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Autopolis Preview: More Than Just Another Race

Super GT returns to the Kumamoto-based circuit

Over a year after the Kumamoto Earthquakes, Super GT returns to Autopolis for a pivotal championship stage

On April 14 and 16, 2016, the lives of nearly 200,000 people in Kumamoto Prefecture, Japan, were altered forever as two powerful earthquakes rocked Japan’s southern island of Kyushu.

225 people died either directly, or indirectly, from the effects of the quake. Thousands more were injured. Thousands more still lost their homes. Roads were destroyed. Landmarks of the region were left in tatters.

Motorsport cannot put back to normal what the deadliest earthquakes since the Great Tohoku Earthquake and Tsunami of 2011 had forever changed for so many people. People who lost their homes, lost their livelihoods, and most cruel of all, lost a family member or loved one. But it can offer a brief respite from the hardships that still lie ahead.

Fifty kilometers northeast of Kumamoto, at the Autopolis circuit in neighboring Oita Prefecture, the Autobacs Super GT Series will host the first top-level motor race at Autopolis since the earthquakes eventually forced last year’s scheduled race to be cancelled, and later relocated to Twin Ring Motegi and rescheduled to the end of the season.

The Autobacs Super GT Series will host the first top-level motor race at Autopolis since the earthquakes eventually forced last year’s scheduled race to be cancelled

Autopolis, long saddled with the unflattering moniker of a “white elephant” circuit after ambitions of Formula 1 in the early 1990s went up in a haze of a national recession and failed investments, now stands as a symbol of strength and revitalization for the region a year after the earthquakes.

As an event for the fans, Super GT chairman Masaaki Bandoh said that this weekend’s race won’t be about doing well at the box office, but rather, it’s about providing people in the region with a fun-filled event for the whole family.

For the teams and drivers, however, this third round of the 2017 Super GT Series is also a pivotal point in the championship. It’s the last race before a two-month break, which will then be followed up by the traditional Summer Series – a three-race swing through Sportsland Sugo, Fuji Speedway, and finally, Suzuka Circuit for the 46th and final running of the International Suzuka 1000km.

In both GT500 and GT300 classes, the top three teams are separated by just two points after two races. It’s been all Lexus so far in GT500, coming off back-to-back victories and podium sweeps to start 2017.

The #37 KeePer TOM’s LC500 (Ryo Hirakawa / Nick Cassidy), the #6 Wako’s 4CR LC500 (Kazuya Oshima / Andrea Caldarelli), and the #38 ZENT Cerumo LC500 (Yuji Tachikawa / Hiroaki Ishiura) are all leading the way in that close championship battle, and all of these teams – and their drivers – carry a wave of positive momentum into Autopolis.

Tachikawa just tied Super GT’s all-time wins record two weeks ago at Fuji, Hirakawa picked up his first ELMS victory of the year at Monza last weekend, and Caldarelli is coming off back-to-back wins to open the 2017 Blancpain GT Endurance Cup.

Lexus also get back their two drivers who missed the Fuji 500km: Kazuki Nakajima, fresh off his 6 Hours of Spa-Francorchamps victory, and Yuji Kunimoto, who was also in Spa for his WEC debut.

In both GT500 and GT300 classes, the top three teams are separated by just two points after two races

But this is the point of the season where Success Ballast will make it difficult to stay ahead of the field. The three top GT500 teams will be the first to test out the new three-stage fuel flow restrictor system that was introduced as part of GT500 Success Ballast this off-season.

They’ll each have their fuel flow rates reduced from the standard 95 kilograms per hour to 92.4 kg/h. It’s only a 2.5 percent reduction, but with Lexus’ main strengths lying in their power advantage over Nissan and Honda, it might be just enough to level the playing field just a bit.

Lexus still have three LC500s that won’t be fuel-flow restricted – including the #36 au TOM’s LC500 of Nakajima & James Rossiter, and the #1 Denso SARD LC500 of defending champions Heikki Kovalainen & Kohei Hirate.

Historically, it’s Nissan who have had the most success at Autopolis. The last time Super GT visited Autopolis in 2015, Nissan took a double 1-2 finish in GT500 and GT300, and it’s the NISMO team of Tsugio Matsuda & Ronnie Quintarelli who have won the two most recent races in 2014 and 2015.

Autopolis represents a critical race for Nissan’s quartet of GT500 teams – with Success Ballast starting to work in their favour, and at a track that can mask their current horsepower disadvantage fairly well, one of their four teams needs to at least pick up a podium to get back on track.

Keep a keen eye as well on the #46 S Road Craftsports GT-R from MOLA International: Their veteran driver Satoshi Motoyama has a record four wins at Autopolis, including an astonishing performance in 2011 when he stormed from 12th on the grid, to the lead and, eventually, the race win.

Motoyama and Katsumasa Chiyo have yet to score a point this season – and Autopolis would be a great place for the “silver car” of MOLA to get back on form.

Honda haven’t won at Autopolis in ten years, but the NSX-GTs, despite issues with finding balance with the setups of their cars and some lingering reliability problems that crept up at Fuji, are at least making inroads after three of their cars scored points at the Fuji 500km.

Last week, the GT Association gave Honda their first minimum weight deduction since the 2016 season, dropping them from 1049 kilograms to 1034 kilograms – only a 14kg difference between them, and the front-engined Lexus and Nissans at 1020kg.

They’ll also benefit from their Success Ballast position, with none of the NSXes carrying more than 10kg of extra ballast into this race. A podium finish for one of the Honda teams would be a big boost for the entire fleet going into the Summer Series.

The Lexus RC F GT3 won its first GT300 race at the Fuji 500km, and the #51 JMS P.MU RC F GT3 of Yuichi Nakayama and rookie Sho Tsuboi leads the championship ahead of a trio of Mercedes-AMG GT3s in second, third, and fourth, who are ahead of both Porsche 911 GT3-Rs in fifth and sixth.

At 800m of altitude, Autopolis will likely favor the turbocharged cars like the Nissan GT-R GT3, the BMW M6 GT3, and the Subaru BRZ R&D Sport, but its abundance of corners of varying speeds should also play into the hands of the JAF-GT300/Mother Chassis cars as well.

NDDP Racing are the defending GT300 winners at Autopolis, and 2015 race winners Kazuki Hoshino and Mitsunori Takaboshi look to be one of the favourites to win here again. And that would be a first for GT300 at Autopolis: In twelve previous championship races at this circuit, twelve different vehicles and eleven different teams have taken the class victory – and of all the cars in this year’s field, only the GT-R has won here before.

There is just one change from the “normal” driver lineups that are back in place this weekend, as former GT300 champion and longtime Super GT veteran André Couto begins a three-race spell at D’station Racing, replacing Porsche factory driver Sven Müller due to the German rookie’s commitments in the ADAC GT Masters series.

At 800m of altitude, Autopolis will likely favor the turbocharged cars like the Nissan GT-R GT3, the BMW M6 GT3, and the Subaru BRZ R&D Sport

For Couto, it’s a return to the track where he captured his first Super GT drivers’ championship two years ago for Gainer and Nissan.

Lastly, those fans who will be at Autopolis this weekend, or who plan on attending Super GT races later in 2017 – donation desks are available in the infield fan zones at every round this season, for those who can give towards the relief and rebuilding efforts that are still ongoing in Kumamoto.