The OKAYAMA GT 300 Km RACE, opening round of the 2017 AUTOBACS SUPER GT series, took place at the Okayama International Circuit (Okayama Prefecture) on April 9th. In the GT500 race, the 3rd-place qualifying No. 37 KeePer TOM’S LC500 (Ryo Hirakawa/Nick Cassidy) gave a first victory to the new LC500. In the GT300 class, the No. 4 GOODSMILE HATSUNE MIKU AMG (Nobuteru Taniguchi/Tatsuya Kataoka) took their first win in four years.
Due to the effects of the rain that continued until the morning of race day, the track at Okayama International Circuit was in wet condition. However, by afternoon there was some sunlight coming through the cloudy skies, thus improving the track condition. Before the start of the race, the track was completely dry.
To be competed over 82 laps of the Okayama circuit, the opening round of the 2017 SUPER GT series kicked off with a parade lap led by Okayama prefectural police motorcycles. However, at this first start, the No.17 KEIHIN NSX-GT (Takashi Kogure) in the fifth grid position suffered machine trouble and was unable star. After all of the cars had started off, they were able to get the engine started, but it stopped again just before the last corner of the track. Then trouble struck again on the Formation Lap at the Moss S Corner. This time it was the pole position No. 8 ARTA NSX-GT (Tomoki Nojiri) that came to a stop. This brought out the Red Flag to stop the race. But, this wasn’t the only ill fortune to strike the NSX teams. As all of the cars returned to straight to take formation again, now the No. 64 Epson Modulo NSX-GT (Bertrand Baguette) also stopped.
After this upset before the race’s start, the race was finally started a 2:45 in the afternoon and with the decision to cut one lap from the race distance so it would be competed over 81 laps. At the start, the No. 6 WAKO’S 4CR LC500 (Kazuya Oshima) took the lead, followed by the No. 37 KeePer TOM’S LC500 (Nick Cassidy), the No. 38 ZENT CERUMO LC500 (Yuji Tachikawa), No. 19 WedsSport ADVAN LC500 (Yuhi Sekiguchi) and in 5th place the No. 16 MOTUL MUGEN NSX-GT (Hideki Mutoh). Shortly after the start, on the hairpin turn of the second lap, the No. 37 KeePer TOM’S LC500 (Cassidy) made a decisive move going into the turn with tires smoking and grabbed the lead. From there Cassidy continued to run strongly in the front.
From there the race ran smoothly until the sixth lap when one of the two remaining NXS machines, the No. 100 RAYBRIG NSX-GT (Naoki Yamamoto) also stopped like the others had while running in 8th position. At the same time, the No. 52 SAITAMA TOYOPET GreenBrave MARK X MC of the GT300 class crashed, bringing out the Safety Car to control the race.
After the race restarted, the No. 37 KeePer TOM’S LC500 (Cassidy) continued to hold the lead, with the other LC500 also running strongly toward the front. Despite valiant efforts to keep up with the LC500s, Mutoh in the No. 16 MOTUL MUGEN NSX-GT began to lose ground gradually, leaving the six LC500 machines to dominate the battle for the lead.
The battle between the LC500 machines intensified, as James Rossiter in the No. 36 au TOM’S LC500 capitalized on a mistake by No. 19 WedsSport ADVAN LC500 (Sekiguchi on the 17th lap and moved ahead of it, and on the 22nd lap Tachikawa in the No. 38 ZENT CERUMO LC500 made skillful use of an opportunity when the No. 6 WAKO’S 4CR LC500 (Ohshima) was passing a back marker to also move ahead one notch in the order. Then, at the end of the back straight of lap 27, the No. 1 DENSO KOBELCO SARD LC500 (Kovalainen) and Sekiguchi in car No. 19 bumped each other and ran off the track.
From around the 30th lap, the teams began to make their routine pit stops. When all of the GT500 class cars had finished their pit stops and returned to the race, the battles between the LC500s intensified again. As the No. 36 au TOM’S LC500 (Kazuki Nakajima) and No. 6 WAKO’S 4CR LC500 (Andrea Caldarelli) battled for 2nd place, their fight ended when Nakajima ran off the track at the end of the back straight of the 41st lap.
Then at the second turn of the 53rd lap, the No. 50 Ferrari 488 GT3 machine of the GT300 class crashed. This brought the Safety Car onto the track for the third time. With it the gaps that had begun to open up between the competitors was once again narrowed to virtually nothing, so when the race was restarted with 20 laps to go, it turned into a hot sprint race to the goal.
Among the rivals, it was especially Hirakawa in the No. 37 KeePer TOM’S LC500and Caldarelli in the No. 6 WAKO’S 4CR LC500 that played out a fierce side-by-side battle through the GT300 back markers at each turn and straight. The other LC500s behind them also battle with each other, making the race one of constant excitement through the final stages.
But, when car No. 25 VivaC 86 MC spun out in a battle for 2nd place in the GT300 class right in from of the No. 6 WAKO’S 4CR LC500, Caldarelli was able to avoid a crash, but could help from letting the No. 37 KeePer TOM’S LC500 slip away farther into the lead. With this cushion of ease, the No. 37 KeePer TOM’S LC500 was able to run on to the checkered flag and the win. Finishing 2nd and 3rd respectively were the No. 6 WAKO’S 4CR LC500 and the No. 1 DENSO KOBELCO SARD LC500, giving the LC500 camp a sweep of the podium. And in fact, the six LC500s swept the first six places in the race.
In the GT500 where all of the cars are new with new specifications this season, no matter who had won, it would have been the first win for a new car, and since the Lexus LC500 base car also represents a new brand, the victory was especially momentous. For Hirakawa, this was his third GT500 victory and his second here at Okayama. For Cassidy, it was felicitous first GT victory.
Among the GT-R cars that had been able to run no better than in 8th place, the No. 24 Formula Engineering ADVAN GT-R (Joao Paulo Lime De Oliveira) had initially been at their head until it was passed on the 25th lap by the No. 12 CALSONIC IMPUL GT-R (Hironobu Yasuda/Jann Mardenborough) and then after the driver change the No. 23 MOTUL AUTECH GT-R (Tsugio Matsuda) took the lead among the GT-Rs and went on to finish the race in 7th place.
Among the NSX-GT cars that were plagued by trouble just after the start, car No. 8 and No. 100 quickly retired from the race. The others were able to continue the race after exchanging the troublesome electronics. The one that had no trouble, car No. 16, managed to finish in 9th place as the leading NSX-GT.
At the start of the GT300 class race, the pole-sitting No. 65 LEON CVSTOS AMG (Haruki Kurosawa) took the lead followed by the fast-closing No. 4 GOODSMILE HATSUNE MIKU AMG (Tatsuya Kataoka). But soon, the pit-starting No. 52 SAITAMA TOYOPET GreenBrave MARK X MC (Taku Bamba) crashed coming out of the double hairpin. This brought out the Safety Car for the second time. When the race was restarted, the No. 65 LEON CVSTOS AMG (Haruki Kurosawa), the No. 4 GOODSMILE HATSUNE MIKU AMG (Tatsuya Kataoka) and the No. 25 VivaC 86 MC (Kenta Yamashita) ran as the top three, with the gaps between them widening at times and then narrowing again repeatedly as the lapped the track.
On the 18th lap, car No. 4, which had been pressuring the leading car No. 65 hard, finally managed to pass it and take the lead. After that, Kataoka in car No. 4 continued to open up his lead over the field, while car No. 65 and No. 25 battled for 2nd place, followed somewhat further back by the No. 61 SUBARU BRZ R&D SPORT (Hideki Yamauchi) and the No. 51 JMS P.MU LMcorsa RC F GT3 (Yuichi Yamanaka).
Once in the lead, car No. 4 continued to run strongly, gradually widening its lead.
The first among the top group to make its routine pit stop was the VivaC 86 MC running in 3rd position. At the end of the 27th lap it headed for the pit, where the driver change was made to Takamitsu Matsui. Only the two left-side tires were changed to get the car back in the race as quickly as possible. On the next lap, the No. 65 LEON CVSTOS AMG made its pit stop, changing all four tires and making the driver change to Naoya Gamou, and retuning him to the race in front of car No. 25. However, before Gamou had time to thoroughly warm up his tire, he was passed by No. 25. On the 29th lap the leading No. 4 GOODSMILE HATSUNE MIKU AMG also made its pit stop. Like car No. 25, they also decided to change only two tires. Although their pit work was not as fast as car No. 25, Kataoka had pushed hard in the first stint to build up a solid lead, so No. 4 was able to return to the race still effectively in the lead with Nobuteru Taniguchi now at the wheel.
In the leading No. 4 GOODSMILE HATSUNE MIKU AMG, Taniguchi continued to work through the congested track at a fast pace, and by the time all of the cars ahead had made their pit stop by the 49th lap, he was actually in the lead again. Taniguchi now owned a lead of more than ten seconds over the No. 65 LEON CVSTOS AMG and No. 25 VivaC 86 MC battling for 2nd. But the No. 51 Ferrari 488 GT3 (Morio Nitta) that was still in contention for series points collided with the No. 64 Epson Modulo NSX-GT at the second turn of lap 49. This sent the No. 50 car off the track and crashing into the wall. This accident brought the Safety Car out for the third time in the race.
After the Safety Car left the track to restart the race, the lead of the GOODSMILE HATSUNE MIKU AMG had been cut down to nothing and Taniguchi had to push desperately again to pull away from the pack. Behind him, all eyes in the stands were on the side-by-side battle between Gamou in the No. 65 LEON CVSTOS AMG and Matsui in the No. 25 VivaC 86 MC, a fight that became the highlight of the latter half of the race. The battle raged on for nearly ten laps. But, on the double hairpin of lap 67, in the confusion of being lapped by the GT500 class leaders, car No. 25 hit another car and spun out. Although it was able to recover quickly, the spin had dropped it back to 4th position.
The No. 4 GOODSMILE HATSUNE MIKU AMG was able to race on unchallenged to the checkered flag and win for the team’s first since the second round of the series at Fuji Speedway in May of 2014, and for the first time since changing cars to Mercedes. Finishing 2nd came the No. 65 LEON CVSTOS AMG. Third place went to the No. 9 GULF NAC PORSCHE 911 (Jono Lester/Kyosuke Mineo), with Mineo driving the second stint.