SUZUKA 10 HOURS
- August 25, 2018 Qualifying: 21st
- August 26, 2018 Finals: 5th
2nd place in the 800 km long-distance race, the season’s first podium finish
■August 25 (Sat) 21st place in qualifying after a struggle with Pirelli tires and the red flag
The 1,000 km Suzuka, touted as one of the highlights of the summer season, saw its final run last year to be replaced this year by a new series removed from the SUPER GT Series, the 47th edition of the Summer Endurance Classic “Suzuka 10 Hours Endurance Race (SUZUKA 10 HOURS).”
While the SUPER GT was open to the GT500 and GT300 classes, this race was only open to GT3 machines (including JAF-GT and Mother Chassis). Another difference was that the tires were Pirelli one-make series. The race gathered teams from Europe, the United States, and Asia, with supercars from manufacturers such as Mercedes AMG, Porsche, BMW, Audi, Ferrari, Lamborghini, McLaren, Bentley, Chevrolet, Honda, Nissan, etc. There was a total of 35 teams, among which 14 teams were from Japan, truly an international race both in name and in reality.
GOODSMILE RACING, aiming to make a comeback from last year’s SPA 24 Hours Race, joined the race with the following lineup: The same machine (Mercedes-AMG GT3), the same drivers (Nobuteru Taniguchi, Tatsuya Kataoka, Kamui Kobayashi), and the same manager (Ukyo Katayama). The RS Fine car maintenance crew also remained the same as that from the SUPER GT. Furthermore, upon receiving recognition as a performance team, Mercedes-AMG’s team name was changed to Mercedes-AMG Team GOOD SMILE and they joined the race backed with special support.
Although the parade scheduled for the morning of August 23rd (Thurs) was canceled due to heavy rain, practice started in the afternoon as scheduled as the weather improved. Practice was also scheduled for the next day on the 24th (Fri) and here, the teams were seen struggling with mastering the Pirelli tires.
Qualifying on the 25 (Sat) consisted of two parts. The first was where all three drivers set a time in each session which would be combined to decide the best 20 teams to compete in the second part called the Pole Shootout. Teams in the 21st place and below would have the standing grid in the same order as qualifying whereas the Pole Shootout was to decide the grid positions of the top 20 teams.
Despite the difficulties faced during practice, the combined times of Taniguchi [2‘03.750], Kataoka [2’04.032], and Kamui [2‘03.545] in the first part of qualifying were the quickest among the Japanese teams and ranked 4th overall, ensuring their place in the Pole Shootout with ease.
The Pole Shootout (2nd part of qualifying) followed. Due to a confusion in operations which can be expected from an inaugural race, there were a total of 24 cars participating in the Pole Shootout instead of the originally intended 20.
At the end of the session, Kamui, who was representing the team, gave his all but it was here when the team was hit bad luck. Achieving his personal best time in Sector 1 and overall best time in Sector 2 and just when expectations soared that he would finish in a top position, a machine from another team behind Kamui slid off the track and triggered the red flag. As there was little remaining time, qualifying ended and the team finally finished in 21st place. It was regretful as he had a pace with which if he were able to execute the attack in the end, it was certain that he would have finished in the top 10.
■August 26 (Sun) Contending with the world’s leading teams and finishing in 5th place
August 26 (Sun), or race day, recorded the highest temperature out of all days of the race week. The race started at 10 a.m. in the hot weather with an air temperature of 32 degrees and a road surface temperature as high as 44 degrees.
As the main rule of SUZUKA 10 HOURS, the maximum duration of one driver stint is 65 minutes. Furthermore, pitstops that include refuelling must be done at a minimum of 82 seconds. 82 seconds is more than enough time to change all four tires so the race called for a vastly different strategy from SUPER GT even if they were both endurance races.
Kataoka was behind the wheel in the 1st stint. Living up to his reputation as a strong starter, he quickly overtook three cars to move up to 18th place. He dropped to 20th place for a moment but returned to 18th place in the 22nd lap and in the 23rd lap, went into the first pitstop earlier than all his rivals where he was taken over by Taniguchi.
In the 2nd stint, Taniguchi started off in 32nd place but soon came up to 11th place in the 35th lap as other cars made their pitstops. However, with a large gap between him and Car No. 28 ahead in 10th place (HubAuto Corsa) who was driving at a similar pace, the placing remained unchanged. In the 50th lap, he made a pitstop in 11th place and changed places with Kamui.
In the 3rd stint, Kamui got up to 8th place in the 69th lap but was caught up by Car No. 66 (AUDI SPORT TEAM WRT). A neck and neck race ensued. Kamui managed to keep his position ahead of Car No. 66 and made a 3rd pitstop in the 79th lap. Precisely at this time, McLaren’s Car No. 58 (Garage 59) crashed, triggering a Full Course Yellow and the deployment of the safety car (SC) in the 80th lap.
In the 4th stint, Kataoka took over again from Kamui and entered the course by joining the line behind the SC. The SC left the track in the 84th lap, marking the restart of the race. While still trying to keep ahead of Car No. 66, Kataoka tried to overtake Car No. 911 (Manthey-Racing). He maintained his lead on Car. No. 66 and made a pitstop in the 104th lap in 10th place, handing over the baton to Taniguchi for the second time.
In the 5th stint, Taniguchi’s position was in 16th place in the out-lap. While keeping a good pace and gradually closing in on the others, he was in 9th place at the 4-hour mark. Presently, the AMG GT3 of Car No. 888 (Mercedes-AMG Team GruppeM Racing) is in 1st place with a comfortable lead and its high pace made it seem almost unthinkable that it was the same car as Car No. 00.
In the 132nd lap, Taniguchi made a pitstop in 8th place and exchanged places with Kamui for the second time.
In the 6th stint, Kamui overtook the AMG GT3 of Car No. 75 (Sun Energy 1 Racing AUS) in the 150th lap to take 7th place and made a pitstop in the 160th lap while maintaining his position. He exchanged places with Kataoka who was taking over the wheel for the third time.
In the 7th stint, Kataoka who had a comfortable lead managed to stay in 7th place in the out-lap in his 3rd stint. But the car directly ahead of him, Car No. 66, was ahead by 30 seconds and he was unable to catch up. A pitstop was made in the 189th lap.
In the 8th stint, Taniguchi went into his last stint with 3 hours left in the race.
The positions remained unchanged with large gaps between the car ahead and the car behind but as a result of the crash of Car. No 27 (HubAuto Corsa) who started in pole position, Taniguchi came up to 6th place. At this moment, he was in between two Bentleys, with Car No. 07 (Bentley Team M-Sport) in the front and Car No. 08 (Bentley Team M-Sport) close behind.
Car No. 07 widened the gap from Car No. 00 to close to one second but the former slowed down suddenly due to car trouble in the 214th lap. Taniguchi quickly took 5th place. There was a gap of over 40 seconds between Taniguchi and the car in 4th place, and up to about 2 minutes with Car No. 888 whereas the car behind him was approaching closely. It seemed virtually impossible to catch up.
In the 218th lap, a pitstop was made and Kamui took the wheel once again.
The 9th stint was Kamui’s last stint. His placing slipped in the out-lap but he quickly returned to 5th place in the 226th lap. From behind, Car. No. 08 was slowly closing the gap but soon started a battle with another machine and this enabled Kamui to extend his lead again.
In the 223rd lap, it started to get dark. All cars switched on their lights and picked up their paces as the road surface temperature dropped. For a moment, the AMG GT3 of Car No. 44 (Strakka Racing), the car behind Kamui, caught up with only a gap of 1.8 seconds but Kamui held his ground.
As the race reached its 238th lap, there was only one and a half hours left in the race. While Kamui maintained his position in 5th place, Car No. 888 in top place was already overtaking the car in last place.
In the 246th lap with one hour remaining, Kamui made the last pitstop and passed the baton to Kataoka.
The 10th stint was the last stint of the race. Carrying the hopes of his team and fans, Kataoka, the only driver to do four stints in this race, entered the track in 6th place. Technically, he was in 5th place as the car ahead, Car No. 911, had one pitstop remaining.
The Suzuka Circuit was already covered in the darkness of dusk and the track was lit up with lights from the cars and their number plates zooming through the course. The lights from the LED pens distributed to the spectators in the stand, the large roof of the stand, and the symbol of Suzuka, the illuminated Ferris wheel, created a fantastic night view.
With 45 minutes remaining, Kataoka was driving at a strong pace but Car No. 08 who was behind by 3.8 seconds was driving at a higher speed, gradually shrinking the gap. It shrank to 2.8 seconds at the 40-minute mark and 1.7 seconds at the 37-minute mark. There was no doubt that if they both kept up that pace, Kataoka would soon be overtaken.
In the 260th lap, there were about 32 minutes left until the end of the race. The two cars were going nose to tail with a gap of 0.7 seconds. The car behind flashed his bright passing light to pressure Kataoka. If Car No. 08 which has an excellent speed attacked on the straight, Car No. 00 which has a strong cornering ability would be able to lose him in the corner. Kataoka drove calmly while blocking Car No. 08, much to his annoyance. The thrilling battle continued.
At this moment, cameras and live commentators turned their attention to this battle as Car No. 00 was in the highest position for a Japanese team. Responding to this, the entire grandstand was lit up in green, the trademark color of Hatsune Miku, from the LED lights distributed to almost all spectators. The giant grandstand was bathed in breathtaking green illumination.
While passing the main straight, Kataoka caught sight of his supporters and this powered him to shake off Car No. 08 and bring his Car No. 00 to finish in 5th place. He finished with one lap less than the top four cars.
Although Mercedes-AMG Team GOOD SMILE was unable to reach a podium finish in this race, the team managed to stand their ground against international powerhouse teams with many works drivers to finally finish in 5th place.
The team won the “Asia Award”, an award given to the best team with at least two Asian drivers.
In particular, the exciting battle that unfurled in the last hour of the race was described by the media as a moving scene to anyone who saw it.
Though we cannot go so far as to say that the team was able to make a successful comeback from last year’s SPA, it can be said that the team was able to move one step forward.
■Comments from team members
That was a good race. I knew that we were competing against strong teams and that it was a battle to master the control of Pirelli tires. There were some parts where we were unable to catch up but this was a good reminder of the challenging feat of competing with the world’s best. Previously (SPA 24 Hours), we finished disappointingly but this time, our drivers and team delivered without any mistakes and there was even a moving scene at the end. I think we were able to have an impressive race.
Although qualifying were disappointing, I’m relieved that we finished the race without incident. I’ve seen many races up until now but this is easily one of the top five. It is a testament to how strong the team is that a team consisting of just Japanese people were able to face up to the European works drivers of leading teams and come out in one of the top positions. In the morning, there was trouble with the mechanic and the tire change was immediately taken over by another person, showing that we have a team with strong solidarity because whatever happens, somebody else will follow up. Kawano, our engineer, also came up with calm strategy. Maybe we cannot say that we were able to make a successful comeback from SPA but we certainly proved our standing.
Getting 5th place this time is one of our best results, I think. We still have a lot to do to catch up with the rest of the world. The Pirelli tires were quite difficult to handle. We finished in 21st place in qualifying but I think we would have finished similarly even if we started in pole position. The rivals in the top positions were too fast. Nonetheless, this SUZUKA 10 Hour race was really fun. Competing with leading international teams, just driving the GT3, the one-make tires, as well as prize money from SUZUKA. It was a good experience through which I was reminded what a true race is.
It was 10 hours without any mistakes with everybody joining hands to give their all. We were also able to test our abilities against other international teams and understand that we still have a lot of work to do. In the last stint, I was worried that we were going to be overtaken but we were able to hold our ground. We got 5thh place but it was fun. But I did not feel like we could be the best in the world so I would like to take on the challenge again if given the chance. I saw the green colors at the grandstand when getting out of the car. It was very touching!
We wanted this race to be a comeback from the Spa race but in the end we came in 5th after being in 21st place. But, I think this was the best we could have done. To be honest, I feel that still don’t have what it takes to take the top spot, but we managed to put up a good fight unlike at Spa. I’m glad that we left a mark. I was watching the final battle with butterflies in my stomach. Lastly, I would like to thank Aki for giving me this chance.