2017 Fuji GT 500km Race Preview: GT300 – The Power and the Glory

Round 2 of the 2017 Autobacs Super GT Series is one of the biggest races of the season, the Fuji GT 500km Race, held every year on the 4th of May. Once recognized as a “Citizen’s Holiday”, May 4th is now recognized as Greenery Day in Japan. For many fans of Japanese motorsport, however, the 4th of May, and the Golden Week holiday, means Super GT at Fuji International Speedway.

In 2017, we have the largest GT300 field in history – 30 different cars in total – as well as the fastest GT300 field, lapping the 4.5 kilometer Fuji Speedway as fast as the GTE class cars of the FIA World Endurance Championship.

For the GT300 teams and drivers, the Fuji 500km is an important race, and a pivotal point in the 2017 championship to come – and one that will serve to highlight the big differences between the two sub-categories of cars in GT300: FIA GT3, and the JAF-GT300 and Mother Chassis machines.

Races aren’t won on spec sheets and top speed alone, but Fuji International Speedway’s layout and character overwhelmingly favours the supreme horsepower of the FIA GT3 cars, which have won this race four out of the last five years, and seven out of the last ten in total at Fuji since 2012.

Where the GT3s really show their strength is down the landmark 1.5 kilometer front straightaway, reaching top speeds in excess of 270 kilometers per hour.

Nissan GT-R - Super GT
© Nissan

The twin-turbocharged Nissan GT-R GT3s have won GT300 on Golden Week two years running, first with Gainer in 2015, and with NDDP Racing in 2016.

The #3 B-Max NDDP GT-R (Kazuki Hoshino/Mitsunori Takaboshi) will once again be among the favourites to win in 2017, with Hoshino finishing 2nd in 2015 and winning a year ago, and Takaboshi off to a flying start in All-Japan F3 this year.

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© ARTA Project

The twin-turbo BMW M6 GT3s of ARTA and BMW Team Studie might also be worth watching in this race. The #55 ARTA BMW M6 (Shinichi Takagi/Sean Walkinshaw) in particular, which won at Fuji last August in the 300km, and finished second in this race a year ago. They’re coming off a fifth-place finish at Okayama last month as well – not a bad start to Walkinshaw’s Super GT career.

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© Gulf Racing Japan

And riding the high of the team’s maiden podium finish, Pacific with Gulf Racing and the #9 Gulf NAC Porsche 911 (Jono Lester/Kyosuke Mineo) have emerged out of nowhere with the confidence that they are now legitimate title contenders.

In fact, combined with the talent onboard the #33 D’station Porsche (Tomonobu Fujii/Sven Müller), the two Porsche 911 GT3-Rs look very, very strong heading into this second round of the 2017 season – and are eager to end Porsche’s winless drought in Super GT, dating back to the end of 2012.

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© Goodsmile Racing

But the fact remains, after the first round of the championship, it’s advantage to the Mercedes-AMG GT3s, and the #4 Goodsmile Hatsune Miku AMG of Nobuteru Taniguchi and Tatsuya Kataoka atop the GT300 Championship tables.

Goodsmile Racing with Team UKYO won the Fuji 500km twice in 2012 and in 2014, back when they were with BMW. Taniguchi has won at Fuji Speedway six times by himself, Kataoka three times by himself – and should they win this Thursday at Fuji, they’ll open the season with back-to-back GT300 victories, just as they did in 2014, when they went on to win the championship that season.

But they’re going to be carrying a hefty Success Ballast penalty during this race – 40 kilograms’ of extra weight to be exact – as will the #65 LEON Cvstos AMG (Haruki Kurosawa/Naoya Gamou), which carries 32 kilograms onboard after finishing second at Okayama.

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© Toyota

Of course, this will be offset by the latest round of Balance of Performance (BoP) tweaks, which will see all four of the Mercedes-AMG GT3s shed 20 kilograms in minimum weight – in fact, all but two GT3 models will get a weight break at the Fuji 500km: The aforementioned Nissan GT-R, and the one everyone wants to see at Fuji Speedway this week, the new Lexus RC F GT3.

The two RC F GT3s of LM Corsa will add a little more weight, but bigger air restrictors will give more power to their 5-litre V8 engines at Fuji Speedway, home circuit for Toyota and Lexus. With the #51 JMS P.MU LMcorsa RC F GT3 (Yuichi Nakayama/Sho Tsuboi) picking up an eighth-place finish, the expectations have been raised for the Lexus GT3 programme in 2017 – and the feeling is that they can deliver.

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© Toyota

Don’t overlook the JAF-GT300 specials for the GT300 class win, however. Not by a long shot. What they lack in sheer horsepower, they more than make up for in braking efficiency, downforce, cornering speed, and traditionally, better tyre wear.

The two fan favourites of the Toyota supporters at Fuji will, of course, be the Toyota Prius apr GTs. The V8 hybrid Prius GT picked up its very first win at this race in 2013, a landmark first for a hybrid-powertrain car in Super GT.

The #31 Toyota Prius (Koki Saga/Rintaro Kubo) will have plenty of added power through its capacitor-driven hybrid powertrain and RV8K powerplant, certainly enough to give the GT3 cars a fit.

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© Subaru

This will also be a superb test for the newly-revised powertrain of the #61 Subaru BRZ R&D Sport (Takuto Iguchi/Hideki Yamauchi), which finished third at the Fuji 300km last August, but starts the 2017 season already at a deficit after an electrical failure took them out half-way through.

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© GT Association

And there will be quite a bit of love for the Toyota-badged Mother Chassis cars as well, such as the Toyota 86 MC, and the Toyota Mark X MC – including the #25 VivaC 86 of defending GT300 Champions, VivaC Team Tsuchiya.

They have a new driver lineup for this weekend, with reigning Porsche Carrera Cup champion of Japan, Tsubasa Kondo, partnering regular co-driver Takamitsu Matsui. And Kondo isn’t the only driver seeing their first racing action of 2017 at the Fuji 500km, as a number of GT300 teams have brought on third drivers and substitute drivers for this race as well.

Takayuki Hiranuma (#52 Saitama Toyopet GreenBrave Mark X) and Tsubasa Takahashi (#88 ManePa Lamborghini GT3) make their series debuts, and former PCCJ champions Hideto Yasuoka (#22 R’Qs SLS AMG) and Yuya Motojima (#87 Shop Channel Lamborghini GT3) will also drive for the first time this season at Fuji.

Nissan GT-R - Super GT
© Nissan

It won’t just be speed, but strategy and flawless pitstop execution, that will be key to success. With two pit stops during the race, many teams – particuarly those with the lighter JAF-GT300/MC cars – will be tempted to gain track position by taking only two tyres, or no tyres at all, on at least one stop.

That is, in the event of a dry race of course. If it rains, expect to see the four Bridgestone teams (LEON, ARTA, LM Corsa #51, and apr #31) and the four Dunlop teams (Audi Team Hitotsuyama, Gainer, and Subaru R&D Sport) to make a serious push towards the front of the grid.

And with so many teams bringing aboard third drivers, it will also be curious to see how those three-driver combinations are used during the race.

Under Super GT regulations, there is only a maximum “two-thirds’ distance” rule for any one driver to drive during the race, but there is no minimum drive time rule as seen in other pro-am categories, meaning that a team can elect to only give their fastest two out of three drivers time in the car during the race.

At Fuji Speedway, anything can and will happen. For GT300 alone, this circuit has delivered some of the most memorable moments in the class. Both the good, and the bad.

And in this storied race on the Golden Week holiday, the GT300 class could deliver another memorable race at the Fuji 500km.

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