When Honda’s front-engined HSV-010 conquered Super GT

Last year, Honda took the SUPER GT title with an all-new front-engined car, a feat that the Japanese manufacturer had pulled off 10 years prior with the exotic HSV-010 GT. Loic Duval recalls how a machine never even sold as a road car conquered its GT500 rivals.

When Naoki Yamamoto swept past a faltering Ryo Hirakawa exiting the final corner of the final lap of the final race of the 2020 SUPER GT season to take the title for Team Kunimitsu, it marked the culmination of a huge effort by Honda to convert its mid-engined NSX-GT GT500 challenger into a ‘front-rear’ car to meet that year’s new Class One regulations.

But Honda had faced a very similar situation 10 years earlier, when the original NSX GT500 car was effectively outlawed for the 2010 season owing to its midship layout (although it was able to race on for one final season in 2009 after being granted a rules waiver). 

The financial crisis had led Honda to abandon plans to launch an all-new NSX road car – nearly two decades on from the launch of the ultra-successful original – with a screaming, front-mounted V10 powerplant. Having been cancelled very late in its development, what had been labelled the HSV-010 was repurposed into Honda’s next-gen GT500 contender, albeit with the V10 replaced by the same 3.4-litre V8 motor used by the brand in Formula Nippon.

After being given the nod by SUPER GT organisers to race despite not being a production car in the strictest sense of the word, the HSV-010 would go up against Nissan’s GT-R, in action since 2008, and the Lexus SC430, which replaced the original Toyota Supra in 2006.

#23 Nismo Nissan GT-R: Satoshi Motoyama, Michael Krumm, #100 Team Kunimitsu Honda HSV-010 GT: Takuya Izawa, Naoki Yamamoto, #36 Lexus Team Petronas Tom’s Lexus SC430: Kazuki Nakajima, Loic Duval

Photo by: Len Clarke

Honda maintained its commitment to running five cars, with the same roster of teams that had campaigned the NSX in its final year staying on for the start of the HSV-010 era: ARTA, Real Racing, Dome, Nakajima Racing and Team Kunimitsu. But, notably, Dome was designated the official team and rebranded as ‘Weider Honda Racing’ to reflect this status.

There was a significant change on the driver front as well. Ryo Michigami, who had been with Dome since it had taken over as Honda’s GT500 flagship squad from Mugen, was moved to Nakajima Racing, and going the other way to join Takashi Kogure was Duval.

Four years after being scouted on the streets of Macau by Satoru Nakajima, Duval had just delivered the former grand prix driver title glory in Formula Nippon (now Super Formula), which meant his stock was high within Honda. That allowed the Frenchman to negotiate a coveted transfer to Dome after an especially forgettable 2009 season in SUPER GT.

“It was after my championship win in Formula Nippon in 2009,” Duval recalls of the move speaking to Motorsport.com. “I told Honda that I wanted to win in SUPER GT, and to win in SUPER GT I had to leave Nakajima Racing because they were using Dunlop tyres, and they were not as competitive as Bridgestone or Michelin.

“Then, as Formula Nippon champion, they offered me a seat in the factory team, which was Dome at that time. It was a great opportunity. It was a brand-new car; it was a real prototype because they were not even selling the car. It was like driving an F1 car.”

#18 Weider HSV-010: Takashi Kogure, Loic Duval

Photo by: Hisao Sakakibara

The season kicked off at Suzuka, with Kogure securing pole by a little over a tenth of a second from the Cerumo Lexus of Yuji Tachikawa. But on the first lap of the race, Kogure ran wide on a damp patch at 130R and dropped down the order, and some laps later, while he fought the ARTA Honda of Ralph Firman, the pair collided at Turn 1 with costly consequences.

“That was a big shock,” says Duval of Kogure’s crash. “But the race after [at Okayama] we won. As we scored points we got heavier [due to SUPER GT’s long-established success ballast rules], so we had time to get back to the front.”

Two more podium finishes in the following races, and the cancellation of the penultimate round of the year at Fuji, helped ensure Duval and Kogure would go into the Motegi finale a single point clear of the Team LeMans Lexus shared by Bjorn Wirdheim and Daisuke Ito.

“We went to Motegi with no more weight and we were really close in the championship to the Team LeMans Lexus,” reflects Duval. “We got pole, but the Lexus was next to us, so the two main contenders were first and second on the grid.

“Before the start and my engineer called me and said, ‘I think the Team LeMans car is gonna get a penalty’. Actually, when Bjorn left his box, he left too early and crossed the line at the exit of the pits and the light was still red. He got a drive-through penalty.

“I was leading the race after the start and I could feel that I had different tyres; ours were a bit softer and for a long run his were better. And I could feel my car moving around, and thinking it was gonna be difficult [to hold off Wirdheim]. After three or four laps, he got the drive-through and it was a big relief. The pressure was gone and I could just do my race.

“We finished second behind the TOM’S car [Andre Lotterer and Juichi Wakisaka] and we won the championship, and it was really cool to win Formula Nippon and SUPER GT back-to-back. All my family were over and we had a nice celebratory dinner in a Michelin-starred restaurant.”

Podium GT500 Championship Champions: #18 Weider HSV-010: Takashi Kogure, Loic Duval

Photo by: Hisao Sakakibara

Duval and Kogure bagged only Honda’s third title in the GT500 ranks, following Ryo Michigami’s solo triumph for Mugen in 2000 and Firman and Ito’s 2007 success with ARTA.

But it was to be the first and only championship for the HSV-010 in the car’s four seasons of service, as Nissan, Michelin and Ronnie Quintarelli embarked on a miraculous run of four titles over the course of the next five seasons, leaving hardly a look in for Honda or Toyota.

Carrying the #1 plate in 2011, Duval and Kogure scored two wins in their Bridgestone-equipped HSV-010, but otherwise lacked in consistency, ending up third in the standings – some way behind title-winning MOLA Nissan pair Quinarelli and Masataka Yanagida.

“We lost a little bit of performance against the others, we didn’t improve as much as them over the winter,” says Duval. “We still finished third in the championship but Michelin did a massive step up and I think together with Nissan improving the car [that explained it].

“At that time every time Nissan won the title it was with Michelin, and Michelin was a big part of it. At some races we struggled compared to them. In normal conditions it was close, but when it was really hot or raining, we couldn’t keep up with them.

“Unfortunately for us Toyota also had a car on Michelin tyres [the SARD car], and Honda didn’t. That was one reason we couldn’t fight against them that year.”

#1 Weider HSV-010: Takashi Kogure, Loic Duval

Photo by: Hisao Sakakibara

The road-going version of Honda’s HSV-010 never did make it into production, and was retired for good ahead of the 2014 version as a ‘Concept’ version of the NSX-GT was ushered in for the start of a new GT500 rules cycle, the start of the common tub era.

Asked if the significance of his title was increased by the HSV-010 never being sold as a road car, Duval replies: “Not really actually. I would have actually loved to win the title with a car I could drive on the road because then I’d probably have bought one as a souvenir!

“What was special was the sound of the car and winning the title in the first year. That was really incredible. Looking back now, because Honda was able to race with this car, on pure performance we had a small advantage. But when you see after the GT-R winning four times [in five years], they had the advantage. That’s the way it is.”

Perhaps the most surprising thing is that the next Honda GT500 title wouldn’t come for eight years. Following the retirement of the HSV-010 GT, the NSX-GT Concept – which featured a hybrid system for the first two years of its life – was never really competitive, scoring two race wins in three seasons of service before being replaced by the ‘new’ NSX-GT in 2017.

That car, which used the traditional NSX midship layout, would claim honours in 2018 thanks to Naoki Yamamoto and Jenson Button, before Yamamoto and Tadasuke Makino delivered Team Kunimitsu a second title in three years last year with the front-engined car.

“I won a lot of races for Honda and when I jumped in the car that year, I know Honda wanted to win big-time but there was no extra pressure,” reflects Duval. “We were really competitive and I was surprised that afterwards they didn’t win the championship again [with that car].

“In a way, it made me proud also to be the last one to win the title until Jenson and Naoki won it. But I was super-happy for them.”

#18 Weider HSV-010: Takashi Kogure, Loic Duval

Photo by: Hisao Sakakibara

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