Fuji GT 300km Race Preview: GT500 – Can Nissan’s Fuji dominance continue?

Round five, the fourth race of the 2016 Autobacs Super GT Series, sees the series return to Fuji Speedway for the traditional second of two races at the foot of Mount Fuji – the 300 kilometer race that usually comes some time after the Golden Week holiday classic, the Fuji 500km. It’s the second leg of the crucial Summer Series – and the way it’s lined up, it could be another great victory for Nissan in the GT500 class.

Nissan, who’ve now won an unprecedented three straight races to open 2016, enter this second race at Fuji with tons of confidence – as they should. Four of the last five races at Fuji Speedway were won by Nissan GT-Rs. But after just losing out on a victory at Sugo two weeks ago, Lexus are not going to want to let Nissan romp to another win. Not at their home circuit.

There’s no denying that Nissan have the formula for success in 2016 – and after an incredible mix of brave strategy and fine driving saw Kondo Racing take a stunning victory at Sportsland Sugo, the #24 Forum Engineering GT-R of Daiki Sasaki and Masataka Yanagida returns to Fuji – where the team stands as the defending GT500 class winners of this 300 kilometer race.

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Few will forget Sasaki’s storming drive in the closing laps to come from a distant fourth, pass both Hiroaki Ishiura and Ronnie Quintarelli in the space of two laps, and drive uncontested for the last six laps to Kondo Racing’s first win in five years. This time out, however, they’ll carry 44 kilograms of ballast on board – and last year, they won ballast-free. This will be a critical race for Masahiko “Matchy” Kondo’s squad, to determine if they have the staying power to contend for a title – but as we learned last round with me forgetting to even mention them in the Sugo preview, they shouldn’t be counted out.

For the championship leaders at NISMO, and the #1 Motul NISMO GT-R of Tsugio Matsuda and Ronnie Quintarelli, 9th at Sugo was a terrific job to salvage two more points out of a potential “bogey race”. The long straights and drought of high-downforce corners compared to Sugo might make Fuji a better race for the NISMO team, even at a whopping +84kg of ballast. Every point matters – and after Sugo, their 13 point lead has now been whittled down to just eight.

But Nissan’s best chances to make it four wins in 2016 come from two teams with serious unfinished business at Fuji Speedway.

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The first is the #12 Calsonic Impul GT-R of Hironobu Yasuda and Joao Paulo de Oliveira. They dominated for most of 106 out of 110 laps at the Fuji 500km in May. Even in a late battle with the Motul GT-R, it seems like victory would still be assured – until the left rear Bridgestone tyre blew up in spectacular fashion at the 100R curve with four laps to go. Now two years since their last race win, and having suffered two straight DNFs after being caught up in a clumsy mid-race accident at Sugo, Team Impul want to right the ship at their return to Fuji – where Oliveira was triumphant in a great Super Formula race in July. Their ballast situation is favourable, at just 14kg.

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The second is the #46 S Road MOLA GT-R (Satoshi Motoyama/Katsumasa Chiyo) which, might have been in that heated battle for the lead in the closing laps in May, had they not fallen on their swords. The S Road GT-R was penalized with a 90 second stop-go penalty for pitting under the safety car, after they’d run up front all race. With two world-class drivers, the supreme Michelin tyres that propelled the Motul GT-R to a win here in May, and only 30kg of ballast on board, Motoyama and Chiyo will be banging on the door for a win this weekend.

Nissan’s success here in recent years is staggering, but in case some had forgotten, or even weren’t aware to begin with: Toyota Gazoo Racing runs the place at Fuji – literally – and their fleet of Lexus RC-Fs are coming in, bitter about lost opportunities to win at Sugo when all the conditions seemed to favour them.

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No discussion about Lexus’ chances at Fuji can start anywhere but with the “Fuji-meister” Yuji Tachikawa, and his co-driver of the #38 ZENT Cerumo RC-F, Hiroaki Ishiura.

Tachikawa’s record seven career wins at Fuji Speedway make him as much a master of this mountain as Craig Lowndes is at another famous racing mountain across the Philippine Sea. Ishiura, who has two GT500 wins at Fuji, is no slouch either – and they dominated, and easily should have won this race a year ago, before being run down by Sasaki.

After running out of fuel in the Fuji 500km in May, it’s now been three years since Tachikawa’s last victory at his favourite circuit, and four years since Ishiura’s last GT500 race victory. They’re the decisive favorites out of the Lexus camp this weekend.

Leading the charge for Lexus this year has been the KeePer TOM’s RC-F of Rossiter and Hirakawa. They finished third here in May, but it may be hard for them to keep pace at +60kg of ballast. Same for the new lead Lexus, the #39 Denso SARD RC-F (Heikki Kovalainen/Kohei Hirate), whose back-to-back podiums at Fuji and Sugo put them second in the championship – but at +68kg of ballast, is this where the season starts to come undone for the Denso SARD team, whose last win came here at the 2012 Fuji 500km?

The #6 Wako’s Team LeMans RC-F (Kazuya Oshima/Andrea Caldarelli) enters Fuji off the unfulfilled potential that Sugo brought, when an early collision with a GT300 backmarker took them out of contending for the victory for most of the race. Their consistency has been good all season, with three straight top-five finishes to open the season – but they know they have the speed to win.

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Two Lexii in particular might be flying under the radar this year, but could be serious threats to win this weekend. The #36 au TOM’s RC-F (Daisuke Ito/Nick Cassidy) is in its second race since switching to a new monocoque, which was expectedly fast – but they’ll need to clean up the mistakes that had them slapped with a colossal post-race time penalty at Sugo.

The #19 WedsSport Advan RC-F (Yuhi Sekiguchi/Yuji Kunimoto) – now scoring points for 13 consecutive rounds – was lightning fast at Sugo, especially as Sekiguchi drove from 14th to 2nd in the first 20 laps of his stint. Sekiguchi got his first Super Formula podium here in July, and Fuji might be where he stands on his first career GT500 podium, as well. Both the au and WedsSport RC-Fs carry 22kg of ballast, but the difference lies between the Bridgestones on the au TOM’s RC-F, and the Yokohamas on the WedsSport RC-F.

 

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Remember how Nissan have won “only” four out of the last five races at Fuji Speedway? The lone outlier, in a rain-drenched Fuji 300km in 2014, was a victory for Honda. After early struggles, Honda’s teams seemed to turn the corner at Sugo – but the high-power Fuji circuit may serve as a better test for how much the Honda NSX-GTs have progressed in 2016, since most of their problems lie with a lack of horsepower.

Their ballast situation is favorable – not one NSX carries more than 10kg of ballast into the race, as all five Honda teams occupy the bottom five places in the GT500 championship. The #8 ARTA NSX (Kosuke Matsuura/Tomoki Nojiri) was best at Fuji last time out in sixth. That result was matched by the #17 Keihin Real Racing NSX (Koudai Tsukakoshi/Takashi Kogure) at Sugo, but they had the pace to win early on before tangling with Ishiura early on.

It’s been a long time since the original Honda NSX scored its very first GT500 win at this Fuji 300km event in 1998. Honda has only won one race at Fuji since the retirement of the original NSX in 2009, with a team that’s no longer with the Honda fleet (Dome) and one driver that’s no longer in the series (Frederic Makowiecki) – it will not be a favorable draw for the red-badged NSXes going into this weekend’s race.

Toyota and Lexus may be the registered landlords at Fuji Speedway, but it’s Nissan who truly owns this track – and they may have some more breathtaking demonstrations of speed in store at Mount Fuji.

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