Thirty teams were entered into the GT300 class in the 2017 Autobacs Super GT Series, a field boasting unprecedented star power and competition for the second-tier category. At the start of the season, the 2017 GT300 class made a case for being the strongest of all time.
On the eve of the final race of the season, it certainly has lived up to the billing. Amidst a collection of all-pro and pro-am teams, there have been six different winning teams through seven races. Thirteen different teams have put their drivers on the podium. And finally, out of this amazing thirty-car field, we are down to four teams who can still win the GT300 championship, at the 2017 Motegi GT Grand Final at Twin Ring Motegi.
And for the top two challengers, separated by just nine points, it really is a case where one team can fulfill their promise, while another team can cement themselves as immortal legends of the sport.
Over the years, the GT300 championship has been won in dramatic fashion – and since 2009, it’s often come down to one final race at this famed 4.798 kilometer road course in Tochigi, Japan – the pinnacle of modern circuit design, Twin Ring Motegi.
From incredible comebacks, to heroic drives in adverse conditions – since 2009, Motegi has been the place where champions are crowned, and to win the GT300 championship carries equal honour and prestige to the GT500 class that they race together with.
And with a distance of just short of 250 kilometers, it is a race where teams must be willing to take extraordinary risks in order to lay claim to the title of champion. That’s exactly what VivaC Team Tsuchiya did in 2016, when their aggressive pit strategies – going the full 250km race distances on just a single set of tyres each – helped guide them to an emotional crowning moment, for veteran Takeshi Tsuchiya – who after 21 seasons, retired from racing as a Super GT champion, and for young Takamitsu Matsui, an unlikely yet extraordinary pupil who broke through with his best season in 2016.
This year, there will be a new champion.
In the field of four teams that can still win the championship, there are two Mercedes-AMG GT3s, the dominant car across most of GT3 racing this year – Super GT included. There is also a rival German machine, a BMW M6 GT3, and a Japanese-engineered Lexus RC F GT3, in its first year as a true challenger.
At the top, it’s realistically down to a battle between two-time former GT300 champions, Goodsmile Racing with Team UKYO, and the upstarts LM Corsa & INGING Motorsports, vying for their first championships.
Motegi is a special place for Goodsmile Racing. It was here, in 2011, when the team won their first championship, turning the corner from being a novelty act in GT300, to a top-level contender. In 2014, they added a second championship, which well and truly cemented their place as one of the best teams of their generation, also claimed at Motegi.
Such is their fortune at Twin Ring Motegi that, in the past six seasons, GSR have never finished lower than fourth – with a win and podium finishes in each of the last three races.
Now, three years after switching to Mercedes, they can come back to Motegi and claim their third GT300 title in seven years – forever cementing their place among the all-time great GT300 teams. They’ve had a brilliant season so far, with a win and two runner-up finishes propelling them to the top of the standings, this despite bitter luck in the two biggest races of the season, at Fuji and Suzuka.
It would also be a third championship title for both Nobuteru Taniguchi and Tatsuya Kataoka, the two drivers of the #4 Goodsmile Hatsune Miku AMG – equalling the record currently held by Morio Nitta and Tetsuya Yamano. Taniguchi was there to drive GSR to the chequered flag in 2011 and 2014 – will he do it again in 2017?
Or will it be the #51 JMS P.MU LMCorsa Lexus RC F GT3 of Yuichi Nakayama and rookie Sho Tsuboi, just a month removed from their second win of the season in Buriram, Thailand? When the team was put together this winter, the potential was there for this young duo and their revamped team to surprise. But few could have predicted – especially after the trying first two seasons of the Lexus RC F GT3 in Super GT – that they would be in with a genuine chance at the title.
But thanks to the direction of new team director Masahiko Kageyama, no stranger to championships as the first-ever GT500 champion, the improved pace of the new RC F GT3 and its Bridgestone tyres, and the skill of their two young drivers, they’ve taken huge victories at the Fuji 500km, and in Thailand, to put them within 9 points of the Miku AMG.
Nakayama, 3rd in points in 2015 and 2nd in 2016 with apr Racing, would love nothing more than to finally reach the top step in the championship tables in his third season. While at the same time, first-year superstar Tsuboi is vying to become the first rookie champion of Super GT in a decade – last accomplished by fellow Toyota racing family member, Hiroaki Ishiura, in 2007.
On the outside of contention, the teams occupying third and fourth in the standings are effectively in must-win territory.
Things looked stellar for Suzuka 1000km champions K2 R&D LEON Racing following their incredible run to victory and a brilliant three-race stretch in the Summer Series where, by far, they seemed to have the fastest machine on the grid. But some mishaps at Thailand took them down from the championship lead to a distant 12 points back in third place – right around the largest deficit that’s ever been overturned in the last race of a Super GT season.
But in the hands of 13-year veteran Haruki Kurosawa and young ace driver Naoya Gamou, both seeking their first Super GT titles, the #65 LEON Cvstos AMG on its new Bridgestone tyres is immensely quick. Having made the steady rise from plucky midfielders to championship contenders over a half-decade, the LEON AMG will need to finish in the top two to have any chance at the title.
And at the very edge of mathematical eligibility, lies the #55 ARTA BMW M6 GT3 of Shinichi Takagi and rookie Sean Walkinshaw, who have to win to have any hope of winning the GT300 championship.
They’d just love to be able to avoid a repeat of their hard, humiliating exit from the first leg of the double-header finale in 2016. Most importantly, they would love to bring home another championship for Aguri Suzuki and his team, on the twentieth anniversary of Autobacs Racing Team Aguri – a year that already saw a double-pole-to-win at the Fuji 300km race in August.
It may also be the last race for the bright orange BMW, with the Honda NSX GT3 being for sale in 2018, ARTA have been linked to a switch back to their primary backers since the very start of the NSX GT3 project.
Everything is on the line for these four challengers to the GT300 throne – who will emerge as the champions for 2017?