Anna Inotsume has clinched both the Saturday and Sunday Series titles in TCR Japan, following a remarkable season wrapped up with a second place at the Sportsland Sugo finale.
Anna Inotsume has secured her second TCR Japan title following the Saturday Series' victory at the previous round in Fuji, where she collected her fifth win of the season and wrapped up the first title with one round to spare, becoming the first woman to secure a TCR national sprint championship title.
At the season finale in Sportsland Sugo, Inotsume has now completed the job and, with a podium finish despite the toughest BoP, she completed a stellar campaign with her second title.
The fifth and final round of the 2023 TCR Japan championship was in fact contested at the 3.704 km Sportsland Sugo facility, located in the Miyagi Prefecture.
Due to the success ballast regulations, coming off five wins out of eight races, series leader Anna Inotsume entered the weekend with an extra 50kg BoP - which clearly made her mission more challenging.
Conditions were tricky also due to weather, as the region was hit by severe cold; qualifying got underway on Saturday morning in very low temperatures and in the opening minutes all drivers went out focusing on warming up the tyres, before teams swapped the fronts with the rears to maximise the grip on front-wheel-drive machines.
Times started to drop with 7 minutes to go: Masanobu Kato topped the leaderboard, but his time was soon improved by Hirobon, followed by Anna Inotsume. In the closing minutes, Hyundai driver Jeong Weon Choi clocked a 1:26.252, which emerged as the new benchmark;
he preceded Kato - in a Hyundai 1-2 - Hirobon and Inotsume on the starting grid of race 1.
Light snow started to fall just before the first 20 minute +1 lap contest on Saturday; Kato was off to a good start and took the lead, followed by Jeong Weon Choi and Anna Inotsume, who managed to snatch third at the start after a slower getaway from Hirobon, who would drop to sixth.
While he initially lost the lead, Jeong Weon Choi quickly recovered and hunted down Kato only to regain the top spot before the end of the first lap; after the pass, the Korean progressively opened a gap and never looked back, while behind him the battle for the podium was as open as ever: Kato, Inotsume and Hirobon were separated by few tenths and, once Inotsume found a gap, she attempted a move on Kato which ended in an off track moment for the Honda racer, as she fell to fourth.
This opened the door to Hirobon, who engaged in a tight duel with Kato and eventually grabbed the runner up spot on lap 12 at turn 2. At that point, though, Jeong Weon Choi had pulled away by over 5 seconds and Hirobon wasn't able to close in in the final three laps of the race. Jeong Weon Choi took his first win, followed by Hirobon and Masanobu Kato. Inotsume's fourth place - only her third time off the podium this year - was irrelevant from the championship standpoint, as Kato finished 39 points behind in the Saturday Series standings.
On Sunday morning, the final qualifying of the year took place on a sunnier albeit cold day. After an out-in lap, drivers headed out for their first competitive lap times in the final 10 minutes; Tobio Otani led the way with a 1:27.642 lap and continued to improve his personal best at each run. The driver of the #7 Audi RS 3 LMS remained unbeaten, despite significant improvements by Anna Inotsume, who was just 89 thousandths of a second behind after the 15 minute session. Race 1 winner Jeong Weon Choi attempted a late charge but could not do better than sixth, as Hirobon, Kento Kimura and Masnobu Kato all improved. With Mototino lining up in seventh on the grid of race 2, Anna Inotsume's closest rival in the championship standings failed to outscore her, and therefore she was crowned Sunday Series champion as well after qualifying with a 28 point margin. The newly-crowned double champion had a great start off the line but series newcomer Otani defended and held on to the lead into turn 1. Behind them, Hirobon was followed by Kimura, Kato and Jeong Weon Choi. Otani progressively widened the gap and, half-way through the race, he had almost pulled away from the group of pursuers. Inotsume was also able to drive away and left Hirobon behind, while Kato hit trouble and fell to the back of the pack due to gearbox issues. Having built a 6 second gap, Otani took a lights-to-flag victory, preceding Anna Inotsume - who completed a stellar campaign in TCR Japan with a second place finish, in her seventh podium in ten races. Hirobon rounded out the top three, while Mototino recovered to fourth after passing Jeong Weon Choi in the closing stages. Anna Inotsume collected 107 points in the Sunday Series - 34 more than her closest rival - and wrapped up a spectacular season with five wins and two titles. "Thanks to everyone's guidance, we achieved the best results with a podium participation rate of 65%", Inotsume wrote. "I am grateful to everyone who supported me every day as I prepared without losing sight of my goals. It was a wonderful year full of connections with people." At position 81, she is currently the top female driver in the TCR World Ranking.