By Jamie Klein
Honda celebrated its first win of the 2023 SUPER GT season at Suzuka, as the #16 ARTA Mugen NSX-GT shared by Nirei Fukuzumi and Hiroki Otsu went from pole to victory.
For Honda, it was a first victory at its home track in the GT500 class since 2018, while for ARTA it marked a maiden triumph working with new partner Mugen. But for 29-year-old Otsu, it was the first time he had stood on the top step of the podium in SUPER GT in either class, with his breakthrough win coming in his sixth season in the championship.
Otsu did the bulk of the driving in the 450km Suzuka race aboard the #16 car, taking the wheel for the opening two stints and handing over to Fukuzumi after 44 laps of 77. Neither driver put a wheel wrong as they banished memories of a difficult opening half of the season for ARTA punctuated by slip-ups and penalties that left them trailing in the title fight.
“I would say I am more relieved than happy!” said Otsu against that backdrop. “We had so many races where we had the potential to win but we didn’t win.
“But from the previous race [at Fuji, where Fukuzumi and Otsu finished third] it felt like things started working better, and this time we were finally able to get to the end without mistakes. Finally we had a race where we could really show off our true potential.”
During the opening stint, Otsu converted pole into an early lead and was running comfortably ahead of the second-placed Nissan of Ronnie Quintarelli when a full-course yellow period was triggered by the Team LeMans Audi GT300 car getting stuck in the gravel at Turn 7.
Quick thinking by the ARTA crew allowed Otsu to come into the pits on lap 11 to clear the first of two mandatory refuelling stops, and he was the only driver to do so in the GT500 class before the pits closed. This turned out to be a major advantage once the first cycle of stops was completed, giving Otsu a buffer of more than 40 seconds over Quintarelli.
However, during the second stint, Quintarelli started closing the gap a little faster than ARTA would have liked. The reason was that Otsu had to start frantically saving fuel to ensure that the #16 car would be able to make it to the end of the race due to an issue in the stop.
“When we came into the pits, it was good timing, but we had some kind of trouble and not all the fuel went into the car like we had planned,” said Otsu. “I had to save fuel all the way through the middle stint and little by little the gap to second closed up. But even then, the pace compared to the #23 car wasn’t so different, only by around half a second.
“I was coasting a lot, we were short by around two or three laps, but luckily I was able to save the fuel. When you save fuel a lot, the brakes and the tyres get cool and it makes everything more difficult, so I am glad I was able to endure it.”
However, Otsu believes that even if the race had unfolded in a normal way strategically without the early caution period, the #16 car was in good enough shape that he and Fukuzumi would have had all the tools at their disposal to take the victory.
“In terms of the way the car felt, even without the full-course yellow, if we carried on the way things were going in the early stages, it really felt like the car was good enough to fight,” he said. “It felt as if we could be strong in any situation.”
Victory at Suzuka has thrust Otsu and Fukuzumi into the title battle. With the top two cars in the points failing to score, the #16 ARTA crew now finds itself third in the drivers’ standings and only 12 points behind Nissan pair Katsumasa Chiyo and Mitsunori Takaboshi with three races left on the schedule at Sugo, Autopolis and Motegi.
“Thinking about the championship, we definitely can’t afford to leave any more points on the table,” admitted Otsu. “So taking the experience from this race, we want to make sure we carry on scoring consistently in the next races and continue these good results.”
Otsu’s path to a first victory in SUPER GT was no doubt longer and more complicated than he would have been hoping for. He made his debut back in 2018 driving for the Drago Corse team in a Honda NSX GT3 in the GT300 class before stepping up to the senior GT500 category in 2020 to partner Takuya Izawa at Nakajima Racing, using Dunlop tyres.
There were three pole positions and a single podium, a second at Motegi in 2020, but the top step of the podium always eluded Otsu. The 2022 season was especially forgettable as he and Izawa were able to score points only once all year. But the Saitama-born driver believes those tough years have been pivotal to his success with ARTA.
“Until last year I was driving for Nakajima Racing, and that was a great experience for me,” said Otsu. “Without that, I wouldn’t have been able to make the best use of being part of this line-up. I feel that experience has been important to allow me to get good results in the first year [with ARTA], and I’m really thankful that I’ve finally been able to get the first win.”
With the pressure of the first win now off for both Otsu and the new-look ARTA squad, confidence will be high as they head into the final three races of the season. As Honda aims to give the NSX-GT a winning send-off in its final year of competition, all eyes will be on the #16 crew as Fukuzumi and Otsu bid to write a piece of SUPER GT history.