2017 Fuji GT 500km Race Preview: GT500 – The Golden Tradition

Every year, Japan celebrates a series of national holidays known as Golden Week. And it is in the middle of this Golden Week celebration, every year on the 4th of May, that the Autobacs Super GT Series hosts arguably its most popular event of the season at Fuji International Speedway: The Fuji GT 500km Race.

The Fuji 500km is the second round of the 2017 Autobacs Super GT Series, and as it has for many years prior, it represents a pivotal point in this year’s championship – the first race with Success Ballast in play, the first race at a high-speed circuit, and the first of two “crown jewel” races on the Super GT calendar, along with the Suzuka 1000km in August.

The Fuji 500km is arguably the most popular event on the calendar, with annual attendance surpassing every other race including Suzuka – and with a complete lineage dating back to 1971, the Fuji 500km is a race that every team, every manufacturer, and every driver wants to win.

The 2017 Super GT season kicked off in historic fashion for Lexus Gazoo Racing at Okayama, as they not only won the race, but their six cars locked out the top six positions in the race as well. It was an unprecedented, historic performance for the Toyota Motor Corporation’s luxury brand, coming off their 2016 championship triumph, and a strong pre-season testing programme.

With all the momentum in the world behind their fleet of six cars, Lexus now go to Fuji-san with a significant “home field advantage”.

That’s because, since Toyota Motor Corporation purchased Fuji International Speedway in October 2000, Toyota and Lexus have combined for eight GT500 class wins at the Golden Week event alone, twelve in total at Fuji-san since the start of the 2001 season – the year of the first 500 kilometer All Japan Fuji GT Race on Golden Week.

But since the current two-litre turbo GT500 formula was introduced in 2014, Lexus are winless at Fuji Speedway, and the 500km in particular – much to the dismay of the circuit’s landlords, and Toyota’s racing supporters in Japan and around the world.

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© Toyota

This would seem like the perfect chance for any one of the six Lexus LC500s to snap their three-year winless drought at the Golden Week classic, led by the #37 KeePer TOM’s LC500 (Ryo Hirakawa/Nick Cassidy) that won at Okayama, and now leads the championship ahead of the #6 Wako’s 4CR LC500 (Kazuya Oshima/Andrea Caldarelli) that finished a close second in April.

Hirakawa and Caldarelli, the protagonists of last month’s battle for the GT500 win at Okayama, are also coming in with added momentum from success in Europe: Hirakawa finished a bitterly close second at the European Le Mans Series 4 Hours of Silverstone, and Caldarelli won the Blancpain GT Endurance Cup 3 Hours of Monza in a Lamborghini.

You can never count out defending GT500 champions Lexus Team SARD, of course. The #1 Denso Kobelco SARD LC500 (Heikki Kovalainen/Kohei Hirate) returns to the site of a second-place finish that kicked off their championship run a year ago – the first of four podium finishes in 2016.

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© Toyota

And at Fuji Speedway, you can never, ever count out the Fuji-meister, Yuji Tachikawa, who is going for his eighth career victory at Fuji in the #38 ZENT Cerumo LC500. Together, with co-driver Hiroaki Ishiura, Lexus Team ZENT Cerumo are out to try and avenge a heartbreaking DNF in last year’s Fuji 500km, when they ran out of fuel after a Safety Car.

But with Lexus’ overwhelming success in Okayama, comes the inevitable Success Ballast allotment. All six LC500s will carry no less than 10 kilograms of additional weight, with the KeePer TOM’s LC500 weighing in with 40 kilograms of ballast on board, and the Wako’s LC500 carrying an additional 30kg.

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© Toyota

Lexus will also have a unique dilemma for the 500km – two of their star drivers won’t be available for the race. Both Kazuki Nakajima and Yuji Kunimoto will be in Belgium for the World Endurance Championship 6 Hours of Spa, honouring their commitments for Toyota Gazoo Racing’s LMP1 team.

Replacing Nakajima in the #36 au TOM’s LC500 will be 2007 GT500 champion, and team director Daisuke Ito. In 34 previous starts at Fuji Speedway, Ito has never won at this track – and in what may likely be his last race as a Super GT driver, he will rejoin his 2015 co-driver James Rossiter and attempt to break his duck at Fuji-san.

In the #19 WedsSport Advan LC500, 21-year-old Kenta Yamashita makes his GT500 class debut in place of Kunimoto. Yamashita is the reigning All-Japan Formula Three Champion, and one of the highest-rated young drivers in Japanese national competition. Yamashita will join another former All-Japan F3 champion, Yuhi Sekiguchi, for his much-anticipated premier class debut – the first driver to make a GT500 debut at the Fuji 500km since Ryo Hirakawa, three years ago.

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© Nissan

Toyota may own the property, but in the last three years, Nissan really owns Fuji Speedway, winning five of the last six races at this track – and the 500km in particular, winning this race the last three years in a row since the introduction of the current engine formula. But after a sub-par pre-season testing slate and a muted performance at Okayama, Nissan’s stranglehold of Fuji might be in serious jeopardy.

Last year, you may recall the great battle between NISMO and Calsonic Team Impul for the victory – Ronnie Quintarelli in the “red car”, João Paulo de Oliveira in the “blue car”, two of the most tenacious drivers on the circuit going for the victory – until a spectacular tyre failure on the #12 Calsonic GT-R cost them the win.

The #23 Motul Autech GT-R of Quintarelli and Tsugio Matsuda enters this year’s 500km as the two-time and defending champions of the race, but Oliveira is now in the #24 Forum Engineering Advan GT-R with Daiki Sasaki – and on Yokohama tyres, instead of Bridgestones.

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© Nissan

The Calsonic Impul GT-R now has 2014 winner Hironobu Yasuda, partnered with Jann Mardenborough, who won the GT300 class with NDDP Racing last year, and who was the quickest driver in the Nissan stable at Okayama. Nissan fans will be keen to see how “Jann tha Man” gets on in his first Golden Week race in a GT500 car.

Also keen to avenge a tough loss last year? The #46 S Road Craftsports GT-R (Satoshi Motoyama/Katsumasa Chiyo), which took a 90 second stop-go penalty for pitting under the Safety Car in last year’s 500km, putting them out of contention for the victory. The last time Chiyo drove at Fuji, he was involved in a hard crash that put him out of action for nearly a month – so, already wounded from a DNF in Round 1, MOLA International are keen to get their 2017 campaign back on track.

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© Real Racing

Honda’s last Fuji Speedway victory was in monsoon conditions at the 2014 Fuji 300km in August. But Honda hasn’t won the Golden Week race at Fuji since 2000, a winless drought of 17 years. That was the last year of the event before Toyota bought the circuit, before the circuit was renovated in 2005, and before the race was moved up from 300 to 500 kilometers.

At this point, though, Honda’s supporters might just be happy if all five of their NSX-GTs made it to the finish. The bizarre start to the Okayama race saw four NSXes break down with electrical failures in the first six laps, and three before the first lap of the race. In fact, all five Hondas suffered the same failure at some point in the weekend – a lacklustre showing at a time where the scrutiny of Honda’s Formula 1 programme is at an all-time high.

One of the drivers who scored Honda’s last win at Fuji on Golden Week was Katsutomo Kaneishi, team director of Keihin Real Racing and the #17 Keihin NSX-GT (Koudai Tsukakoshi/Takashi Kogure). They finished 2nd last August in the 300km, and they were the fastest Honda on race pace at Okayama – but eight laps down after breaking down twice in the formation laps. They might be the favourites once again to win out of the Honda stable.

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© ARTA Project

The #8 ARTA NSX-GT (Tomoki Nojiri/Takashi Kobayashi) didn’t even get to start the race at Okayama after taking a shock pole position, so Aguri Suzuki’s team will be extra-motivated to show well at Fuji – and at a track where Kobayashi has recently excelled in GT300 class competition.

Also worth keeping tabs on are the #16 Motul Mugen NSX-GT (Hideki Mutoh/Daisuke Nakajima), which scored Honda’s only race points at Okayama, and the #100 Raybrig NSX-GT (Naoki Yamamoto/Takuya Izawa) – like the Calsonic GT-R, they too suffered a dramatic left rear tyre blowout in last year’s event, and they also finished on the podium at Fuji last August in the 300km.

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© GT Association

In the tyre war, Bridgestone have been the dominant force in pre-season, and were dominant at Okayama in April. But this race will prove important for the Potenza clientele – this time of year, temperatures will be much higher than at Okayama, and the memory of Team Kunimitsu and Team Impul’s big tyre blowouts a year ago still resides in the minds of everyone at Bridgestone.

Should the conditions and the longer distance cause Bridgestone to falter, Michelin and Yokohama will be keen to gain ground – especially if Yokohama can continue to provide a good tyre for long green-flag runs. And if the rains come, as they have so many times at Fuji throughout the decades, the sole Dunlop-equipped #64 Epson Modulo NSX-GT (Bertrand Baguette/Kosuke Matsuura) might be a factor.

Will Lexus regain control of their home circuit at Fuji-san? Will Nissan continue their dominance at the Speedway? Or will Honda bounce back and end a Golden Week drought of nearly two decades? It’s all to play for in this year’s running of the Golden Week classic – the 23rd Golden Week Super GT race at Fuji Speedway, and the 33rd running in total of the Fuji 500km, on the traditional date of May 4th.

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