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Five takeaways from the Fuji Super GT curtain-raiser

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Five takeaways from the Fuji Super GT curtain-raiser
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SUPER GT roared back into life with an action-packed first round of the delayed 2020 season at Fuji Speedway. Jamie Klein looks back at some of the main talking points of the weekend.

The new GR Supra will be very hard to beat

On Sunday, the all-new GR Supra became the fourth new Toyota GT500 model in a row to win on its SUPER GT debut, following the Lexus SC430 (2006), the RC F (2014) and the LC500 (2017). And it did so in dominant style, locking out the top five positions and leaving rival marques Honda and Nissan, also with new cars for the 2020 rules, to lick their wounds.

After topping pre-testing and then practice on Saturday evening, Honda went into qualifying as the favourite for pole with its new front-engined NSX-GT, but it was tyre choice on an unexpectedly warm day at Fuji Speedway that made all the difference in the end. Even the temperature rising between Q1 and Q2 made a difference; Nirei Fukuzumi shattered Ronnie Quintarelli’s lap record in Q1 at the wheel of the #8 ARTA Honda, but in Q2 Tomoki Nojiri appeared to simply run out of grip by the time he arrived at the tricky final sector.

Although the Supra appeared to have an edge in the unexpectedly balmy weather on Sunday, not even the most ardent optimist in the Toyota camp would have predicted just how much of an advantage it would enjoy. Naoki Yamamoto did well to hang on to second for 20-odd laps in the #100 Honda, but after the second safety car Tadasuke Makino was fighting a losing battle against the Supras, which were faster on the straights to the tune of around 5km/h.

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#37 KeePer TOM'S GR Supra

#37 KeePer TOM'S GR Supra

Photo by: Masahide Kamio

That top speed advantage will be a serious source of concern for Honda. With the aero kits now homologated for the year, it looks like barring some miraculous set-up breakthrough the Supra will maintain that advantage through the season. Yes, success ballast will slow it down to a degree next time out, but that will mainly affect its pace through the corners and its tyre life. It will still be able to out-drag the other cars in a straight line.

While the two TOM’S cars will be carrying 40kg and 30kg of ballast into the second round at Fuji respectively, the Cerumo-run cars and the SARD machine will be carrying less. Kazuya Oshima said that he feels even with an extra 22kg on board for round two, the #14 Cerumo car that finished third on Sunday will have a chance to win when the field reconvenes in just over two weeks. You wouldn’t bet against that outcome based on the events of Sunday.

#14 WAKO'S 4CR GR Supra

#14 WAKO'S 4CR GR Supra

Photo by: Masahide Kamio

Cassidy and Hirakawa are SUPER GT’s current outstanding duo 

There was pleasing symmetry in that the same drivers that claimed a debut win for the Lexus LC back in 2017 did so again this time round for the GR Supra. And in the process, Nick Cassidy and Ryo Hirakawa demonstrated once again they are SUPER GT’s ‘power couple’.

For Cassidy, this was a third victory at the wheel of GT500 machinery on the trot, following last year’s Motegi finale and the Dream Race at Fuji. From pole, he quite simply didn’t put a foot wrong, pulling away by almost a second lap after resisting an early attack from Nirei Fukuzumi’s Honda and handing over to Hirakawa on lap 31 of 66 with a handsome 14-second advantage – all while saving fuel, gaining the #37 car crucial time on pit road.

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The Fuji race also provided an apt reminder of Hirakawa’s sometimes under-appreciated talents. The 26-year-old from Hiroshima Prefecture – now joint-fifth for all-time GT500 wins among active drivers – strung together an excellent lap in Q2 to beat the best of the ARTA Honda to pole, and after the second safety car wiped out his lead in the race, he kept his head and pulled away, even saying afterwards losing the advantage helped focus his mind.

Cassidy and Hirakawa were in many regards the ‘moral’ winners of last year’s championship, and the year before that they lost out to Jenson Button and Naoki Yamamoto by just three points. A second title for the pair to go with their 2017 crown is therefore somewhat overdue, and while SUPER GT’s success ballast system means another win is probably not on the cards anytime soon, it’s going to take a massive effort to stop them over the season.

Ryo Hirakawa, Nick Cassidy(#37 KeePer TOM'S GR Supra)

Ryo Hirakawa, Nick Cassidy(#37 KeePer TOM'S GR Supra)

Photo by: Masahide Kamio

Nissan is further off the pace than it first appeared

If the Fuji opener wasn’t exactly a race to remember for Honda, it was even worse for Nissan, which suffered an extremely forgettable debut for the new GT-R. The 2020 rules were supposed to offer Nissan a chance to get back on terms with its rivals after making something of a poor fist of the previous set of regulations, but the early evidence suggests that the aging GT-R platform might struggle to keep up in this rules cycle as well.

While the GR Supra is new for this year, and the NSX-GT design dates back to 2014 (with the hybrid-powered ‘concept’ version of the car), the venerable GT-R first entered service back in 2008, and as Ronnie Quintarelli admitted in a pre-season interview with Motorsport.com, the shape of the car itself immediately creates certain aerodynamic limitations. Combine that with having only four cars, and across three different tyre manufacturers (consider that Toyota has five cars on Bridgestones), and it’s not exactly a recipe for success.

There was a glimmer of hope when Kohei Hirate managed to get the #3 NDDP/B-Max Racing Nissan as high as third in Q1, but teammate Katsumasa Chiyo contrived to set a laptime four tenths slower in Q2 to put the car seventh on the grid, which is where it would ultimately finish. The #23 NISMO car of Tsugio Matsuda and Quintarelli was running one place ahead before it was delayed by the collision with a GT300 Nissan that caused the second safety car and a subsequent second pitstop to check the car for damage.

Although it seemed clear that Nissan was third in the pecking order heading to Fuji, it seemed to have more pace up its sleeve than it actually had in the end, and the lost track time in the pre-season test – the result of vibration issues with the revised engine – looks like it has proven costly. Perhaps it’s too soon to write off Nissan completely, but given the sheer gulf in performance between the GT-R and the Supra that exists right now, it’s hard to picture the embattled Yokohama marque being part of the title fight.

#3 CRAFTSPORTS MOTUL GT-R

#3 CRAFTSPORTS MOTUL GT-R

Photo by: Masahide Kamio

Toyota’s GT300 Supra is pretty handy as well

There were a few cars making their first appearance in SUPER GT’s burgeoning GT300 ranks at Fuji last weekend, but none attracted quite as much attention as the Saitama Toyopet Green Brave squad’s independently built and run Toyota GR Supra. And like its GT500 cousin, it also came through to win its first race in pretty comfortable fashion.

In the hands of Hiroki Yoshida and SUPER GT rookie Kohta Kawaai, a graduate of Japanese Formula 4, the handsome turquoise Supra had posted some encouraging times in the Fuji pre-season test. But it was a surprise to see it and another Bridgestone runner, the LEON Racing Mercedes-AMG GT3, decisively pull away in the opening part of the race and build a five-second buffer over the field prior to the pitstops.

While LEON’s challenge crumbled as a result of a slow stop, Green Brave made the unorthodox call to not change tyres at all in the pits – and as a result Yoshida came under pressure after the second safety car on well-used rubber. But much like Hirakawa at the head of the GT500 field, Yoshida put in a wonderfully composed drive to bring home the new Supra for the team's first win since it made the step from Super Taikyu to SUPER GT in 2017.

After three seasons in which cars built to FIA GT3 rules have come out on top, it was refreshing to see a car built to the less-fashionable JAF GT300 regulations take honours at Fuji. And in 25-year-old Kawaai, who has replaced Shigekazu Wakisaka (the brother of three-time GT500 champion Juichi), the team has unearthed a star of the future to boot.

#52 Saitama Toyopet GB GR Supra

#52 Saitama Toyopet GB GR Supra

Photo by: Masahide Kamio

SUPER GT isn’t quite the same without the fans

If you watched the Fuji race on Sunday, it won’t have escaped your notice that the race took place without any spectators present as a result of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. During Golden Week in early May, Fuij attracts up to 60,000 fans on race day alone, so the sight of the main grandstand being practically devoid of human life was bizarre to say the least.

Arguably, it’s not until you remove fans from the equation that you realise just how critical they are to the fabric of the series. Open paddock access, pitlane autographs, the grid walk, the famous ‘driver introductions’ (done this time purely for TV) – these are some of the things that help to make SUPER GT what it is. Of course, the on-track product is still as good as ever and it was a relief to have that back, but the unique atmosphere that makes the paddock such an intoxicating place to be was decidedly lacking on this occasion.

Starting grid

Starting grid

Photo by: Masahide Kamio

The 1750-odd people that were able to access the circuit all had to pass temperature checks on entry and fill out symptom forms every day for two weeks leading up to the race. Once in the paddock, social distancing, face masks and alcohol gel were the order of the day, and some teams had even set up special interview areas with Perspex screens in their garages.

Even the press conference had been moved to a more spacious room, with chairs spaced what seemed like miles apart and any journalists wishing to ask questions having to get up and walk to a special booth to do so. It would be tempting to call it overkill, but lacking the ability to carry out its own PCR tests, the GTA was clearly not taking any chances.

During his press conference on Sunday, GTA chairman Masaaki Bandoh re-iterated that the championship’s plan is to welcome spectators again from the fifth round of the season (also at Fuji) in early October, although he admitted numbers could be limited depending on the exact government guidance at the time. Even if it’s a much smaller number than usual, any amount of fans will no doubt be welcomed by everybody working in the series.

Pit Lane

Pit Lane

Photo by: Masahide Kamio

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About this article

Series Super GT
Event Fuji
Author Jamie Klein