The penultimate race meeting of the 2016 Autobacs Super GT Series takes the fastest GT racing cars in the world to the kingdom of Thailand, to the town of Buriram and its still-new, state-of-the-art racing facility – the Chang International Circuit.
Super GT’s only race outside of Japan will be held in Buriram for the third successive year, and if the two previous runnings of this event are any indication, this race will be filled with moments of high drama and excitement throughout all 66 laps around this 4.554 kilometer circuit.
The hottest temperatures of any race on the calendar will put every driver through their physical rigours like no other here in Thailand – and that intensity will only be ratcheted up further, with this race marking the start of final three-race run towards the GT500 championship, before the two-race Grand Final at Twin Ring Motegi in November.
Going into this race, five teams remain within twenty-one points of the championship lead, the maximum for a single Super GT race weekend. They’ll need to stay within 42 points by the end of the weekend to have any mathematical chance at the title at Motegi, but ideally, staying within one races’ reach is the goal.
Once again, the #1 Motul Autech NISMO GT-R of defending GT500 champions Tsugio Matsuda and Ronnie Quintarelli will race at the maximum 100 kilograms of success ballast, as they did at Suzuka in August. They lead the standings by eleven points over their nearest rivals, and even when things seem to go bad, as they did when the NISMO GT-R ran out of fuel with Matsuda just a few corners away from taking the chequered flag, they still consolidated a solid sixth place out of the catastrophe.
Their pace at +100kg is terrifyingly competitive, and the dry-weather strength of their Michelin tyres only helps them further. Their closest rivals in the title chase will need to hope that this is NISMO’s “bogey race” to bring them within a legitimate striking distance for Motegi.
Speaking of Michelin-clad Nissan GT-Rs, the other one in the field is last year’s winner in Thailand – that being the #46 S Road Craftsports MOLA GT-R. Last year in Buriram, Satoshi Motoyama ended a three-year winless drought for himself, and a winless run of over two years for his MOLA International squad.
This weekend, he has Katsumasa Chiyo back as his co-driver. Chiyo missed the Suzuka 1000km due to a back injury sustained in the Fuji 300km race, but was still in the garage to provide support to the team as they went on to finish third at Suzuka. Chiyo’s physical fitness will be put to the test in these punishing conditions, but he’s up for the task.
The other half of last year’s winning driver combination, Masataka Yanagida, is now in the Yokohama-clad #24 Forum Engineering GT-R for Kondo Racing – and has a good chance to double up on his success. With Daiki Sasaki, who scored his first GT500 podium in Thailand two years ago, and with Yokohama Advan tyres that are proving to be very capable on long runs, the Forum Engineering GT-R cannot be counted out to rebound after a tough Suzuka 1000km – especially when carrying only 44 kilograms.
And it’s the same for the #12 Calsonic Impul GT-R (Hironobu Yasuda/Joao Paulo de Oliveira), whose win-or-bust season continued to dole out the bad breaks after an oil leak caused a terminal fire at Suzuka. Buriram is a good circuit for the Calsonic team, with Yasuda and Oliveira finishing third in 2014, and fourth in 2015.
Lexus snapped the four-race winning streak of the Nissan GT-Rs at Suzuka with a 1-2 finish, and their teams now occupy positions 2 through 6 in the GT500 Drivers’ Championship, representing the best chance to topple NISMO and end their bid for an unprecedented third straight title.
Fresh off their masterful, and slightly controversial victory at the Suzuka 1000km, the #38 ZENT Cerumo Lexus RC-F of Yuji Tachikawa and Hiroaki Ishiura now return to Thailand – a place where they have unfinished business. Tachikawa gave the ZENT RC-F a great chance to win here last year in a thrilling duel with Motoyama, but a brake failure at the start of Ishiura’s closing stint ended their day in the kingdom. Their task won’t be any easier this time around – not at 90 kilograms, second-highest ballast in the field.
The #36 au TOM’s RC-F is coming off its first podium finish of the year, and it should be mentioned, that with a different title sponsor and two different drivers, this team won the inaugural running of this race thanks to a gutsy strategic call by chief engineer Tsutomu Tojo and team director Masanori Sekiya – a fuel-only stop on a new track surface helped them to the victory in 2014.
The same move backfired the following year, but don’t count out Daisuke Ito and Nick Cassidy to roll the dice again at Thailand. This team has always found a knack for rallying in the second half of a season in the last few years, and even at +70kg, they can do it again.
Three Lexus teams are the only ones, apart from the Motul NISMO GT-R of Matsuda and Quintarelli, to score points all year. The #39 Denso SARD RC-F (Heikki Kovalainen/Kohei Hirate) and the #6 Wako’s RC-F (Kazuya Oshima/Andrea Caldarelli), third and fifth in the standings respectively, have mounted a serious title challenge on consistency alone – but a win or podium in Thailand for either side would help their causes enormously.
As it would for the #37 KeePer TOM’s RC-F (James Rossiter/Ryo Hirakawa), on a two-race pointless skid and slowly losing touch with the leaders after a frustrating Suzuka 1000km.
The #19 WedsSport Advan RC-F (Yuhi Sekiguchi/Yuji Kunimoto) isn’t nearly as close to the head of the standings, but carrying only +40kg of ballast, and given both drivers’ impeccable form in Super Formula this season, perhaps Thailand is where Racing Project Bandoh can capture their elusive first GT500 victory.
Along with the return of Katsumasa Chiyo, the Buriram United Super GT Race will see the GT500 debut of a potential future Super GT champion, as Tadasuke Makino will become the second-youngest GT500 driver in history when he climbs aboard the #15 Drago Modulo Honda NSX-GT.
Having already impressed in his GT300 debut at Suzuka, Makino is drafted into top class duty for the rest of the season, paired with Hideki Mutoh in the same car that dominated the Suzuka 1000km weekend – up until an engine failure ended their race. Expectations will be high for the 19-year-old rookie in his GT500 debut, and that is entirely justified – he may be the brightest home-grown talent Honda have developed in many years.
Makino’s debut is a much-needed bright spot for the struggling Honda faction, who may continue to lag behind their rivals from Nissan and Lexus at this power circuit. The heat of Thailand hasn’t been kind to their reliability in years past, either.
Yet in 2015, they did get the #17 Keihin NSX-GT on the podium with an impressive rally to third place. Koudai Tsukakoshi and the aforementioned Mutoh were the driver combo last year, this year, it’s Tsukakoshi with Takashi Kogure. Once again, Honda will have success ballast on their side, as the Keihin NSX will be the heaviest in the field at only +44kg.
The best Honda challenge might still come from the #100 Raybrig NSX (Naoki Yamamoto/Takuya Izawa), who have been the most consistent points-scorers of the Honda fleet. They won last October in Sportsland Sugo, in the sixth race of the 2015 season. This is the sixth race of 2016, and they come into this race in a similar predicament – hoping to shock the world with a victory late in the season.
There will be plenty to watch for in Buriram, in the fight and chase for the GT500 championship. Will the reigning kings of GT500 continue to reign into Motegi, or will a dissident mob overthrow their power?