A blistering Fuji Speedway bought one of the most exciting sports car races of the year, with crashes, explosions, and one of the best demonstrations of pit strategy you will see anywhere in the world.

For Super GT’s major endurance event of the season, the factory NISMO of Tsugio Matsuda and Ronnie Quintarelli managed to secure pole position in a red-flagged interrupted qualifying session ahead of the sister Craftsports Nissan GT-R of Kohei Hirate and Frederic Makowiecki. The top three qualifiers were rounded out by the Zent Cerumo Lexus LC500 piloted by Yuji Tachikawa and Hiroaki Ishiura.

New Zealander Nick Cassidy was hampered in qualifying with his growing weight ballast – a hefty 68 kilograms – on top of the fuel flow restrictions placed upon previous race-winning cars. The KeePer TOM’s LC500 started from fourteenth. Defending champions Jenson Button and Noaki Yamamoto also had troubles in qualifying, starting from 10th place in their Raybrig Honda NS-X.

The successful Lexus’ struggled in the beginning of the race due to weight ballasts, and the Hondas that have battled with the heat all year also battled in the 33ºC ambient and 43ºC track temperatures.

This allowed the two front runners, both Michelin-shod Nissan GT-Rs to pull away from the rest of the GT500 pack.

A rogue GT300 Class Lotus caused issues for Quintarelli as he tried to pull away from Hirate’s Craftsports car. That same GT300 Lotus later caused an incident with the #12 Calsonic GT-R, causing the blue Nissan to spin at the chicane.

Up until Lap 20, much of the GT500 action occurred in the middle of the field, with fifth, sixth and seventh all in contention as Tachikawa, Nakajima, Mardenborough and Tsuboi all battled through GT300 traffic trying to establish themselves early in the race.

In the 500-mile race, most teams were choosing to make four pit stops, equating to five stints of racing, however, when the Wedsport LC500, driven by Sho Tsuboi pitted early on Lap 19, it was clear their strategy was to make five shorter pit stops. Their first pit stop changed over tyres and fuel, but left Tsuboi in the car for a double-stint.

Jann Mardenborough’s race began to take a turn for the worse at this point, as his #24 Realise Nissan GT-R started to have mechanical issues and power loss. The #24 entry was overtaken by both Yamamoto in the #1 Raybrig NSX and Heikki Kovalainen in the #39 Denso Sard Lexus LC500. The #24 was then just in front of Cassidy, who proceeded to make mincemeat of the quickly falling Welshman.

The rest of the GT500 pack began the first of their pit-stops of the race, starting with the Zent Cerumo on Lap 32 and by Lap 38 all the GT500 runners had completed their first stops, leaving Tsuboi, who pitted earlier, in first. The #23 Motul GT-R, now driven by Matsuda, was second, with the top five being filled out by the #16 Motul NSX, the #38 Zent Cerumo LC500 and the #11 Craftsports GT-R.

Matsuda, driving the #23 Motul GT-R, was steadily catching Tsuboi for the lead, while further behind the Craftsports GT-R was also on the move. Hirate, driving the #3 car, made a move around the fourth placed Motul NSX-GT, and then proceeded to overtake both it and the #38 Zent Cerumo LC500 Car in a spectacular move around the outside of Fuji’s wide first corner.

Now the #3 Craftsports GT-R made a push towards the battle for first place, hoping to resume the battle with the #23 Motul GT-R from before the pit stops.

On Lap 48 Matsuda became fed up with being stuck behind Tsuboi. He made a reckless move around the outside of the final corner, weaving in between two lapped GT300 cars, and pulling up beside Tsuboi at the start of Fuji’s 1.5-kilometre straight. ‘Godzilla’ unleashed its full pace, rocketing past the #19 Wedsport LC500 to regain the lead at the start of Lap 49.

Matsuda then used the remaining GT300 back-marker traffic to crest enough of a gap between him and Tsuboi to establish himself into the position his teammate Quintarelli had started from.

Indeed the heat had gotten to Tsuboi as he pitted early on Lap 56, continuing The WedSports six-stint strategy, this time handing over controls to co-driver Yuji Kunimoto.

The remainder of the second stint continued without any position changes in GT500, except defending champion Jenson Button who had gotten to work, quietly making his way from ninth at the beginning of the stint to sixth by the end of it.

Jenson Button & Naoki Yamamoto, Team Kunimitsu Honda NSX-GT - 2019 Super GT Fuji 500 Miles

Defending champions Jenson Button and Naoki Yamamoto finished in a season’s best second place.

Following the team’s second pit stop, the #38 Zent Cerumo LC500, driven by Tachikawa, ran wide at 100R after it lost its front-right wheel nut. With that went all control of the vehicle, which slammed straight into the barrier, ending their race. Tachikawa was thankfully unharmed.

The crash brought out a full course yellow and the Safety Car, closing the pit lane and leaving several GT500 drivers stranded out on the course, unable to switch drivers for the third stint of the race.

On Lap 77 the GT500 cars got a grid reset, allowing for a safe restart for the race. As soon as it got going again, Quintarelli braked very late at Turn 1 and took first place from Kunimoto in the #19 WedSports Lexus. There was more drama as the WedSports Lexus rubbed into the rear of the #3 Craftsports GT-R, sending Makoweicki into a spin, costing the Frenchman several positions.

A frustrated Makoweicki caused a slew of troubles for the GT500 backmarkers, including the Sard Denso Lexus, which was forced to run wide at the chicane and suffered damage to the rear of the car.

The Craftsports spin shook up the grid moving into the third stint of the race. Quintarelli held first, however a pair of Lexus’ – the #36 au TOM’s car and the #6 Wako’s car, entered the top three. Defending Champion Noaki Yamamoto was now in fourth, his highest position so far in the race.

After emerging from the earlier carnage on top, Yamashita and Nakajima in the #6 and #36 cars started a battle for second place, one that would eventually lead the #6 Wako’s car to victory.

The second-placed Nakajima in his #36 au TOM’s LC500 made a dive through some GT300 traffic, however collided with the GT300 D’Station AMR Vantage, ending the race for the #36 car.

Later, the #3 Craftsports GT-R was back in fifth place on the tail of Mardenborough. The Realise driver was still battling engine issues that plagued him at the start of the race, and on the final corner disaster struck, as a plume of smoke erupted from the bonnet of the blue GT-R, and Mardenborough came crashing into the barrier at the entrance of the pit lane. The Realise GT-R caught fire, and after Mardenborough fought valiantly to save his car, his race was also over.

Whilst this incident ended their race, it made Wako’s. The team had spotted the smoke moments before the crash and pulled in Yamashita to the pits mere seconds before the yellow flag was called. This allowed the Wako’s car to re-enter the race having completed their third pit stop, a whole 77 seconds in front of second place.

Moving into the fourth stint, the #6 Wako’s LC500 was well out in front, with the #1 Raybrig and the #19 WedSports Lexus left in its dust.

Quietly working away the whole race was the #37 KeePer TOM’s LC500 of Ryo Hirakawa and Nick Cassidy. Having started in fourteenth, the team pushed through the field, avoiding collisions and incidents to be rewarded with a fourth-place finish despite being involved in absolutely none of the action.

On Lap 143, the race leader #6 Wako’s LC500 came into the pits for the last time. It was a critical stop for the team as they needed to get the car out in under 50 seconds it order to maintain a solid lead over Button in second place.

By Lap 150 all GT500 cars had completed their final pit stops and the #6 Wako’s LC500 had managed to hold onto an extended 53-second lead.

That left a battle for second place between Noaki Yamamoto and Ronnie Quintarelli; Honda vs Nissan. Quintarelli continued to battle the GT-R’s season-long rear grip issues and tyre pickup problems as Yamamoto slowly pulled away on the straights.

As the track temperatures began to drop, the Honda was really performing in peak form, pulling further and further away from Quintarelli, securing Raybrig a second-place finish.

Kazuya Oshima and Kenta Yamashita extend their championship lead with their second win of the season, despite having one of the highest weight ballasts and fuel restrictions. Defending champions Yamamoto and Button finally got to defending their title with a second-place finish. Matsuda and Quintarelli finished an excellent race in third, after starting from pole.

The Super GT Series continues on the September 8 at Autopolis International Racing Circuit.

Drivers Team / Entry Result Pts
1. Kazuya Oshima
Kenta Yamashita

Lexus Team LeMans Wako’s
Lexus LC500 / R14AG
1:44:12.812 25
2. Naoki Yamamoto
Jenson Button

Raybrig Team Kunimitsu
Honda NSX-GT / HR-417E
+ 31.214 18
3. Tsugio Matsuda
Ronnie Quintarelli

NISMO Motul Autech
Nissan GT-R GT500 / NR20A
+ 36.658 14
4. Ryō Hirakawa
Nick Cassidy

Lexus Team KeePer TOM’S
Lexus LC500 / R14AG
+ 55.881 10
5. Daiki Sasaki
James Rossiter

Team Calsonic Impul
Nissan GT-R GT500 / NR20A
+ 1:00.276 8
6. Hideki Mutoh
Daisuke Nakajima

Team Mugen Motul
Honda NSX-GT / HR-417E
+ 1:18.436 6
7. Tomoki Nojiri
Takuya Izawa

Autobacs Racing Team Aguri
Honda NSX-GT / HR-417E
+ 1:30.137 5
8. Koudai Tsukakoshi
Bertrand Baguette

Keihin Real Racing
Honda NSX-GT / HR-417E
1 lap behind 4
9. Yuji Kunimoto
Sho Tsuboi

Lexus Team WedsSport Bandoh
Lexus LC500 / R14AG
1 lap behind 3
10. Narain Karthikeyan
Tadasuke Makino

Modulo Epson Nakajima Racing
Honda NSX-GT / HR-417E
3 laps behind 2
11. Kohei Hirate
Frederic Makowiecki

NDDP Racing Craftsports Motul
Nissan GT-R GT500 / NR20A
37 laps behind
DNF. Mitsunori Takaboshi
Jann Mardenborough

Kondo Racing Advan
Nissan GT-R GT500 / NR20A
104 laps
DNF. Kazuki Nakajima
Yuhi Sekiguchi

Lexus Team au TOM’S
Lexus LC500 / R14AG
102 laps
DNF. Heikki Kovalainen
Yuichi Nakayama

Lexus Team Denso Kobelco SARD
Lexus LC500 / R14AG
82 laps
DNF. Yuji Tachikawa
Hiroaki Ishiura

Lexus Team ZENT Cerumo
Lexus LC500 / R14AG
69 laps

Championship Points:

  • Points are awarded to the top 10 classified finishers on a 25-18-13-10-8-6-5-4-3-2 scale for th Fuji 500 Mile event only.
  • The Tsugoi Matsuda / Ronnie Quintarelli entry is awarded an additional 1 championship point for claiming pole position.

Image via Masahide Kamio

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Keegan Bennett

Journalist - Japanese Motorsport at MotorsportM8

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