Super GT Championship rookie Sean Walkinshaw made a great start to his maiden season in the prestigious endurance racing series at Okayama in Japan on Sunday, 9th April, after securing an excellent top five finish in the GT300 class with team-mate Shinichi Takagi.
Although faced with a major challenge in round one of the season after red flags in first qualifying resulted in a lower than anticipated 18th on the grid, the Autobacs Racing Team Aguri pairing each performed impressively and also made the most of a tyre gamble at the driver-change pit stop.
Takagi took the opening stint and sliced his way into the top 10 with one third of the 81-lap race distance complete. Moving further up the order into second place in GT300 as the cars ahead began to serve their pit-stops, Takagi duly took the lead at the midway point.
Running a long strategy, with Takagi looking after the Bridgestone tyres very well, he pitted the ARTA BMW M6 from first place with around 30 laps remaining to hand over to Walkinshaw for his first racing mileage in one of the biggest GT categories on the globe.
Following a strong turnaround by the pit-crew, and a gamble to remain on the same set of tyres to the finish, the 23-year-old Oxfordshire racer emerged in sixth place and immediately set about the task in hand impressively.
Moving into the top four within a handful of laps, racing then fell under Safety Car conditions – the second cautionary period of the encounter – after a nasty accident involving the Ferrari 488 of Morio Nitta. For the No.55 ARTA BMW, the Safety Car threatened to impact the team’s strategy.
Racing re-started nine laps later and although slipping to fifth place, Walkinshaw thereafter maintained the top five to the chequered flag with a very strong maiden drive. Lapping quickly and consistently, the Briton took the chequered flag on lap 77 in GT300 within just 0.6 seconds of fourth place to cap a great performance – the second highest placed finisher on Bridgestone rubber.
“The race was pretty good for us”, said Walkinshaw, “Starting so far back after the red flag in qualifying, we took the gamble to run a long first stint for Shinichi and to then have no tyre change at the pit-stop. We hoped the tyres would last in my stint and they did, the Bridgestones were fantastic and our race pace was really good to the end.
“In qualifying we could have been fighting for the top three on the grid I think, but fifth from where we started was a good result. For our strategy in the race the Safety Car wasn’t what we wanted, we didn’t want the field bunched up with the other guys on fresher tyres, but we managed it well and it worked out OK in the end. Overall, I’m really happy and it’s a great start to the championship.”
Next on the Super GT calendar is a visit to Fuji Speedway just over three weeks from now for round two of the season, a midweek race. Practice and qualifying will take place on Wednesday, 3rd May, with the race itself following on Thursday, 4th May.
2017 Super GT – GT300 Driver Standings (after Rd1)
5th Sean Walkinshaw & Shinichi Takagi, 6pts
2017 Super GT – GT300 Team Standings (after Rd1)
5th Autobacs Racing Team Aguri, 9pts