How to cope with losing your biggest race: What’s next for Super GT?

When I awoke to the news that the 2017 running of the International Suzuka 1000km would be the last, as the Stéphane Ratel Organisation (SRO) and GT Association (GTA) announced at Suzuka Circuit a new ten-hour endurance sports car race held in the same traditional late August date from 2018 onward, I have to admit, I was shocked, blindsided even.

In fairness, I was also awake at the incredibly stupid hour of 3:00 AM, running on a busted sleep schedule. And also, I was thousands of miles away from the awesome sights and sounds of the Suzuka Circuit Motorsports Fan Appreciation Day that was taking place when the announcement was made that might have softened the blow. But that’s not really that important.

What is important is that the announcement of the Suzuka 10 Hour Endurance Race (working title), or the Suzuka 10 Hours for short (a nod to the classic Suzuka 8 Hours motorcycle race and arcade game that spawned from it) – it’s a landmark day for endurance sports car racing, a landmark day for Japanese motorsport. It’s a very, very big deal. A longer distance, a new premier category, open invitations to international teams, and a nine-figure total purse of winnings at stake.

The shock, and to many Super GT fans, the sadness and/or the frustration, comes in that Super GT, home to the fastest GT racing cars in the world, the highest-attended national racing category in Japan, has just lost its biggest race on the calendar starting next year. But before getting into that, now that the shock of the announcement has worn off, we need to realize that the sky has not completely fallen and crashed. This is the end of the Suzuka 1000km, but it really isn’t.

The official press release from the SRO contradicts itself when it mentions that, “[the Suzuka 1000km] will be staged for the final time later this season. However, its history will live on through the 47th Summer Endurance Suzuka 10 Hours.” That in itself isn’t entirely accurate.

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© Nissan

The “47th” title, as in “47th edition” or “47th running”, is a direct acknowledgement of the history of a major sports car endurance race held at Suzuka Circuit since 1966, apart from a six-year hiatus from 1974 to 1979 due to the global energy crisis. The history of the very same Suzuka 1000km it replaces starting next year.

It will be held in the same traditional date, the last weekend of August, that it has been every year since 1980 – with the exception of a weather-delayed 1989 race that was held in December.

All that’s changed in that regard is the distance, and that’s nothing new to the history of this event either. The Lehman Shock of 2009 forced the 1000km to be shortened to 700 kilometers. The Great Tohoku earthquake & tsunami and its aftermath, forced a further shortening to 500km – before returning to its traditional distance in 2012.

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© Nissan

It’s nothing really new in endurance racing as a whole. The 24 Hours of Daytona was first run at distances of 1000km, 2000km, 3 hours, and 6 hours before settling on its current time format. The Bathurst 1000 was a 500km race when it started up in 1960 – and not at the Mount Panorama Circuit it’s synonymous with, but at Philip Island Circuit.

There’s also another contradictory statement: The bit about the inaugural Suzuka 10 Hours being “the first ever joint GT3/GT300 race.”

It will be the first time that both FIA GT3 and JAF-GT300 category cars will headline the summer endurance race at Suzuka, and it will be the first time they’ve done so in some form or fashion under the SRO banner. But the GT300 class of the Super GT series has been a joint GT3/GT300 category for much of the last seven years. That battle between two very different types of racing car, with two very different design philosophies, has arguably made GT300 the more appealing of Super GT’s two classes.

It’s the success of the GT300 class in recent years that is probably why we’re having this reformatted race to begin with – these two different types of cars can race, and they can race competitively, and put on a phenomenal show.

Super GT 2015 round 5 race report
© Nissan

Still, it feels completely unexpected, and in many ways, sad. In the twelve years that the Suzuka 1000km has been part of the Super GT championship, and in the nineteen years that the GT500 class has headlined the race, championship race or not, Japan’s Great Race has become synonymous with Super GT. It is their crown jewel event, it is the oldest continuously-running endurance race in Japan, the one race that every driver and team would want to win if they could only win once all year.

And the announcement comes at a time when Super GT’s popularity abroad has experienced a massive spike, and with it, the recognition that the Suzuka 1000km is the series’ signature event. Now that’s all gone after next year.

In the hours after we broke the story to the west, there was a feeling of this being a divisive announcement that was confirmed with a lot of expressions of frustration, even outright all-caps anger. A lot of it directed at Monsieur Ratel.

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© GT Association

I can see the source of the frustration – with GT3 becoming the dominant form of sports car racing on the planet to the point of oversaturation, and with the SRO making aggressive moves to expand their footprint with their investment in America’s Pirelli World Challenge and the start-up of a Blancpain GT Series in Asia, there’s a very real fear that Stéphane Ratel just wanted to cynically buy in and, in the eyes of many, ruin the race and its traditions.

I see where the frustration comes from. I also think it’s brutally unfair. SRO have a great product and they promote extremely well, and this race is a true collaborative effort between them and the GT Association, not a wedge to drive a feud.

Also, it’s not Ratel’s first involvement with this race. The SRO’s first sports car racing venture, the BPR Global GT Series, picked up the Suzuka 1000km for its inaugural calendar in 1994, two years after the All-Japan Sports Prototype Championship (JSPC) folded. In ’97, BPR evolved into FIA GT, and the race stayed on the calendar for another two years.

It was in that era that Porsche, McLaren, and Mercedes-Benz all won the race in their great GT1 machines. It was in that era where the likes of Mark Webber, Bernd Schneider, J.J. Lehto, and Alessandro Nannini joined the honour roll of Suzuka 1000km champions – just after the era of Kunimitsu Takahashi, Masanori Sekiya, and Kazuyoshi Hoshino, and just before the era of Juichi Wakisaka, Ryo Michigami, and Daisuke Ito.

The Suzuka 1000km and the grid of cars which have raced it has changed so much in half a century. The first car to win it in ’66 was a Toyota 2000GT, the last winner before the energy crisis in ’73 was a Nissan Fairlady 240Z, in between those two iconic road-going sports cars were purpose-built race prototypes like the Toyota-7 and the Porsche 910.

From 1980 onward, the headlining class of the Suzuka 1000km has changed often: From Group 5 super silhouettes, to Group C prototypes, to the first generation of GT1 cars, until finally, in 1999, GT500 became the star attraction. Save for the occasional outlier, like Team Goh’s Audi R8 prototype which, if not for a mechanical issue halfway through the 2002 race, would have given us one of racing’s Great #BEATEMDOWN Moments in History.

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© Toyota Gazoo Racing

The 2018 Suzuka 10 Hours will bring another change in the star attractions: FIA GT3 versus JAF-GT300. And if you look at the GT300 cars in Super GT today, there is a damn good argument that they’re “ready for prime time”.

The Toyota Prius apr GTs, the mid-engined, V8-powered, hybrid-powertrain antithesis of almost everything the Prius road car stands for. The Subaru BRZ of R&D Sport, which won its class in this race last year and in 2013, powered by the still-beating Boxer-4 heart that once powered their legendary World Rally cars.

The three different models of Mother Chassis cars – Dome’s Toyota 86, Mooncraft’s Lotus Evora, and Saitama Toyopet’s new Toyota Mark X. Each have the same engine, same gearbox, same monocoque, but a flair unique all to their own that goes beyond the surface.

All five of these cars, by the way, are multiple seconds per lap faster at Suzuka than the GT500 cars of the late ’90s and early 2000s that a lot of us including myself grew up on. They look awesome. They sound awesome. As do the veritable cornucopia of GT3 cars that they’ll race against for outright honours in 2018.

Truth be told, the Suzuka 10 Hours has a great foundation. The manufacturer involvement in GT3 and GT300 from Toyota and Nissan alone would bring in their top talents from Japan, just as the Suzuka 1000km will this year. With Honda getting involved in GT3 with the NSX, there’s no doubt they’d make a push to get something together for their home track. This is in no way a scenario like the 1996 Indianapolis 500 lacking all but a tiny handful of the best drivers in their discipline while the rest raced 200 miles north in Michigan.

It would be an International race in more than just name, a race not affected by mid-season success ballast handicaps – which, to be frank, dilutes the Suzuka 1000km’s current standing as one of the biggest endurance races in the world sports car landscape, along with Super GT’s uniform promotion model which sometimes makes this race feel just like all the others, but a bit longer.

But none of what’s been laid out changes the fact that this won’t be a proper Super GT race any more. So what lies ahead for Super GT now that they’ve lost the biggest race on their calendar?

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© GT Association

Susumu Yamashita, the president of Mobilityland Corporation – the company that runs Suzuka, made it clear that Super GT will continue to host a round at Suzuka, just as they’ve done every year since 1995. Whether it’s been a 300 kilometer race, a 1000 kilometer race, or both in the same year.

They’d be utterly off their hinges, as would GT Association president Masaaki Bandoh, not to have a race at Suzuka. It would be like NASCAR abandoning their spiritual homes in Daytona or Charlotte. It would be like Formula 1 leaving behind venues like Monza, Spa-Francorchamps, or Silverstone – erm, actually, nix that last one…

My good friend and colleague Adam Johnson suggested that the GTA could form a “new” Suzuka 1000km event, similar to the inception of a 1000km race at Bathurst for Australian V8 Supercars in 1997 which resulted in three years of two different Bathurst 1000s – one for Supercars, one for Super Touring cars. But it didn’t seem likely from what we heard from Yamashita-san or Bandoh-san in the press releases.

And with Fuji Speedway hosting two races a year, every year, Suzuka Circuit can’t go back to just hosting a single, regular-distance event in 2018.

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© Toyota

Last year’s Motegi GT Grand Final double-header was the product of force majeure, but the two-race format proved a big hit with the fans when it arrived, and Bandoh was open to the idea of doing something similar again in the future.

Replacing the 1000km with a two-race doubleheader, similar to the Super Formula JAF Grand Prix at Suzuka, similar to the Clipsal 500 or Gold Coast 600 in Supercars, or most to the point – the two-race weekend format of the DTM series that GT500 is now technically unified with – would be the best route to go for Suzuka.

Perhaps even having said doubleheader at the end of the season – Suzuka has hosted memorable Super GT finales before, and the memorable title-deciders in Formula 1 need little exposition to the avid racing fan.

It’s also important to note that Super GT does have another “crown jewel” in its calendar in the form of the Fuji 500km, a race that has been synonymous with the Golden Week holiday since the very first All-Japan GT Championship season in 1994, a race that has been run for sports cars since 1971, and at a venue that is arguably linked to sports car racing in Japan closer than Suzuka. It’s been on the championship calendar longer than the 1000km – it would naturally slot back into the “crown jewel” role of the calendar.

But Suzuka’s future with Super GT won’t be determined until the build-up to the 46th running – the final running of the race as we know it today – of the Suzuka 1000km.

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© GT Association

And what a show that will be, to see the emphatic final running of the race headlined by the GT500 class. Winter testing showed that the reduced downforce of the refreshed GT500 cars on the downforce-heavy Suzuka Circuit hasn’t made them slower. Quite the opposite, actually. Thanks to the increase in top speeds from the reduced drag, they’re already – unofficially, I should stress – two seconds under the current lap record.

It will be a special race, one where the overall winner from GT500 will be the last of the era, one which stands as the last chance for many drivers to either come closer to Kunimitsu Takahashi’s record four victories, or finally notch up their first wins in the event. And for the GT300 class winners this year, they will assert themselves to all the big teams, drivers, and manufacturers from Europe that in order to take the Suzuka 10 Hours trophy in 2018, they’ll have to beat them first.

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© 2000GT.net

It’s not the end of the concept of the Suzuka 1000km. But it is the end of an era for the race coming up in just five months. As such, it should be celebrated as a big deal. It should be celebrated with a parade of the cars and the drivers who’ve won the race in years past, from the original ’66 Toyota 2000GT (above) to last year’s ZENT Cerumo Lexus RC F. Tributes to the fallen winners like Sachio Fukuzawa, Bob Wollek, Hitoshi Ogawa, and Roland Ratzenberger. Go all-out on pomp and pageantry while you can.

There’s so many conflicted feelings about the future of this race, myself included. On the one hand, Super GT has a strong enough product to where I can confidently say that it can carry on without a hitch even after the 1000km becomes the 10 Hours, and changes hands from a pivotal championship round to a non-championship showcase.

On the other, it’s hard not to feel like you’ve just been punched in the gut, like your favorite form of racing just gave away its biggest prize. The atmosphere will be as festive as ever, and the fireworks will shoot off into the night sky above the circuit as they’ve done for years and years.

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© Nissan

But it’ll be different. And a bit scary.

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