45th International Suzuka 1000km preview: GT500, team by team

It’s the end of August, and time for the crown jewel in Japanese sports car racing. The 45th International Suzuka 1000km celebrates the golden anniversary of the event, a race with a history dating back to 1966, when the late, great Sachio Fukuzawa and Tomohiko Tsutsumi won the inaugural race in the legendary Toyota 2000GT, the country’s first true supercar.

The Suzuka 1000km is a race that has seen both the evolution of both vehicles and venue over the years, welcoming everything from production grand tourers, to the Group C Prototypes that dominated sports car racing in the ’80s, to Europe’s finest GT1 racing machines, and now, the awesome GT500 cars of the Autobacs Super GT Series.

This is the tenth consecutive year that the Suzuka 1000km has represented Super GT as its crown jewel of the schedule. This is their Le Mans 24 Hours, their Indianapolis 500, their Bathurst 1000 – this is the one race that stands out above the rest.

This late summer special offers more championship points than any other race. One win can turn a struggling team into a legitimate championship contender for the rest of the season. More importantly, the accomplishment of winning at Suzuka cements the winning teams and drivers’ names places in history forever. It is a grueling 1,000 kilometers that lie ahead, where within the six hour window of racing, punishing summer heat or treacherous rain can take their toll on man and machine – often in the same day.

So for the fifteen GT500 class teams vying for the overall victory in this race, the Suzuka 1000km is their toughest, and most important challenge of the season.

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#1 / NISMO / Motul Autech GT-R / Michelin / Tsugio Matsuda & Ronnie Quintarelli / +100kg

NISMO are the benchmark of success by which all other teams are measured, in the midst of a reign as two-time and defending champions going for a historing third straight GT500 title. Except at Suzuka, where the NISMO factory team haven’t claimed overall victory in the race since 1990, in the very last years of the JSPC era.

And it doesn’t look to be in the cards at this year’s Suzuka 1000km either. Thanks to their white-hot start in 2016, winning Okayama and the Fuji 500km back-to-back, Matsuda & Quintarelli enter this race carrying 100kg of additional Success Ballast weight. And in the ten years that this race has been a part of the Super GT calendar, no team has ever won carrying more than 48kg of ballast.

That said, if any team can do it, it’s NISMO. Matsuda and Quintarelli are both former Suzuka winners (Matsuda in 2008, Quintarelli in 2005 and 2012), and both are at the absolute peak of their abilities. Team principal Yutaka Suzuki is a shrewd strategist, and the long-run durabilty of their near-exclusive Michelin tyres will be a factor in a race where the minimum five-stop rule will put all the emphasis on tyre strategies.

NISMO’s main focus might be the long-term goal of their third straight title, so even if they’re not up there fighting for the win, they will be scratching, clawing, scheming, plotting, and driving at ten-tenths to get high into the points-paying positions. Just like they do any time their backs are against the wall. No team works harder, no team has more resources at their disposal, to guarantee success.

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#6 / Lexus Team Wako’s LeMans / Wako’s 4CR RC-F / Bridgestone / Kazuya Oshima & Andrea Caldarelli / +50kg

2016 has been a stellar first season in a new era for Team LeMans, outright winners in 1993 and 2002. The first year with new title sponsor Wako’s, the first year with young Italian Andrea Caldarelli partnering Kazuya Oshima, and the first year under the helm of the charismatic Juichi Wakisaka, a three-time Suzuka 1000km champion as a driver (2000, 2002, 2007).

With a pole position at Sugo, and three top-five finishes already this year, the Wako’s team enters this race with plenty of positive momentum. Oshima knows what it takes to win this fabled event – at the age of 22, he won the 700km Suzuka Summer Special in 2009, becoming the second youngest Suzuka winner in history. Caldarelli finished second in his debut outing in 2012, and in all four previous attempts, the native of Pescara, Italy has a 100% point scoring rate at the 1000km.

They’ve had the pace to win for most of the season, and they look to capitalize on that potential at last – a win at Suzuka would place them right near the top of the championship table. The recent experience of Wakisaka, one of Suzuka’s greatest champions, will only benefit them.

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#8 / Autobacs Racing Team Aguri / ARTA NSX Concept-GT / Bridgestone / Kosuke Matsuura & Tomoki Nojiri / +20kg

The first of the Hondas in numerical order is a perennial favorite at Suzuka: The ARTA NSX of Autobacs Racing Team Aguri. Aguri Suzuki’s name will live forever in the minds of Japanese racing fans thanks to his stunning podium finish in the 1990 Formula 1 Japanese Grand Prix. Twenty years later, in 2010, the ARTA team celebrated the occasion with a victory at the Suzuka 1000km.

But it’s been many years of woe for Aguri’s GT500 outfit ever since. In the last five years, they’ve won only one race – their only podium finish of any kind – and finished either last or next-to-last in the GT500 championship four times. This squad seems almost unrecognizable to the one that dominated the 2007 Super GT Series, or the one that won this race in dramatic fashion in 2010.

Nonetheless, the ARTA squad will come out fighting at Honda’s home ground, where their fourth-place finish in 2014 is their best in the current GT500 era. Carrying only 20 kilograms, their chances of a podium finish look good in theory.

The driver lineup of former IndyCar Series and Indianapolis 500 Rookie of the Year Matsuura, and 26-year-old GT500 sophomore Nojiri, finished tenth a year ago. Matsuura’s best Suzuka 1000km finish was in his debut, second in 2008 with Team Kunimitsu.

Calsonic Impul GT-R achieves lights to flag at Fuji Speedway

#12 / Calsonic Team Impul / Calsonic Impul GT-R / Bridgestone / Hironobu Yasuda & Joao Paulo de Oliveira / +56kg

The world-famous Calsonic Impul GT-R picked up Nissan’s record-shattering fourth consecutive victory to open the 2016 season at the last race at Fuji Speedway. And their track record at the Suzuka 1000km is very good: Team Impul won this race in 2006 and 2008, and the man in charge, Kazuyoshi Hoshino, was a winning driver in ’90.

The win at Fuji turned around a run of rotten luck for the duo of Yasuda and Oliveira, but their primary goal remains to take the fight to NISMO and finally end a 21-year championship drought. Yasuda won the GT300 class back in 2008, but hasn’t won in GT500 yet – though he does have four podiums in the top flight. Oliveira’s best result in this event is thirds in 2011 and 2015, both driving for Impul. Their contrasting styles make them an effective driving duo, and Oliveira in particular was outstanding in the last round.

It won’t be easy for the Calsonic GT-R to replicate the dominant form they showed in the two Fuji races. In addition to the success ballast gained from their win three weeks ago, the high-downforce tracks see the overwhelming Nissan advantage clawed back significantly compared to a place like Fuji.

Still, they have some advantages over their rivals at NISMO. Not only do they run 20 kilograms lighter than they did when they finished 3rd a year ago, but should rain from the approaching Typhoon No. 10 (Lionrock) brush through Suzuka Circuit during the race, we know that the Bridgestone Potenza tyres are superior to the Michelins in wet conditions.

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#15 / Drago Modulo Honda Racing / Drago Modulo NSX Concept-GT / Bridgestone / Hideki Mutoh & Oliver Turvey / +8kg

Of the five Hondas looking to take back the Suzuka 1000km trophy for the home manufacturer, this is the one that has the best shot – the Drago Modulo NSX of Hideki Mutoh & Oliver Turvey.

They were the quickest team in the official test sessions way back in July. They carry just eight kilograms of ballast into this race. They’ve been unlucky more often than not this year, but have been the fastest of the Honda camp in a few races this year, notably the Fuji 500km. And, although they are GT500’s youngest team, they’re still positioned as the flagship Honda entry, carrying the branding of the manufacturer’s Modulo performance brand.

Of the five Honda teams, the lineup of Mutoh and Turvey needs the least introduction. Like Matsuura, Mutoh won the IndyCar Series and Indy 500 ROTY Awards in 2007. He’s also a former GT300 Champion (2013) and a former GT500 race winner. Turvey, of course, is the ex-McLaren Honda F1 test driver that’s claimed a shock LMP2 class victory at Le Mans in 2014, and has just re-signed with NextEV Formula E Team to partner Nelsinho Piquet for a second full season – reinforcing his stature as one of motorsports’ most versatile talents.

And overseeing the operation is Ryo Michigami, himself a three-time Suzuka 1000km winner. Drago Modulo Racing have always had the potential to succeed, and now entering this race for the second time, this is their prime chance to burst through the barriers and assert themselves in the GT500 landscape with a signature victory.

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#17 / Real Racing / Keihin NSX Concept-GT / Bridgestone / Koudai Tsukakoshi & Takashi Kogure / +40kg

The hard luck saga of Real Racing at Suzuka is well documented: This is their tenth entry, and they’ve yet to score a podium finish in a history littered with shocking shunts and unrealized potential. They’ve always had the speed to contend, never the luck.

Early in the 2016 season, though, the Keihin NSX has stepped up in a big way thanks to a productive Summer Series that’s included a 6th at Sugo, and a 2nd at Fuji in August – Honda’s best finish in what’s been a trying 2016 season, not bad at all for Katsutomo Kaneishi’s team.

The team’s ever-present constant is Koudai Tsukakoshi, a young man who has already endured his share of Suzuka 1000km hardship. In this, his ninth Suzuka entry, Tsukakoshi wants to reverse the hex that’s clouded this team at this circuit. So too does Takashi Kogure, whose 2011 victory with Dome carries an asterisk for some – since it was in a 500km distance event, shortened in the wake of the abhorrent Tohoku earthquake and tsunami.

The fans of the blue bombers will be out in full force, especially in the sixtieth anniversary of the founding of title sponsor Keihin. How sweet a win this would be for them this year – but the question remains, is this the year to reverse the curse, or another year of waiting for the other shoe to drop?

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#19 / Lexus Team WedsSport Bandoh / WedsSport Advan RC-F / Yokohama / Yuhi Sekiguchi & Yuji Kunimoto / +24kg

The popular underdogs of the Lexus fleet, Racing Project Bandoh are still seeking their first GT500 class victory in their sixth season since stepping up. But there’s a pervasive feeling of optimism around this team in the buildup to this year’s Suzuka 1000km. Optimism that hasn’t been with this team in a long, long time.

It feels strange to say, given that the team lost Juichi Wakisaka this off-season after his retirement, but they’re positioned much better now than they were before. This is in part to the breakout 2016 campaign of Yuhi Sekiguchi – now out of the shadow of his three-time champion co-driver, firmly asserting himself as the lead man at the helm of the WedsSport RC-F. Last week, at Twin Ring Motegi, Sekiguchi’s twelve-year journey to the Super Formula championship culminated in his first career victory.

Yuji Kunimoto, who is still only 25, can’t be ignored either as he too is stepping up his game in 2016. The entire Bandoh crew is making genuine strides forward. It’s been four years since their last podium finish, sure, but they looked very quick at events like Sugo, where Sekiguchi was in the fight for the lead for most of the race. They’re one of only two teams on Yokohama Advan tyres, and what they can bring to the table compared to their competitors remains a mystery.

If somehow, Masataka Bandoh’s team were to win this year’s Suzuka 1000km, this would be a popular victory to be celebrated for many years to come. It won’t be easy, but this is as good a chance as they’ve ever had to finally win their first GT500 race – and in the biggest event of them all, no less.

Calsonic Impul GT-R achieves lights to flag at Fuji Speedway

#24 / Kondo Racing / Forum Engineering Advan GT-R / Yokohama / Daiki Sasaki & Masataka Yanagida / +44kg

The other Yokohama-clad team is the Kondo Racing squad that won in improbable fashion at Sugo thanks to a brave strategic call, executed to perfection by their drivers, Sasaki and Yanagida.

Masahiko Kondo, better known as “Matchy” to those who know his award-winning music career better than his career as a successful team owner & racing driver, has seen his team finish on the Suzuka 1000km podium just once, 3rd in 2012.

Their lineup is as good as they’ve ever had, with Yanagida a winner in GT300 in 2009, and GT500 in 2012 – in addition to Sasaki, who has great potential at age 24. It’s always hard to predict how this team will get on at any race in the calendar, they’ve been fairly “boom or bust” since the start of 2015. Predicting their form at Suzuka will be even tougher.

To be a factor in this year’s Suzuka 1000km, Matchy and his crew will need to be smart, and take chances when and where they can. They have the potential to rock & roll their way to a victory, though – whether they can capitalize on that remains to be seen.

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#36 / Lexus Team TOM’s / au TOM’s RC-F / Bridgestone / Daisuke Ito & Nick Cassidy / +34kg

The #36 TOM’s Lexus RC-F has won this race the last two years. The colours are different this year – gone is the Petronas teal, replaced by the orange of telecom giant au KDDI. The driver lineup is also different this year. But the #36 TOM’s squad enters this race about where they entered it the last two years – and they’re heavily favoured to win their third Suzuka 1000km in a row.

Daisuke Ito is the only active three-time winner (2000, 2004, 2015), and one half of the defending champion driver pair. Ito is looking to tie Kunimitsu Takahashi’s record of four Suzuka 1000km victories, which would place the 2007 GT500 champion squarely amongst the all-time greats.

He’s paired with the 22-year-old GT500 rookie Nick Cassidy, who made his debut in this race a year ago. Between Super GT and the European Formula 3 championship, “Big Cass” has led a busy and productive season of racing. If he and Ito were to win, Cassidy would become the first driver from New Zealand to win this race (and you can’t teach that).

This team, and their sister car, are under the direction of Nobuhide Tachi and the great Masanori Sekiya, but also have the strategic mastery of chief engineer Tsutomu Tojo in their corner. TOM’s, the winningest active team in the field, won this race in ’87, ’07, and the last two years from 2014-15. Their success is no accident, instead the cumulative effort of over thirty years of racing excellence.

And since 2009, the average Success Ballast of the winners’ car has been 34 kilograms – exactly what the au TOM’s RC-F of Ito & Cassidy will carry into this year’s Suzuka 1000km. It’s not hard to see why they’re so heavily favoured to win it again.

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#37 / Lexus Team TOM’s / KeePer TOM’s RC-F / Bridgestone / James Rossiter & Ryo Hirakawa / +60kg

For so many years, TOM’s number 37 has always been the clear-cut B-team in the faction. Now that’s not the case. They’ve outplaced the #36 team in each of the last two seasons. There’s a very real argument to be made that they have the better driver lineup right now. That includes a two-time and defending champion of the Suzuka 1000km, James Rossiter.

Going for an unprecedented third consecutive victory in this race, Rossiter has never finished off the podium at the 1000km (3rd in 2013, wins in 2014 and 2015). Eddie Irvine was once the British “Suzuka-meister” in his day, now the 33-year-old from Oxford has taken the mantle and run with it. He may very well keep it for all time with a historic third straight win – a feat not even the great Kunimitsu accomplished, nor any of the other great champions of this race.

And then there’s Hirakawa, in his second Suzuka 1000km, a young man whose incredible star power and potential have now been proven out west, at both the Le Mans 24 Hours, and in the European Le Mans Series. What would a win do for the 22-year-old who so clearly has a future on the world’s stage in his immediate sights?

The KeePer TOM’s squad also have a championship to fight for. In Super GT, the fight for the championship almost always trumps the need to win this race – and they’ll gladly take the points where they can get them if a win isn’t in reach. But don’t think for a second that Rossiter and Hirakawa won’t be gunning for their own piece of Suzuka 1000km history this weekend.

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#38 / Lexus Team ZENT Cerumo / ZENT Cerumo RC-F / Bridgestone / Yuji Tachikawa & Hiroaki Ishiura / +40kg

2016 has been a season of unrealized potential so far for the ZENT Cerumo team. The hard luck that bit them for most of 2015 hasn’t relented much into this year, from running out of fuel at the Fuji 500km, to losing out on a chance to win at Sugo after a late red flag. Team Cerumo have won at Suzuka before, but their only 1000km win was all the way back in 2001 – which must seem like centuries past.

In that span of fifteen years, Yuji Tachikawa, the three-time GT500 champion, has been the single constant with this squad. He’s just one podium finish in the last ten Suzuka 1000km events, a third place in 2009. That same year, his now co-driver Ishiura went to the top step of the podium for his first Super GT win. The combination of a three-time GT500 champion and the reigning Super Formula champion should be a recipe for success, but it hasn’t quite turned up just yet.

That said, they have the pace to win, and they carry only 40 kilograms into this one. It’s possible that a lot of people are sleeping on the ZENT team’s chances to win this year’s Suzuka 1000km. We know Tachikawa and Ishiura have plenty of pace. It can very well hold up for the full 173 laps, and if it does, Cerumo will have hit the jackpot.

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#39 / Lexus Team SARD / Denso Kobelco SARD RC-F / Bridgestone / Heikki Kovalainen & Kohei Hirate / +74kg

It’s been a long time since Team SARD have had a season this good in the GT500 class. Runners-up in 1997 and again in 2004, it’s hard to fathom how the oldest of the Toyota Motor Company’s GT500 teams (in terms of GT500 tenure) has had so little quantifiable success. That said, they’ve enjoyed better success in the Suzuka 1000km. 1991 saw their first win, 2005 their second.

By way of his recent Formula 1 experience, Heikki Kovalainen might be the most recognizable name in the GT500 field to those outside Japan. But there’s one problem when it comes to the Flying Finn: He’s never finished in the points in a championship race at Suzuka, in either four entries in F1, or last year’s debut at the 1000km. With a championship on the line, Heikki-San is going to be wanting to change his misfortunes at the famous figure-eight.

And it’s the same for his co-driver Hirate, a former GT500 champion, who has never finished better than seventh in seven previous entries in this event.

25 years ago, an Austrian named Ratzenberger etched his name into the list of Suzuka champions. He, of course, is no longer here to tell his story of triumph. In his place, another F1 hero of yesteryear, Kovalainen, wants to win this race – and put himself and Hirate right up to the top of the title fight for the three races thereafter.

Calsonic Impul GT-R achieves lights to flag at Fuji Speedway

#46 / MOLA / S Road Craftsports GT-R / Michelin / Satoshi Motoyama, Katsumasa Chiyo, & Mitsunori Takaboshi / +30kg

UPDATE: Katsumasa Chiyo will not participate in this year’s Suzuka 1000km due to injury.

Nissan’s best chance to extend their record season-opening win streak to an unfathomable five in a row lies with the only team of theirs that hasn’t won all season, but certainly not from a lack of speed. There’s more intrigue around the “silver car”, the S Road GT-R of MOLA International – winners in GT500 in 2012, and GT300 in 2008-09, than any other entry for many reasons.

Chiyo, the Bathurst hero, the GT500 rookie, the first ever Japanese driver to win a major sports car championship abroad, injured his back in a scary crash from 180+ mph at the end of Fuji’s front straight. His absence from the race is a major loss – he is the reigning GT300 class winner, and an increasingly popular driver whose dynamic abilities have been proven in Japan and beyond.

For that reason, MOLA have added Takaboshi to the roster, and now he is more than just a contingency plan. The 23-year-old NISMO Global Athlete has never raced or even turned a competitive lap in a GT500 car, but his impressive rookie form last year with the B-Max team is just one mark on his CV that indicates his limitless potential. But this is a huge task for him to fill in for Chiyo.

That just leaves the one controlled variable we know will be there, the great Motoyama, in pursuit of his first Suzuka 1000km win in his twelfth attempt over seventeen years. He knows his time is running short to capture an elusive win in this event, but it’s easily the best chance that the 45-year-old three-time GT500 champion has had in years.

They’ve had the pace to win, if not for several fits of poor fortune. The Michelins on their GT-R have powered the NISMO team to their record start, and they have more than enough driving talent to pull it off. 30 kilograms is almost no burden to carry at all.

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#64 / Nakajima Racing / Epson NSX Concept-GT / Dunlop / Daisuke Nakajima & Bertrand Baguette / +2kg

Even carrying the smallest ballast handicap in the field, the Epson NSX of Nakajima Racing is still a long-shot of all long-shots to win.

A globally recognized sponsor, a beloved team principal who dominated this track in his heyday, a driver pairing including a world-travelled veteran (Baguette) and a second-generation racer that’s every bit as quick (Nakajima), and an exclusive tyre partnership with Dunlop aren’t a winning equation. They stormed to the lead in the opening lap of last year’s race, but when the rains stopped and the track dried, the Epson team slipped all the way down to a ninth-place finish.

In the throes of a nine-year losing streak, Suzuka represents the best chance for Satoru Nakajima’s squad to get into the points for only the second time all season. If it rains, their Dunlop tyres are fit for the task of climbing through the field. Even still, it could be another long day for Nakajima Racing at Suzuka – a team that frankly deserves much better.

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#100 / Team Kunimitsu / Raybrig NSX Concept-GT / Bridgestone / Naoki Yamamoto & Takuya Izawa / +26kg

The car of the four-time Suzuka 1000km champion Kunimitsu Takahashi has, surprisingly, never won the great race – though they have come close on a number of occasions. It’s been a tough 20th anniversary season of Team Kunimitsu’s alliance with Honda in Super GT, but Suzuka brings renewed hope.

Especially after a breakthrough podium finish at Fuji three weeks ago, where Yamamoto and Izawa finished third after a hard fight with the Keihin team. Yamamoto might be the best all-around driver at this track, winner of the last two Super Formula races at Suzuka, and a previous 1000km winner in 2013. It also helps that he’s settled down recently with his new wife, former Super GT+ presenter Eri Kano.

It’s his long-time running mate Izawa who’s yet to taste victory at this circuit. Third place in 2010 with Yamamoto is his best result in the 1000km. But their chemistry as teammates is effective, and Honda are surging at just the right moment thanks to a series of upgrades to the NSX Concept-GT.

Just the right moment, perhaps, to power the Raybrig NSX to an immensely popular win at Suzuka this weekend? It would certainly turn around what’s been a letdown season for this beloved team.

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