This is part one of our preview of the 2017 Okayama GT 300km Race, the opening round of the 2017 Autobacs Super GT Series, covering the GT500 field.
A full-season preview of the 2017 GT500 field can be read in our multi-installment Super GT Season Preview for our partners at Dailysportscar.com [ LEXUS | NISSAN | HONDA ] – once again, our sincerest thanks to editor Graham Goodwin and deputy editor Stephen Kilbey for welcoming us as correspondents for the 2017 season.
It’s the opening round of a new season for the fastest GT racing class in the world, 82 frenetic laps around a newly-resurfaced Okayama International Circuit. It’s the first race after significant rules changes have altered the look and the performance of the GT500 cars, cutting down on downforce by as much as twenty-five percent.
So, what can we expect from this first round of the 2017 season?
Okayama will see the race debut of the updated generation of GT500 cars: The all-new Lexus LC 500, joining the redesigned and revamped Nissan GT-R GT500 NISMO and the mid-engined Honda NSX-GT.
With the cars having less downforce and therefore less drag than in 2014 to 2016, the GT500 cars should, in theory, carry higher top speeds through the two main straightaways at the north and south ends of the 3.702 kilometer road course – making it easier to dispatch of GT300 traffic ahead of them.
The drastic cuts in downforce – shallower rear wings, shorter front splitters, and drastically reduced rear diffusers – were all meant to slow the cars down through the corners at tracks like Okayama, the shortest distance circuit in the entire calendar.
What that didn’t account for was Okayama being repaved in the 2016-17 racing offseason, with a brand new track surface contributing to pre-season testing laps on March 18-19 coming within just a few hundreths of a second away from last year’s track record. Some drivers, including Team Mugen’s Hideki Mutoh, are on the record as saying that a sub-1 minute, 18 second lap time is possible in qualifying.
“There is more grip and it’s smoother overall,” says Lexus Team ZENT Cerumo driver Yuji Tachikawa, who last won here in 2012. “Two places have a gap in the surface, but it doesn’t bother that much.”
Those two gaps are at two of the highest-speed corners on the circuit: Williams Corner (Turn 2), and Mike Knight Corner (Turn 10) – and they’ve been known to unsettle the cars during testing.
Concerning strategy, Tachikawa adds: “When it comes to the race, I think the tire selection gets a little bit more difficult because the tires are much more aggressive.” The teams and strategists will also need to account for temperatures being 10-15° C higher than in the rather cold pre-season tests.
The dominant storyline from pre-season testing at both Okayama and at Fuji was the pace of the Lexus LC500 fleet, which was fastest in a perfect six out of six pre-season test sessions, including two top-six lockouts at Okayama. This is one of only two rounds of the season where Success Ballast is not a factor – and with that in mind, any one of the Lexus teams would be heavily favoured to take the victory.
Three years ago at Okayama, Lexus rang in the new two-litre turbo era of GT500 with a comprehensive victory for Lexus Team KeePer TOM’s and the then-new Lexus RC F. Its predecessor, the Lexus SC, also won in its debut race in 2006. The LC500 seems poised to carry on that run of immediate success for Lexus’ new GT500 machines in their debut race.
Perhaps the strongest candidates for victory out of the Lexus would have to be the #37 KeePer TOM’s LC500 (Ryo Hirakawa/Nick Cassidy). In the last three years, this team has won twice in 2014 and 2015, finished second in 2016, and Hirakawa has taken pole in each of the last two years at Okayama.
They were fastest in the Okayama tests, to boot, and with Red Bull coming on to sponsor the 23-year-old phenom Hirakawa, he and his new co-driver Cassidy – the youngest driver lineup in GT500 – are eager to start the year off with a statement victory.
This is the first race for Lexus Team SARD as defending champions, and the #1 Denso Kobelco SARD LC500 of Heikki Kovalainen and Kohei Hirate would like nothing more than to kick off their championship defense with a victory at Okayama – a track where SARD have never won before.
Another Lexus team to look out for are Lexus Team LeMans, and the #6 Wako’s 4CR LC500 (Kazuya Oshima/Andrea Caldarelli). This car has qualified on the front row in each of the last three seasons – including pole position in 2014, and Caldarelli was part of the KeePer TOM’s team that won back to back races in ’14-’15. But last year’s GT500 runners-up only managed two top-fives in those races – team principal Juichi Wakisaka knows that more is expected of the blue and pink machine.
With every new season in Super GT, there are stories of new teams, new drivers, and familiar faces switching teams or returning to the sport. 2017 is no different. J.P. Oliveira moves to Kondo Racing, James Rossiter swapped seats at TOM’s with the aforementioned Cassidy, Takashi Kobayashi is back in GT500 with ARTA, and Kosuke Matsuura moves over to Nakajima Racing.
Returning to the series after two years away is Kazuki Nakajima, who’s back in the #36 au TOM’s LC500 for Lexus Team TOM’s. Nakajima is now well and truly established as one of the premier sports car and endurance racers on the planet – a status only reinforced in the World Endurance Championship the last two years.
The GT500 debut of Jann Mardenborough in the fabled #12 Calsonic Impul GT-R will be one to watch, after his electric rookie season in GT300 with NDDP Racing. Given his incredible surge in 2016 that has propelled him not only to GT500 but also to Super Formula, the expectation is that “Jann tha Man” could become a future GT500 champion – and that journey might start in a big way in Okayama.
Trouble is, Nissan have looked like the third-best manufacturer of the three in the pre-season tests, with the Michelin-clad GT-Rs of NISMO and MOLA looking well off the pace of the Bridgestone-clad Calsonic GT-R and the Yokohama-clad GT-R of Kondo Racing in the cold weather.
Still, NISMO are the reigning Okayama champions, and the #23 Motul Autech GT-R (Tsugio Matsuda/Ronnie Quintarelli) can never be counted out of a big race like this – not with the talents of the two most successful Super GT drivers in history in terms of wins and championships, and not with the great strategists they possess.
For Honda, their big story going into 2017, apart from trying to end a frustrating run of futility from the last three years – is the return of Team Mugen to the premier class for the first time since 2003, with the #16 Motul Mugen NSX-GT (Hideki Mutoh/Daisuke Nakajima).
Honda have won at Okayama seven times, leading the big three manufacturers, but they’ve not won here since 2013, the last year with the Honda HSV-010. In 2016, Honda had a dreadful race at Okayama in particular, putting only one car in the points to start the season
That car was the #100 Raybrig NSX-GT (Naoki Yamamoto/Takuya Izawa) of Team Kunimitsu, who scored Honda’s last Okayama race win three years ago – and have finished on the podium in five of the last seven years.
Winning the first race of the season is always a great way to kick things off in Super GT, but it is not always a guarantee of championship success – since 1994, only six times has the team and drivers that the season-opening race gone on to win the GT500 Championship that same year. The last team to do it were NISMO in 2008.
This could be a very fascinating race to watch on Sunday, April 9 – live and free around the world on NISMO TV, and in Japan on the J Sports family of networks.