With half of the 2017 Autobacs Super GT Series completed, there’s still another half left to run. The next four rounds and 1,850+ kilometers of racing will decide the championships in both classes of Super GT, and so far, the story of GT500 has been the domination of the new Lexus LC500, winner in the first four races of 2017.
This weekend, Super GT starts the second half of the 2017 season with the second leg of its traditional Summer Series: The Fuji GT 300km Race, the second event to be held annually at Fuji Speedway in Oyama Prefecture, Japan.
And it is only fitting that Fuji Speedway, home circuit for Toyota Motor Corporation and the Lexus badge, could become the venue where Lexus could make Super GT history with a fifth straight win to open the 2017 GT500 season.
After the first four rounds, the top seven teams in the GT500 Drivers Championship are separated by 19 points – with just six points covering the top four teams and their drivers.
Lexus matched the record for most consecutive race wins to open a GT500 season two weeks ago at Sugo: Their fourth straight victory, courtesy of Lexus Team SARD and the #1 Denso Kobelco SARD LC500 of Heikki Kovalainen and Kohei Hirate, matched Nissan’s record start from just last year.
A fifth straight win to open the 2017 season would also be a sixth consecutive GT500 race win in total, dating back to the Motegi GT Grand Final in 2016 – a mark that would match Honda’s record run of six straight championship race wins in 1998 and 1999.
But even with “home field advantage” and taking into account their dominant form at Fuji in the 500km on Golden Week, it’s a much different scenario this time around. The 15 kilogram weight reduction for the Honda NSX-GTs have proved to be a real benefit for them, and while the results from Sugo weren’t quite so conclusive, Nissan seem happy with the engine updates that were brought to their four GT-Rs last time out.
And that’s before taking into account the Success Ballast predicament for the top Lexus teams. The top four teams, led by new championship leaders Kazuya Oshima and Andrea Caldarelli in the #6 Wako’s 4CR LC500 (82kg), will be carrying quite a bit of physical ballast, but crucially, they’ll also carry the “Stage 2” fuel flow restrictor, limiting their fuel consumption to 89.8 kilograms per hour – and more importantly, depriving them of the maximum horsepower they would need to succeed on this ultra high-speed 4.563 kilometer circuit.
This also applies to the Denso SARD LC500 of Kovalainen and Hirate, as well as both Lexus Team TOM’s cars, the #36 au TOM’s LC500 (Kazuki Nakajima/James Rossiter) and the #37 KeePer TOM’s LC500 (Ryo Hirakawa/Nick Cassidy).
Even the Fuji 500km winners, Yuji Tachikawa and Hiroaki Ishiura, will carry a “Stage 1” fuel flow restrictor on their #38 ZENT Cerumo LC500 – which won’t make it easy for Lexus Team ZENT Cerumo to complete the first season sweep at Fuji since they themselves did it in 2008, with or without an eight-time Fuji race winner in Tachikawa at the helm.
One Lexus LC500 does remain mostly unrestricted after a tough start to the 2017 season: The #19 WedsSport Advan LC500 (Yuhi Sekiguchi/Yuji Kunimoto), who saw a 21-race points-scoring streak snapped at Sugo. With 18 kilograms and no fuel flow restrictions to encumber them, in theory, Lexus Team WedsSport Bandoh could be a dark horse to win the summer sprint at Fuji and make history for Lexus.
Nissan’s championship challenge is led by their two Michelin-clad GT-Rs: The #23 Motul Autech NISMO GT-R (Tsugio Matsuda/Ronnie Quintarelli) has been a consistent scorer in the first four rounds, while the #46 S Road Craftsports GT-R (Satoshi Motoyama/Katsumasa Chiyo) scored Nissan’s first podium of 2017 – and came within two corners of winning the last round at Sugo.
Both teams are within striking distance of the leaders, and Fuji Speedway will provide the most conclusive test for Nissan’s first engine update of 2017 after they were down on power in the 500km in May. Before this season, Nissan had won five out of the previous six races at Fuji, including back-to-back Fuji 300kms in 2015 and in 2016.
Last year, it was the #12 Calsonic Impul GT-R (Hironobu Yasuda/Jann Mardenborough) which led wire-to-wire, and the year before, the #24 Forum Engineering Advan GT-R (Daiki Sasaki/João Paulo de Oliveira) came from behind to win it late. Both these cars could use a strong result after their first halves bottomed out with poor showings at Sugo, but it’s not too late just yet for both Team Impul and Kondo Racing to turn things around in the second half.
Fuji hasn’t been kind to the Honda fleet in recent years, whose win at the 2014 Fuji 300km under monsoon conditions was their only victory at the circuit in the last seven years. However, they could be poised to end their winless drought of nearly 23 months at Fuji Speedway.
The last two races, the #100 Raybrig NSX-GT (Naoki Yamamoto/Takuya Izawa) has shown the pace to win, at both Autopolis and at Sugo, but Safety Car interventions and sub-optimal pit strategy have convened to relegate them off the top step of the podium. Last year, they finished 3rd at the Fuji 300km, giving Honda their first podium finish of the season at the time.
The #17 Keihin NSX-GT (Koudai Tsukakoshi/Takashi Kogure), which finished second in that race a year ago, has also been somewhat the victim of poor fortune in recent races – none more so than at Sugo, when their rear engine cover failed spectacularly down the front stretch in a race they could have won.
These two teams lead Honda’s nascent championship challenge going into the back half of the 2017 season, and they also represent Honda’s most realistic chances to win their first race since the 2015 Sugo GT 300km Race. That said, the latent speed of the #8 ARTA NSX-GT (Tomoki Nojiri/Takashi Kobayashi) and the #16 Motul Mugen NSX-GT (Hideki Mutoh/Daisuke Nakajima) are hard to ignore either.
With the benefit of their recent 15 kilogram weight reduction, an expected engine update for Fuji, and none of their cars burdened by fuel flow restrictors as part of their Success Ballast, this could – in theory – be Honda’s breakthrough weekend at the mountain.
With just three weeks to go before the 46th and final Suzuka 1000km on August 27, and just four races remaining in the championship, this second trek to the foothills of Mount Fuji will be every bit as critical towards the championship as the 500km Golden Week classic three months ago.