Honda Team Motul maintained their 100 per cent finishing record in the Intercontinental GT Challenge with a solid run at their home race, the Suzuka 10 Hours.
The team’s NSX GT3 Evo, driven by Belgian Bertrand Baguette, Japan’s Hideki Mutoh and Italian Marco Bonanomi, recovered from an early setback to finish 15th and set laptimes comparable with the winners during the final third of the race.
The JAS Motorsport-run team suffered on Friday as their chances of acclimatising to Suzuka on Pirelli tyres was thwarted by persistent rain.
A strong performance in Saturday practice laid the foundations for 14th place in qualifying; a result that allowed the crew to progress to the 20-car, single-lap shoot-out for pole position later in the day, but a braking issue for Bertrand limited the Super GT racer to 15th spot.
Starting the race with tyre pressures that were too high for the track conditions cost the team dearly during the opening stint as they dropped to 20th and fell off the lead lap.
Once on a correctly-pressured set, the recovery began as strong stints from both Hideki and Marco – who were both racing the NSX GT3 Evo for the first time – climb to 16th
But just as a charge for a top-10 position was being readied, a pre-emptive pitstop followed by a long safety-car period trapped the team two laps down on the leaders and cost them over two minutes on the cars they had been racing with.
Spirits undeterred, and spurred on by excellent work in the pits, the consistent pace displayed by all three drivers during their final stints was comparable to that of the eventual winners, proving the speed of the latest-specification NSX GT3.
The highest-placed NSX GT3 Evo in the race was that of Team UPGARAGE in 14th, whose crew of Takashi Kobayashi, Kosuke Matsuura and Tadasuke Makino made excellent progress from 21st on the grid.
Their achievements were celebrated by two podium visits; second in the Super GT Award and third in the Asia Award.
Fellow Super GT outfit Modulo Drago CORSE were 18th with Ryo Michigami, Hiroki Otsu and Daisuke Nakajima.
Malaysian team ARROWS RACING and their line-up of Philip Ma, Alex Liu and Jacky Yeung, looked on-course for a podium finish in the Am class before an incident in the third hour.
Contact with another car forced Yeung off the road at the kink before the hairpin, leaving him powerless to slow the car down to the following hairpin. A heavy collision with the same car was the result, causing race-ending damage.
It was the first retirement in an IGTC race for an NSX GT3, whose record now totals five races dating back to last year’s 24 Hours of Spa, and contains no mechanically-induced DNFs.
The final round of the 2019 IGTC, the Kyalami Nine Hours, takes place in South Africa on November 21-23. Honda hold eighth place in the Manufacturers’ standings.
Bertrand Baguette said: “This was our first time as a team at Suzuka and our first time here with both types of Pirelli tyre. We knew we had to maximise our track time, and the rain on Friday hurt us badly. We got through a lot of work on Saturday in practice and qualifying was ok, though I had a brake issue in the pole shoot-out, which cost me time. From 15th, we knew we could go forwards, but the pace was not good early on. The team did a great job to improve the car throughout the race and by the end the NSX GT3 Evo was very quick. We’ll analyse everything we learnt and bring it to the next race.”
Hideki Mutoh said: “It was my first time racing the Evo version of the NSX GT3 and my first time with the team, and it was a nice experience. We had some issues in the early stages of the race with the tyre pressures, but as we got further into the race, the car became much better and we could make a lot of progress. Unfortunately our strategy didn’t work out and the track position cost us quite badly, but we’ll learn from this. I’m grateful to Honda and to JAS Motorsport for the opportunity and I will take a lot of positives from this experience.”
Marco Bonanomi said: “Of course the result is not the best, but we learnt a lot. I was happy to be the fastest Honda driver in my part of qualifying, for example. We struggled a lot with the driveability of the car in the early part of the race, but in the last three stints we were on the same pace as the leaders. This shows the NSX GT3 Evo has the speed; it just came a bit too late this time. Overall it was a great experience for me to be part of an official factory programme again and I thank Honda and JAS Motorsport for the opportunity. I’m sure what we learnt this weekend will be very useful for Kyalami.”
Alessandro Mariani, Team Principal, said: “While I’m very happy with the speed of the NSX GT3 Evo in the final third of the race, I’m not satisfied with the result. As a team we had a small strategic misunderstanding that cost us quite a lot, and we started with the tyre pressures too high, so we destroyed the tyres. The team did a very good job to make adjustments on the car and make it as fast as the leaders for the last stints and with this kind of progress in a race, I’m confident we’ll be stronger again in South Africa.”