This is the second part of our preview of the 2017 Okayama GT 300km Race, the opening round of the Autobacs Super GT Series, which takes an extensive look at the GT300 field. For our GT500 race preview, click this link.
We also have a full-season GT300 preview coming to our partners at Dailysportscar.com in the days to come. Our sincerest thanks to editor Graham Goodwin and deputy editor Stephen Kilbey for bringing us aboard as correspondents for the 2017 season.
With thirty teams, fielding sixteen different models of cars from twelve different manufacturers, this year’s GT300 field is the largest in history – and without a shadow of a doubt, the most competitive that the series has ever seen.
Okayama International Circuit is a unique challenge for the GT300 field, as it is a circuit featuring long straights mixed with sequences of slow to medium-speed corners. The long straightaways will certainly favour the FIA GT3 category cars and their superior horsepower, while the rhythm sections will yield themselves to the supreme downforce and agility of the JAF-GT category cars.
The current GT300 lap record at Okayama is held by a JAF-GT car, but in the last six years – the real “start” of the JAF-GT vs GT3 battle, GT3 cars have won here five times, including the first Super GT race victories for both Audi and Mercedes-Benz.
Over the two days and four sessions of pre-season testing at Okayama two weekends ago, the fastest time was, rather fittingly, recorded by the reigning GT300 champions at VivaC Team Tsuchiya, and their Toyota 86 MC by Dome Racing, piloted by Takamitsu Matsui and the All-Japan Formula Three Champion, Kenta Yamashita.
Yamashita comes back to Super GT full-time this season after running only a single race in 2016, but he’s not the only young driver coming back to the series with an immediate impact.
The #3 B-Max NDDP Nissan GT-R (Kazuki Hoshino/Mitsunori Takaboshi) was quickest in three out of six test sessions between Okayama and Fuji, with the 24-year-old Takaboshi propelling the GT-R to its fastest times of the testing period – and also coming into this event with two All-Japan F3 race victories at Okayama this past weekend.
There could be a budding rivalry between Yamashita, the top prospect of the Toyota Young Driver Program (TDP), and Takaboshi, the protegé of the Nissan Driver Development Program (NDDP) – that could easily carry their respective teams, VivaC Team Tsuchiya and NDDP Racing, to the GT300 championship.
Seven of the top ten teams from last year’s GT300 championship have all-new driver lineups. Two-time GT500 champion Masataka Yanagida joins Richard Lyons in the #21 Hitotsuyama Audi R8 LMS, reigning Super Taikyu ST-X champion Tomonobu Fujii moves to the rechristened D’Station Racing team and their #33 Porsche 911 GT3-R, and 23-year-old Rintaro Kubo makes a shock move up to the #31 Toyota Prius apr GT with veteran Koki Saga, as does journeyman Hiroki Yoshida, into the #10 Gainer Tanax triple a GT-R.
Former apr Prius driver Yuichi Nakayama moves to one of LM Corsa’s new 2017 Lexus RC F GT3s, one of three new cars to make its Super GT debut this year – joining the Bentley Continental GT3 of EIcars Bentley TTO, and the new Toyota Mark X MC built by Saitama Toyopet GreenBrave, both first-year teams.
There’s also a great cast of rookie drivers, including nine drivers making their Super GT debuts. The 2017 rookie class is headlined by former Japanese F4 champion Sho Tsuboi (#51 JMS P.MU LM Corsa RCF GT3), former Blancpain GT Series driver Sean Walkinshaw (#55 ARTA BMW M6 GT3), and double Porsche Carrera Cup champion Sven Müller (#33 D’Station Porsche). Shintaro Kawabata (#18 Upgarage 86 MC) is in a very capable team this year, and Jono Lester (#9 Gulf NAC Porsche 911) has been confidently quick this off-season.
Last year at Okayama, K2 R&D LEON Racing broke through with their first race win in the new Mercedes-AMG GT3. This year, Haruki Kurosawa and Naoya Gamou will be back to try for two in a row at Okayama – but with an all-new tyre partner, in Bridgestone, who’ve expanded their GT300 clientele to four this season.
The #4 Goodsmile Hatsune Miku AMG (Nobuteru Taniguchi/Tatsuya Kataoka) and the #11 Gainer Tanax AMG (Katsuyuki Hiranaka/Björn Wirdheim) have great track records at Okayama as well, also representing the famous Silver Arrows.
The Mother Chassis Toyota 86es, specifically those of the VivaC/Tsuchiya and Upgarage/Bandoh teams, look great. So too does the #61 Subaru BRZ R&D Sport (Takuto Iguchi/Hideki Yamauchi) and its improved powertrain and Dunlop tyres. From the GT3 side of things, Nissan, Audi, Porsche, and Mercedes-AMG looked to be the strongest from testing, but Lexus may have a little extra they’ve yet to display if the feeling in the paddock is any indicator.
It’s one thing to be fast in testing, it’s another to win the race entirely – and tyre strategy will really be a factor for the GT300 class again in 2017, for this race in particular.
With the new track surface laid down in the off-season, teams will be tempted to try more aggressive tyre strategies during the race on Sunday. We may even see a few front-runners from the JAF-GT category try and make it all the way on just one set of tyres. Last year, two left-side tyres only was the winning strategic call from K2 R&D LEON Racing at Okayama – don’t be too surprised if a fuel-only stop wins it this year.
One thing is definitely certain: This year’s GT300 field is going to be really, really fun to watch this weekend, and for the remaining eight rounds to come. All thirty GT300 runners will take to the track on April 8-9, with live broadcasts coming your way via the J Sports family of networks in Japan, and NISMO TV internationally.