It’s been a two-month Spring Break that has felt like an eternity for the teams and drivers of the Autobacs Super GT Series, apart from the occasional test sessions and the drivers who’ve taken part in events all around the world. But all the teams and drivers are back together, and ready to resume the fight for the championships in Japan’s most popular racing series.
The waiting is over, and it’s time for the GT500 teams to resume play with the first leg of the traditional “Summer Series” – a three-race stretch that begins this weekend at Sportsland SUGO in rural Murata town in Miyagi Prefecture, just southwest of the city of Sendai.
The story in GT500 has been a story of Lexus domination, with three wins to open the season with their new Lexus LC500. But for the supporters of Nissan and Honda, there’s cause for hope yet that this fourth round at Sugo could point to a major turnaround in the power struggle in the premier class.
Just six points separate the top four drivers and driver combinations at the top of the GT500 championship. Okayama winners Ryo Hirakawa & Nick Cassidy lead with 36 points in the #37 KeePer TOM’s LC500. James Rossiter of the #36 au TOM’s LC500 crew is 4 points back, and tied at 6 points back are the Fuji 500-winning #38 ZENT Cerumo LC500 (Yuji Tachikawa/Hiroaki Ishiura) and the #6 Wako’s 4CR LC500 (Kazuya Oshima/Andrea Caldarelli).
Kazuki Nakajima won’t be championship-eligible, of course, but he will be a genuine factor in helping Lexus Team au TOM’s bid for the championship in 2017.
The four-car breakaway at the top of the tables with the two Lexus Team TOM’s squads, as well as Lexus Team ZENT Cerumo and Lexus Team Wako’s LeMans, is indicative of just how well Lexus have performed this season through 3 rounds.
But Sugo is often the wildcard of the Super GT calendar: A twisty, technical circuit that has seen some of Super GT’s closest finishes and wildest on-track moments, including the closest and second-closest GT500 finishes in the history of the championship. Despite Toyota and Lexus’ good history at Sugo, winning six races in a row at one point from 2001-06, their sustained success in 2017 isn’t a guarantee.
It certainly doesn’t help that those top four cars are already at 60 kilograms of Success Ballast and above. All four will carry a fuel-flow restrictor as well to reduce horsepower, but it’s the KeePer TOM’s LC500 that will be the first to race with the “Stage 2” restrictor, cutting their fuel consumption and horsepower further from the rest of the pack. Even at a technical track like Sugo, that could prove problematic through the flat-out run through the two long straightaways.
But what doesn’t help Lexus’ chances at sustained success is the simple fact that both the Honda NSX-GT and the Nissan GT-R GT500 NISMO have made significant gains in the tests over the Spring Break.
Honda have traditionally excelled at Sugo, the site of their last GT500 victory way back in September 2015. The GTA’s recent 15 kilogram performance adjustment certainly paid dividends at Autopolis, helping the #17 Keihin NSX-GT (Koudai Tsukakoshi/Takashi Kogure) and the #100 Raybrig NSX-GT (Naoki Yamamoto/Takuya Izawa) to a double-podium finish.
Keihin Real Racing would love to end their seven-year winless drought at the same venue that they took their very first GT500 victory, and Team Kunimitsu, who won in 2015, would also love to get Honda back on the top step of the podium as well. Discount the #16 Motul Mugen NSX-GT (Hideki Mutoh/Daisuke Nakajima) at your peril: They were fastest on the first day of the two-day official test here in June.
After a winless 2016 and a start to 2017 of mixed fortunes, Sportsland SUGO could be the venue where Honda starts to turn it all around.
Traditionally, Nissan haven’t fared well at Sugo. They never won here until 2009, and they’ve won just three times since in GT500. But they are the defending champion manufacturer here, courtesy of a brilliant, strategic race from the #24 Forum Engineering Advan GT-R of Kondo Racing.
With the new driver combination of Daiki Sasaki and João Paulo de Oliveira, Kondo Racing looks to go back-to-back at Sugo, potentially employing that same strategy to their benefit. They need a strong finish here to turn around what’s been a disappointing follow-up so far to a fantastic multi-victory 2016 campaign – but they have momentum on their side after a successful tyre test at Fuji last week.
The two Michelin-clad GT-Rs, the #23 Motul Autech GT-R (Tsugio Matsuda/Ronnie Quintarelli) and the #46 S Road Craftsports GT-R (Satoshi Motoyama/Katsumasa Chiyo), could also impress after a good run at Sugo – and of course, the #12 Calsonic Impul GT-R (Hironobu Yasuda/Jann Mardenborough), which has never won at Sugo, is always a factor everywhere.
So, with Honda and Nissan looking stronger, where could Lexus find their best hopes to win this race, and match Nissan’s run of four wins to open the season from 2016?
That would likely be with the two cars not yet mentioned: The #1 Denso Kobelco SARD LC500 (Heikki Kovalainen/Kohei Hirate) finished 2nd here last year and were a serious factor for the win before the race was red-flagged due to a heavy crash for a GT300 car. They’re also out to avenge their hard-luck outcome at Autopolis, being involved in the lead battle with Lexus Team au TOM’s before two collisions late in the race ended their day.
But perhaps the best hopes lie with the only Yokohama-clad Lexus: The #19 WedsSport Advan LC500 (Yuhi Sekiguchi/Yuji Kunimoto), which was fastest here in the June test, and also had a solid race here last July, with Sekiguchi and Kovalainen battling hard for several laps during the race.
Over the break, Yokohama seemed to find massive improvements in pace, and their tyre suited this circuit well in 2016, and may yet do so again in 2017 – so the WedsSport LC500, the Forum Engineering GT-R, and the Mugen NSX could all be serious contenders for the victory.
One thing that is for certain at Sugo: This likely won’t be a dull race, not at a venue that’s seen pit lane traffic jams, extremely variable weather, the two closest finishes in series history, and the legendary “3 Wide Pass” exactly ten years ago.
Emotions will be high, tensions will be high, and at the halfway mark of the 2017 Autobacs Super GT Series, the complexion of the GT500 Championship could change dramatically this weekend.