Motegi GT Grand Final Preview: GT500

For the first time in the history of the Autobacs Super GT Series, the series’ championships will be decided in a double-header final race weekend, the Motegi GT Grand Final at Twin Ring Motegi.

Motegi is no stranger to deciding Super GT’s championships in dramatic fashion – this is the eighth consecutive season that the final round of the championship will be held at this magnificent race course in Tochigi Prefecture. But never before has it come down to this: Drivers representing the top fourteen out of fifteen teams are still mathematically eligible to win the GT500 championship in the final weekend of the season.

This year, it’s all about one team’s pursuit of Super GT history, and for their closest pursuers, the chance to steal the title away from the defending champions, NISMO.

Out of the tragic, appaling Kumamoto earthquakes and the subsequent cancellation of the Super GT in Kyushu 300km at Autopolis, the Motegi GT Grand Final was spawned: One 250km final race in November became two 250km sprints, with 42 points still on the table in this championship battle.

And from Saturday’s first race into Sunday’s second and final race, the Success Ballast situation changes dramatically. Saturday’s race begins the reduction of ballast across the field, down to just 1 kilogram per championship point. Then on Sunday, the ballast is removed entirely across the field – a tradition of the final round of the season since the first time it was held at Motegi in 2009.

There has never been a Super GT final round with this much at stake.

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And at stake for NISMO, is a historic third consecutive GT500 championship for the #1 Motul Autech GT-R of Tsugio Matsuda and Ronnie Quintarelli, champions in 2014 and 2015.

The year began with back-to-back wins at Okayama and at the Fuji 500km, making them the eighth team in Super GT history to win the first two races of the season – and all seven of the previous teams went on to win their respective championships in the same year. At Okayama, Matsuda surpassed both Yuji Tachikawa and Satoshi Motoyama to become the all-time GT500 wins leader. At Fuji, Quintarelli, already the first four-time GT500 champion, tied the record for the most wins by a gaijin driver.

Now, at Motegi, NISMO, Matsuda, and Quintarelli seek to become the first team and driver combination in Super GT history to win three consecutive GT500 championships together, and the first in the history of top-level Japanese sports car racing since Kunimitsu Takahashi and Nova Engineering took three straight All-Japan Sports Prototype Championships in ’85, ’86, and ’87.

For Matsuda, who leads all drivers with three Twin Ring Motegi victories in the top class, he would become only the sixth driver to win three GT500 championships, joining his co-driver Quintarelli, Motoyama, Tachikawa, Juichi Wakisaka, and Masahiko Kageyama.

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For Quintarelli, who was honoured with the Order of the Star of Italy in June, a fifth GT500 championship in a span of six years would truly cement his place as the greatest champion in Super GT history. “RQ”, aka “Ronnie Quattro”, aka “The Mighty Quint”, is also a two-time Motegi winner and the current track record holder.

It’s not just been the back-to-back wins that have propelled NISMO’s 2016 success. With high ballast, they ran well throughout the Summer Series, highlighted by a sixth place finish at the Suzuka 1000km carrying the maximum 100 kilograms of ballast – which would have been fourth place, had they not run out of fuel on the last lap! They’ve held the championship lead all season long, and even a terminal crash at Buriram only took their lead down to ten points.

And the possibility exists that with at least a podium finish, NISMO can clinch the title before the final race on Sunday – admittedly an anti-climactic outcome if it were to happen, but no matter when it happens, if they can pull this off, it will be a richly deserved, and landmark championship for this team.

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That leads us to Lexus, who have all six of their GT500 teams in the top eight in the standings, all within striking distance of the championship this weekend. Motegi will be the final race for the RC-F as Lexus’ GT500 challenger, and they’d like to send it out with a run to the championship – an eighth for the Toyota Motor Company in total – before the LC 500 is introduced next season.

Leading the charge for Lexus is the #6 Wako’s RC-F of Kazuya Oshima, and Andrea Caldarelli, who won at Motegi last year with TOM’s. First-year team director Juichi Wakisaka, a three-time GT500 champion as a driver, has taken his colourful personality and determined, competitive spirit to the director’s chair with seamless ease as the Wako’s team has enjoyed a consistent and productive year. Despite just one podium finish, they have five top-five finishes that have them ten points back of Matsuda & RQ.

Also, Team LeMans scored their last victory at Motegi, three years ago.

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The #38 ZENT Cerumo RC-F (Yuji Tachikawa/Hiroaki Ishiura) takes their championship challenge in on the momentum of their win at the Suzuka 1000km, with Tachikawa seeking his record-tying fourth GT500 championship (’01, ’05, ’13), Ishiura his first.

They’re tied at 45 points with the #39 Denso SARD RC-F (Heikki Kovalainen/Kohei Hirate), who seek Lexus Team SARD’s very first GT500 championship after 22 seasons. Hirate won a GT500 title as Tachikawa’s co-driver in 2013, but Heikki-san looks to become the first F1 Grand Prix winner to hoist Super GT’s ultimate prize. Like the Wako’s team, SARD haven’t won a race all season, but they’ve scored points in every round, including consecutive podiums at the Fuji 500k and at Sugo.

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Could the incredible 2016 season of Lexus Team WedsSport Bandoh culminate in a GT500 championship? The #19 WedsSport Advan RC-F (Yuhi Sekiguchi/Yuji Kunimoto) took the most recent win at Buriram, a long-awaited first GT500 win for Masataka Bandoh’s team, and they’ve gotten the most out of their Yokohama tyres in 2016.

Sekiguchi and Kunimoto seek their first Super GT championships in either category, with Kunimoto looking to become only the fourth “Double Champion” in history, having won the Super Formula Championship in Suzuka two weeks ago. It wasn’t but a year ago that a podium finish for the WedsSport team would be a miracle. Now they have their first win, and a real shot to win a championship in the top flight.

Finally, both Lexus Team TOM’s cars have somewhat of a chance at the title, the #36 au TOM’s RC-F (Daisuke Ito/Nick Cassidy) and the #37 KeePer TOM’s RC-F (James Rossiter/Ryo Hirakawa).

For the au team drivers, Ito is still trying to win his first GT500 title with Lexus after winning in 2007 with Honda, while rookie Cassidy tries to become the first driver from New Zealand to win a Super GT title.

For the KeePer team, both Rossiter and Hirakawa seek their first GT500 titles, and to curb a long skid of poor luck since the elongated spring break. Luckily, Hirakawa won this race last year, and did so in somewhat spectacular fashion – but the fact remains that both TOM’s cars have to come back from over 20 points out to win the team’s fourth GT500 championship. If either Cassidy (22 years, 2 months) or Hirakawa (22 years, 8 months) wins the championship, they would become the youngest-ever GT500 champions.

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Completing the top eight, in sixth in the standings, is the #12 Calsonic Team Impul GT-R (Joao Paulo de Oliveira/Hironobu Yasuda) that, despite atrocious blows of poor luck throughout most of the season – the blowout at the Fuji 500k, catching fire at Suzuka, and even a pit lane violation at Buriram – still has a shot to end Team Impul’s frustrating 21-year championship drought.

Oliveira is still trying to become the first Brazilian Super GT champion, and take his name down from the “most successful driver to never win a championship” discussion. Yasuda, already a GT300 champion, also seeks his first GT500 title. Both men have suffered their own individual frustrations at Motegi in pursuit of a championship in the last two years. Unlike 2014 and ’15, they don’t enter this year’s race near the top of the standings, they’re somewhat unlikely underdogs – and perhaps that could be the spark that fires them to breaking that long run without a championship for the world-famous Calsonic GT-R.

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And the #46 S Road Craftsports MOLA GT-R (Satoshi Motoyama/Katsumasa Chiyo) isn’t technically out of the running either, as Motoyama is still 28 points back but needs a lot of help ahead of him to have a shot at a fourth GT500 title of his own.

But for this race, we also have to think of the possibility that we could be seeing the final GT500 drive for one of the greatest Japanese racing drivers to ever live. Motoyama will be 46 next year – same as the number of his car – and we likely won’t know until February whether or not he will continue on for his 21st GT500 campaign.

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Fittingly, if Honda are to avoid their first winless GT500 season since 1997, they must do it at one of their two “home circuits” – and a track where Honda have won a record nine times, including seven in a row from 2001 to 2007 – but where Honda haven’t won since 2009.

After the last race in Buriram, the #15 Drago Modulo NSX (Hideki Mutoh/Tadasuke Makino) might look to be the best team for the challenge, especially after 19-year-old Makino’s sensational GT500 debut that saw him come so close to a pole position and a victory right out of the gates. Now it seems like Makino may begin his trek towards Formula 1 next season. We’re witnessing just the beginning of what may be a truly special talent of the future.

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In the last two years, it’s been Naoki Yamamoto and Takuya Izawa, the drivers of the #100 Raybrig NSX for Team Kunimitsu, who have scored podiums in back-to-back years at Motegi with two different teams – in 2014 for Weider Modulo Dome/Honda, in 2015 for Kunimitsu. Perhaps, at the end of a miserable and frustrating 20th Anniversary season for Honda’s original GT500 team, Yamamoto and Izawa can deliver an end-of-season victory to create a fonder memory of 2016.

Perhaps it could even come down to the #17 Keihin NSX (Koudai Tsukakoshi/Takashi Kogure), who lead all of Honda’s teams in the standings, or even the #64 Epson NSX (Daisuke Nakajima/Bertrand Baguette), who are trying to snap the longest winless drought in Super GT before it runs to nine full seasons since Nakajima Racing last won a race.

On home soil, Honda’s fleet of GT500 cars will be ultra-motivated to end their winless run in 2016, but like every other race this year, especially up against Lexus and Nissan, it will not be an easy task.

It all comes down to the final two races, to one final weekend, to one Grand Final at Motegi. Who will be crowned champions of GT500 in 2016?

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