Sportsland SUGO is a track that’s little-known to fans outside of Japan, but is well-established as one of Japan’s top national-level racing facilities. Bearing resemblance to western venues such as Laguna Seca and Brands Hatch, it’s a track that combines tight, technical rhythm sections with two flat-out bursts up and down the hills of the town of Murata.
It’s the start of the traditional, informal “Summer Series”, a stretch of 3 races in 6 weeks that will culminate with the Suzuka 1000km in August. But first, 28 teams in the GT300 class will have to clear Sugo, a demanding circuit with narrow margins that will punish every driver error.
And as tantalizing as the potential for Nissan and Honda to rise from the floor and take the fight to Lexus in GT500 seems to be, the battle for the win in GT300 could be every bit as good.
First off, the GTA has elected to leave the Balance of Performance largely the same – apart from an adjustment to the car that won here last year, the #31 Toyota Prius apr GT.
It was a spirited drive from the infamous V8 mid-engined Prius GT last July, but this year, the new driver combination of Koki Saga & Rintaro Kubo have yet to really hit their stride. Even with the trade-off of more power via larger air restrictors for 25 kilograms of additional weight, it may not do enough to help them remain at the top of the order.
That said, Sugo is traditionally a circuit to favour the high-downforce JAF-GT300 and Mother Chassis cars, such as the top two finishers from Autopolis: The #25 VivaC Toyota 86 MC (Takamitsu Matsui/Kenta Yamashita), and the #61 Subaru BRZ R&D Sport (Takuto Iguchi/Hideki Yamauchi), who finished just 0.091 seconds apart.
VivaC Team Tsuchiya took the first win for a Mother Chassis car at Sugo in September 2015, and Matsui & Yamashita now lead the championship. In the case of Subaru, they started a white-hot Summer Series run here with a third place in 2016, and after scoring their first podium and points of 2017, Iguchi & Yamauchi might be due for a surge up the championship tables.
From this sub-group, there are promising dark horses: The crew of the #30 Toyota Prius apr GT, Hiroaki Nagai & Kota Sasaki, just won in Super Taikyu at Autopolis and had a great run in their Blancpain GT Asia debut last month. The #18 Upgarage Bandoh 86 (Yuhki Nakayama/Shintaro Kawabata) and the #5 Mach Syaken MC86 GTNET (Natsu Sakaguchi/Kiyoto Fujinami) have shown flashes of real speed in 2017, they could be genuine factors as well.
JAF-GT300/MC cars have won three of the last four races at Sugo, winning in 2013, 2015, and 2016. Interestingly enough, however, in the off-season test held here in June, it was the FIA GT3 category cars that took up most of the top spots on the running order.
The fastest of that group from June will soon have the eyes of the world upon them: It’s the #4 Goodsmile Hatsune Miku Mercedes-AMG GT3 of Nobuteru Taniguchi & Tatsuya Kataoka. Goodsmile Racing have never won at Sugo before, but their two drivers have.
And at a circuit that definitely suits the high-downforce Mercedes-AMG GT3, if GSR were to win this weekend, they’d get the perfect send-off for their Spa 24 Hours debut in Belgium the following week – in addition to potentially taking back the lead in the GT300 Championship at the halfway mark.
All four Mercedes-AMG GT3s have the potential to excel at Sugo, led by the Miku AMG, the #65 Leon Cvstos AMG (Haruki Kurosawa/Naoya Gamou), and the #11 Gainer Tanax AMG (Katsuyuki Hiranaka/Björn Wirdheim) which all looked fast at Autopolis despite a hefty BoP penalty prior to Round 3.
The Silver Arrows might be the favourites out of the GT3 contingent, but one team that’s due – almost overdue – a breakthrough result is NDDP Racing, and the #3 B-Max NDDP GT-R (Kazuki Hoshino/Mitsunori Takaboshi). Takaboshi has been lightning fast in GT300 and Formula 3 all season, but they’ve yet to finish inside the top five at any round this year. It also helps that the team have won here before, back in 2012 with Yuhi Sekiguchi & Katsumasa Chiyo.
BMW’s M6 GT3 had a tough debut at Sugo last July, but looked much better at Autopolis and at the Sugo test. The #55 ARTA BMW M6 (Shinichi Takagi/Sean Walkinshaw) is the crew that won here in 2013 with the old Honda CR-Z GT, and the #7 Studie BMW M6 (Seiji Ara/Jörg Müller) also tested well here in June.
And Sugo could be a mid-engined party at the front: The two Team JLOC Lamborghini Huracán GT3s looked good in the June test, particularly the #88 ManePa Lamborghini GT3 (Manabu Orido/Kazuki Hiramine) – the team that won here in 2014. The two Audi R8 LMS have yet to score a top-ten finish at all in 2017 – but led by the #21 Hitotsuyama Audi R8 LMS (Richard Lyons/Masataka Yanagida), with one half of last year’s GT500 winning lineup, Sugo could be the start of Audi’s turn-around.
Lest we forget also, the #51 JMS P.MU LMcorsa Lexus RC F GT3 (Yuichi Nakayama/Sho Tsuboi) which is 2nd in the points, and has Nakayama on board who won the race in the #31 Prius last year.
The two Porsche 911 GT3-Rs are also poised for another solid race at Sugo, a track that suits the rear-engined 911’s strengths. But keep an eye out for the #33 D’station Porsche in particular: They have Tomonobu Fujii, now partnered by Yuya Motojima who replaces the injured André Couto.
Motojima, one of last year’s standout Super GT newcomers and a former Super Taikyu and Porsche Carrera Cup champion, is one of a few different faces in the entry list: Takayuki Aoki, a former GT300 champion, also returns to the #360 RunUp GT-R with Yusaku Shibata in order to help the team score their first top-ten finish.
And due to the entry limits, the #22 R’Qs SLS AMG and the #117 EIcars Bentley GT3 will unfortunately have to sit this one out and reconvene at Fuji in two weeks’ time.
Having said that, this race won’t be short on excitement in GT300 – Sportsland SUGO always has a reputation of staging incredible battles in either category of Super GT competition. And with the top twelve teams within twenty points of the lead, this race could dramatically alter the GT300 Championship battle going forward.