Our first “Top Ten” list takes a look back at ten of the most memorable moments in the last ten years of the International Suzuka 1000km, the crown jewel of the Autobacs Super GT Series. Ever since the race was officially added to the Super GT calendar in 2006, the Suzuka 1000km has continued its tradition of great champions and great racing, whose history intersects so many eras of endurance racing and the evolution of motorsport in Japan as a whole.
Rather than try and rank these moments over the last ten years sequentially, we put them in chronological order and left the reader (that’s you) to decide which one’s the best.
Impul dominate 2006, father & son revel in victory
The Suzuka 1000km was incorporated into the Super GT championship in 2006, a race that saw the Calsonic Team Impul Z take pole position and dominate the 173-lap race.
Benoît Tréluyer was the star of this team, driving three mega stints in the Calsonic Z, and his fellow Frenchman Jeremy Dufour had two solid stints of his own during the race as the “third driver” of the team. It was a great drive, leading Nissan to a 1-2 finish for their first Suzuka 1000km victory in 13 years.
The sentimental story came from Kazuki Hoshino, driving one stint for his father Kazuyoshi’s team to a victory in Japan’s great race, and becoming the first father and son to win the Suzuka 1000km (Kazuyoshi Hoshino won in 1990 for NISMO).
As it turned out, it was the younger Hoshino’s only GT500 class victory – but what a memorable win it was, and Kazuki would go on to even greater success in the GT300 category – especially at Suzuka.
Yuji Ide’s nightmare 2006 hits rock bottom
Yuji Ide is sadly remembered best for a historically woeful four-race stint at Super Aguri F1 Team to open the 2006 Formula 1 World Championship. Four months after being stripped of his FIA Super License, Ide returned to Super GT as a third driver for the #23 Xanavi NISMO Z team – a series where Ide was a multiple-times race winner from 1999 to 2005, most notably with Calsonic Team Impul.
Ide, with co-drivers Satoshi Motoyama and Tsugio Matsuda, hoped to redeem himself at Suzuka – but as fate had it, this race would be his further spiral into the abyss.
After taking over the Xanavi Z from Motoyama, Ide barged the GT300 class DHG Ford GT of Hidetoshi Mitsusada out of the way at the Casio Triangle – knocking the entire front end off the Ford as it ran third in class. Ide was given a drive-through penalty, but due to a communications error between Ide and the NISMO team, the Xanavi Z continued to drive on without serving the penalty – escalating the situation until the car was ordered to be parked.
The Xanavi Z was disqualified, and after the race, Ide was then handed down a competition ban for the rest of 2006 plus a ¥300,000 fine. But the saga of Yuji Ide does have a happy ending down the road…
The heavens open for Lotterer and Wakisaka
The 2007 Suzuka 1000km began under clear, sunny skies and ended with random acts of chaotic meteorology.
The main protagonists in GT500 were the defending Super GT champions, Houzan Team TOM’s (Juichi Wakisaka and Andre Lotterer), against Autobacs Racing Team Aguri (Daisuke Ito and Ralph Firman) in the midst of a historic season. The ARTA NSX led the Houzan Lexus SC for much of the race – but with 40 to go, heavy rain suddenly pelted the Suzuka Circuit.
With the entire field scrambling to take on wet tyres, Lotterer nearly threw the race away with a wild ride through the gravel at Degner Curve – but he saved the car. And crazier still, just as soon as the heavens opened, the rain stopped and the track began to dry again with less than 20 laps to go.
Lotterer took the gamble to switch to slicks with 14 to go, ran down Firman’s ARTA NSX, and even after the Irishman switched to slicks, it wasn’t enough to keep Lotterer from taking the lead on lap 162 – and eventually, the win for TOM’s from 11th on the grid. Wakisaka was crowned Suzuka 1000km champion for the third time, third driver Oliver Jarvis never even had to get in the car, and Lotterer demonstrated the sort of mixed-weather prowess that would make him a legend at Le Mans several years later.
Yanagida puts one over on the Shiden
The global recession of the late 2000s hit Japan awfully hard. Hard enough for Super GT to shorten the Suzuka 1000km to a 700 kilometer race. But the battle for the GT300 victory was not short on excitement.
With five laps remaining, the Mooncraft Shiden of Hiroki Yoshimoto, the S Road MOLA Z of Masataka Yanagida, and the ARTA Garaiya of Shinichi Takagi were running nose-to-tail in first, second and third. Despite the close margins, it looked like the Shiden – on +92 kilograms of ballast – was going to win its second Suzuka “summer special” in three years.
As the leading trio were set to take the white flag, the GT500 class Keihin NSX needed the slower 300 cars to give way. Yoshimoto did just that, giving the Keihin NSX enough room on the outside to get past. What he did not expect was for Yanagida in the S Road Z to use the faster NSX as a buffer to get past and take the lead out of the Casio Triangle.
Yoshimoto got a poor run out of the last corner, allowing Takagi to take 2nd at turn one on the final lap. Yanagida and Hoshino went on to win, taking MOLA’s second straight GT300 class victory at Suzuka in the process.
ARTA’s 20th anniversary triumph
Every Japanese racing fan will remember where they were the day Aguri Suzuki finished on the podium in the 1990 Japanese Grand Prix at Suzuka. Twenty years later, Aguri’s flagship racing team would capture a popular victory in the Suzuka Summer Special.
The EPSON HSV-010 owned by another Japanese F1 legend, Satoru Nakajima, looked set to take Ryo Michigami to a record-tying fourth Suzuka 1000km win – but their race was doomed when the car rolled out of its box on their final pit stop and lost a wheel.
That allowed the ARTA HSV-010 into the lead, and eventually a win on the 20th anniversary of Aguri Suzuki’s Japanese GP podium (and a debut Suzuka win for the new Honda concept car). Ralph Firman became the first Irishman to win the race, and Yuji Ide finally got the redemption he’d been wanting since the horrors of 2006.
The team drafted in young Takashi Kobayashi as a third driver – but as it turns out, the team didn’t even need for him to race at all – and Kobayashi’s name still went on the winner’s trophy in his debut Super GT weekend!
Koudai’s 130R Shocker
One of the worst crashes in recent Super GT history happened in the 2012 Suzuka 1000km – when Koudai Tsukakoshi wiped out spectacularly exiting the infamous 130R.
With 15 laps to go, Tsukakoshi was battling Seiji Ara in the WedsSport Lexus SC for sixth place. Tsukakoshi made the pass into 130R, but the two made just enough contact to delaminate the Keihin HSV-010’s right rear tyre – sending it into a spin at nearly 270 kilometers per hour, and into the inside tyre barriers with violent force – the car even leaves the ground just before impact.
Though visibly shaken up and winded after a brutal impact, Tsukakoshi still walked away from the hardest crash in recent Suzuka 1000km memory intact.
Hoshino’s Aston Martin goes warp speed
In my opinion, the finest display of overwhelming speed in either class within the last ten years came in the GT300 class during the 2012 race.
The triple a Aston Martin V12 Vantage of Team a speed came to Suzuka with overwhelming speed. However, a fuel tank capacity violation after qualifying saw them stripped of what would have been pole position by a crushing margin – sending them to the back of the GT300 grid, to start in 25th place.
Kazuki Hoshino strapped into the car on the opening stint, and in just ten laps around Suzuka, he had gained 23 places to get up to second place. It took only another six laps for Hoshino to erase a further six-second gap to the leading Hatsune Miku BMW of Tatsuya Kataoka, and he made the pass for the lead on lap 16 – a lead which neither he nor co-driver Hiroki Yoshimoto would relinquish as they won the GT300 class by 53 seconds. To add further legend to this performance, just a few laps into their victory lap, the orange Aston caught fire!
“To tell the truth, I had almost given up hope,” Hoshino said after their exclusion from qualifying. “But, after a good night’s sleep, I woke up this morning and said to myself, ‘I’m never going to give up.’ The car and the tires were simply the best. It was a really good weekend.” And indeed it was.
Subaru overcomes late puncture for BRZ’s maiden win
In 2013, the Subaru BRZ of R&D Sport was undisputedly the quickest GT300 car over a single lap – but could never close the deal on Sundays. However, the Suzuka 1000km is a benevolent ground for the Blue Boxer – where the Subaru R&D Sport team previously won in 2010 and 2011.
It looked like a routine wire-to-wire victory was in the cards for Kota Sasaki, Tetsuya Yamano, and Takuto Iguchi – but with 20 laps to go and holding a 1m20s lead, a stray bit of the BRZ’s rear diffuser aggravated a right rear puncture – forcing them to pit. Quick work from the Subaru mechanics got them out in 25 seconds, just behind the Hatsune Miku BMW Z4 of Nobuteru Taniguchi – which had climbed from 17th to the lead.
But with the JAF-GT spec Subaru’s superior cornering speed, GT300’s all-time quick man Sasaki caught up with Taniguchi five laps later and re-took the lead. Sasaki, Yamano, and Iguchi captured Subaru’s third GT300 win in four years, and the first for the potent BRZ.
The valiant challenge from the Miku team was for naught, as they’d be disqualified from the race for using an unapproved air restrictor.
Petronas Team TOM’s defeat NISMO all-out
The 2014 Suzuka 1000km was significant for many reasons. It was the first for the new generation of GT500 vehicles – with their two-liter turbo engines and DTM-based chassis. And for the international Super GT fanbase, the race was the first to be broadcast by prolific endurance racing broadcasters Radio Le Mans and their partners at NISMO TV.
They were treated to a delightful strategic battle for the GT500 class victory between the Petronas Team TOM’s duo of Kazuki Nakajima and James Rossiter, and the NISMO team of Tsugio Matsuda and Ronnie Quintarelli.
NISMO’s ballast-imposed fuel flow restrictors gave them the incentive to try and win the race on a four-stop strategy, but the #36 TOM’s squad figured that running a five-stop strategy at a higher tempo would win out. As it turns out, chief engineer Tsutomu Tojo’s “all-out” strategy was the right call – with Nakajima and Rossiter taking the Petronas TOM’s RC-F to the top step of the podium in the first Suzuka 1000km of Super GT’s “new era”.
Nakajima’s Suzuka 1000km made him the latest in a line of eventual World Endurance Championship superstars to win Japan’s great race – after Treluyer, Lotterer, Jarvis, and Loïc Duval – in the championship era.
Gainer rallies to win GT300 in the “Year of Chiyo”
2015 also saw one of the most resilient drives in Suzuka 1000km history, had by the Gainer Tanax Nissan team of Andre Couto, Ryuichiro Tomita, and the star attraction of the team, newly-crowned Bathurst 12 Hour champion Katsumasa Chiyo. Somehow, Chiyo qualified the Gainer GT-R on the front row despite carrying an additional 88kg of ballast on what was already one of GT300’s heaviest machines.
In the extreme wet conditions, Couto had fallen to as low as 25th in the GT300 class by the time he pitted the car for the first time. However, as the race wore on and the track began to dry, Chiyo, Tomita, and Couto clawed their way through the field and suddenly, 94 laps into the race, the Gainer GT-R was back into the lead.
With the nightfall curfew approaching in the closing minutes, Chiyo was tasked to drive the final stint and hold off the Studie BMW of Jörg Müller – a man who’d won more big GT endurance races than anyone in the GT300 field. Despite the added weight and the pressure from the veteran Müller, Chiyo did not buckle, and held off the BMW to capture Gainer’s first win at the Suzuka 1000km.
“The Year of Chiyo” that began with victories at Bathurst and the Fuji 500km later concluded with Chiyo becoming the first Japanese driver to win a major European sports car championship in the Blancpain Endurance Series. It was also a pivotal victory for Couto on the road to his emotional first championship crown in Super GT.