Autopolis, the high-altitude, undulating, and somewhat enigmatic circuit located in Oita Prefecture in Kyushu Island, hosts the third round of the 2017 Autobacs Super GT Series – the Super GT in Kyushu 300km.
For the first time since the deadly earthquakes that killed over 200 people in neighboring Kumamoto Prefecture on April 14 and 16, 2016, top-level Japanese motorsport returns to a rebuilt Autopolis circuit, following a Super Taikyu race in November 2016, and several off-season tyre tests – including one a few weeks ago.
The macro element of this event will be its status as a fun-filled event for the people of Kyushu to enjoy, a diversion from the tough rebuilding process that’s still ongoing. For the Super GT series on its own, this is a pivotal race in the GT500 championship – the last before a two-month spring break leading into the Summer Series.
Of course, the story of the GT500 class in 2017 has been the Lexus LC500s, which looked virtually unbeatable all throughout winter testing, swept the top six at Okayama, and swept the podium again at the Fuji 500km to break a three-year winless drought at Fuji Speedway – three years which must have felt like an eternity for Toyota Motor Corporation’s GT500 programme.
After the #38 ZENT Cerumo LC500 of Yuji Tachikawa and Hiroaki Ishiura scored their dominant victory in the Fuji 500km, the GT500 Drivers’ Championship now sees the top three teams in the championship covered by just two points.
At the top, it’s still the #37 KeePer TOM’s LC500 with young lions Ryo Hirakawa and Nick Cassidy at 31 points thanks to a win and a third place, with the #6 Wako’s 4CR LC500 of Kazuya Oshima and Andrea Caldarelli second at 30 points, with two second places. The #38 ZENT Cerumo LC500 of Tachikawa and Ishiura is third at 29 points.
Lexus also get back the services of Kazuki Nakajima (Lexus Team au TOM’s) and Yuji Kunimoto (Lexus Team WedsSport Bandoh) after they missed Fuji for the 6 Hours of Spa-Francorchamps, and Hirakawa and Caldarelli also won in Europe last weekend.
But for their early season successes, Lexus are now starting to pile on the Success Ballast and, in the case of the top three championship contenders, fuel flow restrictions.
The Super GT in Kyushu 300km will see the first test of the new three-stage fuel flow restrictions that were introduced as part of GT500 Success Ballast this off-season, with the KeePer, Wako’s, and ZENT LC500s being restricted from the “normal” rate of 95 kg/hour to 92.4 kg/h – as well as carrying an off-setting physical ballast in the amount of over 40 kilograms, still more than any other cars in the field.
That’s only a 2.5 percent difference in fuel flow rate, which may not seem like much – but less fuel flow also means less horsepower, and that loss of horsepower could just be enough to put them back a peg compared to the other three Lexus LC500s, and more importantly, compared to the Nissan GT-Rs and Honda NSXes. At this stage in the championship, it’s important – especially for those top three teams – to get as many points as possible, with or without the ballast.
The other big story going into this weekend involves Honda, who have only won at Autopolis twice, in 2005 and 2007, with the ARTA NSX of Ralph Firman and Daisuke Ito.
The big development for the five Honda NSX-GTs is a 15 kilogram weight break, reducing the minimum weight of the mid-engined Hondas from 1,049 kilograms to just 1,034 kilograms, putting them only 14kg above the front-engined Lexus and Nissans. It’s the first time the Hondas have recieved a weight break like this since the start of 2016.
Honda are making slow progress towards ending their long winless drought in GT500, thanks to a positive Fuji 500km which saw the #100 Raybrig NSX-GT (Naoki Yamamoto/Takuya Izawa) finish 6th, and Real Racing and ARTA also scoring points in the race. Reliability is still an issue, with Team Mugen suffering an engine issue at Fuji that put them out of the race, as is the stability of the car, which is difficult to set up.
Thankfully, none of the Hondas have to carry more than 10kg of Success Ballast, and combined with their 15kg minimum deduction for this race, if any one of the five Hondas can come away with at least a podium finish, it will be a great day for them as they head into the Summer Series. It should also be said, that at a two-day tyre test at Autopolis on April 17-18, it was the Raybrig NSX-GT of Team Kunimitsu that set the fastest time of the test.
But historically, it has been Nissan who have had the most success at Autopolis circuit. In 2015, the last time the series visited Autopolis, it was the “red car” of NISMO that prevailed in a heated duel with the “blue car” of Calsonic Team Impul, and Tsugio Matsuda and Ronnie Quintarelli who scored the victory for the Motul Autech GT-R.
It was Nissan’s second double 1-2 finish of 2015, and back-to-back wins at Autopolis for Matsuda and Quintarelli. In total, Nissan have won here seven times out of twelve, more than any other manufacturer.
Once again, the Motul Autech NISMO GT-R is leading the charge for Nissan’s GT500 fleet after a gritty fourth-place drive at the Fuji 500km, and as the two-time and defending champions at Autopolis, Matsuda and Quintarelli will be looking to keep their positive momentum up at a circuit that might be able to mask the Nissan GT-R’s current horsepower deficit to the Lexus LC500.
Team Impul and Kondo Racing will also try and bounce back from poor results at the Fuji 500km, but the one Nissan team that has yet to score any points in 2017 might be on course for a big result at Autopolis – that being the “silver car”, the #46 S Road Craftssports GT-R of MOLA International, with drivers Satoshi Motoyama and Katsumasa Chiyo.
Motoyama has won a record four times at Autopolis, including a memorable drive in 2011 where he came from 12th on the grid to the lead of the race, and eventually, a victory for NISMO.
He’s had just one GT500 win since that race, back in Thailand in 2015, but at Autopolis, the 46-year-old three-time GT500 champion has a stellar record that cannot be ignored. Chiyo finished 2nd in the GT300 class back in 2015 with Gainer Nissan, helping the team clinch the GT300 Championship – both drivers could be looking at an opportunity to finally get their first win together in their Michelin-clad S Road GT-R.
Can Lexus keep up their winning ways and take a third straight victory to open the 2017 season, or can their rivals from Honda and Nissan fight back and score their first wins of the season? We’ll know the answer on Sunday, when the fastest GT race cars in the world make their long-awaited return to Autopolis.