What to expect from Super GT's longest race in two years
SUPER GT will be holding its first 'long-distance' race since the 2019 season on Tuesday, as the Fuji 500km Golden Week classic makes its return after a year's absence.
Safety car practice
The arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic last year meant series organisers elected to do away with both the Fuji 500km event and the summer 500-mile race at the same track, with every SUPER GT race in 2020 run over the standard distance of 300 kilometres.
But in a bid to differentiate this year's Golden Week Fuji race from the season finale in November, the decision was made to extend the former event to 500km, a move that was been welcomed by much of the paddock.
It means Tuesday's contest will be run over a distance of 110 laps, instead of the usual 65, and if all goes smoothly will last around three hours. GT500 teams will have to complete two pitstops, rather than just one, to be able to cover the extended distance.
The usual minimum drive-time rule still applies: no single driver may cover more than two-thirds distance (in this case, 73 laps), so for two-driver crews, that means both drivers must complete at least one-third distance (37 laps).
Drivers however cannot do consecutive stints, so this effectively means the starting driver must also complete the final stint, and the second driver is entrusted with the middle stint, which cannot be any shorter than 37 laps. The exact fuel window varies per car, but is estimated to be not much more than 40 laps, so there's limited opportunity to diverge on strategy.
Bear in mind that in last year's Fuji finale, when TOM'S Toyota driver Ryo Hirakawa lost the title after running out of fuel exiting the final corner on the final lap, the team had made its pitstop at the end of lap 23 of 65, giving itself what turned out to be an impossible 42-lap second stint.
So, with the middle stint fixed at between 37 and about 40 laps, it means there are two main strategy options: shorten the first stint, perhaps to 30-32 laps, and commit to two long stints after that, or try to go to around lap 40 on the opening stint, and give yourself a shorter final stint.
Nissan's Ronnie Quintarelli says the NISMO squad will likely be taking the latter option, he and Tsugio Matsuda banking on the longevity of their Michelin tyres to fight for a spot on the podium.
"I think for the first two stints we will stay out as long as possible and go for a short final stint, when there is more rubber on the track," said the Italian after qualifying seventh on Monday. "This is something we did in the past at this track and it worked well.
"But we need to look after the tyres in the first and second stints. It will be close to 40 laps, one stint. You might have a huge drop in the last five, 10 laps. If you can do enough laps [in the first two stints] to make the last stint just 30 or 32 laps, that’s the best scenario."
#23 MOTUL AUTECH GT-R
Photo by: Masahide Kamio
Fuel consumption could prove vital, especially if it allows you to take advantage of a safety car period or the newly-introduced full-course yellow.
Real Racing Honda driver Bertrand Baguette is certainly banking on the NSX-GT retaining its fuel consumption advantage from last year to help claw his way up the order from 11th on the grid.
"The maximum stint length is however far you can go on a tank of fuel," said Baguette. "Depending on your fuel consumption maybe the window is quite small, and maybe we have a bigger one than Toyota! That will be the only thing we can play with and try to come back."
In a 300km race, teams tend to pit as early as possible (or, at least, as early as their fuel mileage permits) to avoid being caught out by the safety car. With the FCY now an option for the race organisers, the chance of having your race totally ruined is somewhat lessened, but getting your stop done while your rivals are restricted to 80km/h would still be advantageous.
That said, the pitlane will be closed during a FCY just as it is during a regular safety car period.
Baguette is expecting the FCY to catch some drivers out, especially as the stewards have indicated that they will not be hesitant to punish those who don't slow down quickly enough.
"They will be quite strict on it," said the Belgian. "If you are not at 80km/h when they count down to zero, you will get a penalty. In Europe they are more relaxed about it, but here they say they will be strict. There might be a lot of penalties for that, so let’s see."
Photo by: Masahide Kamio
Can anyone stop Toyota making it two wins in a row?
So, who is looking in the strongest position to win after qualifying? It was the Yokohama-shod Racing Project Bandoh Toyota that grabbed pole on Monday thanks to a sensational lap from Ritomo Miyata in Q2, but race pace has proven a challenge for Yokohama in recent seasons and there's little reason to think that this race is likely to be too much different.
Starting from second will be the ARTA Honda, which came within 0.003s of pole in the hands of Nirei Fukuzumi - helped by the team focussing on a set-up that works for qualifying after struggling for one-lap pace in last year's Fuji finale and last month's Okayama curtain-raiser.
But behind the Honda will be four Bridgestone-shod Toyota GR Supras, which have lost little of their speed since the season opener at Okayama despite all carrying not an inconsiderable amount of success ballast.
Indeed, Kenta Yamashita and Kazuya Oshima took victory at Okayama in the Rookie Racing Toyota, and despite carrying the maximum 40kg of extra weight Yamashita was fastest of all in Q1, with Oshima finally qualifying in sixth place behind the Cerumo Supra and both TOM'S cars.
"[In Q1] the tyres matched the conditions perfectly, and the set-up was also good," said Yamashita. "I feel like everything fit together well. Oshima was using the hard tyre for Q2, so the race should be good. I think we have a chance to win. The race is long, the tyres are good, so if we can get to the front, I think there’s definitely a chance for back-to-back wins."
#8 ARTA NSX-GT
Photo by: Masahide Kamio
For his part, Fukuzumi says he is "not so confident" about his and Tomoki Nojiri's chances of converting a front-row start into victory, saying the ARTA crew still has work to do on refining its long-run pace.
"I think the Toyotas will be strong on race pace, and also they are faster than us in a straight line," admitted Fukuzumi. "Even if we have better race pace than them, it will be difficult to overtake them.
"It will be very important to overtake the #19 [Bandoh Supra] at the start and try to get away from P2 as much as possible. This is key."
Baguette, who shares the Real Racing Honda with Koudai Tsukakoshi, is likewise not expecting any miracles against the Toyotas come race day.
"We saw in practice that the race pace was good, that’s our strong point here at Fuji," he said. "But when you start P11, it’s tough. I don’t know what to expect, especially because the Toyotas are very fast in a straight line and very difficult to overtake, as they were in Okayama."
For Quintarelli, a top-three position would be a good result considering the Nissan GT-R still faces a top-speed deficit, particularly problematic along Fuji's huge start/finish straight.
"We are still five or six km/h slower on the straight," said the four-time champion. "If I consider just the feeling of the car, and consider that we have three stints, I think we can fight for P3. But when we won in the past, we didn’t qualify P7, so we have to be realistic."
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