How Honda stole a march in SUPER GT’s engine battle at Sugo
While Nissan scored back-to-back SUPER GT wins last weekend at Sugo, it was Honda that struck what could be a decisive blow in the championship fight, boosted by the introduction of a new engine.
Behind the Impul Nissan GT-R of Kazuki Hiramine and Nobuharu Matsushita, second place for Naoki Yamamoto and Tadasuke Makino in the Team Kunimitsu Honda NSX-GT cemented Yamamoto’s place as the favourite to earn a third GT500 drivers’ crown in four years.
Real Racing duo Bertrand Baguette and Koudai Tsukakoshi meanwhile made it two Honda crews on the podium in third place to establish themselves as Yamamoto’s main challengers (Makino can’t win the title after missing the opening race), albeit 14 points back with three races to go.
But what was remarkable about the result was that both the #1 and #17 Hondas were among the heaviest cars in terms of success ballast, with Yamamoto and Makino shrugging off a stage two fuel flow restrictor to come second and Baguette and Tsukakoshi overcoming their stage one restrictor.
While the Sugo race was one of attrition in the GT500 class, with five failing to make the flag, the introduction of Honda’s ‘Spec 2’ engine seems to have given the Sakura marque’s teams a timely boost as the championship enters its decisive phase.
In GT500, teams are entitled to use two engines per season without penalty, and it is customary for Honda, Toyota and Nissan to use this rule to be able to bring along an updated unit around the mid-point of the season.
Toyota had all six of its GR Supras on new units for this race, and the same was true for the four Nissan GT-Rs, albeit with the #23 NISMO car only moving on the new engine post-qualifying for precautionary reasons, as the team had already been forced to take a second engine after its first one blew up in spectacular style in the Fuji 500km.
Honda on the other hand decided on a more conservative approach, hedging its bets as it brought along only three of the ‘Spec 2’ motors for the #1, #17 and #64 Nakajima Racing NSX-GTs – leaving the #8 ARTA and #16 Mugen cars on their existing engines.
“I don’t know the situation for the other manufacturers, but testing opportunities were limited, so we were quite worried when we introduced the second engine,” Honda’s GT500 project leader Masahiro Saiki told reporters after the race.
“What is worrying is that you never know what can happen with a new engine. At the Motegi test [in early September], the temperature was low and we didn’t do many laps. So it’s a relief that we were able to run so well in such hot conditions like today.”
It seems Saiki need not have worried. After qualifying fourth on Saturday and best of the ‘new-engined’ Hondas, Baguette was full of praise for the new unit.
“It’s mainly driveability [that has been improved],” the Belgian told Motorsport.com. “We had a lot of issues, a lack of power on the exit of the corner. They changed the power curve, so now it’s much easier for us to drive.
“It was really our weak point since the beginning of the season, especially at Suzuka we couldn’t defend our position because we were lacking power. But they did a nice improvement on that side. The feeling is really nice.”
Saiki added: “It’s quite rare to be told by the drivers ‘this engine is good’, so I think we can feel the step forward in performance.”
On the other hand, Toyota’s ‘Spec 2’ engine did not seem to be the step forward that had been hoped for. Both TOM’S driver Ryo Hirakawa and SARD’s Heikki Kovalainen confessed they felt little difference from the new unit, although Hirakawa suggested that the engine might have been running at less than full power due to reliability fears.
If that was the case, then those fears proved well-founded as three of the six GR Supras were struck by mechanical issues. First to drop out was the #19 Racing Project Bandoh that car caught fire, ostensibly due to a fuel pump problem. Next it was the turn of the #38 Cerumo car, followed by the #14 Rookie Racing machine, both due to turbo problems.
It’s thought the Cerumo machine’s eventual breakdown stemmed from Yuji Tachikawa’s early trip into the gravel, but the breakdown of the #14 car of Kazuya Oshima and Kenta Yamashita, Toyota’s best-placed crew in the championship pre-race, was the big worry.
That has left the #36 TOM’S GR Supra of Yuhi Sekiguchi and Sho Tsuboi that finished fourth at Sugo as Toyota’s main championship hope, albeit 15 points behind Yamamoto.
Kovalainen gave an uncertain assessment of Toyota’s prospects for the remainder of the season despite he and Yuichi Nakayama finishing fifth in the #39 SARD machine, their best result since the Okayama season opener.
“It seems like Honda has found something, and it might be because of the new engine,” the Finn told Motorsport.com. “Whatever it is, they clearly have a bit more performance than us, so we have to keep working.
“The baseline of the Supra is good, we just need to find more from it, and I think we can, but definitely Honda seems very strong at the moment.”
The sister TOM’S machine of Hirakawa and Sena Sakaguchi was another non-scorer after Hirakawa was punted aside by the SARD car of Nakayama at Turn 1 late in the race, which has left the pair 27 points back in the title race.
Despite being a “bit worried” by the reliability issues experienced by the other GR Supras, Hirakawa is still convinced Toyota can prevail over Honda this year.
“I don’t think the Supra was so bad at Sugo, as the #39 and the #36 were ok,” Hirakawa told Motorsport.com. “I think we just went the wrong way on set-up. I struggled with the rear, with so much degradation and sliding.
“I don’t think Honda was really so much faster. I think if we set up the car well, we could have fought for P2 or P3. I didn’t get the impression that Honda was so much faster in the straights, so I am not too worried by their new engine.
“We never give up, I think we still have a chance [for the championship]. But the #1 [Yamamoto] is quite far ahead and we have to win at Autopolis or get a similar result.”
With three races left, Yamamoto’s current buffer of 14 points – approximately equivalent to a second-place finish – is a relatively comfortable gap by SUPER GT standards. But at the same point if the championship two years ago, Oshima and Yamashita (then driving for Team LeMans) were 16 points in the clear after their fortuitous Fuji win.
Come the season’s end, they barely clung on to the advantage, edging out Hirakawa and Nick Cassidy by only two points, and even then only after Yamashita’s brave overtaking move on Sekiguchi at the final corner that resulted in both cars going over the gravel.
At any rate, Honda is taking nothing for granted as it chases its first-ever successful GT500 title defence, despite the positive feedback received by the new engine – which presumably will now find its way into the #8 and #16 NSX-GTs in time for next month’s Autopolis round.
Indeed, Saiki cited not only Toyota’s reliability issues but also those of the #3 NDDP/B-Max Nissan, which lost a likely podium due to what was billed as ‘minor engine trouble’, as evidence that what happened at Sugo may not be repeated in the remaining races at Autopolis, Motegi and Fuji Speedway.
“We didn’t have any issues [with the new engine], but the other two manufacturers had troubles, so I think they were running conservatively from the middle of the race,” concluded Saiki. “I don’t think this is the real balance of power, I think they [Toyota and Nissan] still have a lot of potential.”
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