45th International Suzuka 1000km preview: GT300

The sixth round of the 2016 Autobacs Super GT Series is the series’ crown jewel, the end-of-summer tradition, the 45th running of the International Suzuka 1000km. A race celebrating its golden anniversary, beginning in 1966, and continuing for most of the half-century to come.

The Suzuka 1000km has evolved over the years, once a signature race in the All-Japan Sports Prototype Championship of old, it is now the longest, most grueling, and most prestigious event in the Super GT Series calendar. It is an important race for the championship as well, with a maximum 26 championship points on offer for the weekend – one win can turn a struggling team into a legitimate championship contender, or virtually clinch the championship for an established front-runner.

Since 1998, the GT300 class, Super GT’s second tier, has been participating in the Suzuka 1000km. First on an invitational basis in the last non-championship era, before attacking the race at full-scale in 2006. In these two decades that have followed, we’ve seen many of GT300’s best teams and most awe-inspiring machines take the Sanbyaku class honours. This Sunday, the 28 teams and their drivers that make up the strongest GT300 class field in history will battle for their own piece of Suzuka 1000km history.

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Going into this race, there is one clear-cut favorite to win the GT300 category at Suzuka in terms of sheer pace and performance. It’s the Mooncraft Engineering Lotus Evora MC, fielded by Cars Tokai Dream28. The quickest car in testing by a significant margin, the #2 Syntium Apple Lotus is one of a few JAF GT300 category cars whose supreme downforce will give them the edge through the sweeping, high-speed corners of Suzuka. They also carry zero ballast into this year’s Suzuka 1000km.

Ace driver Hiroki Katoh, and his long-time partner Kazuho Takahashi, won this event in 2007 in the controversial Mooncraft Shiden prototype. They could very well have dominated this race last year, before a 90-second stop-go penalty for pitting under a closed pit lane ended their run to a victory. Takahashi, the 63 year old car salesman turned racer, knows that this may be his last chance to win a Super GT race as a driver. Katoh, age 48, has carried this team for many years, and was brilliant for most of last year’s race.

The x-factor in the equation is 19-year-old Super GT debutant Tadasuke Makino, a Honda-backed Formula 3 driver who proved just as fast and dependable as lead driver Katoh in his very first test back in July. His speed is real – and should he help his team to victory, he’d become the youngest ever winner in either category of Super GT.

Think also what a victory would do for Lotus, whose illustrious history in motor racing is still missing a major sports car race win.

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Suzuka Circuit is very friendly grounds to Subaru R&D Sport, who have won this race in three of the last six years (2010, 2011, 2013), and finished third here a year ago. Their Dunlop-equipped BRZ is coming off back-to-back podium finishes at Sugo and the Fuji 300km race. Takuto Iguchi was part of the winning team from 2013, and Hideki Yamauchi is equally as quick at the controls of the blue boxer.

Come this weekend, the legions of Subaru supporters will come out in full-force, knowing that another signature victory could be in the cards – perhaps the victory that finally elevates this team into the ranks of the GT300 title contenders. Dunlop also have a distinct advantage should the rains hit Suzuka once again – their wet-weather tyre is top-of-the-line in GT300.

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apr Racing have never won the Suzuka 1000km, but their two breathtaking Toyota Prius GTs are primed for a breakthrough victory. Leading the charge will be their #31 entry, fielded by 2006 winner Koki Saga, and young Yuichi Nakayama. Their win at Sugo is the only points they’ve scored all year due to reliability issues, but the mid-engined Prius GT has the balance to tackle the corners, and its hybrid powertrain ensures they can match the GT3 cars on the straights. Whether they can last the full 1,000 kilometers is another story.

Don’t count out a good performance for the #30 entry either – while 48-year-old Hiroaki Nagai is a true bronze-level rookie, his lead driver, Kota Sasaki, is a three-time Suzuka 1000km champion in the GT300 category.

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Dome’s Toyota 86 MC, the other Mother Chassis car in the field with the Mooncraft Lotus, also has the potential to impress at Suzuka. Their #1 team, VivaC Team Samurai, may be carrying 66 kilograms of additional Success Ballast weight, but whether by speed or by strategy, they’ve always found a way to the front.

Regular pairing Takeshi Tsuchiya and Takamitsu Matsui are joined by Toyota Young Driver Programme standout Kenta Yamashita, the 21-year-old making his return to Super GT.

Team Upgarage with Bandoh and Team Mach field the other 86 MCs, and can surely get into the points at Suzuka 1000km – especially if the attrition runs high.

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And they’ll all be gunning for last year’s winning entry, the #0 Gainer Nissan GT-R NISMO GT3. They won this race last year with a record 88 kilograms of additional ballast, after a wretched start and a massive rally to get to the lead of the race. Thanks to a sluggish start for Andre Couto and Ryuichiro Tomita’s side, they’re carrying only a fourth of last year’s ballast.

Nissan are the only FIA GT3 manufacturer to get a break in the latest round of BoP – a 20 millibar boost increase. How will Couto and Tomita fare without the rapid pace of Katsumasa Chiyo at their side this year?

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Another Nissan to highlight is the #3 B-Max NDDP GT-R, simply because of Kazuki Hoshino, a three-time GT300 winner at the 1000km (’07, ’09, ’12), and an overall winner in 2006. The second-generation driver is one of Suzuka’s greatest performers – especially in the second tier. Co-driver Jann Mardenborough, who would have been driving this race in Gran Turismo just a few years ago, is making his real-life Suzuka 1000km debut – and he’s been terrific in the last three races, a win at the Fuji 500km plus two straight hard charges from deep in the field into the points. He’s the clear-cut favorite for top rookie in the entire series.

Consider also: Team principal Masahiro Hasemi never won this race as a driver, and he’s yet to win it as an owner.

Don’t overlook “Pink-zilla” – the #48 Dijon Racing GT-R (Hiroshi Takamori/Masaki Tanaka/Takayuki Aoki) – especially as Aoki is a three-time GT300 winner at this race as well.

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The championship leaders are the Autobacs Racing Team Aguri (ARTA) BMW squad, Shinichi Takagi and Takashi Kobayashi, winners at the last round at Fuji. ARTA’s GT300 side has come close on many occasions to winning this race, but have come up empty so far. Last year, they were the fan favorites with the Honda CR-Z. This year, with the much larger, heftier BMW M6 GT3, how will they fare on the technical figure-eight? Should things get wet as they did in testing, their Bridgestone Potenza tyres are as good, if not better than the Dunlops.

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Since spinning off from Goodsmile Racing in 2014, BMW Team Studie have finished 3rd in 2014, and 2nd in 2015 – so naturally, the next step for them should be a victory. Jorg Muller and Seiji Ara are two excellent endurance race performers (Ara’s the only active Le Mans 24h champion in the field), and they welcome back DTM star Augusto Farfus to the team – he drove for Studie in 2014.

Their excellent performances were in the nimble Z4 GT3. Does the M6 have what it takes at Suzuka? It may not be an issue of weight, but reliability – something that has bafflingly eluded the semi-works BMW team for the last three races in succession.

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The Mercedes-AMG GT3 is another car that seems very well-suited to Suzuka, but because of this, they’ve been hit with a seemingly proactive BoP penalty of 20 additional kilograms of weight. Leading the fleet is Goodsmile Racing with Team UKYO, with Nobuteru Taniguchi still looking for his first Suzuka 1000km victory, and Tatsuya Kataoka a former GT300 winner in 2003.

The pewter Mercedes of Gainer (Katsuyuki Hiranaka/Bjorn Wirdheim) and the black Leon K2 Racing (Haruki Kurosawa/Naoya Gamou) AMG also look strong. And even if the EVA-01 Mercedes of Rn-sports (Masayuki Ueda/Kazuya Tsuruta/rookie Keishi Ishikawa) doesn’t run near the front, it’ll still be a popular car with the fans as usual.

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Audi’s new R8 LMS should also be excellent at Suzuka, and for Audi, who have conquered every corner of the GT3 racing landscape except the GT300 class, this race is important for them.

The Team Hitotsuyama entry of Tomonobu Fujii/Richard Lyons will be sore from losing the closest GT300 race in history last time out at Fuji Speedway, but it’s evident that this is the best that Audi have ever looked in a long time. Their second car, from Team Taisan SARD, features Shinji Nakano as a third driver to 2002 winner Shogo Mitsuyama and impressive rookie Yuya Motojima – and Team Taisan have never won this race before, but they’ve got a pretty solid chance to do so this weekend.

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Lamborghini bring a fleet of four Huracans to the race as well. Team JLOC and their two entries will likely have the pace to challenge for the win, but Lamborghini Team Direction is making some noise of their own thanks to the addition of Jono Lester in car #108, joined by car owner Hironori Takeuchi.

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Ferrari is represented by a sole JMS LM Corsa 488, with the iron man Morio Nitta and teammates Akihiro Tsuzuki & Shigekazu Wakisaka. Ferrari haven’t won in Super GT in many years, and they’ve never won at Suzuka in any category. Nitta has also yet to win this race in his accomplished career.

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While it’d be rude to completely overlook a team fielding a dual-class winner in Akira Iida, a three-time GT300 winner in Hiroki Yoshimoto, and a former Super GT race winner in Dominik Farnbacher, the bitter reality is that expecting the Syntium LM Corsa Lexus RC-F to be a serious competitor at Suzuka may be a bridge too far just due to how off the pace their car is. It’s a real shame for what is essentially the same team that won this race just two years ago.

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And it’s the same for Porsche, the winningest single badge in Suzuka 1000km history, but who’ve struggled all year with the seemingly potent 911 GT3-R that has now failed to score a point in four races via Excellence Porsche Team KTR and Gulf Racing with Pacific.

The winner in GT300 may not be recognized as the outright champion of this race, but winning the class is equally as important for these teams and drivers – and with a field this deep, it will be an incredibly fascinating fight to the finish – an all-out fight over 1,000 kilometers of racing – for the top prize in Super GT’s second division.

 

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