Defending Suzuka champions Ito, Rossiter on a collision course to history

Daisuke Ito and James Rossiter are on the cusp of making history in this year’s 45th International Suzuka 1000km.

Together, they won the crown jewel of the Autobacs Super GT Series calendar one year ago. But they return to Suzuka this year on opposite sides of the Lexus Team TOM’s garage – Ito in the #36 au TOM’s RC-F, Rossiter now in the #37 KeePer TOM’s RC-F.

Both men looking to accomplish a historic milestone of their own in the great race, and both knowing that their greatest challengers might be each other.

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Only the great Kunimitsu Takahashi has won this race four times. Daisuke Ito’s share of the victory last year made him a three-time champion.

It had been eleven years in between victories for Ito, after winning first in 2000, then in 2004 for the Honda Dome Racing team that dominated the last non-championship era at the Suzuka 1000km.

The journey between was filled with its share of trials. He and Ralph Firman dominated the 2007 GT500 season for Autobacs Racing Team Aguri and their ARTA NSX. But losing the Suzuka 1000km in the final dozen laps was the only missed opportunity of the season – as Andre Lotterer swiped past Firman on a rapidly drying track.

After winning the championship for ARTA in 2007, Ito shocked the Super GT world by signing for Lexus in 2008. But nothing could prepare him for what was to come soon after.

On July 18, 2008, Ito was suddenly in the fight for his life.

While filming an episode of Hot Version video car magazine, Ito was involved in a heavy crash in the narrow mountain roads of Gunma Prefecture. Ito, who was not wearing a crash helmet at the time that he crashed his Nissan GT-R, suffered severe head injuries – including a fractured skull and a cerebral contusion, and was in critical condition for several days.

Miracle of all miracles, Ito returned for the last race of the 2008 season – four months after the accident that could have taken him away.

Ito struggled to get back to the pace he once had. He went five years between Super GT victories, and his best chance at winning his third Suzuka 1000km evaporated with an electrical failure late in the 2009 race.

But when he was signed to Lexus Team TOM’s in 2013, his fortunes turned around, finishing runner-up in the 2014 GT500 Drivers’ Championship, and last year, finally winning his third Suzuka 1000km.

He now stands on par with two of the peers of his generation, Juichi Wakisaka and Ryo Michigami. Both came close to matching Kunimitsu’s record of four victories, but couldn’t close out their careers with that milestone victory.

Ito, who raced for Kunimitsu’s team in 2001, now stands one win away from standing shoulder-to-shoulder with the grand champion of this race.

All that stands in his way now is his the car of his former co-driver.

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Not even the great Kunimitsu won the Suzuka 1000km in three consecutive years. Nor did any of the other great champions from home, like Wakisaka, Michigami, Sekiya – or abroad, like Lotterer, or the only gaijin driver to become a three-time Suzuka champion, Sebastien Philippe.

Britain’s James Rossiter enters this year’s Suzuka 1000km as its two-time and defending champion, with a chance to carve his name into the history books forever as the great race’s first three-time consecutive champion.

In fact, in three previous starts, Oxford, England’s “Suzuka-meister” Rossiter has never finished off the podium at the 1000km.

Rossiter never got the chance to race in Formula 1 that he’d sought for years – even sacrificing years of his career in the pursuit of the goal – but having tested his mettle against future world champions of motorsport like Lewis Hamilton, Sebastian Vettel, and former GT500 champion Loïc Duval on the journey to Super GT, there can be very little case to deny Rossiter’s standing as one of the best all-around talents in the series.

The road will not be easy, with his KeePer TOM’s RC-F carrying 60 kilograms of Success Ballast into the race – nobody has ever won with as high a weight handicap in the years since Super GT absorbed the race into the championship in 2006.

But the point remains: A third straight victory at the Suzuka 1000km would place James Rossiter firmly within the ranks of the immortals in Japanese motorsport.

History is also at stake for their co-drivers: GT500 rookie Nick Cassidy, who joins Ito in the au TOM’s RC-F, seeks to become the first driver from New Zealand to win the Suzuka 1000km.

And for Ryo Hirakawa, Rossiter’s co-driver in the KeePer RC-F, a win at the Suzuka 1000km at age 22 would truly cement his credentials as a future star of the international racing scene.

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One year ago, Daisuke Ito and James Rossiter stood together on the top step of the podium at Suzuka, and put themselves one step away from their own dreams of Suzuka immortality.

Only one, if either, will see those dreams become reality in the 45th International Suzuka 1000km.

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