The sixth race, officially the seventh round of the 2016 Autobacs Super GT Series, is the fly-away round at the Chang International Circuit in Buriram, Thailand. And for the GT300 class, this race is a bit of a wild-card round.
Two teams will represent the home nation in this year’s GT300 field, a tradition for this race since the inaugural running of this event in 2014.
They will be part of an intense championship fight, where just eighteen points separate the top seven teams in the championship, headed by a team that has enjoyed the most remarkable Summer Series run in many years.
These seven teams, it should be mentioned, represent six different manufacturers and field seven entirely different models of cars. They represent the FIA GT3 and JAF-GT sub-categories, including the Mother Chassis platform. This is an incredible testament to the unique parity in GT300, that can be achieved even with two very different philosophies of automotive construction.
At the head of the championship table sits the #61 Subaru R&D Sport BRZ (Takuto Iguchi/Hideki Yamauchi), who entered the race at Sugo without a single point, and left the Suzuka 1000km with their fourth win in seven years and, more importantly, an eight-point lead in the championship with three races left to go.
Buriram has been a decent track for the Subaru, fifth in 2014, sixth in 2015. But now they enter this race with a field-high 94 kilograms of success ballast on board. This will be a defining race for this team, the last before the Grand Final at Motegi – after years of unrealized potential, is this finally Subaru’s year to win it all?
Subaru may reign atop the points standings, but in the Kingdom of Thailand, there is but one ruler – the #3 B-Max Racing NDDP GT-R, which is undefeated in Buriram in two races. Lead driver Kazuki Hoshino looks to win this race for the third consecutive year, with as many different co-drivers – Lucas Ordoñez in ’14, Mitsunori Takaboshi in ’15, and in 2016, the runner-up of this year’s All-Japan Formula Three Championship, Jann Mardenborough.
Chang International Circuit’s layout favours the high-powered, turbocharged GT-R and its similar FIA GT3 runners. But carrying twice as much ballast as they did when they won this race last year, the B-Max GT-R may find the final leg of a potential Thailand hat trick to be a tough feat.
Though, if any team can do it, it’s Hoshino and Mardenborough, who have shown time and again their resiliency this year – they’re the only one of the title contenders to finish in the points at every round.
Some teams, like the #31 apr Racing Toyota Prius (Koki Saga/Yuichi Nakayama) and the #55 ARTA BMW M6 GT3 (Shinichi Takagi/Takashi Kobayashi), have endured boom-or-bust campaigns – both these teams have a win and one other podium finish as their lone points-paying results. But Thailand will suit the extra horsepower of these machines, at least on paper.
Others have enjoyed consistent seasons, and now seek a victory to solidify their title push. That includes last year’s Thailand pole-sitters, the #25 VivaC Toyota 86 MC (Takeshi Tsuchiya/Takamitsu Matsui), who just failed to make it to the end of the Suzuka 1000km, but are now determined to make one last push and get Tsuchiya a long-awaited first Super GT title, in what looks to be the 44-year-old’s final season as a full-time driver.
And just behind them, the #4 Goodsmile Hatsune Miku Mercedes-AMG (Nobuteru Taniguchi/Tatsuya Kataoka), a team that has a great track record at fly-away races, and the #21 Hitotsuyama Audi R8 LMS (Richard Lyons/Tomonobu Fujii), another well-handling GT3 car that could be a threat in this race.
Outside of the title contenders, BMW Team Studie and the #7 Studie M6 (Seiji Ara/Jorg Muller) have a good chance to finally end their miserable pointless run of four consecutive races, at a track where the team and its two drivers have never finished off the podium.
As well as the #0 Gainer Tanax GT-R (Andre Couto/Ryuichiro Tomita), which finished third at Suzuka in August, and second at this race one year ago, with this same driver lineup. It’s one of only two Nissan GT-Rs in this field, with five teams failing to make the trip over due to financial constraints.
And after a GT Daytona class podium finish in his final IMSA SportsCar Championship race of 2016, at the Petit Le Mans at Road Atlanta, Jorg Bergmeister is back in Super GT to partner Naoya Yamano in the #33 Excellence Porsche, which scored its long-awaited first points at Suzuka.
This brings us to the two local wildcard entries, one from Toyota Team Thailand, the other for Vattana Motorsport.
Toyota Team Thailand first entered this race in 2014, with the first-ever GT300 Mother Chassis entry. They return in 2016 with the latest iteration of the Dome/Toyota 86 MC, and in preparation for a historic full-season campaign in 2017.
Nattavude Charoensukhawatana (“cha-rohn-soo-ka-wa-ta-na”, trust us, this name is fun to say with practice) was part of TTT’s maiden Super GT entry, and returns once again to pilot the #35 Arto 86 MC. “Mad Cow” is also one of Thailand’s most accomplished racing drivers at the domestic level, if not the most accomplished.
At his side is Piti Bhirombhakdi, the heir to the Singha Brewery and an accomplished bronze-level driver in GT Asia. But Super GT represents a huge step up in competition for Bhirombhakdi, and he won’t have the protection of a designated window for amateur drivers only in this race. They will mostly be entered to test the latest aero updates for the 86 MC in a racing scenario, while also gearing up for their 2017 entry.
The second of the two wildcards has a decent shot at the points, the #28 Vattana BMW M6 GT3 of the debuting Morgan Haber, and the returning team boss Chonsawat Asavahame. Of note, this will be the only GT300 entry to use Michelin tyres – the same ones that powered local wildcards i-mobile AAS Racing to a pole position and a seventh-place finish in 2014, and nearly got this Vattana team into the points last year.
There are other positives to this side, such as the Super GT debut of Australian youngster Morgan Haber, and the support of MARC Cars Australia, a very well-run team in Australian GT Series competition and the Bathurst 12 Hour race.
There is a counter to this, however, from the standpoint of Asavahame. This is primarily a sporting preview, but Asavahame, a politician and billionaire as well as a local racing driver, is only just coming off a year-long jail sentence for his role in carrying out election fraud – and has many other cases of legal trouble that are far more disturbing, and in all frankness and sincerity, do not represent the sort of character that should represent Super GT as a competitor.
With that said, GT300’s “wild card” round will be an important race in the championship, one that will further solidify the championship picture before the double-header at Motegi.