Those that tuned in to Sunday’s Sugo race were treated to a thrilling battle between Honda NSX-GT teams Real Racing and ARTA, with Real pair Koudai Tsukakoshi and Nobuharu Matsushita coming away with the win.
Hours later however, the news broke that the #17 Real Honda had been excluded for a skid block violation, handing the victory to the drivers of the second-placed #8 ARTA car, Tomoki Nojiri and Toshiki Oyu.
Just weeks earlier, the NISMO Nissan of Ronnie Quintarelli and Tsugio Matsuda lost a second-place finish for the same offence at Suzuka. And just to top it all off at Sugo, the winning GT300 car, the Team UpGarage Honda NSX GT3, was also disqualified for a ride height infraction.
Inevitably, this run of events inevitably begs the question of whether SUPER GT has become stricter in policing technical infringements, or whether teams are pushing the limits further as they strive to extract the last ounce of performance from their cars.
Perhaps both of these factors have a role to play, but speaking to those involved, it seems the actual explanation is much more mundane, and that it’s just a coincidence that two high-profile GT500 disqualifications have occurred in successive races.
Taking things chronologically, let’s start with the NISMO case at Suzuka. Post-race, team director/engineer Ken Nakajima told Motorsport.com’s Japanese edition that the #23 car was not running with a particularly aggressive set-up, and that the cause for the worn skid block would have to be investigated.
At Sugo last weekend, Nissan SUPER GT executive director Motohiro Matsumura was able to give a more detailed explanation.
“The tyre broke, or rather it was on the verge of breaking,” Matsumura revealed. “So I think the ride height was reduced by that amount.
“If we had pitted [for a third time] to replace the tyre, we would have dropped a lot of positions anyway, so we decided just to keep going, and although towards the end there was a lot of white smoke coming off the car at 130R, but we were able to continue.
“Since the #23 car was second in qualifying, the skid block was checked after qualifying, and there were no problems. It’s just that it was worn down over the course of the 450km.”
Likewise, Real Racing chief engineer Yasuhiro Tasaka expressed surprise at the #17 Honda being thrown out of the results. “We weren’t the ones bottoming out the most,” Tasaka told Motorsport.com’s Japanese edition.
“It’s not as if the skid block has been worn down equally across the whole surface, so I don’t think it’s because of the ride height,” he continued. “I think it could be because the less rigid part of the skid block was worn down.”
Tasaka insisted that the worn skid block had no effect on the #17 car’s performance, which was all the more impressive considering the Real NSX was running with a stage one fuel flow restrictor.
“I was focused on protecting the tyres, especially the left-rear that gets put under a lot of stress through the final corner, so we set up the car with that in mind,” he added. “I thought that the tyres would wear out towards the end, with about 10 laps to go. Things went as I expected.”
It’s hard not to feel sorry for the Real Racing outfit, the underdog in the Honda-Bridgestone stable, and especially Tsukakoshi and Matsushita, both of whom drove brilliantly to beat the #8 ARTA car on the road. No doubt there will be a lot of soul-searching going on for a team that has gone from being firmly among the title favourites to a rank outsider at best.
But at the end of the day, teams have to decide how aggressively to set up their cars, knowing that, in general, the lower you go, the faster you will be – and that, around a track like Sugo with its aggressive kerbs and uphill last corner, there is a risk of the skid block being worn down if they sail too close to the wind.
That should have been even more the case after the NISMO Nissan’s exclusion at Suzuka, which Impul man Bertrand Baguette admits led the defending champion team to err on the side of caution at Sugo.
“We discussed it a lot this weekend after the #23 car got disqualified at Suzuka,” Baguette told Motorsport.com. “So we played it safer, for sure. You know you have to be careful because if you go too low you get disqualified.
“You have to be careful, it’s part of the game. Maybe if the #17 was 1mm higher, they wouldn’t have been fast enough to win the race. You have to run close to the ground to be fast. I guess all the Honda crews will go safer next time…”
And as for the result changing after the fact, while unpalatable after all the podium celebrations and media interviews, it’s simply unavoidable if the top three cars in each class are subject to a post-race technical inspection.
ARTA performance engineer Tomo Koike penned an amusing tongue-in-cheek post on social media, painting an alternative picture of races being suspended with five laps to go, every car being subject to technical checks, and the final part of the race being run the next day! Not exactly more appealing, is it?
It’s not as if the phenomenon is unique to SUPER GT, either. Earlier this year, the winning Porsche 963 was thrown out of the Watkins Glen IMSA race for a skid block violation. The same thing happened to Audi at Silverstone in the opening round of the World Endurance Championship in 2016.
As Baguette concludes: “There is nowhere to hide. That’s how it should be, it’s fair for everybody. It’s not good for the fans and the media [for the results to be changed] but at least you know they are checking the car and if you win the race officially, you are within the rules.
“Of course it doesn’t look good from the outside, and Tsukakoshi-san and Nobu [Matsushita] did nothing wrong. It’s never nice to see the winner get disqualified, but that’s motorsport sometimes.”