To paraphrase a line from legendary professional wrestler Sting, “The only thing that’s for sure about the GT300 class, is that nothing is for sure.”
And that’s especially the case in the 2016 Autobacs Super GT Series, approaching the third race of the season at Sportsland Sugo – the first after a layoff of nearly three months. Just six points cover the top five team and driver combinations in the GT300 championship, the top eleven teams are covered by thirteen points, and the entire field is within twenty-one points of the lead.
In the war between the FIA GT3 and the JAF-GT300 categories that make up the GT300 field, Sugo is a track whose technical nature should, in theory, favor the supreme downforce and aerodynamics of the JAF-GT300 cars, including the Mother Chassis platform machines. But nothing is for certain.
Since the FIA vs JAF war began about five years ago, the split of victories at Sugo is only 3-2 in favor of the JAF-GT300 category (2011, 2013, 2015). On a Fuji circuit that is supremely tilted towards the horsepower advantage of the FIA GT3 cars, somehow a Mother Chassis platform JAF-GT300 car snuck onto the podium. And with this wide open field of cars in 2016, there are so many teams that could factor into the victory and assert themselves as title favourites throughout the rest of the Summer Series.
VivaC Team Samurai look to double up
Last year’s winning team, VivaC Team Samurai, and their driver pairing of Takeshi Tsuchiya and Takamitsu Matsui should be heavily favored to win the Sugo GT event for the second year running.
Their victory at Sugo last season was the first for a Mother Chassis car in GT300, and in 2016, the MC programme is even stronger than ever. The Dome-built VivaC Toyota 86 has already scored a pole position and a sixth place in Okayama, and a miracle podium finish at the Fuji 500km. They’re now third in the championship, and returning to a circuit that’s been very kind to Takeshi Tsuchiya in years past.
In addition to his win last year, Tsuchiya won the GT300 class at Sugo in 1999, and in his GT500 class tenure from 2000 to 2008, two of his seven podiums came at Sugo – including his near-miss with a win in 2003.
They don’t carry a huge Success Ballast handicap (34kg), and they won last year’s race with 30kg of ballast on board. They’re not the only favorites in this field, however.
Toyota, Subaru, Lotus all primed to contend
That’s because there’s another Toyota 86 MC in the field which came on strong at the Fuji 500km – the Team Upgarage with Bandoh machine of Yuhki Nakayama and rookie Shinnosuke Yamada. The Upgarage 86 MC finished fourth at Fuji, the team’s best-ever result after a difficult first year in 2015. They now have the driver continuity and reliability that wasn’t there all of last season, and they could be pounding on the door of their first win in very short time.
The Mooncraft Engineering-built Lotus Evora of Cars Tokai Dream28 (Hiroki Katoh / Kazuho Takahashi) was blindingly quick in GT300 testing at Sugo and Suzuka, two somewhat similar tracks. How will that blistering one-lap pace translate in the race? Katoh will need another monstrous first stint in the car to get them into contention before handing the car over to Takahashi to close it out – the usual game plan for the Syntium Apple Lotus team.
The shockers of the early season in GT300 have been the #31 apr Toyota Prius GT (Koki Saga / Yuichi Nakayama) and the #61 Subaru R&D Sport BRZ (Takuto Iguchi / Hideki Yamauchi), which have been held pointless through two rounds. They enter this race without any ballast, and they were also quick in testing – both of which play well into their favour.
Also worth asking: How do the Prius’ Bridgestone tyres and the Dunlops on the Subaru match up against a field of mostly Yokohama-clad cars?
FIA GT3 machines not to be overlooked
At the moment though, it’s still an FIA GT3-spec Nissan GT-R that leads the title race: The #3 B-Max NDDP GT-R of Kazuki Hoshino, and Jann Mardenborough, who now leads both the GT300 and Japanese Formula 3 championships heading into this weekend – not bad for a first full season in Japan for the former GT Academy champion. Sugo has been fairly gracious to the NDDP team, as the site of their first-ever victory in 2012.
In the test session in June, Mercedes-AMG, Audi, and Lamborghini stood out as the fastest of the FIA GT3 manufacturers. Three Mercedes teams are in the top ten in the standings; the #65 Leon Cvstos AMG-GT3 (Haruki Kurosawa / Naoya Gamou) that won in Okayama, the #4 GSR Hatsune Miku AMG (Nobuteru Taniguchi / Tatsuya Kataoka), and the #11 Gainer Tanax AMG (Katsuyuki Hiranaka / Bjorn Wirdheim).
But the latest round of BoP tweaks will see another 25kg added to the AMG GT3’s minimum weight. Possibly enough to put them out of contention for this round, but the aerodynamic profile of the AMG GT3 is very suited to this sort of track.
The Audi R8 LMS is also one GT3 car that could make a lot of noise at Sugo. Audi Team Hitotsuyama (Richard Lyons / Tomonobu Fujii) finished third here two years ago in the old R8, and the new car has a lot of downforce compared to its peers. Team Taisan SARD (Shogo Mitsuyama / Yuya Motojima) also have the new R8, and they’re trying to break back into the ranks of the points scorers – a good result here can ensure just that.
It’s the Italian cars who might be the best of the dark horses in this field. The Lamborghini Huracans of JLOC and Lamborghini Team Direction were quick in the recent tests, and JLOC owns a win here in 2014 – just the team’s second victory in their 20+ year history. They’re untouched in terms of BoP adjustments since Fuji.
Also, the #51 JMS LM Corsa Ferrari 488 (Morio Nitta / Akihiro Tsuzuki) has gotten off to a blinder of a start this season, finishing 5th at Okayama, and 6th at the Fuji 500km. They gain 10 kg and lose a tiny amount of boost pressure, however. Nonetheless, they’re embarassing the de facto “A-Team” of LM Corsa, the #60 Syntium Lexus RC-F, through two rounds.
For BMW Team Studie and 2013 GT300 winners Autobacs Racing Team Aguri (ARTA), they’ll need to maximize what they can out of the M6’s large frame around this track – but if any two teams can do just that, they can. The Nissan teams are in the same camp, and Porsche just needs a stroke of good luck after two miserable opening rounds.
It isn’t impossible that a team who has no points entering this race at Sugo could go on to win the championship with a run that started with a good finish this weekend. Because in this wide-open field, the only thing that will be for certain about the GT300 battle at Sugo is that nothing is for certain.