Throughout its quarter-century of history, the Autobacs Super GT Series has been one of the most closely-contested championships in racing every year. That is entirely by design.
When the series was established in 1993 as the All-Japan Grand Touring Car Championship (JGTC), they sought to curtail the lopsided runs of dominance that had hampered their predecessors, the All-Japan Sports Prototype Championship (JSPC), which had been thoroughly dominated by Porsche throughout the 1980s, then Nissan in the early ’90s before the series folded.
This was also at a time when the Nissan Skyline GT-R had so thoroughly dominated the All-Japan Touring Car Championship (JTCC) that it won every race it entered from 1990 to 1993, and driven all of their competition down to the lower categories.
Through aggressive weight handicaps, engine restrictions, and an ever-tightening rulebook, establishing comprehensive dominance in a season of Super GT competition was always going to be difficult, and in recent years, as the level of competition has risen with every passing year in both GT500 and GT300 categories, it’s now even harder to be a truly dominant champion in the series.
But on rare occasions, there comes a team, a car, and a set of drivers that can establish dominance throughout the course of a season, and in the ultra-competitive environment of Super GT, which has seen the GT500 title decided in the final race of the season 21 out of 23 times, which has seen the GT300 title decided on a tiebreaker in back-to-back seasons in 2006 and 2007, these dominant runs become even more special.
Keeping that in mind as Super GT World presents its list of the 7 most dominant championship-winning seasons in the history of the top class of Japanese motorsport.
7th: 1998 Pennzoil NISMO Skyline GT-R – Erik Comas & Masami Kageyama
To lead off the list at 7th is a classic case of sports car racing being more than just about having the outright fastest car, but having the best team, the best drivers, and the most consistent approach throughout the season.
The Pennzoil NISMO GT-R of Comas and Kageyama opened the 1998 season by winning the first two races of the year at Suzuka, then at Sendai Hi-Land Raceway, following the cancellation of the ill-fated race at Fuji Speedway on Golden Week.
By the time they’d won those races, however, it was now well-established that the Honda NSX-GT was the quickest car in the series, and the NSXes would go on to take pole position in all seven scheduled rounds, and win the last four races in a row to end the ’98 season.
But the blistering pace of the Honda fleet at the end of the ’98 season was offset by a poor run of reliability that kept any of their top challengers from taking the title. The Mobil 1 NSX of Nakajima Racing was the only one that could take the title in the final race of the season at Sugo, but when they suffered a drivetrain failure on the formation laps, it sealed the ’98 GT500 title for NISMO.
And to their credit, Comas and Kageyama didn’t have to have the fastest car underneath them – they just had to follow up their pair of victories with consistent results. And that’s exactly what they did, with three top-six finishes to end the season as their Honda rivals were left yearning for even a shred of that same consistency.
The Pennzoil GT-R’s drivers went on to win the Drivers’ Championship by 17 points, and a bright yellow car became an icon for future generations to come.
6th: 1996 Team Goh McLaren F1 GTRs – David Brabham & John Nielsen, Naoki Hattori & Ralf Schumacher
On the opposite side of the coin as the Pennzoil GT-R, this was a classic case of a car simply being so much faster than any of its peers, even with extensive restrictions placed upon it from the get-go.
The brand-new McLaren F1 GTRs fielded by Kazumichi Goh’s team were driven by a truly international all-star lineup, and even with the massive shackles placed on it – such as a reduction of its mighty BMW V12 engine from its standard 600 horsepower down to 400, and several hundred kilograms’ worth of weight handicaps tacked on, the McLarens romped to a comprehensive 1-2 victory from pole position at the first round at Suzuka.
The championship battle between the #61 McLaren of Brabham/Nielsen and the #60 of Hattori/Schumacher was only decided by three points, and the best non-McLaren driver was just eight points out of the lead at the end of the ’96 season, but in this context, it’s a bit misleading: The McLaren F1 GTRs could have, arguably should have, gone on to a perfect season and taken victory in every round they entered.
Still, four wins from six, and a perfect six-for-six record on pole positions and fastest race laps was astonishing form. Hattori and Schumacher were the quicker duo on paper, but three DNFs to offset three wins cost them the GT500 title to their older, craftier teammates Brabham and Nielsen, who only won one race.
Controversial an entry as they were, the mighty McLarens of 1996 eventually sparked the GT500 class to evolve into what is now the outright fastest GT racing category on the planet.
5th: 1996 Team Taisan Jr. Porsche 911 – Keiichi Suzuki & Morio Nitta
The McLaren F1 GTRs were the dominant force from the ’96 JGTC that most fans remember. But it can be argued, with good reason, that the GT300 champions from the same season had a better campaign from start to finish.
Six years after they won the JTC-3 class touring car title in a Toyota Corolla Levin, sports car legend Suzuki and relative upstart Nitta were paired together again, this time in a Porsche 911 964 fielded by Team Taisan, and they went on to one of the most dominant start-to-finish campaigns in JGTC’s early history, one that still stands out to this day.
The Taisan Porsche won three races at Suzuka, Sugo, and Miné Circuit, and added two more second-places at Fuji Speedway, to score 90 points on the year and take the GT300 title by 25 points over Seiichi Sodeyama’s newer 993-spec Porsche.
Two pole positions from the ageless Suzuki to start the season only sweetened the deal, and only an engine blowup at Sendai Hi-Land prevented them from potentially finishing every race on the podium in ’96.
This would be the start of Team Taisan’s record-breaking run of success in the GT300 category, and the first title for 29-year-old Nitta, who has since gone on to become the most experienced and successful driver in the history of the second tier. This team set the benchmark for excellence in a fledgling category that has since far exceeded expectations.
4th: 2015 Gainer Tanax Nissan GT-R – Andre Couto, Katsumasa Chiyo, & Ryuichiro Tomita
2015 saw one of the all-time dominant runs in GT300 history, one that ended over a decade of frustration for the Gainer team as they finally captured their first proper GT300 class title – and did so in barnstorming fashion.
Their decision to split the two-car operation with the purchase of a Nissan GT-R GT3 was stunning enough at the time, given the team’s affinity for European makes such as Ferrari, Audi, and Mercedes. The driver lineup they assembled was also very stout: Longtime GT500 veteran Couto, joined by a returning Chiyo, just months removed from his star-making victory at the Bathurst 12 Hour.
Chiyo opened the season by taking a commanding pole position at Okayama, then the Gainer Tanax GT-R went on to win both long-distance races, the Fuji 500km and the Suzuka 1000km, in the same calendar year. Making the Suzuka win all the more impressive was the record 88 kilograms of success ballast they carried during the weekend, and how they rebounded from second on the grid, to near the tail end of the field, then back to the lead of the race within the first 500 kilometers and change.
The Gainer GT-R of Couto, Chiyo, and Tomita (who deputized for Chiyo when he was racing in Europe) never finished worse than seventh in any race all season, and Couto went on to capture his first Super GT crown with one race in hand, by a final margin of 25 points over the next set of drivers in another car – only the second time in history that the GT300 title had been clinched before the final round.
And in the context of a GT300 field which is more competitive in the last handful of years than its ever been before, with the ongoing GT3 vs. JAF-GT wars, with the sheer number of pro-grade drivers in the field, and with more teams that could potentially win races than there are races in a season – this was one of the best seasons a team has ever had in Super GT.
3rd: 2012 S Road MOLA GT-R – Masataka Yanagida & Ronnie Quintarelli
In 2011, top-tier GT300 team MOLA stepped up to GT500, and to the shock of many, captured the premier class title in their first season with drivers Masataka Yanagida and Ronnie Quintarelli. They had a pretty good season that year, but their 2012 campaign was sublime, and really something special to see.
The year didn’t start off all that great, with just seven points to their drivers’ names after three rounds of the season. However, when the series went to Sportsland Sugo, site of MOLA’s first GT500 victory, the sleeping giant was awakened.
They followed up a third-place at Sugo with a win from pole position at the Suzuka 1000km, then two rounds later at Autopolis, in one of the greatest wet weather, final-laps battles in Super GT history, Yanagida outdueled the Epson NSX of Yuhki Nakayama (in somewhat controversial fashion), taking the lead on the final lap of the race to win from tenth on the grid, and clinching the 2012 GT500 championship with one race remaining – a scenario that seemed improbable going into the weekend.
The S Road MOLA GT-R went on to record a Super GT record five consecutive podium finishes to close out the 2012 season, Yanagida and Quintarelli ultimately clinching their second GT500 titles by a final margin of 19 points to the second-placed team of Yuji Tachikawa and Kohei Hirate.
For MOLA, their brace of championships to start off a GT500 tenure may never be replicated, and for Quintarelli, the back-to-back titles with MOLA were the incredible precursor to his crowning as the series’ first four-time GT500 champion in 2015.
2nd: 2007 ARTA NSX-GT – Daisuke Ito & Ralph Firman
It took fourteen seasons for a team to clinch a GT500 championship before the final round of the season, and in 2007, Autobacs Racing Team Aguri and their Honda NSX were in a league of their own throughout most of the season.
The year started off in ominous fashion for Honda’s rivals at Lexus and Nissan, when Daisuke Ito turned the first sub-1 minute, 50 second lap time in a GT500 car at Suzuka Circuit to take pole position for the opening round of the season. They then followed that up that performance by taking victories at Okayama, Sportsland Sugo, and a second-place finish at the Suzuka 1000km that could have been a third win from six races, were it not for an eretheral final-laps dash in the wet from Andre Lotterer and his TOM’s Lexus SC.
Having scored a rather nice 69 points through six races, they were in prime position to become the first team to win the GT500 title with at least one round in hand. They did that with their third win of the season at Autopolis, the third Honda 1-2 finish of the season led by the bright orange ARTA NSX, which included a clean sweep of the podium at Sugo for the NSXes.
Ito and Firman finished the season at 94 points, with a 25 point margin to second place as Honda teams locked out the top four places in the championship. But what makes ARTA’s 2007 run even more special, is that if all results had been counted for the championship, and seven points weren’t deducted from their score after six rounds, they would have been the first and only GT500 driver combination to exceed 100 points in a season.
This remains ARTA’s only GT500 title to date, and one of only three for Honda in their history. And while Honda’s fans will often lament their lack of championship success when they often had the fastest car – especially during their recent struggles – the 2007 season was a sterling example of what happens when it all went right for the mid-engined supercar.
1st: 1998 Team Taisan with Tsuchiya MR2 – Shingo Tachi & Keiichi Suzuki
No team had ever been this dominant before in the history of the JGTC and Super GT. No team will ever be this dominant again. From pillar to post in the 1998 GT300 championship, the Toyota MR2 of Team Taisan and Tsuchiya Engineering was the single most dominant force in the series over a single year.
The team featured Keiichi Suzuki, by now an established top star in GT300, who was paired with a 20-year-old rookie, Shingo Tachi, a Formula 3 and Super Taikyu standout, and the son of TOM’s founder Nobuhide Tachi, himself a former racing driver.
What the team and the car did in 1998 was extraordinary, especially by today’s standards. They won a record five races out of six in ’98. They became the first and, so far, the only driver pairing to reach and exceed 100 points in the championship. Of course, they took the ’98 GT300 title, and did it with one race in hand – but they clinched the title by a whopping margin of 60 points over the second-ranked WedsSport Celica of Manabu Orido.
They won three races and two pole positions while carrying more than 60 kilograms during a race weekend. Four times, they lapped the GT300 field en route to victory. At the last race of the season at Sugo, they won from pole with the then-maximum 80kg of success ballast. Only an equally stunning upset, by the upstart Cusco Subaru Impreza at Twin Ring Motegi, prevented a perfect season for the Tsuchiya MR2 in 1998, which included a bonus sixth victory in the season-ending All-Star Race at Okayama.
The records of five wins and the 60 point margin are records that will never, ever be approached in the remainder of Super GT’s existence as a championship. It may be a long time before any team even comes close to approaching the century mark in terms of points scored.
The tragic aftermath of this season, with Shingo Tachi losing his life on March 11, 1999 in a pre-season testing accident, and a grief-stricken Keiichi Suzuki retiring from racing thereafter, adds a melancholy layer of mythos to what is, and may very well be for all-time, the greatest championship season in the history of Super GT.