shod Hondas, and the only one with no fuel restrictor, the opportunity is still there to mount a comeback, as is always the case in SUPER GT until the last two races. Nojiri and Fukuzumi will no doubt take comfort from their run of three podiums at this same stage of the season last year. But the simple fact is that they shouldn’t have this much catching-up to do in the first place.
If ARTA has been the big underperformer in the Honda camp so far this year, the equivalent team in the Toyota stable has to be Cerumo, which with a meagre tally of 11 points in the first four races has endured its worst start to a season since 1998, the year before Tachikawa joined the team. It’s also the first time in 10 years the team hasn’t managed at least one podium in that time, a dire state of affairs for one of the most decorated teams on the grid, second only to TOM’S in the Toyota camp.
It’s been a turbulent year-and-a-half for Cerumo, which expanded to a second car last year to fill the void left by the Toyota/Team LeMans split. However, with the two cars often going different ways on set-up, Tachikawa and Ishiura were largely overshadowed by the Rookie Racing-branded machine of Kazuya Oshima and Sho Tsuboi. This year, with Rookie Racing setting up on its own, Cerumo is back to running just the #38 car, but over the winter the team lost one of the pillars of its recent successes as chief engineer Takuji Murata defected to Kondo Racing.
In Murata’s place has come Kotaro Tanaka, who masterminded fellow Toyota team SARD’s 2016 title success, but so far it’s been anything but plain sailing. In fact, ahead of the third round of the season at Motegi, Tachikawa stepped down from his team director role in favour of Tanaka, who is the only chief engineer in the GT500 class who is also having to head up the whole operation. So far, the change hasn’t resulted in an upturn in form despite the #38 having a favourable success handicap, and if things don’t improve quickly, the question of whether it could be time to disband the oldest driver line-up in the GT500 field will have to be raised.
Now 46, Tachikawa is reaching the age where even the most successful drivers are nudged towards retirement, but based on this season alone you’d have to say that Ishiura – who has already hung up his helmet in Super Formula – is the one that you would get rid of. While Tachikawa surged forward five places in his stint at Suzuka, Ishiura was unimpressive, losing positions during his time at the wheel for the third time in four races. There were paddock whispers this time last year that sponsor ZENT was angling for a refresh of the Cerumo line-up, and suffice it to say those rumours are likely to resurface in the coming months as the silly season hots up.
After its best season in years was rewarded with a second GT500 entry, Dunlop has so far failed to deliver on the promise it showed in pre-season testing, with neither the #64 Nakajima Racing Honda nor the brand’s new entry, the #16 Mugen Honda, having finished on the podium so far. That’s despite the #64 and the #16 having comfortably the best qualifying averages of the Honda camp, which neatly encapsulates the problem: race pace still lags behind the tyre’s one-lap pace.
Dunlop said at the Okayama season opener that it could have easily taken pole had it elected to bring its softest tyre compound, something that seemed to signify a change of approach towards improving consistency over a stint. But while the two Dunlop-equipped Hondas have been reliably fast in qualifying, notably locking out the front row at Suzuka, whose fast and flowing layout has always been a good fit for the tyre, replicating that speed in the race has proven a much sterner test.
Motegi appeared to be a step forward, as despite the blistering heat the #16 showed consistent, if not staggering, race pace en route to fourth, while the #64 machine would have probably followed it home in fifth place if it hadn’t been for Hiroki Otsu clobbering a GT300 class Toyota Prius at the final chicane. But, come Suzuka, the #16 suffered an absolutely diabolical race, dropping from the lead to ninth at the finish. We can’t know how the #64 would have fared as it crashed out early on with a brake failure, but Takuya Izawa’s post-race comments made it sound as if he expected a similarly tough time in the second stint had the car survived.
The silver lining for Dunlop is that both of its cars remain very light, and it has been able to conduct testing at Sugo, while most of its rivals have not, which should offer an advantage. But there is clearly still a mountain to climb to produce a tyre that is going to put either of its two cars in a position to mount any kind of season-long challenge against the might of Bridgestone and Michelin in future.
Honda’s GT300 teams
Since ARTA switched from BMW to Honda machinery for its GT300 challenge ahead of the 2019 season, the team’s #55 NSX GT3 has always been there or thereabouts, with veteran Shinichi Takagi accompanied by a revolving door of fast Honda prodigies. He and Fukuzumi won the 2019 title, and while Takagi couldn’t defend his title paired with Toshiki Oyu, the team was still one of the most consistent out there, only failing to score points once all year. With Oyu being promoted to the Honda stable for 2021, Ren Sato was brought in to accompany Takagi for this year.
So far however, the season has been turbulent to say the least. Good points at Okayama went begging due to a penalty for contact, and while Takagi and Sato enjoyed a smooth run to third at Fuji, at Motegi a ‘cool suit’ failure in the blazing heat left Sato unable to finish the race, and at Suzuka Sato inexplicably failed to make it out of Q1. The upshot is the pair sit a distant 11th in the standings on less than half of the points scored by the championship-leading Max Racing Toyota.
It’s been even worse for the two other teams running the Honda NSX GT3. UpGarage, which is operated by the same Servus Japan organisation as the ARTA car, has scored a miserable three points so far despite boasting ex-ARTA GT500 man Takashi Kobayashi and rising star Teppei Natori, not even taking the start at Suzuka after a loose wheel caused Natori to crash heavily at 130R in warm-up. And the less said about Drago Corse’s season so far the better: the new-look operation helmed by ex-Direxiv boss Misato Haga has yet to get on the scoreboard at all.
Suzuka in particular felt like a big missed chance for all three Honda GT300 crews, as the track tends to suit the mid-engined car. At least Takagi and ARTA will be encouraged by their win on SUPER GT’s last visit to Sugo two years ago, but they absolutely need a strong showing there next weekend to stay in the hunt in such a competitive field that features at least a dozen cars capable of winning races.