Midnight has just passed in Japan – which means there’s no better time to look back on the 2017 Autobacs Super GT Series’ best moments than right at the final whistle.
Refreshed GT500 cars brought the promise of better racing, and on that front, Super GT’s premier class delivered in extraordinary fashion. The largest-ever GT300 field in history promised great competition on its own – and on that front, they delivered as well.
Milestones were reached, records were broken, new stars emerged. In 2017, these were the moments that made this 24th season of the Autobacs Super GT Series truly stand out.
#10: Tachikawa Reclaims The Mountain, In Landmark Fashion
Yuji Tachikawa’s eighth career race victory at Fuji Speedway re-established the three-time GT500 champion as the “Fuji-meister.” Having not won the Fuji 500km in ten years, or at the speedway at all in four, he and Hiroaki Ishiura led Lexus Team ZENT Cerumo to a dominant performance, leading 106 of 110 laps en route to victory at the Golden Week classic.
The win put Tachikawa further into legendary status: From his record-extending 22nd career pole position, Tachikawa won a record-tying 18th career GT500 race, extended his own record for wins at Fuji – and it all added up to make him just the third Super GT driver to score 1,000 career points as he became just the fifth driver to surpass 150 career starts.
And he shows no signs of slowing down as he enters 2018 – which will extend another record he holds: It’s his 20th season incoming with Team Cerumo.
#9: Goodsmile Racing Celebrates 10th Anniversary With Third Title
Goodsmile Racing with Team Ukyo would seem like the quintessential Japanese racing team just for their anime-inspired liveries featuring Vocaloid character Hatsune Miku.
Ten years later, a team that was seen as little more than an itasha-liveried novelty act has now become a perennial powerhouse in a GT300 class that continues to rise in prestige. GSR won at Okayama to end a three-year winless drought, then carried that momentum all season long as they rattled off five more top-5 finishes to take their third championship in seven years.
It was the third championship as well for drivers Nobuteru Taniguchi and Tatsuya Kataoka, who now enter the discussion as two of the category’s all-time great drivers – in the case of drifter-turned-GT legend Taniguchi, he makes a case of being the greatest GT300 driver ever.
Add to that a bold trek to Spa-Francorchamps for the 24 Hour race, and it was a great season for one of GT300’s mightiest privateers – a team which still gets most of its financial support through their fans.
#8 – Lexus Rings In 2017 With a Landmark Top 6 Sweep
The 2017 refresh in regulations for the GT500 class were primarily aimed at bringing closer racing to the series, but for the manufacturers, it also represented a clean slate.
Lexus went with a totally new base model, the flagship LC500 road car, as the basis for their 2017 challenger. Throughout all of winter testing, it seemed to have the upper hand on Honda and Nissan – especially as it carried momentum from the end of 2016.
But what they accomplished at the season-opening round at Okayama International Circuit was beyond compare: Lexus became the first manufacturer in Super GT history to sweep the top six places in a race, with all six of their cars.
It was the start of a four-race winning streak to start the 2017 season, five wins in total for the year with another at Buriram – the best launch for a new model in GT500 since the R35 GT-R made its debut in 2008.
#7 – Hirakawa & Cassidy Become The Youngest Champions
At 23 years of age, Ryo Hirakawa and Nick Cassidy became the youngest premier class champions in Super GT history. It was just Hirakawa’s third full season in Super GT, and Cassidy’s second.
Expectations were high when Hirakawa landed a lucrative sponsorship deal with Red Bull. They were delivered upon when they won at Okayama, but unlike in years past with the #37 crew, they continued their momentum throughout the middle stages of the season. Between Okayama and their second win at Buriram, they took four more finishes of 6th or better to maximize their points haul when the ballast was high.
Cassidy became the first driver from New Zealand to have sustained success in Super GT, and Hirakawa also backed up his prowess with sterling drives in Europe.
The question now shifts from “How good are these young men?” to “How great can they be, years from now?”
#6 – Racing Returns to Autopolis
Forced off the calendar in 2016 as a result of the deadly earthquakes in the Kumamoto region, Autopolis returned to the major racing calendars in 2017 for both Super GT and Super Formula.
Super GT treated spectators in the Kyushu region to a hectic battle for the win in GT500 between Lexus Team au TOM’s and Lexus Team SARD, with the former taking the victory after the two cars came to blows with fifteen laps to go. In GT300, there was a record margin of victory as VivaC Team Tsuchiya held off R&D Sport’s Subaru BRZ by just 0.091 seconds at the line.
Months later, Super Formula would see a thrilling race – and the rise of Pierre Gasly as a rookie championship contender en route to his Formula 1 ascension.
Most importantly of all, for a region of Japan still healing from the after-effects of the deadliest earthquakes since 2011, it was something of a return to normalcy to have racing back in the mountainous circuit.
#5 – The Debut of Jenson Button
Much like his McLaren F1 counterpart Fernando Alonso at the Indianapolis 500, the one-off debut of Jenson Button at the Suzuka 1000km brought in unprecedented interest to Japan’s great race.
The 17-year F1 veteran and former World Champion was under no illusions that his prior exploits would mean immediate and overwhelming success, either: In an entirely new setting, Button simply tried to perform to the best of his abilities all weekend.
Button was the darling of the crowd, which saw a 20% increase over the weekend from the 2016 race – reinforcing his status as the most beloved foreign-born F1 driver in Japan, arguably, since the late Ayrton Senna.
12th place in a calamitous debut was less than ideal for his Super GT debut, however, Button will race full-time next season and have ample opportunity to rejuvenate his career in life after Formula 1.
#4 – The DTM/Super GT Alliance, Finally Realized
They were two sets of demonstration runs between Hockenheimring in Germany, and Twin Ring Motegi in Japan, that finally saw the planned collaboration of Super GT and the Deutsche Tourenwagen Masters (DTM) come together after years in the dark.
It took over three years, the loss of a projected partner in IMSA, many delays, and a lot of skepticism over whether or not it would actually happen, but we finally got to see the fastest silhouette GT and touring cars – which form the “Class One” regulations – together on track at the same time.
The appointment of Gerhard Berger as DTM’s president kicked the DTM/Super GT alliance into high gear, and now for 2019, the German series will adopt the same engine formula as GT500.
A cross-branded race seems like it’s on the horizon for 2020 – and what a spectacle it projects to be.
#3 – ARTA’s Incredible Double Pole-To-Win
It’s astonishingly rare these days for a Super GT team to compete in both GT500 and GT300 classes simultaneously. Rarer still for that team to win, in both classes on the same day.
But for Autobacs Racing Team Aguri, the only team to ever accomplish the feat of sweeping victories in both GT500 and GT300 before, what they accomplished at the Fuji 300km was simply incredible – as their ARTA NSX-GT and their ARTA BMW M6 GT3 took the victory from pole position in their respective classes.
The GT300 squad had been a regular race winner in the four years since ARTA’s last double victory in 2013, but it had been that long since the GT500 team had even won its category.
Doing it to break Lexus’ consecutive GT500 wins streak was a point of pride for Honda, who themselves finally avenged their winless 2016 season. All in all, it was the perfect way for ARTA to celebrate the occasion of their 20th anniversary.
#2 – Sugo Delivers, Yet Again, As Motoyama & Hirate Clash For Victory
Sportsland Sugo has a reputation of being Super GT’s best track for the money when it comes to being the stage for some of the series’ most memorable moments – from the three-wide pass in 2007, to Juichi Wakisaka’s last lap “bump & run” in 2003, to the Honda vs Honda photo finish in 2010.
Add a new one to the list, the climax to a wild and unpredictable Sugo GT 300km Race that began under a steady shower, and finished on a track just dry enough to be fast.
Two-time and defending champion Kohei Hirate thought he had the race sewn up, but three-time champion Satoshi Motoyama put on a relentless pursuit of the leader that went down to the last corners of the last lap.
When Hirate and Motoyama slid off together, the two clashed wheels. Hirate came out the better in the exchange to keep the Lexus streak alive to open the 2017. The two drivers shook hands and embraced at parc fermé.
We’re going to sound incredibly biased with this statement: Even in a year with wild conclusions to the Rolex 24 at Daytona, the Nürburgring 24 Hours, and the GTE class at Le Mans, this race warrants consideration for one of the best finishes of the year across all of endurance sports car racing.
#1 – A Sweet Victory, Ten Years In the Making, for Nakajima Racing at Suzuka
The 46th and final running of the Suzuka 1000km was always going to be a landmark race. And in its final chapter, at least as we know it today, it delivered one of the most popular victories of all-time.
Nakajima Racing, who had spent the last handful of seasons as Super GT’s perennial doormat, came to Suzuka preparing to win the race. Midway through, they were putting pressure on early leaders Keihin Real Racing – and when the Keihin NSX-GT crashed out with 25 laps to go, suddenly, the Epson NSX-GT was in position to win the biggest race of the season to end a ten-year winless drought dating back to November 2007.
Kosuke Matsuura was overcome with emotion as he claimed the greatest win of his racing career, and Bertrand Baguette, after four seasons of grueling work to elevate the Epson NSX-GT out of the GT500 doldrums, was finally vindicated after a stellar drive of his own. And the pride of one of Super GT’s most respected and successful teams was restored, led by one of the country’s true racing heroes.
They will forever be known as the team who defied the odds to win the final Suzuka 1000km, in one of the great underdog stories of Super GT history.