The long spring break is over for the Autobacs Super GT Series, and it’s time for the start of the informal Summer Series – a stretch of three races over six weeks that will culminate with the 46th and final running of the International Suzuka 1000km.
But before that, the Summer Series starts with a 300 kilometer race at Sportsland Sugo, located in the rural town of Murata in Miyagi Prefecture, located 30 kilometers southwest of the capital city of Sendai. A technical and undulating circuit that bears resemblance to venues such as Brands Hatch and Laguna Seca in the west, Sugo is the only venue that’s been on the Super GT calendar every year since the inaugural 1994 season. And this picturesque circuit also has a reputation of consistently hosting some of Super GT’s most outstanding races.
The two closest GT500 finishes in history were staged in Sugo, for instance. And this year is the 10th anniversary of the famous “3 Wide Pass” – one of the series’ all-time great moments, when legendary champions Juichi Wakisaka, Ryo Michigami, and Daisuke Ito all crossed the start/finish line, three abreast, while battling for the lead of the race on a damp track.
Even after renovations to the track that included expanded tarmac runoff at the infamous 110R corner in the final sector, Sugo will still have the narrowest margins of any Super GT venue – and driver errors will be punished. Throw in the dense traffic of 43 cars in two separate classes, and unpredictable mid-summer weather, and you have a demanding 81-lap challenge for the teams and drivers.
The Lexus LC500s have dominated this early stretch of the GT500 campaign, winning three races out of the gate, and occupying the top four places in the championship, led by the #37 KeePer TOM’s LC500 of Ryo Hirakawa & Nick Cassidy.
But through the spring break and the two official test sessions, one at Sugo and one at Suzuka Circuit, both the Honda NSX-GTs and the Nissan GT-Rs have shown much-improved form.
Sugo hasn’t been traditionally a track to favour Nissan – they’ve only won here three times in total. But last year, Kondo Racing pulled off a caper by not changing tyres and staying up front to take the win in a slightly abbreviated race. This year, they’re back with a new driver lineup aboard the #24 Forum Engineering Advan GT-R, Daiki Sasaki now joined by João Paulo de Oliveira.
Honda also look much improved after their 15 kilogram weight reduction. A double-podium at Autopolis, and some good form in testing have the Honda camp optimistic that they can finally get back to the top step of the podium. Ironically, Sugo is the venue of Honda’s last GT500 victory, way back in September 2015 with Team Kunimitsu and the #100 Raybrig NSX-GT (Naoki Yamamoto/Takuya Izawa).
It’ll also help that the top four Lexus LC500s will carry at least a Stage 1 fuel flow restrictor, in the case of the KeePer TOM’s LC500, they’ll be the first to be fitted with the Stage 2 restrictor, cutting their fuel flow down to 89.8 kilos per hour – and resulting in another incremental loss of horsepower for the championship leaders.
If Lexus are to win their fourth race in a row, their best hopes might lie with their sole Yokohama-clad car, the #19 WedsSport Advan LC500 (Yuhi Sekiguchi/Yuji Kunimoto) – they were fastest in testing here in June, and raced well here last July en route to a 5th-place finish.
In GT300, Sugo is a track that typically favours the higher-downforce JAF-GT and Mother Chassis machines. The #25 VivaC Toyota 86 MC (Takamitsu Matsui/Kenta Yamashita), the championship leaders and winners at Autopolis, as well as the runners-up #61 Subaru BRZ R&D Sport (Takuto Iguchi/Hideki Yamauchi) should be among the favourites.
The #31 Toyota Prius apr GT won here last year, but it’s been a tough start to 2017 for the new driver combo of Koki Saga & Rintaro Kubo – and indeed, they may not represent Toyota’s best hope for a victory at Sugo. It might, instead, be the #51 JMS P.MU Lexus RC F GT3 (Yuichi Nakayama/Sho Tsuboi) that has the edge, lying 2nd in the championship.
Despite the advantage of the JAF-GT/MC machines, it was the FIA GT3 category cars that showed well in testing here. Heading that pack was the #4 Goodsmile Hatsune Miku Mercedes-AMG GT3 (Nobuteru Taniguchi/Tatsuya Kataoka) – and a win here at Sugo would send Goodsmile Racing to Belgium for their maiden Spa 24 Hours in fine fashion.
Of the GT3 cars, it’s the higher-downforce Mercedes-AMGs and the BMW M6 GT3s who look incredibly poised for success at Sugo. But keep an eye out also for the #3 B-Max NDDP GT-R (Kazuki Hoshino/Mitsunori Takaboshi), which has been fast in testing yet lacking results thus far this season – as well as the two Team JLOC Lamborghini Huracán GT3s, who also did well in testing.
A “super-sub” to watch is 2015 Porsche Carrera Cup Champion, Yuya Motojima, who is back in a Porsche this weekend replacing the injured André Couto at D’station Racing – another car and team that could really excel at this rhythmic circuit.
No matter how this race unfolds this Sunday, one thing is for certain: It’s rarely a dull race at Sportsland SUGO, and this one should be another must-see Super GT event for everyone.
Images courtesy of the GT Association.