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Analysis

Why Toyota’s top SUPER GT team is looking difficult to stop

In the space of two months, Toyota has gone from looking in trouble to a firm SUPER GT title favourite, with last month’s Suzuka race an ominous sign for its rivals.

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After winning the second round of the season at Fuji, TOM’S duo Sho Tsuboi and Ritomo Miyata talked down their prospects of doing the same in the following race at Suzuka. That’s to be expected; cars rarely win races carrying 40kg of success ballast, after all.

And yet, come qualifying at Suzuka, the #36 Toyota GR Supra qualified a startling second, and was promoted to the top spot when the Kondo Racing Nissan was stripped of pole for a fuel tank infraction. Come the race, Tsuboi and Miyata were fighting for the win with the Racing Project Bandoh Toyota, which was ahead when the red flags were shown just beyond three-quarters distance following a huge crash involving Nissan’s Tsugio Matsuda.

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The Bandoh car of Yuji Kunimoto and Sena Sakaguchi was ultimately awarded victory, with Tsuboi and Miyata second - propelling them to the top of the championship on 36 points. But what’s even more terrifying for the rest is that, without the stoppage, there’s a very real chance the TOM’S duo could have been celebrating back-to-back wins.

Miyata feels that the performance of the Yokohama tyre used by the Bandoh Toyota in comparison to the benchmark Bridgestone tyre was the main differentiator, as he and Tsuboi were jumped in the first round of pitstops.

“The warm-up of the Yokohama tyre was very fast, but Bridgestone was not so fast,” Miyata told Motorsport.com. “This is really the only reason we lost. If there had been no red flag, I think we would have won the race, although P2 was still a really good result.”

So, what does Miyata put this miraculous performance down to? “We did really thorough preparation for the set-up,” he said. “We checked everything about how to drive well at Suzuka, and we were able to make a good result. 

“We always are strong with the set-up, because we won at Fuji, and at Suzuka we were on pole. If we can keep this potential, we can win the championship.”

Ritomo Miyata, Sho Tsuboi, #36 au TOM'S GR Supra

Ritomo Miyata, Sho Tsuboi, #36 au TOM'S GR Supra

Photo by: Masahide Kamio

What was even more striking about the #36 car’s performance at Suzuka was the fact that none of the other four Bridgestone Toyota teams could get near Tsuboi and Miyata despite carrying less success weight.

Rookie Racing duo Kazuya Oshima and Kenta Yamashita were the next-heaviest of the GR Supras, carrying 32kg of ballast, and were paradoxically second-best of the Bridgestone Toyotas in sixth. Of the remaining three, only Cerumo (12kg) scored points in 10th.

In between the first two rounds of the season in late April, a two-day tyre test took place at Suzuka. Manufacturers are only allowed to send one car per tyre maker, and Toyota opted to run its #90 TCD development car. But Oshima suspects TOM’S might have gained an edge with the knowledge its drivers gained during that test.

“I think we could have been as fast as the #36 car in qualifying, but we didn’t choose the correct tyres in qualifying,” Oshima told Motorsport.com. “If we chose better tyres, maybe our time would have been better. But TOM’S is stronger than us on race pace.

“We couldn’t choose the same tyre because we didn’t do the tyre test. So it’s very difficult. At Okayama, we had the best tyre, but after that TOM’S has been choosing the better one. I think the Suzuka test had a big impact for them.”

While Tsuboi and Miyata have been the undoubted class of the field so far, it would be fair to say that some of the other title favourites have been underperforming.

With the aerodynamics in the GT500 class frozen for 2023, there were suspicions that Nissan, which won the 2023 title with its brand-new Z, would again be the manufacturer to beat. But since a rain-assisted 1-2 in the opening round at Okayama with the two NISMO-run cars and their Michelin tyres, there hasn’t been too much to celebrate for the Nissan camp.

NDDP Racing drivers Katsumasa Chiyo and Mitsunori Takaboshi run second in the points, seven off the lead but only after being credited with a somewhat fortuitous fourth-place at Suzuka, which was not representative of their place in the pecking order before the race was red-flagged.

 

In reality, it should be the #23 NISMO car of Matsuda and Ronnie Quintarelli second in the points, notwithstanding Matsuda's enormous crash, which could prove costly come the end of the year. Meanwhile, Team Impul only really got its campaign going at Suzuka with third place after a diabolical Fuji race.

Impul man and reigning champion Bertrand Baguette was happy with the team’s Suzuka turnaround, but admitted to concern at the speed of the #36 TOM’S car.

“For sure they will be there fighting for the championship this year,” Baguette told Motorsport.com. “Everybody knows both the #36 drivers are fast, and TOM’S has won the championship a few times. They will be there every race. 

“The only positive thing is that if you look at last year, they struggled at Motegi [which hosts the season finale again this season], they qualified towards the back. That’s maybe the only hope we have to fight them for the championship.”

Besides the travails of the Nissan squads, the underperformance of the much-fancied Honda fleet so far has also allowed TOM’S to steal a march.

The top NSX-GT crew at the marque’s home race was the Kunimitsu machine of Naoki Yamamoto and Tadasuke Makino in subdued fifth, while the two-car ARTA squad couldn’t crack the top six, managing a best result of seventh.

It’s a far cry from pre-season testing, when NSX crews, in particular the #8 ARTA car, were regularly topping the timing sheets, sometimes by wide margins. While the cool conditions of winter testing often flatter to deceive, Honda's lack of pace in particular at Suzuka was striking.

“I was a bit surprised to not see Honda at the front at Suzuka,” said Baguette. “I was really expecting them to be at the front and at the end it was two Toyotas that were in front. For sure, the #36 will be a big contender for the title.”

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

 

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