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Analysis

Why Honda couldn't give the NSX-GT a fairytale send-off

Honda looked like it had everything it needed to deliver the NSX-GT one more SUPER GT title in 2023 before the car's farewell. So why it was beaten so convincingly by SUPER GT rivals Toyota and Nissan?

#17 Astemo NSX-GT

At the end of last season, the upgraded Type S version of the NSX-GT rounded off the season with convincing victories at Autopolis and Motegi. A strong winter, combined with the addition of an extra car on the benchmark Bridgestone tyres, only added to the feeling that 2023 could be Honda's year after near misses in the previous two years.

But a glance at the final standings tells the story: for the first time since 2019, no Honda crew cracked the top three overall, while two victories is the weakest haul for the brand since that same season. Its miraculous run of wins at Motegi, unbroken since 2020, also came to an end as arch-rival Toyota celebrated one of the most dominant campaigns in recent memory for TOM'S pair Sho Tsuboi and Ritomo Miyata.

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Best of the NSX-GT crews in fourth overall was the #16 ARTA crew of Nirei Fukuzumi and Hiroki Otsu, who entered the Motegi finale with the vaguest of title aspirations but in the end never looked like getting anywhere near the win that was the minimum requirement for any Honda miracle happening.

Flying the flag for Honda in the Motegi finale was the #17 Real Racing car of Koudai Tsukakoshi and Nobuharu Matsushita, who at least managed to sign off the year with a podium and would have gone into the decider with a chance of the title if they hadn't been stripped of victory at Sugo for a worn skid block.

For the other two Bridgestone-shod Honda crews, 2023 will go down as a year to forget as quickly as possible. Naoki Yamamoto's crash at Sugo that ruled him out of the final two races ended any realistic hopes of a Team Kunimitsu turnaround, while Tomoki Nojiri and Toshiki Oyu didn't seem to gel during a mistake-riddled campaign in the #8 ARTA car.

After the Motegi race, Honda SUPER GT project leader Masahiro Saiki summarised: "Looking at the season as a whole, there were a lot of penalties for Honda teams in the first half of the season, and there were also some crashes and driver absences during the season.

"It’s a ‘what-if’ but without these issues I think we would have been right in the centre of the title fight. This is something we need to reflect on and fix for next season."

Saiki's analysis however seems a bit over-simplified. Even if you give back the #17 car the victory it lost at Sugo, Tsukakoshi and Matsushita still fall more than 20 points shy of Tsuboi and Miyata. Likewise, even a generous interpretation of the points lost to penalties by Fukuzumi and Otsu still leave the duo at least 10 points away.

So what changed from last season, when the NSX-GT ended the year as the car to beat? There was the introduction of carbon-neutral fuel, which Saiki claims didn't really make any difference in the end as all three manufacturers adapted quickly. And while the Honda wasn't the quickest car in a straight line, that has been the case since the start of the current rules cycle in 2020.

Honda's head of car development Tomohiro Onishi thinks that Nissan, in the second year with the Z, and especially Toyota despite the GR Supra now being in its fourth season, made the difference with a combination of small details, including, crucially, the tyres.

"In terms of the car body, we couldn’t make any major changes this year because of the development freeze," said Onishi. "But it feels like the other manufacturers improved the potential of their cars this year. The margin we had at the end of last year was gone.

"Even while we can’t make any big changes to the car, tyre selection has a big impact on performance, so I think we need to think about what we can do there next season.

"Although we are using the same tyre brand as our rivals, there are different choices and it’s possible that the other manufacturers found tyre compounds that were well-suited to their cars."

Tyre selection seemed particular to be a bugbear for the Mugen-run ARTA squad, perhaps understandable given the newly-formed alliance's lack of experience on Bridgestone tyres.

And that appeared to be the main reason that the #16 car of Fukuzumi and Otsu experienced such a limp finish to their title campaign, qualifying ninth and making little progress before a late gamble on wet tyres in the closing stages left them out of the points in 12th at the finish.

"That car chose a different tyre compound, and it didn’t match the conditions," explained Onishi. Had the conditions been different, the #16 would have been bang on the mark.

"It was not so much that they gambled on something with no proven record, it was just they needed certain weather," he added in reference to the unseasonably mild temperatures at Motegi.

The other side of the coin is that Honda, despite the Type S version of the NSX-GT still being relatively new, may have hit a performance ceiling that allowed Toyota and Nissan to close the gap as they made further gains in the second year with their updated designs.

"If we were able to extract 90 percent of the performance of our car last year, it’s possible the other manufacturers weren’t able to extract as much, and that through set-up changes and improvements to the engine, they’ve been able to extract a lot more," continued Onishi.

"If you redo aerodynamic development once per two years, it takes time to achieve maximum performance. So I think the other manufacturers still had a lot of room to improve.

"On the other hand, we thought we were raising the bar in various ways, but maybe we didn’t have so much room to improve. I have the impression we were caught up this year."

With the NSX-GT now consigned to the history books, Honda is pressing ahead with development of the all-new Civic Type R-GT. Whether a switch to a new base model after a decade with the second-generation NSX proves the key to success will be perhaps the defining storyline of 2024.

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