A new chapter in SuperGT brings a debut podium for the Honda Civic Type R-GT

The opening round of the 2024 SUPER GT season at Okayama International Circuit marked the first race outing for the all-new Honda Civic Type R-GT, and thereby the start of a new chapter in a proud history of participation in Japan’s premier sportscar series.

A new chapter in SuperGT brings a debut podium for the Honda Civic Type R-GT

Of the five Honda GT500 crews in action at Okayama, it was the #100 Team Kunimitsu crew that gave the Civic its best finish as Naoki Yamamoto and Tadasuke Makino came home third - providing a morale-boosting demonstration of what the new car is capable of.

 It was a result made all the more remarkable by the fact Team Kunimitsu’s build-up to the new season was disrupted by the absence of Makino, who was forced to miss both official pre-season tests at Okayama and Fuji Speedway in March due to illness. 

But any fears that Makino wouldn’t be up to speed were quickly banished on Saturday, as he and Yamamoto’s combined efforts in qualifying put the #100 car a strong third on the grid.

Makino was in the thick of the action during the opening stint of the 82-lap race, battling hard against the Toyota GR Supras of the SARD and Cerumo teams in a three-way fight for second position. He dropped to fourth after being passed by Toshiki Oyu in the Cerumo car, but when both Oyu and Makino pitted together on the 29th lap, it was Team Kunimitsu that came out on top in the battle of the pitstops, sending Yamamoto out ahead.

That put Yamamoto back in a net third, and after putting some distance between himself and the Cerumo car, he went on the attack against the SARD Toyota in a bid for second. While the passing opportunity the two-time champion craved never quite materialised, finishing third still marked a satisfying conclusion to the weekend for both he and the team.

“In the early stages of the race, it looked like it was going to be tough, but Makino was somehow able to deal with that and bring the car back to the pits without losing too much time to the cars in front,” reflected Yamamoto. “Even in a tough situation, he was able to save fuel, which meant we were able to do a shorter pit stop. 

“On top of that, the pit work itself was perfect. I didn’t think we would be able to get out again so quickly, but we were able to come out ahead of the #38 car, and that enabled us to finish on the podium. This third place was a real team effort.”

Like all the Honda teams, Team Kunimitsu arrived at Okayama still in the process of getting to know the new Civic, especially with the car’s final specification having only been homologated following the final test of the pre-season at Fuji Speedway. 

Further contributing to the air of uncertainty was SUPER GT’s decision to increase ride height for GT500 cars by 5mm for the new season in the interests of safety. But this was only decided after the bulk of off-season testing had been completed, leaving teams still striving to find the right set-up in official practice for the race weekend.

“I didn’t expect this result,” said the team’s chief engineer Satofumi Hoshi. “Although I knew the Civic had potential, the decision regarding the ride height and skid block was made around the beginning of March. The organisers didn’t decide exactly how much we could wear the skid plate and plank until then, so we didn’t find the optimal aerodynamic solution. 

“With a new car, that made it an even more difficult situation for Honda compared to the other manufacturers, and after that we had only had the two tests at Okayama and Fuji, but dry running was limited, so we couldn’t find the optimal range of the Civic. 

“We tried to find that range during the race weekend, and I think with the #100, we found something better than the other Hondas. This time I think we selected the tyres a little bit better than the other Hondas, and I think both drivers did a good job. This result makes us more confident for the rest of the season.”

One of Honda’s aims with the new Civic in comparison to the old NSX-GT was to reduce drag and increase straight line speed. And while overtaking chances are hard to come by at Okayama due to its technical track layout, Hoshi feels watching Yamamoto’s battle with the SARD Toyota at least confirmed the Civic’s improved straight line speed.

“The heat affected all cars, but especially in Makino’s stint, he was struggling a lot,” added Hoshi. “Because of the loss of downforce [from following another car] he was sliding a lot and the tyre pressure was going up, especially the front tyres. 

For Yamamoto, Okayama was an important demonstration that Team Kunimitsu’s ace driver has lost none of his speed after missing the final two races of the 2023 season following the neck injuries he sustained in a heavy crash in last year’s Sugo round.

And while he admitted to some frustration at finishing third, that will only act as further motivation for the second round of the season at Fuji Speedway.

 “I have mixed feelings as we weren’t able to deliver a debut win for the Civic,” said Yamamoto. “As long as you are racing, that has to be the aim, and doing so on a car’s debut is something that you only get the chance to do very rarely. 

“That said, I missed some races from the middle of last year, and Makino was unwell due to illness during the off-season, so if you consider that wasn’t ideal from the team’s point of view, the fact we were able to come back so strongly shows the strength of the team. 

“From now we’ll work even harder so that we can grasp the first victory for the Civic.”

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