2021 AUTOBACS SUPER GT Round 1
Takanokono Hotel OKAYAMA GT 300km RACE
Session: April 10/11, 2021
Location: Okayama International Circuit (Okayama Prefecture)
Attendance: Not announced
Points earned: 0
Series rank: – (0 points)
[4/10 (Sat)] Official practice, knockout prelims
Air/road temperature: GT300 Q1 start: 15℃／32℃
GT300 Q2 start: 16℃／33℃
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, last year there were only eight total races at just three circuits from July through November, but this season got underway just like 2019 did with an April visit to Okayama International Circuit. Just like last year, strict COVID-19 protocols such as limited spectator numbers and PCR testing for racing team personnel have been put into place for the start of the series.
The team behind the #4 car at GOODSMILE RACING & TeamUKYO remains the same as last year, with team manager Ukyo Katayama and drivers Nobuteru Taniguchi and Tatsuya Kataoka racing with the Mercedes-AMG GT3.
As in most years, a variety of vehicle types are entered in the GT300 class, and factors such as weight and engine power are adjusted for balance of performance (BoP) to create a level playing field. In addition, since this competition took place at Okayama International Circuit, additional BoP measures were in place to account for its compact layout. These additional BoP measures are designed to keep times from getting faster every year and to increase the safety margin. Due to these measures, the Mercedes-AMG GT3 carried an additional 39kg over the standard BoP weight.
Official practice got underway at 9:45am with Kataoka behind the wheel.
The clear weather was just what you would expect to find in the “Land of Sunshine” Okayama, but it felt a bit chilly with an air temperature of 8℃ and a road temperature of 21℃. The team proceeded with the settings and tires that they brought to the race. Kataoka got things going by recording a time of 1’27.709” on the 10th lap before making his first pit stop. After returning to the track, he continued out-in for several laps. An hour into the session, he had reduced the time down to 1’27.126”.
Right after he recorded this personal best, a red flag came out due to another vehicle having an accident. With the session paused, Taniguchi replaced Kataoka in the driver seat for a long run to verify the race pace.
Taniguchi verified the settings for the race, and he recorded a time of 1.28.660” on the 7th recorded lap. There was a change in the rules for this season, as the number of tires that can be brought was reduced from seven sets to six sets. The team had both soft and hard tires, but each of those fell outside of the optimal road temperature range, so they were not able to push for the times they were hoping for.
Taniguchi stayed behind the wheel for the 10 minute GT300 class exclusive run starting at 11:10am. He continued to work to heat up the tires, and just as it seemed like he was ready to put up a good time late in the session, a car spun out to bring about another red flag. This denied him the chance to improve on the recorded time, so Kataoka’s 1’27.126” remained the best time. With a 17th place starting position for the class, that result set the stage for a difficult prelims in the afternoon.
The knockout prelims started at 2:00pm, and the 29 cars in the GT300 class were separated into an A Group and a B Group based on their final standings at the end of last year. GOODSMILE Hatsune Miku, which finished in 7th place last year, would be racing in the A Group.
Kataoka (#4 GOODSMILE Hatsune Miku AMG) took the wheel for the A Group Q1, and right as the course opened he jumped out in front. As the air temperature climbed to 15℃ and the road temperature climbed to 32℃, he deftly heated up the tires. On the 4th timed lap, he put up a 1’28.652” mark, good for 4th at the time. He continued to improve on this with times of 1’27.655” and 1’27.366”.
However, his rival drivers were putting up even better times, and the position of the #4 car was dropping. On the checkered flag lap, the 7th lap, Kataoka further improved on his personal best time in Sector 1. He was aiming to improve his time right up until the very end, but after Sector 2 the tires started to lose some grip, and he was unable to improve it any further, ending with a 1’27.501” time.
The result was 14th place, which fell well short of the 8th place Q1 cutline. Teams ranked 17th place and lower did not proceed to Q2, and the start position of the teams was set by alternating with the B Group. The starting grid position for the finals the next day would be a disappointing 27th.
[4/11 (Sun)] Finals
Air/road temperature: Start: 19℃／36℃
The good weather at Okayama International Circuit continued from the previous day, and it seemed as though the temperature might continue to rise. Taking a gamble on the race pace, GOODSMILE Racing & TeamUKYO went with hard tires as they hoped to make a recovery.
After the drivers made their appearance and the 2021 opening ceremony was held, the 20 minute warmup session started before noon, and the road temperature was already climbing near 40℃.
The warmup session for the last checks before the finals started with Kataoka driving. After warming up the tires, he recorded a 1’28.933” on his 5th lap, good for 12th at the time. After that he made a pit stop and some adjustments were made, then he continued knocking out one lap after another using the remaining time. By the end he had lowered the time to 1’28.684”, finishing the session in 15th.
At 12:33pm, Kataoka (#4 GOODSMILE Hatsune Miku) entered the grid as pit lane opened. This season, fans are still not allowed on the grid, so it was only team personnel on hand, but many personal sponsors were in the grandstands to cheer on the team.
At 1:30pm, Kataoka took off in the season opening 300km race. The air temperature was 19℃ with a road temperature of 33℃, and after two formation laps, the finals race was underway.
Cool as ice Kataoka came out pushing hard on the first lap, overtaking the #50 car (Arnage AMG GT3) right off the bat. He then passed the #87 car (Granseed Lamborghini GT3) and the #7 car (Studie PLUS BMW), returning to the home straight in 24th place. He further improved his position on the second lap, passing the #6 car (Team LeMans Audi R8 LMS).
On the 6th lap, when the #30 car was just ahead at a hairpin corner, the #30 car made contact with another car, causing it to pull off to the side and stop. This brought out the season’s first safety car (SC). The restart came on the 12th lap. Due to other cars facing drive-through penalties and pit penalties, on the 13th lap he had raised his position up to 20th.
Kataoka kept producing times in the 1’29” range, as he looked for an opportunity to pass the two Honda NSX GTS cars ahead, the #34 car (Yogibo NSX GT3) and the #18 car (UPGARAGE NSX GT3).
This stalemate continued for a while, then the #18 car headed for the pit on the 27th lap. The #4 car (GOODSMILE Hatsune Miku AMG) now had some open space ahead and was running lighter due to lower fuel, and Kataoka pushed for a strong spurt before making a pit stop.
However, on the 30th lap, the #360 car (RUNUP RIVAUX GT-R) was on its outlap when it went off course at Corner 1, causing significant damage to the machine and bringing it to a stop. The other teams saw this and all headed for the pit at once in anticipation of the second safety car of the day.
The #4 car (GOODSMILE Hatsune Miku AMG) was among those making for pit lane at this time. As the narrow pit lane at Okayama International Circuit became congested due to both the GT500 class and GT300 class vehicles all coming in at once, GOODSMILE RACING & TeamUKYO had no choice but to come in to their work area at an angle with a “dive stop.”
Taniguchi jumped into the driver seat, the tires were changed, the car was refueled, and the mechanics pushed the vehicle back into the fast lane. At this point, avoiding equipment from nearby pit areas and waiting for GT500 vehicles to pass caused a big loss in time, and Taniguchi ended up back on the track in 20th place. The lap leader at the time had yet to make its pit stop, and some tough luck had the #4 car getting back on the track behind that, causing worry about getting lapped.
On the 36th lap, the race was restarted as the safety car left. As cars that had yet to make their routine pits did so and others were eliminated due to penalties, the #4 car found itself in 19th place on the 38th lap, then in 17th place on the 42nd lap, steadily improving its position. Taniguchi recorded a 1’29.104” on the 42nd lap and followed that up with a 1’29.050”, then further improved that to 1’28.973”, marking a new personal best three laps in a row with tenacious driving. He was giving all he had to narrow the gap with the cars ahead.
Unfortunately, partially due to the road temperature steadily dropping, he was unable to join the battle for position up ahead. As he gave way for the top group running at a faster pace than the #4 car, he ended up one lap behind the leaders on the 76th lap, finishing in 14th place at the checkered flag. It was a very disappointing result.
The upcoming second competition of the season will be a 500km race at Fuji Speedway, which did not take place last year. This will be the first endurance race in a while. Last season, top speed issues made for some tough races, but some improvements in this area were visible at the previous Fuji official test. Both Taniguchi and Kataoka excel in hotly contested long distance races, so hopefully the #4 car GOODSMILE Hatsune Miku AMG can make a strong bounceback.
■Comments from the Team
The opening weekend of the year was a fiasco. We could tell right out of the gate, but it turned out that the tires we brought weren’t in the right range, and that proved fatal as we had to just do the best we could with them. We had some discussions after the prelims, but no matter how much we racked our brains, we couldn’t come up with any other options. On top of that it was the first race at Okayama in two years, and it seemed likely that the safety car would make an appearance, so we just tried to plan around doing the best we could with that. Unfortunately, we ended up stuck in all the congestion. Kataoka did a great job chasing down other cars, and Taniguchi had a strong pace in the latter half, but the race pace wasn’t in our favor. Rather than being a lot faster than others, it was more like “a slight edge” I guess. Without a better race pace, it was tough to try to make up the loss from the prelims.
The next race at Fuji is long distance, so it seems like we should be in a stronger position than we were for this race.
We had thought about making up for the difference in the car by going with soft tires, but it ended up getting hotter than we expected, so we couldn’t use them. If soft ones won’t last, then we have no choice but to go with harder ones, but this time they were too hard. It felt like both of them were just outside of the optimal range. Once we fell in the prelims, we weren’t able to recover. Our overall pace in the finals wasn’t bad, but we kind of shot ourselves in the foot this time. Looking back on it in its entirety, I hate to say it, but it pretty much feels like nothing clicked, including our choices, starting with testing.
The next race at Fuji is a long distance race. We are in a good position to really bring together all of our strengths and finally put up a good showing. We will do our best to not get in our own way like we did this time.
Since the official test at Okayama at the start of March, all of our tires except for the hard tires showed graining, so we didn’t really have any options. With that, we brought soft tires, but conditions dictated that our only real choice was to use hard tires. With hard tires, we thought that “just” average should be enough to hold until the end of the race, but… that sliver of hope is what we were grasping for. Despite that, we still weren’t faster than the other cars, so it was like, “What’s going on here?” We couldn’t pass anybody, and even before that we found ourselves falling further away. Basically, we had no shot to win in the first race of the season. We don’t have the power, so we need to lessen our down force, but the tires make it hard to carry weight. Ideally we’d be fast on the straightaways, produce downforce, and the tires would do their thing, but in this case we were caught between a rock and a hard place. It’s a bummer, but all we can do is refocus and give our best effort next time out.
During the official practice, it was clear that our tires weren’t ideal, so it wasn’t exactly a surprise that we ended up pretty far back in the prelims, but we didn’t expect to fall quite that far. Even in the finals, our characteristic speed wasn’t there, and since we were in the back from the very start, it was a tough race. We also ended up getting negatively affected by the safety car. To be honest, it felt like kind of a nothing weekend.
The second race will be a long one at Fuji, and at our previous official test at Fuji we showed some top speed improvement, so that might bode well. Hopefully we can carry that feeling forward and bring some confidence into the next race.