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Fuji GT 500km Preview: The Gold Standard

Super GT returns to Fuji for the first major race of 2017, on a Thursday!

Round 2 of the 2017 Autobacs Super GT Series calendar is the May 4, Golden Week holiday classic event, the Fuji GT 500km Race.

Since the inaugural All-Japan Grand Touring Car Championship in 1994, the Golden Week race at Fuji has been an annual tradition of the Super GT calendar, and was first run at the 500 kilometer distance back in 2001.

In fact, the full history of the 500km can be traced back to the inaugural running in the 1971 Fuji Grand Champion Series, through the All-Japan Endurance/Sports Prototype Championship (JSPC) era of the ‘80s, and the Fuji Inter-TEC touring car race of the ‘80s and ‘90s.

Like mixed martial arts in Saitama on New Years’ Eve, or pro wrestling at the Tokyo Dome on January 4, the Fuji 500km is one of the rare events in all of motorsport that is deeply intertwined with a specific date on the calendar.

It’s the second-oldest, and second-longest race on the schedule, and with annual attendance outdrawing even the Suzuka 1000km, it’s the most popular event of the year.

Coming off a historic, unprecedented top-six lockout at Okayama, Lexus are keen to take another GT500 victory at their “home track”. Since Toyota Motor Corporation purchased Fuji Speedway in the winter of 2000, their badges have picked up eight GT500 class wins in the 500km, part of a total of seventeen class victories in GT500 and GT300 at the circuit in total.

But Lexus have not won at Fuji since 2013, the last year before the current two-litre turbo formula was introduced in GT500.

Within the fleet of Lexus LC500s, there are several strong contenders, including the defending GT500 champions Lexus Team SARD with Heikki Kovalainen and Kohei Hirate, last round’s winners Ryo Hirakawa and Nick Cassidy for Lexus Team KeePer TOM’s, and Lexus Team ZENT Cerumo, who are led by seven-time Fuji Speedway winner Yuji Tachikawa.

However, in the first race with Success Ballast in play, the LC500s will carry the heaviest weight penalties – with the KeePer TOM’s LC500 loaded with 40kg of ballast, most of all runners, and the Wako’s LC500 of Lexus Team LeMans carrying 30kg for finishing second at Okayama.

Lexus will also be without the services of drivers Kazuki Nakajima (Lexus Team au TOM’s) and Yuji Kunimoto (Lexus Team WedsSport Bandoh) who are both at Spa-Francorchamps with Toyota for the WEC 6 hour race. Former champion Daisuke Ito will replace Nakajima in the #36 au LC500, and young star of the future Kenta Yamashita will make his GT500 debut in the #19 WedsSport LC500.

Toyota may operate the circuit, but Nissan truly “owns” Fuji Speedway in recent years. Nissan GT-Rs have three straight wins at the 500km, and five out of six race wins at Fuji since 2014.

The NISMO duo of Tsugio Matsuda and Ronnie Quintarelli have won here the last two years in a row, prevailing in 2016 after a heated battle with Calsonic Team Impul ended when the left rear tyre of the Calsonic GT-R blew up spectacularly.

None of the GT-Rs seemed to have an answer for the sheer pace of the Lexus LC500s at Okayama, but with Success Ballast in their favour, and a recent track record of proven success, Nissan are determined to continue their run of Fuji dominance with the revised 2017 GT-R GT500.

For Honda, it’s about salvaging dignity from an embarrassing weekend at Okayama in which all five of their NSX-GTs suffered an ECU failure, four of which came during the main race.

But the Fuji 500km isn’t traditionally their best race to try and bounce back at. Honda haven’t won the Golden Week race at Fuji since 2000, the year before the event was moved up to its current distance. Their most recent win at Fuji was in a very wet 2014 300km race that summer.

Like the Nissan fleet, Honda will also benefit a little from the Success Ballast situation, three of the five NSXes, including those of Keihin Real Racing and Raybrig Team Kunimitsu, will be ballast-free in this round.

In the tyre war, Bridgestone have led the way so far in 2017 by a significant margin over Michelin, Yokohama, and Dunlop. But after two big Bridgestone blowouts in last year’s 500km, they’ll need to prove their race tyres can handle long distances in the warmer conditions should we get a dry, sunny race, which isn’t always a guarantee at Fuji.

Goodsmile Racing with Team UKYO lead the GT300 tables after winning in Okayama with a Mercedes-AMG GT3 1-2 finish, and Nobuteru Taniguchi and Tatsuya Kataoka will try and open the season with consecutive wins, just as they did when they won the title in 2014, and win at a favorite track where ace driver Taniguchi has won six times as a driver.

But as is the case in GT500, GSR will also bear the brunt of 40kg worth of Success Ballast for winning the last round in GT300, ditto for the sister AMG of K2 R&D Leon Racing, with 30kg onboard for finishing second.

Fuji, in theory, should heavily favour the bigger engines and higher top speeds of the FIA GT3 category cars over their JAF-GT300/Mother Chassis rivals, with GT3 cars winning this event four times in the last five years, and Nissan winning back-to-back in ‘15 and ‘16.

Most of the GT3 machines will shed weight and gain boost as part of the latest round of BoP changes, with the Mercedes-AMG GT3 shedding 20 kilos of BoP weight. Only the new Lexus RC F GT3 gains any weight, 15 kilos’ worth, but they get bigger air restrictors to gain extra power on their “home circuit”. Of the turbocharged cars, the BMW M6 and Bentley Continental GT3 each get significant boost raises throughout the powerband.

The JAF-GT300 and Mother Chassis cars, including Fuji fan favourites like the Toyota Prius apr GTs and Toyota 86 MCs, remain untouched.

This race also brings a number of substitute and third drivers to the entry list, including three former Porsche Carrera Cup champions of Japan making their 2017 Super GT season debuts.

2016 PCCJ champion Tsubasa Kondo replaces Kenta Yamashita in the #25 VivaC Team Tsuchiya Toyota 86 MC, 2015 champion Yuya Motojima is the third driver of the #87 JLOC Lamborghini Huracán, and 2011 undefeated champion, Hideto Yasuoka, replaces the suspended Hisashi Wada in the #22 R’Qs Mercedes SLS AMG.

Two drivers are also making their first ever starts in Super GT at the Fuji 500km: Former Honda young driver Tsubasa Takahashi in the #88 JLOC Lambo, and gentleman driver Takayuki Hiranuma in the #52 GreenBrave Mark X MC.

And, despite initial fears that they wouldn’t make it, INGING & Arnage Racing have repaired their Ferrari 488 GT3 after their hard crash at Okayama – and the veteran Morio Nitta is eager to get back behind the wheel at a track he’s won at seven times.

Worth noting that unlike most major sports car championships, Super GT does not have a “minimum drive time” rule, so those teams with three drivers are able to run only their two fastest drivers during the race, if the conditions call for it.

So mark your calendars for Thursday, yes, Thursday! in the afternoon for our friends in Asia, New Zealand and Australia, early in the morning in Europe and Africa, or late Wedesday night in the Americas, for the 23rd running of the Golden Week Super GT race at Fuji, and the 33rd running in total of the Fuji 500km sports car race!