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Analysis
Super GT Fuji II

The strategy calls that set up Gainer’s irresistible Fuji charge

Nissan squad Gainer slick’s tyre gamble paid off in a big way with victory in the GT300 class in last weekend’s Fuji SUPER GT race. But there was more to their win than meets the eye.

Ryuichiro Tomita, Keishi Ishikawa, Yusuke Shiotsu, #11 GAINER TANAX GT-R

A late charge by Ryuichiro Tomita in the #11 Gainer Nissan GT-R NISMO GT3 allowed him to grab the lead at the start of the penultimate lap, easily passing the works Subaru BRZ that was struggling for pace with badly-worn wet tyres on a drying track.

The timing of the final change from wets to slicks proved crucial, as those that came in too early lost too much time before the track had dried up enough, while those that came in too late simply ran out of laps to make use of their pace advantage. Pitting at the end of lap 81 of what was a 93-lap race for the GT300 cars turned out to be the perfect call.

But the seeds of the win for Tomita and team-mate Keishi Ishikawa (registered third driver Yusuke Shiotsu didn’t turn a lap in the race) were sown much earlier than that. In fact, the #11 crew was able to gain some crucial understanding of the performance of their slick Dunlops on a wet-but-drying track as early as the pre-race warm-up session.

“Most cars used wet tyres in warm-up, but we decided to use slicks, and we were able to use that to work out when the best timing to pit in would be,” explained Ishikawa.

Tomita added: “During warm-up, Ishikawa used exactly the same type of tyre as the one we used for the final stint, so we understood how much we could push on it. That was significant for us. The tyres were on the harder side, but we could use them even in those conditions and the performance was high, so we could outpace our rivals.”

 

The characteristics of the Dunlops, which were quick to reach temperature in the wet conditions, allowed both the Gainer Nissans, the #10 and the #11, to vault into the lead of the race when it was restarted on lap 68 following the red flags that followed the Tsuchiya Engineering Toyota GR Supra GT300 car going up in flames.

But it wasn’t long before the Goodsmile Racing Mercedes-AMG GT3, which had looked like the car to beat for most of the race up to that point, surged back into the lead on its Yokohama tyres, Nobuteru Taniguchi coming out on top in an entertaining duel with Tomita.

By this point, the first cars had come in for slicks. The Team UpGarage Honda NSX GT3 that had gained ground with an early change to dry tyres in the opening stages of the race pitted as early as lap 72. Likewise, the #10 Gainer car, which had Hironobu Yasuda at the wheel, was in on lap 77. But both cars struggled immediately after their stops.

Yosuke Fukuda, the chief engineer for the #11 car, recalled: “We knew there was a danger of being behind if we were too late [changing to slicks], but on the other hand, car #10, which came in before us, was struggling for pace, so we knew we couldn't come in too early either. There was nothing we could do but monitor the laptimes of the early slick adopters.”

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Yasuda was still struggling, lapping in the 1m52s, when Gainer made the call to bring in the #11 car from second place on lap 81, but the UpGarage car of Shun Koide was in the 1m47s, matching Taniguchi’s pace. In any case, Fukuda suggests the team was willing to take a risk: “Dunlop has better tyre warm-up than the other manufacturers, so we had to bet on that.”

Taniguchi slipped into the mid-1m48s on lap 83 and responded to the threat of the #11, which was the best-placed car on slicks, by pitting on lap 84. Taniguchi initially came out ahead, but disastrously spun on his out lap at Turn 3, giving away almost a minute to his rivals.

As the other leading cars made their stops, two opted to stay out until the end on wets: the Subaru of Hideki Yamauchi and the LM Corsa Toyota GR Supra of Hiroki Yoshimoto. As early as lap 84 however, Tomita was lapping three seconds quicker than Yamauchi, and over the next four laps he was between five and eight seconds faster than the Subaru.

It took Tomita just eight laps to catch Yamauchi, wiping out a deficit of some 50 seconds, and the inevitable move for the lead came exiting Turn 1 on lap 92.

 

While Tomita’s charge stole the headlines, Fukuda was adamant that the contribution of Ishikawa, who took the start and stayed on board the #11 Nissan until lap 53, is not to be underestimated. He explained Ishikawa managed to go much longer on his first set of slick tyres than the team had thought possible after pitting on lap nine to get rid of his wets.

“The fact Ishikawa was able to go that far meant we had two sets of dry tyres left on which we could push,” said Fukuda. “If Ishikawa hadn’t gone that far, we would have had no tyres left to push at the end. So I don’t think we would have won. 

“Of course Tomita’s driving was also critical, but the reason for winning was extending the life of tyres which were only supposed to be used for a short time. It doesn’t appear on the surface that Ishikawa’s stint was so amazing, but if we are talking about who contributed more, that was the biggest contribution.”

In the end, such was the poor pace of the Subaru and the LM Corsa Toyota that both were caught in the final sector of the final lap by both the Team Studie BMW M4 GT3 of Masataka Yanagida and the Team LeMans Audi R8 LMS GT3 of Roberto Merhi.

For Team Studie, which was carrying 75kg of ballast after its win at Suzuka, this was a crucial result for its title hopes, with Seiji Ara now leading the standings heading into the second half of the season, when BMW factory driver Bruno Spengler will return to take over from Yanagida.

But while the strength of the Michelins in the wet was what allowed the BMW squad to recover from a poor qualifying, it also meant the team was late to change to slicks, not doing so until lap 85. Such was Yanagida’s pace at the end of the race - he finished less than eight seconds behind the #11 - that an earlier stop could have easily yielded a win.

 

Meanwhile, Merhi was left frustrated to miss his first SUPER GT win in the Audi he shares with Yoshiaki Katayama. He had come in for slicks on lap 82, just a lap later than Tomita, but the stop itself was slow, costing him 10 seconds in relation to the #11 Nissan and 17 seconds in relation to the BMW that was just a few tenths ahead at the finish.

Subaru man Yamauchi was looking on course to come fourth until he was tagged by Yoshimoto exiting the final corner on the last lap. That demoted him to seventh at the flag, but he gained a place back when Yoshimoto was penalised for causing the contact.

Additional reporting by Kenichiro Ebii

Motorsport.tv is showing all qualifying sessions and races for the 2023 SUPER GT season. For more information, click here.

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