Motegi GT Grand Final Preview: GT300

The first-ever doubleheader season finale in Super GT history happens this weekend, at Twin Ring Motegi, where the 2016 championships will be decided in the Motegi GT Grand Final. Unlike last season, the GT300 Championship is still up for grabs. And it’s a mad frenzy for the sanbyaku title.

Out of the top eight teams in the championship standings, there is just 25 points between first through eighth. The top five teams are separated by just ten points. Six different manufacturers and seven different vehicles are in with a shot to win it all, representing all three of GT300’s subcategories – FIA GT3, JAF-GT, and the JAF-GT Mother Chassis platform, all with a chance to become champions. The championship battle in 2016 is the perfect reflection of the simultaneous balance of competitive parity and engineering variance that defines modern-day GT300 competition.

And there’s so many stories to talk about in this battle.

In terms of the battle between FIA GT3 and JAF-GT300, the European-inspired FIA GT3 cars have won four of the last five years. But as somewhat of an “intermediate” circuit, Motegi is, in theory, anyone’s race to win.

Just as it is in GT500, the Success Ballast will be pared down over the final two races of the season. On Saturday’s “Round 3”, the makeup race for the cancelled round in Autopolis, teams will only have to carry 1 kilogram per championship points’ worth of ballast. On Sunday’s final race, Round 8, the ballast is gone completely.

In total, fourteen teams are still mathematically eligible to win the championship, within 42 points of the lead – the maximum points on offer this weekend, including the two bonus points for pole position in either race. But realistically, this race for the championship comes down to the top eight teams in the standings.

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Head of the class is the #25 VivaC Toyota 86 MC (Takeshi Tsuchiya/Takamitsu Matsui), seeking VivaC Team Tsuchiya’s third GT300 championship, their first since 1999. But for lead driver Takeshi Tsuchiya, this may well be his last shot to win a Super GT championship after 21 seasons.

In October, the 44-year-old veteran Tsuchiya announced that he would be stepping down from full-time driving duties after 2016, to focus on the engineering and management side of the family race team.

With a win, three podiums and three pole positions, the Mother Chassis Toyota 86 by Dome is arguably the fastest of the title contenders, but the real key to the VivaC 86’s race success has been aggressive pit strategy, taking fuel only and double stinting a full set of Yokohama tyres to all three of their podium finishes – and with these being the shortest races of the season, they’ll have every incentive to keep pushing the envelope on strategy.

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Next on the list, the #3 B-Max Nissan GT-R of NDDP Racing (Kazuki Hoshino/Jann Mardenborough) is one of two GT-Rs in the top eight in the standings, sitting just five points out of the lead in second place. NDDP Racing have been the only team to finish in the points in every round this season, and are hoping to complete their 2016 campaign with a championship.

Both Hoshino and Mardenborough have had success at Motegi in the past. Hoshino is trying to win his record-tying third GT300 championship (2008, 2010), while Mardenborough tries to become the first Welsh-born Super GT champion, the first GT Academy graduate to win a Super GT title, only the second gaijin driver to win a GT300 championship, and most importantly of all, the first black driver to win a major professional sports car racing championship.

This would be the third title for team director Masahiro Hasemi, after two championships with the old Hasemi Motorsport squad.

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And the defending champions are still in with a fighting chance – the #0 Gainer Tanax GT-R (Andre Couto/Ryuichiro Tomita) is a bit further back than the B-Max squad, but Couto, last year’s GT300 Drivers’ Champion, has a chance to become the first back-to-back GT300 champion since Tetsuya Yamano won three in a row from 2004-06, while the Gainer team could win back-to-back titles and become the first time to at least do this in part since ’98-’99.

They’re not the only Gainer entry to look out for this weekend – just outside that top eight cutoff, in ninth place, sits the #11 Gainer Mercedes-AMG GT3 (Katsuyuki Hiranaka/Björn Wirdheim) – the same team that won this race in 2013 and 2014.

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Last year, the #31 apr Racing Toyota Prius GT of Koki Saga and Yuichi Nakayama dominated the race at Motegi. This year, they can win the Prius’ first Super GT title, their first GT300 championships of their own, and the fifth GT300 championship for Hiroto Kaneso’s apr Racing team.

The controversy of the “2016” Prius GT’s conception and origins aside, this year they haven’t looked quite as dominant as they did in stretches of 2015, and reliability still remains a question mark – but Saga and Nakayama are the right young men to drive the mid-engined, V8-hybrid Prius that has captivated so many fans, in and out of the hardcore Super GT base, to its first championship.

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Don’t forget the #61 Subaru BRZ (Takuto Iguchi/Hideki Yamauchi) of R&D Sport, who scored 47 points over the three-race Summer Series, with three podiums and a fourth Suzuka 1000km victory in the last seven years.

It seems like after all the years of potential and factory investment, after the changeover from veterans Tetsuya Yamano/Kota Sasaki to the young potential of Iguchi and Yamauchi, and the switch from Yokohama, to Michelin, to Dunlop tyres in the last five years, the Blue Boxer may be poised to win Subaru’s first major sports car racing title after nearly twenty years in Super GT.

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Completing the contingent of FIA GT3 cars, Autobacs Racing Team Aguri return to the track where they retired the Honda CR-Z GT last year, and now the burlier, more powerful #55 ARTA BMW M6 (Shinichi Takagi/Takashi Kobayashi) has a shot to win ARTA’s first GT300 title since 2002, and BMW’s third Super GT title in the last six years. Despite three non-scoring results, they have a win, two poles, and three podiums to offset the occasional misfortunes. Question is, will they return to Motegi next year with this same M6, or with something new like a Honda/Acura NSX GT3?

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Goodsmile Racing with Team UKYO have never finished worse than fourth at Motegi in the last five years, and they’ve clinched both the 2011 and 2014 GT300 championships here, with a win in 2011. This year, the #4 Goodsmile Hatsune Miku Mercedes-AMG GT3 (Nobuteru Taniguchi/Tatsuya Kataoka) will take to the track in search of a third title for the team and both of its drivers, as well as the first Super GT championship for the Silver Arrows of Mercedes.

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And Audi Team Hitotsuyama would like to win their first GT300 championship for the #21 Hitotsuyama Audi R8 LMS (Richard Lyons/Tomonobu Fujii). Lyons, already a GT500 champion, wants to become only the second man in history to hold championships in both classes. Fujii, who helped Kondo Racing to a Super Taikyu ST-X class championship in 2016, wants to add the GT300 championship to his resume after twelve seasons. Only poor luck has kept them from being any higher up than eighth in the standings.

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There are lots of other potential spoilers up and down this field as well. For instance, the #48 Dijon Racing GT-R (Takayuki Aoki/Mitsunori Takaboshi) has the driving talents of a three-time Motegi winner in Aoki, and a meteoric rising star in Takaboshi, who was last seen in Super GT driving to a GT500 podium in his class debut at Suzuka.

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There’s also a new face debuting in Super GT this weekend: 27-year-old Tsubasa Kondo makes his Super GT debut in the #26 Team Taisan SARD Audi R8, paired with Yuya Motojima – the two most recent Porsche Carrera Cup Japan champions together in the same car.

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And at the very fringe of the championship eligible teams, are cars like the #7 Studie BMW M6 (Jörg Müller/Seiji Ara) who so desperately want a win to close out a frustrating 2016, or the #18 Upgarage 86 MC (Yuhki Nakayama/Shinnosuke Yamada), which has been as fast as the points-leading VivaC 86 on its day, but hasn’t quite had the luck of their Dome/Toyota stablemates.

If the battle for the GT500 championship is expected to be a barnstorming fight to the finish, there’s no telling how many twists and turns, how many dramatic chapters could be written, of the GT300 championship battle to come this weekend!

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