Autobacs Racing Team Aguri have dominated GT300 in the Fuji GT 300km Race the last two years, and during Saturday qualifying, they put themselves one step closer towards a hat trick of victories at the Summer race at Fuji Speedway.
The #55 ARTA BMW M6 GT3 of Shinichi Takagi and Sean Walkinshaw took pole position for Round 5 of the Autobacs Super GT Series, making up the first half of an eventual ARTA double pole position (see our GT500 report for more), and the front half of an all-BMW front row in GT300, alongside the #7 Studie BMW M6 GT3 of Jörg Müller and Seiji Ara.
Clouds rolled in over Fuji Speedway just before the start of qualifying, but the dreaded residual rain storms from Typhoon Noru didn’t throw any chaos into the system.
The twin-turbo BMW M6 GT3s looked to be among the favorites to excel at Fuji Speedway, and the #7 Studie M6 asserted themselves in Q1 as Müller led the session with a best time of 1:38.097, followed by Naoya Gamou in the #65 LEON Cvstos Mercedes-AMG GT3 in second.
Seven out of the top ten cars in Q1 were FIA GT3 cars, and leading the JAF-GT300 contingent was the #61 Subaru BRZ R&D Sport, which finished third with Takuto Iguchi driving.
With just 0.910 seconds separating positions 1 through 19 in Q1, the session saw a few notable teams eliminated after the first part of qualifying: The #21 Hitotsuyama Audi R8 LMS (Richard Lyons*/Masataka Yanagida) in 15th, the #51 JMS P.MU LM Corsa Lexus RC F (Yuichi Nakayama/Sho Tsuboi*) that won at the Fuji 500km in 17th, the #33 D’station Porsche 911 GT3-R (Tomonobu Fujii/Yuya Motojima*) 18th, and the most recent winners, the #11 Gainer Tanax AMG (Katsuyuki Hiranaka/Björn Wirdheim) in 19th, were all unlucky to just miss out on advancing to Q2.
However, there were a few outstanding performances from some of the smaller teams on the grid, including from Keishi Ishikawa, who finished a terrific 5th in Q1 driving the #111 EVA RT Test-01 Rn-s AMG. Shinnosuke Yamada in the #26 Taisan SARD R8 Fukushima gave Team Taisan SARD their first Q2 appearance of 2017, finishing tenth.
And at the back end of that top 14 in Q1, Kenta Yamashita snuck the #25 VivaC Toyota 86 MC and all 82 kilos of its Success Ballast into Q2, two places behind rookie Sean Walkinshaw, who just got the #55 ARTA BMW into Q2 by 0.151 seconds.
By the start of Q2, the track temperatures began to rise up as high as 37°C. The pole winning time wouldn’t have been as quick as the times set in May at the Fuji GT 500km Race, but it was still a good fight.
In Q2, it was Shinichi Takagi’s turn to pilot the ARTA BMW. Having won from pole in 2015, and again in 2016, Takagi turned up the wick on his first flying lap, going under the 1:38 barrier with a lap of 1:37.700 to take provisional pole. On his next lap, he put it out of reach with a lap of 1:37.525 – which was more than good enough to give the #55 ARTA crew a hat trick of GT300 poles at the Fuji 300km.
It’s Takagi’s twelfth career GT300 pole position, drawing him level with Hiroki Katoh for second-most all-time, and one behind Kota Sasaki for the most all-time in GT300.
“It was my first pole position in a while,” said Takagi, “and after having to drop out of the race despite making a strong recovery performance in the last round at SUGO, I was forced to start thinking about my life as a race driver and it made me emotional,” recalling an emotional post-race TV interview after being taken out of the last round.
“Fuji has always been a good course for the BMW (M6), and since the no-finish at SUGO meant we carried no additional handicap weight, I am very happy that we were able to fulfill Aguri-san’s prediction of a double pole position.”
Seiji Ara was able to back up his BMW Team Studie co-driver’s Q1 pace with a good run in Q2 to score second on the grid tomorrow – the first for the team since spinning off from Goodsmile Racing in 2014. It’s also the first time that BMW have ever locked out the front row in a GT300 field in Super GT history.
Behind the all-BMW front row, Mercedes-AMG locked out the second row: Nobuteru Taniguchi and Tatsuya Kataoka combined to qualify third in the #4 Goodsmile Hatsune Miku AMG, in their return from the Spa 24 Hours last week – and on a whopping 70 kilograms of Success Ballast, no less. Haruki Kurosawa followed up his co-driver’s quick lap in Q1 by finishing 4th in Q2 aboard the LEON AMG.
Hideki Yamauchi ensured that the #61 Subaru BRZ remained at the top of the JAF-GT300 field, qualifying fifth, ahead of the best Toyota-badged car, the #31 Toyota Prius apr GT (Koki Saga/Rintaro Kubo) in sixth.
Behind the fourth row of the #9 Gulf NAC Porsche 911 (Jono Lester/Kyosuke Mineo) and the #3 B-Max NDDP GT-R (Kazuki Hoshino/Mitsunori Takaboshi), there was an informal “Silver Cup” battle amongst a handful of amateur drivers – that battle went to Hiroaki Nagai in the #30 Toyota Prius apr GT, who followed up Kota Sasaki’s sixth place in Q1 by qualifying ninth on merit in Q2.
Takamitsu Matsui put all he could into the VivaC 86’s hot lap, but they could do no better than 12th – even still, it’s a start in the front half of the field for the current GT300 championship leaders.