How SUPER GT’s “best car” lost the 2021 title battle
The 2021 SUPER GT season will be remembered as the year that Honda should have won the GT500 title, but Toyota did. So why did the NSX-GT fall short despite having an edge at most tracks?
Since the front-engined Honda NSX-GT was introduced last year with SUPER GT’s move to Class One regulations, there’s little doubt that it has on average been the class of the field in the GT500 class, with eight wins and nine poles across 16 races.
Certainly, around the time of the Sugo race in September, when the majority of the GR Supra fleet failed to see the chequered flag and three cars ended up taking penalties at Autopolis for using a third unit of the season, nobody would have given Toyota any real hope of an 11th JGTC/SUPER GT GT500 crown that puts it one shy of Nissan in the all-time list.
“I think Honda had the best car this year,” says the marque’s outgoing driver Bertrand Baguette. “We were strong in the middle of the season when we had hot weather and when we had the success ballast on the car. But you have to be strong in the last two races, otherwise you are in big trouble.
“In Motegi, it was still ok, but at Fuji Toyota was far ahead of us and won the championship. That’s something that Honda will have to correct for the future."
If you look at where Toyota’s main championship contenders scored their points, Fuji and Okayama were the only tracks where the GR Supra held an edge. Of the #36 TOM’S car’s 64 points, 35 were scored at those tracks (55 percent). Looking at the other members of the Toyota stable, it’s an even bigger ratio: 82 percent in the case of the #37 TOM’S machine, and, almost unbelievably, 90 percent in the case of the #14 Rookie Racing entry.
At the remaining four tracks - Suzuka, Motegi, Sugo and Autopolis - the Supra lagged behind the NSX, even when success weight is taken into account, and in many cases also the Nissan GT-R.
That Fuji remained the strong suit for the Toyota was little surprise given the car’s emphasis on straight-line performance and comparative lack of downforce, although it should be noted that the 500km race was won by the #17 Real Racing Honda and the #8 ARTA car was also arguably unlucky to miss out on victory.
What was more surprising was the way the GR Supra dominated in the opener at Okayama, one of the so-called ‘technical tracks’ that had returned to the calendar after a year’s absence and were supposed to shift the balance of power even further in favour of Honda.
After a surprise top-four lockout for Toyota crews, it seemed the GR Supra might just have conquered its weakness on higher-downforce tracks thanks in part to a shift towards a more low-rake set-up concept. But subsequent results make Okayama seem like something of an outlier.
“I think the Supra is quite strong at low-speed rotation, and Okayama has a lot of hairpins,” says TOM’S Toyota driver Ryo Hirakawa when asked to explain how Toyota was able to dominate at Okayama only to lose its edge elsewhere. “But the downforce is quite poor compared to the others, so we struggle at circuits with more high-speed corners, places like Suzuka and Autopolis.
“Motegi is a bit more similar to Okayama with low- and medium-speed corners, but with more emphasis on straight-line speed. Maybe the temperature can be one of the reasons [we struggled at Motegi]. The cooler temperatures [at Okayama] can help the engine, and it gives you more downforce so it makes the car more stable. When it gets hot, the Supra struggles more.”
As well as the removal of success weight, lower temperatures for the Fuji finale in November help to explain why Toyota was so dominant in contrast to the much more evenly-fought 500km event. Okayama is also somewhat bumpier than most of the tracks on the SUPER GT calendar, which combined with the temperature factor can help explain why it is a poor indicator of form at other tracks.
Motegi has become a Honda stronghold owing to the NSX-GT’s strong traction and superior fuel economy, which showed once again this year when the Impul Nissan ran out of fuel on the last lap and handed the win to the ARTA NSX - keeping up Honda’s perfect record of wins at the track since 2020.
While Toyota definitely made inroads into Honda’s fuel mileage advantage, only the #36 TOM’S car was able to put up a reasonable fight on SUPER GT’s first visit to Motegi of the Bridgestone-equipped GR Supras, and that was because it was artificially light after its Fuji 500km DNF. Then at Suzuka, all the Toyotas struggled in qualifying on a cooler-than-expected weekend, although Nissan’s 1-2-3 limited the extent to which Honda could capitalise.
At this stage, the title battle was still finely poised; it wasn’t really until Sugo and Autopolis that Toyota’s woes really began and the odds of Honda taking its first-ever back-to-back GT500 titles really shortened significantly.
“Having been in the meetings with Toyota all season, it seemed like the engine troubles were genuine and they were apologetic for all the troubles,” reflects SARD driver Heikki Kovalainen. “We had some sessions where we had to limit our engine performance because of the reliability concerns, but from Motegi onwards the procedures were back to normal.
“In some races, the Hondas even with a lot of weight were qualifying at the front and racing at the front. The gap looked so big. It’s hard to explain that. This season the balance between the manufacturers has shifted so much and it’s hard to get your head around it.”
Toyota was exceptionally lucky that one its three realistic title challengers, the #36 TOM’S crew was one of the two GR Supras to see the chequered flag at Sugo. Had the au-liveried car also succumbed to engine trouble, it’s hard to see how Sho Tsuboi and Yuhi Sekiguchi could have kept themselves in title contention.
Indeed, the four points that Tsuboi and Sekiguchi scraped from Autopolis and the second Motegi race were the difference between victory and defeat in the final analysis; without them, ARTA pair Tomoki Nojiri and Nirei Fukuzumi would have beaten them to the crown on countback.
As it was, Nojiri and Fukuzumi needed to finish third to keep the title in Honda’s hands. But even without a 10-second delay for a loose door during the #8 machine’s pitstop, it’s doubtful whether Nojiri and Fukuzumi could have found a way to beat the Rookie Racing car to the bottom step of the podium.
It’s even more doubtful whether Bertrand Baguette and Koudai Tsukakoshi could have finished second without Baguette’s ill-fated early lunge on the Impul Nissan that put an early end to Real Racing’s weekend and hopes of a first GT500 title.
Of the Honda contingent, only the Kunimitsu car had the speed to finish in the position that it needed to to guarantee the Sakura marque title glory - and that it was Yamamoto who happened to find himself in the path of Sato’s wayward NSX GT3 on lap 51 of 66 at Turn 1 was more or less just dumb luck.
Honda’s SUPER GT project leader Masahiro Saiki cautioned after the second Motegi race that nothing could be taken for granted despite the fact NSX-GT crews were first, second and third overall, with a 16-point buffer splitting Yamamoto and the #36 Toyota, and in the end his words proved prophetic.
But speaking after the events of Fuji, Saiki and Honda’s head of car development Tomohiro Onishi both expressed their satisfaction that the Kunimitsu machine had been able to qualify second, only a fraction off pole, with Yamamoto running in a comfortable fourth place at the time of the incident with Sato.
“Besides the loose wheelnut problem [for the Mugen car at Autopolis], we haven’t had much trouble with the hardware,” summarised Saiki. “It was a well-prepared car in terms of reliability. Also, if you consider the car with no success handicap at Fuji could get on the front row, I don’t think we did too much wrong.”
Onishi added: “Considering that we didn’t have the strength to fight properly against Toyota [in the season finale], there is further scope for improvement, but that we were able to compete to that extent at Fuji is a positive in itself, and I want to work on that further for next year.”
Honda has the chance to reset in 2022 as it updates its NSX-GT in line with the new Type S road model - which has been spotted recently in testing at Motegi - and addressing the straight line speed deficit to Toyota will presumably be one of the objectives with the revised bodywork.
But doing so without sacrificing the NSX’s strengths on more technical circuits will be a challenge - just ask Nissan, which experienced the exact opposite problem with the draggy 2020 iteration of its GT-R having aimed to recoup the downforce the previous model had lost.
With Nissan introducing the new ‘Z’ next season and Toyota preparing to make some possibly significant changes to the Supra, it’s anyone’s guess as to which of the three GT500 manufacturers will hold the advantage in 2022.
If it’s not Honda, then you can be sure Saiki and his team will lament the fact they couldn’t capitalise on having the best all-round package in 2021.
Additional reporting by Kenichiro Ebii
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