The one elusive prize: Satoshi Motoyama and the Suzuka 1000km

Satoshi Motoyama is, without question, one of the most legendary figures in Japanese motorsport. A three-time Super GT champion in the GT500 class, a four-time champion of what is now known as Super Formula, a winner of the prestigious 6 Hours of Fuji endurance race, and a man who has represented Nissan on the biggest stages of international auto racing including the 24 Hours of Le Mans.

But even still, there is one prize that Motoyama has still yet to obtain in his great career: A victory at the International Suzuka 1000km.

Motoyama has competed in the Suzuka 1000km eleven times in the last sixteen years, but in a career that has seen the Tokyo-born driver win virtually everything there is to win in his profession, this is the one big race he’s yet to win so far.

Motoyama’s first entry was in 1999, in an N1-class Nissan Skyline GT-R that never had a chance at an overall victory. With Nissan not as active during the race’s non-championship era, it wouldn’t be until 2006, when the Suzuka 1000km was integrated into the Super GT Series championship, that he’d get his first proper shot at winning the 1000km.

That first year back saw the most bitter of disappointments to date, as co-driver Yuji Ide was black flagged for failing to serve a drive-through penalty in the Xanavi NISMO Fairlady Z. It was rock bottom for Ide’s 2006 season from hell, and a case of “what could have been?” for Motoyama, Matsuda, and Ide in a race where Nissan took a 1-2 finish.

Motoyama came back in 2007 with a third-place finish, but a lap down from the lead battle between Autobacs Racing Team Aguri and Lexus Team TOM’s – never a threat even in the closing stages.

Fast forward three years to his best finish to date, but also, another missed chance at a victory. Motoyama started on the front row of the grid from the first time ever at the 1000km. 52 laps into the 2010 running of the race, co-driver Benoit Treluyer had the Motul NISMO GT-R ahead of the ARTA HSV on track – but a tangle with the GT300-class Taisan Porsche 911 caused them to spin in the S-Curves. The ARTA HSV won the race, in the 20th anniversary of Aguri Suzuki’s F1 podium finish.

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Motoyama and Treluyer rallied back to finish second – but surely, they knew a victory could have, should have been theirs that day.

And the road has had further disappointments still. In 2013, his first year with MOLA International, their race was destroyed by a 90-second stop/go penalty for coming into a closed pit lane. In 2014, a promising first stint from Motoyama ended with a dramatic engine failure, the S Road GT-R erupting in flames in the pit lane – the race over after just 14 laps.

There have been some years where Motoyama wasn’t a factor at the Suzuka 1000km due to success ballast accruals, sure, but there have been some genuinely missed chances throughout the last sixteen years.

And it’s not as if Motoyama has an aversion to Suzuka Circuit – he won here nine times in his legendary Super Formula career, including a season sweep of all three Suzuka races in 2007.

He also gave the R35 Nissan GT-R its very first Super GT victory at the Suzuka 300km in 2008 – that, curiouser than curious, remains his only Super GT win at Suzuka.

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In many racing series, there is one race on the calendar that carries more weight than any other. And all of them have had at least one great driver who won everything in a long and storied career – except for that crown jewel event. Think of Michael Andretti at the Indianapolis 500, Bob Wollek (a former Suzuka 1000km winner) at Le Mans, Glenn Seton at the Bathurst 1000, or Tony Stewart at the Daytona 500.

And within those great races, there are the stories of great drivers who waited so long before they finally broke through with that first victory – Tony Kanaan, Mark Winterbottom, and Dale Earnhardt’s emotional journeys to victories at Indy, Bathurst, and Daytona respectively come to mind.

Past the surface of what seems like an entirely far-fetched comparison to make, there’s more similarities between Motoyama and “The Intimidator” Earnhardt than the fact that the former drives a black and silver car, and the latter drove a black and silver car for many years.

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Motoyama’s stature in Japan is equal to all those aforementioned great names. While he no longer holds Super GT’s records for most GT500 Drivers’ Championships or race victories, his longevity of twenty seasons in the top flight of the series, his enduring success that has spanned the length of three decades, and his unwavering loyalty to Nissan’s racing family makes him a legend. Just this May, in fact, he was voted Super GT’s most popular driver in a GT-Association survey conducted at the Fuji 500km.

And he knows, first-hand, how much this sport can take everything away in one sudden moment. He carries the stylized number 74 of his late childhood friend, Daijiro Kato – who perished in a MotoGP crash at Suzuka in 2003 – on his helmet in remembrance.

This year will be Motoyama’s twelfth try to win the Suzuka 1000km. At age 45, there is a growing feeling that this year might be his last great chance to win it.

His long-time rivals Juichi Wakisaka and Ryo Michigami, both three-time winners at the Suzuka 1000km, each retired from the series in the last three years. One of his Nissan mentors, the great Masahiro Hasemi, never won the race as a driver either (and is still looking for his first win as a team principal at NDDP).

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Having said that, it may be the best opportunity he’s ever had: The #46 S Road GT-R carries only 30 kilograms of ballast, Nissan are on a historic run of four consecutive race victories to open the 2016 Autobacs Super GT Series, and their Michelin tyres are overwhelmingly durable and quick in all dry-weather conditions.

Add to that his two co-drivers: Katsumasa Chiyo – already an established superstar at home and abroad – won the GT300 class at Suzuka last year in an incredible fightback effort. Then add 23-year-old GT500 newcomer Mitsunori Takaboshi, a sensational rookie a year ago in GT300, to create a truly formidable three-driver team.

Is this the year that Motoyama finally captures the one elusive prize?

 

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