2020 AUTOBACS SUPER GT Round 1
Takanokono Hotel FUJI GT 300 km RACE
Date: July 18th-19th, 2020
Location: Fuji Speedway (Shizuoka Prefecture)
Driver Points: 2P
Driver Points Ranking: 9th (2P)
“Hatsune Miku GT Project” Series 13 began unprecedentedly. As the world suffers from the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) disease in 2020, the opening of SUPER GT had to be postponed. Finally, the first round was scheduled for July 18th-19th, about 4 months later than the original. Furthermore, the place was not the regular Okayama International Circuit but Fuji Speedway with no audience to help prevent the spread of the infectious disease.
In 2011, 2014, 2017, GOODSMILE RACING & TeamUKYO was a champion in the GT300 class. In this season also, they continued to have a double-ace system with drivers Nobuteru Taniguchi and Tatsuya Kataoka. The machine is a Mercedes AMG GT3, a newly debuted model in this year. “Becoming a champion every three years” is the jinx. The battle to overcome the last season’s misery started.
The improved 2020 Mercedes AMG GT3 comes with canard parts at front openings and bumper corners in addition to the improved rear diffuser. These ensure a stable downward force. Also, precision has been increased with regard to Anti-lock Brake System (ABS) and Traction Control System (TCS) for a better driving experience.
However, Balance of Performance (BoP) posed by vehicle type on a Mercedes is still challenging. On the base vehicle weight of 1285 kg, as heavy weight as 65 kg was added to make a total of 1350 kg. In this season also, it is the heaviest machine in GT3.
Limitations on the aspiration of the engine have been slightly lifted for the high-speed circuit, Fuji Speedway. Still, it is remarkably inferior to turbo vehicles in the fastest range. The challenge still remains as it has received so many adjustments due to its high basic performance. For instance, it is the only one among the naturally-aspirated engines to have limitations posed on the fuel intake in order to lower the power.
On Saturday, the official practice session was scheduled at 16:00. But it was postponed due to a heavy fog. The first runner, Driver Kataoka, had to stay at the pit. The fog went away past 17:00. Under a WET declaration, the session began at 17:15. To try to earn as much driving time as possible, cars flocked to the course.
Under the unusually low temperature conditions for this time of the year—air temperature 20 degrees, road surface temperature 22 degrees, Driver Kataoka energetically kept taking laps. He made three short runs, 9 laps, 8 laps, 7 laps each to have the record: 1’38.157. He switched to Driver Taniguchi past 18:00. At 18:25, when Driver Taniguchi had completed almost 7 laps, the course was set aside exclusively for the GT300 class.
In the official notice for the following day’s qualifier, it was announced as follows: “If the beginning time of the official qualifier was delayed more than 30 minutes than the original due to bad weather, the official qualifier will be canceled. In that case, the final grid may adopt the best time achieved in today’s official practice session.” On this note, Driver Kataoka made assertive runs as he expected the cancellation of the qualifier. As a result, he set a personal best time of 1’37.864. Yet, his rivals were also trying really hard. He ended up at the 19th in the class.
He completed 39 laps—the highest in the class—but was slow from the top by about 1.1 seconds to conclude the session with a lower rank. In this season also, we can expect high competition levels.
On the previous day, the weather forecast for Sunday morning was the precipitation rate of 80%. Contrary to the weather forecast, we had no rain during the official qualifier that started at 9:30. The skies remained cloudy. Due to the rain just ended, wet patches remained on the road to make a challenging damp condition. Under a WET declaration, the session started again.
For the first time, the qualifier and the final were combined into the same day to make a compact race. The qualifier was the first thing in the morning for 10 minutes. All 29 machines in the GT300 class were separated into Group A and Group B according to the previous year’s final ranking. Machine No. 4 (GOODSMILE Hatsune Miku AMG) was at the 3rd place in the previous year’s series ranking and was scheduled to run in Group A.
With rain tires on, Machine No. 4 dashed out to the track as soon as the qualifier Q1A course opened. Wet patches remained on the course. Driver Kataoka discerned the conditions and immediately went back to the pit. He had slick tires on and returned to the course.
The road surface temperature was 29 degrees. It was slightly higher than the previous day. Perhaps the wetness of the course surface and the shorter warm-up time for tires by a lap had an impact. The record made in the 5th lap, 1’38.648, was preliminary at the 8th and was on the cut line for passing Q1.
The team wished to maintain the status, but the following Machine No. 2 (Syntium Apple Lotus) set a better record right after that. Machine No. 4 ended up at the 9th. It unfortunately did not pass Q1. During the final in the afternoon, it aimed at a better rank from the 18th place.
It became a bit sunny past noon. The road surface was dry during the 20-minute warm-up run prior to the final. In the session, the front left tire of Machine No. 4 got punctured to make everyone nervous. Fortunately, the machine did not sustain damage. At 15:00, the humidity was 58%, the air temperature was 24 degrees, and the road surface temperature was 39 degrees. The first 300 km race in 2020 started.
GSR’s best starter, Driver Kataoka, started from Grid 18 for the final of 66 laps. During the opening lap, however, a multiple-machine crash occurred in the GT500 class. An implementation of Safety Car (SC) was announced. Machine No. 21 (Hitotsuyama Audi R8 LMS), which started from Grid 19, slipped by the column to be at the 16th place.
Unaffected by this, Driver Kataoka maintained his focus even during the SC period. In the 7th lap after the restart, he passed Machine 25 (HOPPY Porsche) beautifully. Others had a number of tire burst. With restarting violations after the lifting of SC, some rivals received a drive-through penalty. He moved up slowly.
At a relative early stage, he encountered a top GT500 group. He tactfully let it go and maintained a stable lap time in the 1’39 range and the 1’40 range during his laps. In the 22nd lap, he was one of the prospective top 10. As the rival teams had a routine pit window, Driver Kataoka moved up in almost every lap. He did not lower his lap time until the end. He went up 15 positions to the 3rd place. He went to the pit in the 31st lap.
The GSR team had a driver change at the middle point of the race just as a textbook would dictate. In view of the distance to the subsequent machines, they chose to replace the tires on the left side of the machine. Driver Taniguchi made a strenuous effort to shorten the pit time and returned to the course.
He returned at the 13th place and made 2 laps. In the 33rd lap, Machine No. 360 (RUNUP RIVAUX GT-R) made accidental contact with a GT500 and stopped in the middle of the course at Turn 13, facing backward. That led to the implementation of SC, the second in the day.
Right before that, Machine No. 4 was at the 11th place. After the regrouping on the home straight, it led the subsequent machines. The road surface temperature exceeded 40 degrees. Driver Taniguchi focused on caring the tires. The race restarted in the 40th lap. As the 3 machines ahead of him went to the pit, he moved up to the 8th and set a renewed personal record of 1’39.290 in the 44th lap. He still aimed higher.
After paying the penalty, ever-assertive Machine No. 55 (ARTA NSX GT3) and Machine No. 9—with Michelin tires on starting this season—(PACIFIC NAC D’station Vantage GT3) once passed him. Driver Taniguchi, however, calmly observed them and thought, “The Aston Martin looked tired.” ‘Hey, he is getting weaker just like me.’ I got once again motivated to overtake them.”
On and after the 50th lap, he scored the 1’39 range multiple times to shorten the gap to the 1 second range. Then, a game of nose to tail started. In the 60th lap, with the last 2 laps left, he locked on the preceding machine on the home straight from the last corner of the previous lap.
The Mercedes—the fastest and an underdog—went into slipstream only to be left behind gradually. Driver Taniguchi used braking for the next corner to shift the machine onto the record line on the outside. As he sped, he slid into the inside of the Aston Martin for line cross.
Either party’s tire grip was close to zero. They had a tough struggle. The expert in slide control, Driver Taniguchi, focused on the rear tires and pushed the Mercedes ahead. He nicely passed the other from the outside at the Coca Cola corner to secure a win. He fought to the last and secured the 9th place as he crossed the line for the first time in 2020.
During the first match in 2020, the GSR team worked really hard and earned points. The second match that follows is scheduled at the same place, Fuji Speedway, for 300 km. The air temperature will be high in the second week of August. Drivers Taniguchi and Kataoka will stand out with great skills in heated races.
■Comments from the Team
At last, we had the first match. We were unable to determine the weather or the road conditions. The good results from the previous Fuji test also adversely impacted us. We could not make a good choice for the qualifier. Those were the big reasons. During the final, we passed a machine at the very end. Both of our drivers made a fine defense. Since this was an initial match, others had a lot of burst and trouble. That helped us. Yet, I once again felt that the team can show its power constantly. The format was varied this time. In cases like that, an experienced team has an advantage. But I just cannot see the path to the victory. Fortune is not enough for us to reach the podium. We have got to think, right?
We have had a series of poor judgment since the qualifier. We should have gone out with dry tires from the beginning. We made a poor choice. With one more lap, we would certainly have been able to pass Q1 and go to Q2. So if we had gone out with a higher rank at the start… As always, we have a lot of could haves. We liked the idea of getting into the qualifier with wet tires too much. That delayed our judgment by one lap. If we had checked the road surface well, we could have gone with dry tires. It would have been hard at the beginning. But the surface would eventually get dried. I should have started with slick tires from the beginning. Hey, how long have I been in this business? I should have asserted my opinion.
We ended at the 9th place this time, but our actual ability is way lower. Others had a number of trouble, punctures, and penalties. That put us at the 9th place. Honestly, we are way behind. The pace car’s timing turned out well for us this time. Had we spent a longer time in the pit, we would have ranked lower. During the last struggle, we were left behind on the straight. But we went for line cross at Corner 1 and passed him sharply from the outside at Corner 2. We had a beautiful game as each of us respected the other’s position. I did my part and did not put him (Kei Cozzolino) away outward. I am just glad that we are above water.
In short, we had a troublesome weekend. The weather and air temperature were different from what we had expected. The tires we had brought in were not a match. The conditions of the final were closer to what we had imagined. That helped us have a decent game. We had a good starting position. Others had fast cars on the straight, and there were very distinct and strong teams like MOTHER CHASSIS, JAF-GT, GT-R, and Bridgestone. I wonder if we are truly ready. In this season, four rounds are scheduled here at Fuji. We did our utmost this time. It will be crucial to earn points when others have a tough time so that we can maintain our hope all the way to the concluding match.