Super GT 2016 Round 1 Recap And Round 2 Preview - We Are The Champions
This is going to be a long catch-up post of sorts because I missed talking about the inaugural round of this year's Super GT season because of being away on my overseas trip but there's a lot to talk about in this new year of Japanese GT racing.
2015 couldn't have ended any better for Nissan in Super GT with all four season titles going to the Nismo team in GT500 and the Gainer Tainax team in GT300. The 2015 title was also the second in a row for Nismo's driver pairing of Tsugio Matsuda and Ronnie Quintarelli. Understandably expectations were high for Nissan to start 2016 strongly.
|The defending GT500 champion Motul Autech GT-R. Image credits: SuperGT.net
Pre-season testing didn't seem to show that Nissan would be able to do that with the Lexus squad locking out the top times in all of the testing dates except for the very last one at Fuji where the number 12 Calsonic GT-R finally managed to break the RC F stranglehold. Coming into 2016 engine development was frozen and there were no major changes to the chassis regulations so tweaking the existing aerodynamic package was the focus for all the teams prior to the first race. Well, all the teams except for Honda because for 2016 the NSX contingent would be racing without the hybrid system they had had since the car's debut in 2014. Honda's supplier had been unable to continue providing the batteries for the system and so Honda had elected to forego running the hybrid component hoping that the reduced weight from not having it would offset the loss of the additional power it provided. Testing indicated however that more work needed to be done with the top times being the familiar Lexus versus Nissan duel of previous seasons.
Of further interest to Nissan fans were the changes to the company's driver lineup. The top two GT500 teams from last year stayed the same with the Matsuda/Quintarelli pairing staying pat at Nismo while Calsonic Impul would retain their proven combo of Joao Paolo Lima De Oliveira and Hironobu Yasuda. The other two GT500 GT-R teams would see a shuffle though. Three-time champion Satoshi Motoyama would stay put in the #46 Mola car but his teammate (and also a multiple-championship winner) Masataka Yanagida would switch to the Yokohama-shod #24 car to be paired with promising young driver Daiki Sasaki who was retained from last year. Sasaki's teammate and former GT500 and FIA GT1 champion Michael Krumm wouldn't be running in Super GT this year and so the Mola car would welcome GT Academy winner Katsumasa Chiyo, fresh from winning the 2015 Blancpain Pro Endurance championship. Since Chiyo had ably helped Andre Couto to win the GT300 title last year many people expected him to be a great addition to Nissan's GT500 squad.
In GT300 a lot more change was going on in the field as new car models came in to replace old ones. The GT3-spec GT-R that won last year's title would again compete but in a revised 2016 specification. Many of its rivals however would be all-new machines. The Prius that finished second in the standings last year would be replaced by a new model based on the latest generation road car. The AMG SLS GT3 cars that ran strong with Leon Racing and Goodsmile Racing but failed to win last year would be replaced by the menacing new AMG GT GT3. The other German cars in the field would also be replaced, with the Z4 giving way to the new BMW M6 GT3 and the R8 getting a new-generation version. The new Lamborghini Huracan GT3 that's proven to be fast in other series would be making its Super GT debut as well. Meanwhile, the “mother-chassis” cars that scored a debut win with the Vivac 86 last year would see further refinements.
GT300 would also be welcoming Jann Mardenborough, another GT academy winner, to the number 3 B-Max Nissan Driver Development Programme car. That team had run strongly all year in 2015 and looked like it could have taken the title from the Gainer team so Mardenborough's addition was hoped to bode an even better result in the new season.
|Super GT's famed "circuit safaris" were back for 2016.
And so the stage was set on April 10th for the debut race. In GT500, it was no surprise based on their speed in testing that Lexus got the first two positions in qualifying but the defending champion Motul Autech GT-R that had seemed to be lagging in the pre-season was suddenly showing its mettle with a third place grid slot. GT300 saw the Vivac 86 mother-chassis car outpace the new German cars for the pole.
|The number 37 Keeper Lexus took the pole in round 1.
At the start the Keeper Tom's RC F with James Rossiter at the wheel sprinted off with the number 6 Wako's Lexus and the Nismo car trailing. No changes in the starting order were seen initially in GT300 either.
By the time the laps got into the late 20s of the 82-lap race the Nismo GT-R however was menacing the second-place Wako's car and on lap 26 it tried to take it on the inside but the move didn't stick. Two laps later however Quintarelli got a better exit and outdragged his fellow Italian driver Caldarelli to put the Nismo car in second. Quintarelli then set off to hunt down the leading number 37 Lexus.
Lap 35 saw the Nismo catch the leader but the expected duel didn't materialize as the Lexus chose that time to pit. The GT-R then put in some fast laps and kept a comfortable lead once its pit stop came 4 laps after and Tsugio Matsuda took the reins.
The GT300 race had seen the Vivac 86 run in formation with the stark black AMG GT of the Leon team up until that point. That all changed however after the two made their pit stops on lap 38 with the German car making a strong overtaking move to take the lead.
Both the Nismo GT-R and the Leon AMG would remain untroubled in their respective leads the rest of the race. Further down the order from the GT500 Nissan there would be some big fights between other GT-Rs and the fastest Lexus runners. The Calsonic team had started in an anonymous 5th place but had been passed in the pit stop shuffle by the #38 Lexus. Oliveira addressed that problem on track however, passing Yuji Tachikawa in the Zent Lexus to regain the spot and retain it in the final standings.
The most excitement however was brought by GT500 rookie Katsumasa Chiyo. The 46 car had started in fourth, sandwiched between the Nismo and Calsonic GT-Rs. It had stayed there during Motoyama's stint as starting driver but then Chiyo took the bull by the horns after taking over and started to run down the third place Wako's Lexus. After one unsucessful attempt Chiyo pulled off a great over-under move to wrestle the final podium spot from Kazuya Oshima on lap 52.
|Katsumasa Chiyo showed off why he's probably the best Nissan GT Academy driver to date.
After getting third Chiyo was obviously hungry for more and he promptly tracked down the second place Keeper Lexus, now in the hands of Ryo Hirakawa. With 10 laps to go the Nissan driver was all over the back of his rival but despite some spectacular driving on Chiyo's part, Hirakawa managed to hang on to second at the end.
The Nismo car enjoyed a huge gap of 15 seconds by the end and amply demonstrated the strength that's brought Matsuda and Quintarelli back-to-back titles. Championships are never decided on the first race but the defending title-holders certainly showed they still seem to be the team to beat in this new season.
|The Nismo drivers celebrated a much-deserved win.
|The Leon AMG GT takes the checkers.
Meanwhile in GT300 there was less to celebrate for the Nissan squads. The new German cars showed they were very fast indeed with the AMGs getting three of the top four spots including the win by the Leon car. The new M6 run by Team Studie got third for an all German podium. The GT-Rs were anonymous for pretty much the whole race except for when the #3 B-Max car got shoved off the road by a Prius. Ultimately the defending champion Gainax car only managed an 8th and the NDDP car 10th, pretty underwhelming results for Nissan considering the huge wins it had scored last season. Honda had even less to celebrate. Since it was only competing in GT500 this year, the sole point it scored from the 10th place finish of the Raybrig car was cold comfort especially after two years already of playing also-ran to Nissan and Lexus.
|Despite its sleek new NSX, Honda has failed to match its rivals since the new GT500 regulations started in 2014. So far the situation seems unchanged for 2016.
Hopefully the second round that's two days away will see the troubled teams bounce back. That next race will be held at the high-speed Fuji Circuit and in case you're wondering why it's not being held on the usual Sunday, it's because Japan has started its famed Golden Week. On April 29 and then May 3 to 5 multiple official holidays occur so most Japanese take the whole week off (must be nice, wish we had something like that in the US lol). Super GT's round 2 will be on May 3 and 4 and this will be an important race for many teams.
Despite Fuji being Toyota's home track Lexus has been consistently trumped by Nissan in recent years with no wins being recorded by the RC F since the latest regulations started in 2014. Fuji usually gets two rounds a year so Nissan's advantage at the circuit has great significance to the title fight. The GT-Rs seem to have the advantage in straight-line speed over both Lexus and Honda and with Fuji boasting an ultra-long front straight the other companies have failed to unseat the R35 from the top spot of the podium. With only limited changes from last year that advantage will most likely remain but the good results from the opening round mean the top finishing GT-Rs will be getting significant reward ballast. That should give some hope to Lexus. For Honda however the lighter weight from losing its hybrid system seems to be failing to offset the power loss. They'll have to dig deep to prevent 2016 from being another battle exclusively between its two bitter rivals.
All in all 2016 is looking to be another exciting year for Super GT and Nissan racing fans. Unfortunately, the start of the new season has had its share of bad news. First, the recent Kumamoto earthquake has meant that the third round later in May at Autopolis has been postponed indefinitely. With Autopolis situated near Kumamoto the organizers wisely opted to hold off on the race in deference to ongoing relief efforts. Prayers to the victims of the disaster.
Another piece of bad news is that Nismo.TV hasn't renewed the excellent simulcasts it had before with Radio Le Mans. On the plus side, a generous soul has uploaded the entire first race to Youtube so we can watch the action ourselves here in Eagleland but we'll have to use our imaginations to figure out exactly what the heck the Japanese commentators are saying. Nissan's official Youtube channel has also uploaded the highlights of round 1 set to some pretty natty music. Hopefully Nismo will pick up the series again later on in the year. Here are the links so you can enjoy them until round 2 inevitably rolls around: