The AUTOPOLIS 300km Race, Round 7 of the 2018 AUTOBACS SUPER GT series, was held at the AUTOPOLIS Circuit (one lap 4,674 m x 65 laps) in Oita Prefecture on October 21. In races marked by hot contests all around the track, the reigning GT500 class champion team, No. 1 KeePer TOM’S LC500 (Ryo Hirakawa/Nick Cassidy), came from behind to win its first race of the season. In the GT300 class, the No. 96 K-tunes RC F GT3 (Morio Nitta/Yuichi Nakayama) came from 10th position on the starting grid to take the win.
Last year, the AUTOPOLIS race was run in May as Round 3. This year it was Round 7 just before the final round of the season, making not only the win but a difference of even one place potentially a major factor in the title race. This meant that there were even more tense battles taking place around the track than last year.
Afternoon on this race day was blessed with clear skies as the air temperature climbed to an unexpectedly warm 20-degrees C. At 2:00 in the afternoon, five Oita Prefectural Police motorcycles and two patrol cars led the Parade Lap, followed by the Formation Lap, after which the 65-lap race was off and running.
Honda NSX-GT cars started from the top three places on the starting grid, followed by Kazuki Nakajima in the No. 36 au TOM’S LC500 in 4th position, who soon passed the No. 100 RAYBRIG NSX-GT (Jenson Button), the No. 17 KEIHIN NSX-GT Takashi Kogure) and the pole-starting No. 8 ARTA NSX-GT (Takuya Izawa) to take over the lead of the race by the 12th lap. From there, Nakajima went on to build a lead of nearly seven seconds in eight laps, but it was at this point that a GT300 class car came to a stop on the track, which brought out the Safety Car to control the race and eliminate that lead. But after the race was restarted, Nakajima started to build a lead over the pack again. With the NSX-GT cars still unable to keep pace, it was the No. 1 KeePer TOM’S LC500 (Ryo Hirakawa) who put chase to the leading car No. 36. After the routine pit stop, Nick Cassidy, now at the wheel of car No. 1, began to narrow the margin on the leading car No. 36 (Yuhi Sekiguchi) and finally take the lead with six laps remaining in the race. From there, last year’s champion car went on to take the win, its first of the season and first since Round 7 of last year’s series. When the race was over, four LEXUS LC500 cars had swept the top four places.
The No. 100 RAYBRIG NSX-GT (Naoki Yamamoto) battled hard to finish
fastest among the NSX-GT cars in 5th-place. These results put the Yamamoto/Button pair in a tie for the lead in the season ranking with the Hirakawa/Cassidy pair. Due to their lead in 2nd-place finishes, the Yamamoto pair sit 1st in the Drivers championship ranking as the series goes into the final round at Twin Ring Motegi (Nov. 10, 11). The best finish among the NISSAN GT-R NISMO GT500 cars was the No. 24 Forum Engineering ADVAN GT-R (Joao Paulo Lima de Oliveira/Mitsunori Takaboshi) in 7th place.
In the GT300 class, the pole-starting No. 25 HOPPY 86 MC (Sho Tsuboi) tried to run away in the lead, but the 10th-grid position starter, Yuichi Nakayama in the No. 96 K-tunes RC F GT3 was able to close the gap on the leader when the Safety Car came out to control the race, and by stretching out his stint before the routine pit stop, succeeded in taking the lead. In the second stint, teammate Morio Nitta was able to hold this lead and give the team its second win of the season, following the victory in Round 3 at Suzuka. Finishing second was the No. 87 LEGAL FRONTIER LAMBORGHINI GT (Kimiya Sato/Yuya Motojima). Third place went to the No. 34 Modulo KENWOOD NSX GT3 (Ryo Michgami/Hiroki Otsu), which gave the Honda NSX GT3 its first GT300 podium finish. (Spectators: 23,800)
■ Winner Comments
No. 1 KeePer TOM’S LC500 [GT500]
Ryo Hirakawa: “Besides the great effort from our entire team, I want to thank the people at Lexus and the development team at TRD, and Bridgestone for the tires. When the NSX-GT cars took the top three places in the official qualifying yesterday, I thought it would be a tough race, but in the end the race was a 1-2 finish for the TOM’S teams, and LC500 cars swept the top four places. Not only was the car fast, but our race strategy also went well, it was an important factor that we got out of the pit stop in front of the NSX-GT cars. With this result, I am happy that we will be in the competition for the title, but [for the final race] we have seen the speed of the NSX-GT cars in the qualifying, so we can’t be over-confident.”
Nick Cassidy: “We can say that this has been a good season for us. I am grateful to the team and Lexus for preparing a great car for us. As a team we had some points where we needed improvement, but repeated “Kaizen” (improvement) efforts have brought to what I feel is a good position. Today, we had a goal of being able to pass car No. 100 (RAYBRIG NSX-GT) in the race, but I didn’t want to add to our risks. So, I ran safely, and our race strategy was successful. I am grateful that we are now in this position.”
No. 96 K-tunes RC F GT3 [GT300]
Morio Nitta: “In yesterday’s official qualifying we weren’t able to get the performance we wanted, so I thought that winning the race was out of reach for us, but I still wanted to try for a podium finish. We were having a problem with pickup, but it seemed that the other teams were having even more trouble and Yuichi [Nakayama] succeeded in running at a high pace before the pit stop. It was especially important that we had the best pit work and together with the in-lap and out-lap before and after the stop, we were able to gain 15 seconds on the competition. The teamwork was fantastic and I want to thank everyone for that.”
Yuichi Nakayama: “I heard that AUTOPOLIS is a track where we have to be concerned about tire wear, but I had the feeling that the tires we used for yesterday’s official practice would last a long time, so we used them in the qualifying as well. In the qualifying, the teams on Yokohama tires were fast, but they didn’t do very well at the race pace, we on Bridgestone tire were able to catch up, and that felt great in the race. When they told me on the radio to push for another five laps [before the pit stop], I was able to pick up the pace, so I felt it was OK. Eventually I was able to run eight more laps and build our margin of lead.”