Corvette was in the hunt for victory for much of the six-hour Japanese enduro, with the team’s sole C8.R enjoying multiple stints in the lead after Keating qualified the car on pole position.
However, Keating had to come into the garage to get the right-hand side door replaced after he was involved in a collision with the #54 AF Corse Ferrari of Thomas Flohr in the third hour. A 30-second stop/go penalty for the incident dropped the #33 Corvette further down the order.
The #33 crew had circled back to the lead by the fifth hour, only for silver-rated Nico Varrone to get hit with a time penalty of 10 seconds for forcing the #86 GR Racing Porsche off track.
Keating, Varrone and Catsburg eventually finished third on the road, 22s behind the winning #54 Ferrari, but were promoted to second after Toyota junior and WEC debutant Ritomo Miyata was penalised for speeding during a full-course yellow in the #57 Kessel Racing Ferrari.
While the stewards made it clear that the Corvette drivers were wholly to blame in both cases, even describing Keating’s driving as “a dangerous act of sportsmanship” and “unacceptable”, the team took a different view of the incidents.
Catsburg described the two penalties the American squad received in the penultimate round of the season as “questionable” and feels the team lost out on what should have been its fourth win of the season in six races.
“It’s nice to come out of here with a podium, but it was clear that we should have won the race,” he said. “Without the penalties, we by far had the best strategy. Ben and Nico did an amazing job fuel-saving.
“We had, I would say, two questionable penalties and without those we would have won by a country mile. It’s a shame but those are part of it.
“At least we have won the championship already, so we can’t complain too much. Those races are part of it as well.”
Keating was battling with Flohr when the two cars came to blows going into the Dunlop corner, with Flohr’s Ferrari sent wide over the grass before returning to the track behind the Corvette.
In its verdict, the stewards said Keating had misjudged the distance to the #54 Ferrari and there was “no valid reason” for contact between the pair, but the American driver felt it was nothing more than a racing incident.
“I can understand why they [the stewards] viewed it the way they did,” said Keating. “To me, we came together.
“I was right up next to him and it was my intention to make his braking line tighter. As I went to get close to him, he came over to get into the braking line and the fact is that we came together.
“But because the normal line is to go out wide for the brake zone, they deemed I went into him more than he went into me. I felt like it was a racing incident.”
Flohr, Castellacci celebrate first win since 2017
Flohr and team-mates Francesco Castellacci and Davide Rigon recovered from the contact to take an unlikely win in the #54 Ferrari, six years after Flohr and Castellacci last won a GTE Am race at the same track alongside now-Ferrari Hypercar driver Miguel Molina.
Podium: #54 AF Corse Ferrari 488 GTE EVO: Thomas Flohr, Francesco Castellacci, Davide Rigon
Photo by: JEP / Motorsport Images
Flohr said he was lucky to avoid hitting the barriers located on the inside of the Turn 10 right-hander during the incident with Keating, with the Swiss driver able to get the car safely back on the track after a trip through the grass.
“It was a big scare when I was hit by the Corvette,” he said in the post-race press conference. “Luckily enough my past rally experience allowed me to keep the car on the grass and go straight and not into the wall and we could recover.
“That is synonymous with how the team is performing. We were put down one more time, we came back and we fought harder and I think that’s the spirit of the team and I couldn’t be more happy with this big, big win in Japan.”