Five not-so-great stories of the 2016 Super GT season

2016 was trash. Just straight up, burning, smelly, rotten trash.

Somehow, in a span of one year, we had a massive “rapture of the arts” as many beloved entertainers, artists, athletes all passed away, many before their time. The western world decided that prejudice-driven hyper-nationalism was the “it” thing to vote into power by the boatload. Atrocities around the world were ignored on a global scale, or at least quickly forgotten. Toyota lost the 24 Hours of Le Mans in the final ten minutes of the race. Awful stuff like that just happened on a day-to-day basis this year. It’s bad.

Even in Super GT, a series that often brings nothing but positives year after year, there were stories that developed in 2016 that we’d like to leave behind us going into the new year…

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Honda’s dreams become nightmares

Honda guaranteed their worst season in nearly twenty years in fitting fashion at their home circuit of Twin Ring Motegi: With all five of their NSX Concept-GTs finishing in the bottom five positions in the last race of the season.

Removing the NSX’s troublesome hybrid powertrain was supposed to make their car a more balanced, and more competitive package for the upcoming season. All it did was highlight the flaws in its woefully underpowered engine, flimsy chassis, poor driveability, and actually created new issues with braking and stability – all while Nissan and Lexus began to steadily pull away by not trying to “fix” what wasn’t broken.

The term “GT400” is usually a term to describe incredibly fast GT300 cars. In GT500, it is a damning insult, and one that was handed out often to the NSX fleet this year.

They rolled out engine upgrades for the Summer Series, and as the ballast piled up during the summer rounds, Honda had a few chances to sneak in with a win – Sugo, Suzuka, Buriram – and all of them fell through. Two second-place finishes were as close as a Honda NSX came to the top step of the podium in 2016. To add to the disappointment of 2016, Drago Modulo Honda Racing shut their doors after just two frustrating seasons, where their hopes of winning this year’s Suzuka 1000km vanished with an engine failure.

It is Honda’s first winless season since 1997, a year in which Honda’s GT500 programme – in just its second year of existence – had only two teams, both of whom skipped the opening round of the season.

This year was one to forget for Honda, but one befitting of their sketchy track record in other sports – their middling malaise in F1 with McLaren, being a half-step behind Chevrolet in IndyCar, and the only reason Marc Marquez won the MotoGP title in a Honda this year was out of sheer talent (and a Yamaha implosion).

To all but the most hardened Honda haters, GT500 is much less fun when there’s a significant gap keeping one of the big three manufacturers from competing with their rivals. There’s hope that maybe, just maybe, the 2017 NSX-GT can bring Honda back to their winning ways. It certainly can’t get any worse than it did in 2016!

Super GT

Audi Team Braille’s disappearing act

Heading into the 2016 GT300 season, Audi were one of six manufacturers bringing their newest FIA GT3 specification cars to Super GT, in the hopes of rejuvenating their presence in the series after a few years of relative mediocrity.

A retooled Audi Team Hitotsuyama, with the new car and new Dunlop tyres, was set to be just one part of the equation. They were set to be joined this year by Audi Team Braille, born from the ashes of last year’s Audi Team Racing Tech.

They too would have the new R8 LMS at their disposal, a mid-engined downforce monster amongst the GT3 field. They would have the talents of Audi factory driver Pierre Kaffer at their disposal, a well-tested veteran of global endurance racing events like the 24 Hours of Le Mans. And Masanobu Kato, a handy “amateur” driver in his own right, would bring a sizeable budget through title sponsor Braille Battery.

Everything looked good, even when they skipped the final pre-season test at Fuji Speedway due to not having their car delivered. Sure, it was two weeks before the start of the season, but it wasn’t a huge deal that the car wasn’t at the tests.

Then Okayama came, and Audi Team Braille withdrew. The car still wasn’t there. And by the second round at Fuji Speedway, they weren’t even on the provisional entry list. And they’d never turn up again all season.

It turns out the whole project just collapsed in transit, largely due to issues with sponsorship and funding. Kaffer never got a chance to race in Super GT, instead retreating back to his World Endurance Championship drive with Colin Kolles. And series stalwart Koji Yamanishi, who was set to be their third driver, was left entirely out of a ride in 2016 through no fault of his own. This was a potentially solid team that just disappeared into thin air as quickly as they were expected to arrive.

If there was one positive to come of Audi Team Braille’s collapse, it is that the R8 LMS that was intended for them, eventually was delivered – to Team Taisan SARD, who didn’t expect to have a new car ready until much later in the year. It turned out to be a crucial break for them that helped accelerate their rebuilding efforts in their return year of 2016.

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GT300 heavyweights stagger and stumble

The ultra-competitive GT300 category was always going to see many good teams left empty-handed in 2016, but two teams in particular showed very poorly given their expectations this season: BMW Team Studie and Cars Tokai Dream28.

Studie laboured through a season mired with mechanical gremlins, all of which seemed to strike their BMW M6 GT3, and not that of their new Bavarian stablemates at Autobacs Racing Team Aguri.

The misery peaked when they failed to take the start of the Suzuka 1000km, wasting Augusto Farfus’ one and only appearance in the series this year. Jörg Müller and Seiji Ara, who combine to form one of the most experienced and formidable driver lineups in GT300, have yet to win a race together, as has Studie, who haven’t been on the winning side since they spun off from Goodsmile Racing with Team Ukyo three years ago.

All that team principal Yasuaki “Bob” Suzuki could do was apologize profusely to his team’s supporters, because he knows, deep down, the team can do better, especially in a year where BMW lent even more support to the team than in years past. On paper, they should already be GT300 champions, not struggling to crack the top 15.

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Then there was Cars Tokai Dream28, the team fielding Mooncraft Engineering’s brilliant Lotus Evora MC – a car that was genuinely fast enough to win multiple races this year.

Instead, they went scoreless all season, with their best race at Suzuka ending with an unforced crash by owner/driver Kazuho Takahashi, who drove erratically and slowly all season long – as the gulf in performance between the 63-year-old Takahashi and their pro driver Hiroki Katoh continues to grow with every passing year.

This car was often the victim of reliability issues, but driver errors plagued the team most of all. And it’s hard not to feel for Takahashi in this case: He’s staying on as a driver, well past his best years, almost out of necessity for a team that doesn’t have a contingency plan in place any more after Honda swooped in and promoted Tadasuke Makino to the GT500 category.

In addition, the awesome “teeth” on the grille of the Evora MC went away over the course of the season, taking away a clever addition to the livery of the Lotus. That in itself might have been the biggest disappointment of 2016!

 

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NISMO TV blackout leaves international fans in the cold

In 2015, NISMO partnered with sports car racing broadcasters Radio Le Mans to bring live, complete coverage of an entire Super GT season to the Western audience for the first time ever, finally capitalizing on the series’ burgeoning popularity and exposure through video games and the accomplishments of some of its most distinguished alumni, including two-thirds of Audi’s LMP1 driver roster.

2016 did not start off in the same fashion, with the two opening rounds of the season going off the air on the NISMO TV YouTube channel. Regular NISMO TV viewers thus missed the defending champions NISMO winning the first two races of the season, in two thrilling races at Okayama and Fuji Speedway.

In the wake of a massive restructuring of Nissan’s global motorsport operations – an unpopular withdrawal from LMP1 after one star-crossed Le Mans entry, an untimely mass exodus of Nissan GT Academy talent, and a major changeover in NISMO’s leadership as a whole, many were afraid for a time that the plug was pulled on Super GT on NISMO TV for good.

Thankfully, the broadcasts returned in time for the start of the Summer Series starting at Sportsland Sugo, and went on through the end of the season and beyond, with additional live coverage of the NISMO Festival at Fuji Speedway. And over the course of the 2016 season, the presentation quality of the broadcasts improved further than they had over the course of 2014 to 2015.

It is a massive undertaking, done with noticeable limitations – sub-par image quality, technical glitches, and a lack of an live reporter on the scene that often results in a distorted telling of the story of the race as it happens. Even still, it is the best coverage that western fans of Super GT have ever received, and a much more viable option than resorting to illicit re-streams of J Sports’ broadcasts. And in an age where motorsport coverage is often locked behind paywalls, the free-to-air livestreams on NISMO TV are a refreshing change of pace.

If nothing else, the genuine enthusiasm that technical analyst Sam Collins brings to the job is worth the investment by itself.

As it stands, however, coverage for 2017 and beyond isn’t a guarantee for Super GT on NISMO TV, and the series should give serious consideration to producing its own English-language race broadcasts, as so many other professional and amateur-level sports car racing championships do these days, to ensure the sustained growth of the series across the globe.

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A requiem for Kumamoto

Finally, one story I originally didn’t plan to have on the list, but, giving it thought, it would be downright crass not to talk about the April 14 and 16 earthquakes that rocked the city of Kumamoto and its surrounding communities.

It wasn’t just the damage to landmarks like Kumamoto Castle, or the Great Aso Bridge. And in the grand scheme of things, this year’s cancellation of Super GT and Super Formula races at nearby Autopolis circuit in Kamitsue is rather insignificant.

We’re talking about a natural disaster that struck twice, the second with more unforgiving fury than the last.

At least fifty people have been lost forever. Thousands more were injured to some degree, but even though they escaped the quakes with their lives, they and thousands more in the region will have to spend months, years, perhaps more years than they have left on this planet to try and rebuild their lives, their homes, their businesses.

It is the deadliest disaster to strike Japan since the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami of 2011, and while it’s not quite the horror of five years ago, the effects of the Kumamoto quakes will be felt still, for a long time to come.


(Dis)honourable mentions: Spells of erratic driving from longtime Super GT veteran Hisashi Wada, Lamborghini Team Direction investor Yusuke Hayashi’s arrest in connection to a tax evasion case, corrupt Chonsawat Asavahame representing Thai contingent in Buriram, the death of Japanese sports car racing legend Yoshimi Katayama, Class One unifications with DTM continue to hit delays.

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