Super GT is back in action this weekend, after a layoff of nearly three months caused by fallout from the deadly earthquakes that rocked the Kumamoto Prefecture in the island of Kyushu. It’s been a long layoff that’s seen rookies win the Indianapolis 500, Toyota lose the 24 Hours of Le Mans in the worst possible way, an 18-year-old Dutchman win on his F1 first race after a controversial promotion to Red Bull Racing – all between the Fuji 500km and this upcoming round at one of Super GT’s most beloved venues.
For the twenty-third year in a row, the Autobacs Super GT Series returns to the town of Murata, Miyagi Prefecture, the home of Sportsland Sugo. And if the history of this event is any indication – with the two closest finishes happening here, both on a last-corner pass for the win – we could be in for another classic.
Sugo is the shortest track on the calendar at just 3.737 kilometers in length, but despite its claustrophobic dimensions, the circuit – which is a racing circuit, karting complex, and motocross facility all in one piece of property – always seems to find a way to host great racing.
It’s also the start of the three-race swing known as the “Summer Series”, which is later followed by a 300 kilometer race at Fuji next month, and then Japan’s great race, the 45th International Suzuka 1000km on August 28. These next three rounds will be especially critical for the championship aspirations of every team up and down the paddock.
No more so than in GT500, where the NISMO team of Tsugio Matsuda and Ronnie Quintarelli have already put themselves one huge step towards a historic GT500 championship.
One hand on the trophy for NISMO, but all eyes looking forward
The #1 Motul Autech GT-R of Matsuda and Quintarelli won the opening two races of the season, at Okayama, and the Fuji 500km. They’re in pursuit of the team’s ninth GT500 title, and an unprecedented third in a row for any team and driver combination.
Entering the race with a whopping 80 kilograms of success ballast, Matsuda and Quintarelli know that there may be a “bogey race” or two ahead of them. But consider that even if they struggle to put up points at Sugo, they may have already secured that historic third consecutive championship – since 1994, every team and driver combination in either GT500 or GT300 that has won the first two races of a season has gone on to win the championship the same year. NISMO are the only team to do it in GT500 (1998, 2008).
A great Nissan engine, the supreme dry-weather pace of their Michelin tyres, expert strategy from team director Yutaka Suzuki, and the combination of the winningest drivers in Super GT history make for an unstoppable force, even in a series that is built around parity. But they know the road ahead won’t be easy – especially at a circuit where Nissan as a manufacturer has only won twice since the inaugural running of this race in 1994, and where none of Matsuda’s all-time record 18 race wins have happened.
And it won’t be easy with a handful of teams lying in wait, somewhere in the distance, to pounce on their first slip up.
Impul and MOLA seek redemption from rotten Fuji luck
That includes two other Nissan teams in particular, who each had a shot to win, or at least help make up a GT-R 1-2-3 at the Fuji 500km – the #12 Calsonic Impul GT-R, and the #46 S Road MOLA GT-R.
Hironobu Yasuda and Joao Paulo de Oliveira were just four laps away from a potential win at Fuji until the left rear tyre exploded through the 100R as Oliveira was battling Quintarelli for the lead. The Calsonic GT-R has now gone two years between victories, and Impul has never won at Sugo before, but they’re positioned well in terms of ballast, and tested well at Sugo in June.
Oliveira is also riding the high of his incredible victory at the most recent Super Formula event at Fuji, outdueling Kazuki Nakajima in one of the all-time great races.
For the S Road MOLA team of Satoshi Motoyama and class rookie Katsumasa Chiyo, they want to make up for their costly pit stop under a safety car that cost them a shot at winning after they’d been near the front of the field for the first 70 laps of the Fuji 500km. Motoyama has two pole positions – including last year’s pole – and a win at this track, and Chiyo won his very first GT300 race here in 2012. MOLA’s first GT500 title was won in their class debut in 2011, thanks in large part to their victory here five years ago.
Also, they’re the only other team in the field with the superior Michelin tyres, which both drivers feel very confident in. This could be a very good race for the S Road team to get back into the thick of the title hunt.
KeePer TOM’s leads a field of eager Lexus challengers
Thirteen points adrift of Matsuda and Quintarelli sits the #37 KeePer TOM’s Lexus RC-F of James Rossiter, and Ryo Hirakawa – now making a huge splash internationally as a two-time European Le Mans Series race winner. They’re positioned as the top threat to NISMO’s three-peat ambitions by way of a second place at Okayama, and a surprise third place at the Fuji 500km – they are well and truly the best team within the Lexus fleet in terms of pace and performance.
But this race could go in the favor of any one of the six Lexus teams, seeing as they represent a Toyota Motor Company that has won this race a total of ten times – including a run of six in a row from 2001 to 2006.
After their popular podium finish at Fuji, the #39 Denso SARD RC-F (Heikki Kovalainen / Kohei Hirate) now sits third in the championship. Hirate’s last GT500 win came here in 2014, but they were wiped out early on last year after getting involved in an incident with the ZENT Cerumo RC-F.
The other TOM’s car, the #36 au TOM’s RC-F (Daisuke Ito / Nick Cassidy), has had a quiet yet productive 2016 so far, sitting sixth in the championship. Ito is a record three-time winner here (2000, 2007, 2012) at Sugo, and Cassidy will be eager to continue his run of form from his European F3 outing in Zandvoort.
The big threat might come from the #6 WAKO’s 4CR RC-F (Kazuya Oshima / Andrea Caldarelli), run by Team LeMans and first-year team principal, Juichi Wakisaka – who starred in two of the most memorable Super GT moments at Sugo: his last-lap pass for the win in 2003, and the three-wide pass in 2007. Oshima was one of the drivers that helped Team LeMans snap a nine-year losing streak in 2012 at this circuit. They’re fifth in the championship with a real shot at winning at Sugo.
Don’t overlook the #38 ZENT Cerumo RC-F (Yuji Tachikawa / Hiroaki Ishiura) – this team’s last win was in 2014, and like the Impul and MOLA teams, they too want to rebound after a cruel stroke of luck when they ran out of fuel at the Fuji 500km right after the safety car. Tachikawa is another three-time Sugo winner, in 2004, 2006, and 2014.
And finally, the dark horse of the Lexus stable, the #19 WedsSport Advan RC-F (Yuhi Sekiguchi / Yuji Kunimoto), which has now scored points in the last twelve straight GT500 races. However, Racing Project Bandoh is still seeking an elusive first GT500 victory. Sekiguchi is really coming into his own as a lead driver in 2016 – and it doesn’t hurt that he’s a two-time GT300 class winner here either, including in 2007 with the Bandoh team.
For Honda, the road back to the top begins
“Honda struggling to keep up” is a lede that’s been seen throughout the headlines in Formula 1, IndyCar, MotoGP, and even Super GT throughout this season. They started the year by locking out the back five places on the grid at Okayama. A sixth place at Fuji from the #8 ARTA NSX (Kosuke Matsuura / Tomoki Nojiri) is the team’s best finish all year.
They’re down on horsepower, and the removal of the hybrid powertrain that gave them one set of problems for the last two years has created an entirely new set of problems to start 2016, particularly with braking and handling.
But thanks to newly-rolled out engine updates and nearly three months of preparation to fix what ails them, Sugo represents hope for the Honda programme. It was the site of their only win last season, by the #100 Raybrig NSX (Naoki Yamamoto / Takuya Izawa). Sugo is a special place for Team Kunimitsu, who won the very first race here in 1994 – and after a tough start to their season that included their explosive tyre blowout at Fuji, they want to get back on the winning track by doubling up at Sugo.
Two other Honda teams need to be pinpointed: The #15 Drago Modulo NSX (Hideki Mutoh / Oliver Turvey) was quickest in the Suzuka Circuit test two weeks ago – on another high-downforce circuit not too dissimilar to Sugo. They were the fastest Honda in qualifying at Fuji (P6).
Then there’s the #17 Keihin NSX of Real Racing. Koudai Tsukakoshi and Takashi Kogure were with rival Honda teams when they staged the closest finish in Super GT history (0.025s), with Tsukakoshi taking Keihin Real Racing’s very first Super GT win. This year, they’re co-drivers for the first time, and they’re one of two teams (along with the Drago NSX) that’s yet to score a point this year – but even a podium finish would be huge for them.
Masahiko Matsumoto has not had an easy job as the overseer of Honda’s GT500 programme, but Sugo – where Honda has won seven times – could be the start of a huge turnaround.
Revised Success Ballast now in play
This third round of the season is also important as it is the first time that the revised Success Ballast system will come into play this season for the GT500 cars.
In 2016, Success Ballast will max out at 100 kilograms, all applied as physical weight. The fuel-flow restrictors, which would replace the first 50kg of ballast for cars above the 50kg threshhold in years past, are gone.
Last year, for instance, the winning Raybrig NSX and the runner-up S Road GT-R carried 58kg and 60kg of success ballast respectively.
But with the fuel-flow restrictors in play, these cars actually carried just 8kg and 10kg of weight ballast – giving them an advantage over cars in the 25-50kg window, at a Sugo circuit where braking and handling are more important than horsepower. That advantage is now gone.
Just two cars are over the 50kg ballast threshhold for Sugo: The #1 Motul NISMO GT-R (80kg), and the #37 KeePer RC-F (54kg). No other cars will carry more than 38kg of weight ballast, and all of the Honda NSX Concept-GTs in the field will have 10kg of ballast or less.
Sugo is the start of what could be a very memorable Summer Series, and this race in itself could be one of the major turning points in the GT500 championship.