For the thirteenth time as a championship event, the Autobacs Super GT Series returns to the undulating, winding, and technical Autopolis circuit in Oita Prefecture on the island of Kyushu this week.
This, of course, is an emotional return to Autopolis for Super GT, over a year removed from the Kumamoto earthquakes of April 2016 which forced this event to be cancelled, and later postponed to November as part of a double-header Grand Final at Twin Ring Motegi.
And for the GT300 class, this is a race that is often so difficult to predict for the sole reason that, in twelve previous runnings from 2003 to 2015, twelve different models of vehicles have won this event, fielded by eleven different teams – and there could be another new winning machine at the 2017 running of the Super GT in Kyushu 300km just yet!
This third round of the 2017 season is the last before the two-month long spring break that leads into the three-race Summer Series, and already, there’s a close championship fight brewing with just two points separating the top three teams and drivers in the tables, led by the #51 JMS P.MU LM Corsa Lexus RC F GT3 of Yuichi Nakayama and Sho Tsuboi.
Further back, positions four through ten are covered by seven points – and it’s been all FIA GT3 so far at the top, at two circuits – Okayama and Fuji – that suit their strengths.
With a maximum elevation of 792 meters / 2,598 feet, Autopolis is also the highest-elevated circuit on the whole of the Super GT calendar. High altitudes mean less oxygen, and less horsepower, for the naturally-aspirated GT3 and JAF-GT cars – but the abundance of corners of varying speeds will also, in theory, tend to benefit cars with a fair bit of downforce, like the JAF-GT300/MCs.
Combine that with the unpredictable track record of winners in the last few years, and who might stand out as a favorite to win?
Start with the defending champions of this event from 2015, the #3 B-Max NDDP Nissan GT-R of Kazuki Hoshino and Mitsunori Takaboshi. With only 24kg of Success Ballast to bear, a turbocharged engine, plus a boost pressure increase in the last round of BoP changes, the Nissan GT-R GT3 looks a strong pick to win – it’s the only active vehicle that’s won here before, after all.
It especially helps to have the same drivers who won the last time the series visited Autopolis: Hoshino is one of only three active drivers to win here more than once (Kota Sasaki and Tatsuya Kataoka the others), but it’s 24-year-old Takaboshi who’s now gone from the rookie apprentice two years ago, to the star performer of this team in 2017.
Do not discount the chances of the #10 Gainer Tanax triple a GT-3 (Ryuichiro Tomita/Hiroki Yoshida), who clinched Gainer’s first and only GT300 Drivers’ Championship in Autopolis with a second-place finish in 2015, capping off the second half of a double 1-2 finish for Nissan in both classes.
They’re not the only turbo GT3 cars to watch, as the two BMW M6 GT3s will also have plenty of pop up in the mountains. Autobacs Racing Team Aguri (Shinichi Takagi/Sean Walkinshaw) have won here before with their old Honda CR-Z in 2014.
But might this also be the perfect chance for BMW Team Studie (Jörg Müller/Seiji Ara) to finally break their duck, and win their first Super GT race as a stand-alone team?
Two races into 2016, the #61 Subaru BRZ R&D Sport of Takuto Iguchi and Hideki Yamauchi were scoreless after two dreary races. It’s the same story after two races in 2017, but with their single-turbo boxer engine, and the downforce of their JAF-GT300 spec BRZ – which was bolstered by recent front splitter upgrades at Fuji – they have a genuine shot to get on the board with a victory, especially without needing to carry any ballast.
And in the volatile history of this event, R&D Sport were the only team that has ever won this event twice – once with the old Vemac 408R, and most recently with the BRZ’s predecessor, the Subaru Legacy B4.
For some other teams and a few other manufacturers, this event represents an opportunity to finally get their first Autopolis win.
There’s the Lexus RC F GT3s, of course, including the JMS RC F that now leads the championship. But one thing going against them will be their air restrictors being closed off by 2mm each – perhaps enough to starve them of the horsepower they need to get ahead, especially at the high altitudes and carrying an extra 46 kilograms of Success Ballast to contend with. For Nakayama and Tsuboi, this might be a race of points consolidation.
It’s the same with the Mercedes-AMG GT3s. Particularly, the #65 LEON Cvstos AMG (Haruki Kurosawa/Naoya Gamou), the #4 Goodsmile Hatsune Miku AMG (Nobuteru Taniguchi/Tatsuya Kataoka), and the #11 Gainer Tanax AMG (Katsuyuki Hiranaka/Björn Wirdheim), which are second, third, and fourth in the GT300 standings respectively.
All of them have been hit with a 35 kilogram BoP weight penalty for this round, and that’s before accounting for the ballast handicaps of 44, 42, and 30 kilograms for the LEON, Miku, and Gainer AMGs in that order.
None of the Volkswagen Audi Group brands have won at Autopolis either – Audi, Lamborghini, Bentley, and yes, even Porsche are winless in twelve previous races here. Porsche’s top challengers, D’station Racing, are fifth in the GT300 standings, but this weekend will be the first with former GT300 champion André Couto – who clinched his 2015 title with the Gainer Nissan GT-R squad here just over a year and a half ago – partnering Tomonobu Fujii in place of rookie Sven Müller.
The Porsches, Audis, Lamborghinis, and the Bentley were hit with extra BoP weight last week and, in the case of the #117 EIcars Bentley GT3 (Yuji Ide/Ryohei Sakaguchi), a massive turbo boost cut. So it may not be smooth sailing for any of them either.
Along with the aforementioned Subaru BRZ R&D Sport of Iguchi & Yamauchi, it’s the rest of the JAF-GT300/MC contingent that needs to step things up in the championship, and in that fleet lies a few dark horses. The two Toyota Prius apr GTs are potent with their hybrid powertrains, but have been underwhelming the first two races – in particular, the #31 Prius of Koki Saga and Rintaro Kubo, which has just one point to their names.
The #25 VivaC Toyota 86 MC returns to its regular driver lineup of Takamitsu Matsui and Kenta Yamashita, and there’s a chance that after his one-off learning experience in GT500, that Yamashita will return to his “regular” Super GT gig with newfound knowledge to help raise the pace and the spirits of VivaC Team Tsuchiya, still under the leadership of deputy team director and chief engineer Takeshi Tsuchiya.
Five years ago, Yuhki Nakayama was a lap away from an improbable wet-weather victory in GT500 for Nakajima Racing – this weekend, he’s manning the #18 Upgarage Bandoh 86 with rookie Shintaro Kawabata, and they’re also trying to rebound from a slow start to 2016.
And if you want a true dark horse, the #2 Syntium Apple Lotus Evora MC (Kazuho Takahashi/Hiroki Katoh) could be a spoiler.
They took the most recent Autopolis pole position in 2015 thanks to a monster lap from ace driver Katoh. They’ve struggled for results and reliability all season, but the team have won in Autopolis before – and were leading for a significant portion of the 2015 event before being overrun in the second leg of the race.
Even going off the trends, and the layout and altitude of the circuit, calling a GT300 winner for this weekend’s Super GT in Kyushu 300km is going to be a bit difficult – in all likelihood, we’ll see a thirteenth different model of vehicle take its first win at Autopolis, but with the stakes being raised as the championship fight begins to heat up, nothing’s a certainty up in the mountains of Kyushu.