This weekend’s Motegi GT Grand Final will be a historic event for the Autobacs Super GT Series. For the first time in history, a championship will be decided in a two-race final meeting of the season.
Super GT championship battles are very closely contested throughout the season, thanks in no small part to factors like Success Ballast and Balance of Performance, the complexion of a championship can turn dramatically in an instant. It is very rare that a championship does not go down to the final race of the season. Even still, there are some final rounds that stand out above the rest, just for the drama that unfolded throughout those last races.
And because “list-icles” are the hip thing these days on the internet, we compiled our five most dramatic Super GT finales over the last 23 years of the series, listed in chronological order and covering three decades of the series’ incredible history.
1997 Sugo: The closest of margins
The 1997 All-Japan GT Championship was going to be the coronation of Toyota’s first GT500 champions. But going into the final round of the season, the question was which of the manufacturer’s top teams would take the title – the #36 Castrol TOM’s Supra (Pedro de la Rosa/Michael Krumm), or the #39 Denso SARD Supra (Masami Kageyama/Tatsuya Tanigawa)? Heading into the final race of the season, with two wins a piece, De la Rosa and Krumm led Kageyama by 4 points.
With a wet start, things immediately kicked off as polesitter Akira Iida in the Raybrig NSX spun off, and Krumm himself got crossed up at the Rainbow Corner in pursuit of his title rival Kageyama. It seemed to be going Masami’s way early on.
But then Krumm caught up after his earlier spin, and as both cars crossed the line for lap 19, coming over the crest on the front stretch and making the treacherous approach to the first corner on a still-wet track, the unthinkable happened – Krumm hit the back of Kageyama’s car in a racing incident!
The left-front suspension of the Castrol TOM’s Supra was damaged. The right-rear wheel of the Denso SARD Supra, also damaged, and the Denso team would lose nearly two minutes in the pits for repairs.
Tanigawa charged as hard as he could as the track eventually dried out, but could only bring the Denso SARD Supra home in a distant seventh place, two laps down of the eventual race winner – a surprise one at that, the #5 5Zigen Racing Supra (Eiichi Tajima/Marc Goossens) that went on to what proved to be their only JGTC victory!
Meanwhile, after spending 24 laps in the pits for repairs, the #36 Castrol TOM’s Supra got back out on track to finish the race in 15th.
At the end of the season, both the Castrol TOM’s Supra of De la Rosa/Krumm and the Denso SARD Supra of Kageyama tied at 67 points, with two wins each, and one additional second place each. However, a third-place finish for the #36 Castrol TOM’s Supra at the Golden Week race at Fuji gave them the tiebreaker advantage, and De la Rosa and Krumm were crowned GT500 champions of 1997.
This remains the only time the GT500 championship has ever been decided on a tiebreaker, and the third tiebreaker no less.
2001 Mine: Drama at every corner
The 2001 JGTC finale took place at the tight, technical Mine Circuit – a classic venue that’s now sadly been consigned to the history books. But not before staging this explosive final round, one which had the top three teams in the GT500 standings separated by just two points.
The championship-leading #38 au Cerumo Supra (Hironori Takeuchi/Yuji Tachikawa) had still yet to win a race, but a run of five top-six finishes in a row had them two points ahead of their nearest rivals out of the Honda camp: The #8 ARTA NSX (Keiichi Tsuchiya/Katsutomo Kaneishi), with the “Drift King” Tsuchiya seeking his first JGTC title, and the #1 Loctite Mugen NSX (Ryo Michigami/Hidetoshi Mitsusada), seeking to repeat as champions.
The opening lap saw immediate drama, when Kaneishi in the ARTA NSX collided with the au Supra of Takeuchi, sending Takeuchi into a spin and putting them well down the field and out of the points, putting their championship chances in serious Jeopardy.
Several laps later, Kaneishi was chasing down Mitsusada for sixth place in a heated pursuit. If Kaneishi could get past, it would result in a two-point swing that would put the ARTA NSX of Tsuchiya and Kaneishi in position to clinch the title. And with the fifth-place Calsonic Skyline GT-R just up ahead, even more points could be had.
On lap 35, Kaneishi sized up his move in traffic over the crest towards the final few corners, but all it took was one move from Mitsusada to his left to send Kaneishi’s car airborne and through the gravel trap, into the sponge barrier, and out of the race.
All Tsuchiya could do was watch in stunned disbelief, as he would never get a chance to drive the ARTA NSX. His championship hopes were dashed, and as it turns out, it was the closest that one of the series’ most popular drivers ever got to winning a Super GT title.
Whether or not it was aggravated by the collision, the Loctite Mugen NSX began to develop transmission problems soon after its mid-race pitstop, and eventually sank out of the top ten as well.
Once again, there was another surprise winner, from pole position – the #30 Team Take One McLaren F1 GTR (Hideki Okada/Andre Couto) taking the longtailed McLaren’s final win in JGTC competition. And once again, despite not finishing in the points, or even winning a race in 2011, the au Cerumo Supra of Takeuchi and Tachikawa took the championship.
At the time, Toyota Team Cerumo’s ace driver was the veteran Takeuchi. But in time, Cerumo would become Tachikawa’s team.
2005 Suzuka: Driving rain, and a storming comeback
Four years after winning their first title, Cerumo had a chance to send the Toyota Supra out of front-line GT500 duty with a championship. But only a faint chance. Despite two wins in the season, three straight DNFs left the #38 ZENT Cerumo Supra of Tachikawa and newcomer Toranosuke Takagi, the latter back in Japan from a star-crossed venture to North America, fourteen points out of first place with one race remaining. The #8 ARTA NSX (Daisuke Ito/Ralph Firman) led with 61 points, and NISMO had both of its cars within striking distance of the lead as well.
Tachikawa did the job on a sunny Saturday afternoon, with a blistering run in the Super Lap session to take pole by just 0.025 seconds – the tenth of what grew to a record twenty GT500 pole positions for Tachikawa.
But on Sunday, before the final race was set to commence, it started to rain. It started to rain a whole hell of a lot. So much so that the race was shortened from 52 to 39 laps, and would start under the safety car for the first four laps. Once the safety car came in, most of the front runners pitted, including the ZENT Cerumo Supra. Takagi wouldn’t need to drive but one racing lap before handing the car over to Tachikawa, who benefitted from the early stop and set out to the lead.
On lap 28, the championship-leading ARTA NSX was tagged with a drive-through penalty for avoidable contact with a GT300 backmarker. And Tachikawa was doing all he needed to do to take the championship in the very last race.
But the drama wasn’t done quite yet. Richard Lyons in the #1 Xanavi NISMO Fairlady Z pitted one lap before Tachikawa, had also gained lots of track position with his early stop, and soon the Ulsterman was giving chase to Tachikawa – knowing that if he passed the leader, it would give him his second straight title, and it would give his NISMO team a third consecutive GT500 championship, as well as a third in a row for co-driver Satoshi Motoyama.
Lyons gave it all he could, including extending the track at 130R to evade a slower JLOC Lamborghini. But it wasn’t quite enough, as Tachikawa drove to a dramatic third victory of the season, and with it, clinched his and Toyota Team Cerumo’s second GT500 championship. Takagi, the Super GT “rookie”, added a GT500 championship to his 2000 Formula Nippon championship, and 2003 Indianapolis 500 Rookie of the Year honours.
The fourteen point deficit overcome by Tachikawa and Takagi in this final race at Suzuka still stands at the largest overturned deficit in the final race in GT500 championship history.
2006 Fuji: A last corner stunner
Formula 1 fans will always remember the dramatic finish of the 2008 Brazilian Grand Prix. The one where Lewis Hamilton passed a slow-moving Timo Glock for position to take the World Championship in the final few corners from home hero Felipe Massa.
Two years earlier, the 2006 Super GT season finale at Fuji Speedway saw a similar seismic moment, that decided the GT300 championship on the very last corner of the last lap of the last race.
Three teams had a chance to win the GT300 title at the start of the weekend, but as the laps wound down, it came down to the #7 RE Amemiya Mazda RX-7 (Tetsuya Yamano/Hiroyuki Iiri), with Yamano in search of his unprecedented third consecutive GT300 championship, and the #2 Priveé Mooncraft Shiden (Kazuho Takahashi/Hiroki Katoh), the controversial and awe-inspiring Daytona Prototype-based brainchild of legendary designer Takuya Yura.
It wasn’t the best of races for either team. Neither the RX-7 nor the Shiden qualified in the top ten. The Shiden made a gamble to change front tyres only on its stop, which didn’t pay off. Meanwhile, Yamada and Iiri did enough to get into the points, even after Yamada spun out unassisted at the Hairpin – but on the start of the 61st and final lap, they were in seventh place, and would have missed the championship by a single point.
And then, the fates intervened.
Everything seemed set up for the #62 Willcom Vemac RD320 (Shinsuke Shibahara/Haruki Kurosawa) to take a comfortable victory in the final race of the season, but as the car ascended the final sector of Fuji, it ran out of fuel and stopped at the inside runoff at the very last corner. The call from Martin Brundle probably would have been “Is that Shibahara?!?” as the rest of the field passed the stranded Vemac, if he’d been around to call this one.
The last-corner drama was not enough to promote the Shiden of Takahashi and Katoh into the points. It was, however, enough to promote Hiroyuki Iiri one more place, up into sixth, giving he and co-driver Yamano one more point to tie Takahashi and Katoh at 86 points, and ultimately, the RE Amemiya team would win the championship on the second tiebreaker, with one more second place finish than the Shiden.
For Yamano, it was a historic third consecutive GT300 championship, and with three different manufacturers – in ’04 with Honda, ’05 with Toyota, and finally ’06 with Mazda. This would go on to be RE Amemiya’s only Super GT championship in their storied tenure in the series, and to date, it’s the only title won by Mazda.
Adding insult to disappointment for the Shiden team, Takahashi was handed a 35-second post-race time penalty for dangerous driving under a yellow flag sector, which would have only made a top ten finish on the road even more disheartening after the fact. The Mooncraft Shiden never won the GT300 title, but Takahashi and Katoh are still searching for that elusive championship ten years later.
2014 Motegi: The beginning and the end
Which leads us back to Motegi, and the 2014 season finale – the first to be broadcast in its entirety around the world, the first in the “new era” of GT500, and the crescendo to a dramatic championship battle led by the Petronas TOM’s Lexus RC-F of James Rossiter and co-driver Kazuki Nakajima. In fact, the top four teams were separated by just seven points.
Ronnie Quintarelli crushed the track record in qualifying to give the #23 Motul Autech NISMO GT-R pole position, and immediately stormed out into the lead, doing everything he needed to do to give NISMO their seventh Super GT championship. On the opening lap, as RQ set off into the distance, chaos erupted.
Joao Paulo de Oliveira in the #12 Calsonic Impul GT-R was desperate to get around Rossiter on the opening lap, and dove underneath the Petronas RC-F at the S-Curves. The two made contact, ultimately sending Oliveira into a spin through the grass, inflicting damage on both cars, and taking both drivers out of contention before the race ever got going.
Up ahead, Quintarelli broke away from all challengers on his stint, then handed the car over to Tsugio Matsuda, who after thirteen full seasons of being the most successful Super GT driver to never win a championship, drove the final laps of the race and went on to his first GT500 title. Quintarelli, with his third championship in four years and his first for NISMO, became the first gaijin driver to win three GT500 championships.
In GT300, a similar championship scenario broke out, as the #11 Gainer Tanax Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG of Katsuyuki Hiranaka and Björn Wirdheim drove to a dominant victory, doing everything they needed to do to take the GT300 championship in the final round of the season. But the battle for the title would come down to the #4 Goodsmile Hatsune Miku BMW Z4 (Nobuteru Taniguchi/Tatsuya Kataoka) and the #21 Hitotsuyama Audi R8 LMS (Tomonobu Fujii/Richard Lyons) for third place.
Fujii gave it all that he could to make his move as the laps ticked down, but Taniguchi, who clinched his first GT300 championship at Motegi three years prior, held on to the position, and won his second championship, and the second for Goodsmile Racing with Team UKYO, on a tiebreaker – 2 wins to 1 for the Gainer team – in what proved to be the final race for their beloved Z4 before aligning with Mercedes.
In that race, we saw the beginning of the championship reign for NISMO, Matsuda, and Quintarelli, and we may see it continue for an unprecedented third year in a row this year.
No matter who ends up taking home the championships in 2016, however, we can surely hope that the Motegi GT Grand Final proves every bit as awesome as the championship finales that came before them.