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Suzuka GT 300km Preview: Like No Other Circuit

Super GT’s championship battles reach a pivotal stage at Suzuka’s sprint race revival

No matter the date, the car, or the distance to be run, for any driver to win at Suzuka Circuit is something to be proud of.

The third round of the 2018 Autobacs Super GT Series is at this legendary 5.8 kilometer figure-eight cathedral of speed, the one and only Suzuka. Over the past decade, Suzuka was the home of Super GT’s longest and most historic event: The International Suzuka 1000km. That race has now changed series and metamorphed into the Suzuka 10 Hours, but Super GT will race again at Suzuka in the GT 300km “Fan Festival” event.

Though it hasn’t been run since 2010, the Suzuka 300km is an event with a rich history in Super GT. Often, it has been run at the start of the season, seeing the debut victories of the McLaren F1 GTR and the R35 Nissan GT-R, and setting the tempo for the season to come. It’s also been run at the end of the season, the race where the likes of Sekiya, Hasemi, and Tsuchiya drove their final laps. And it’s the scene of the greatest championship fightback in Super GT history in 2005, when Toyota Team Cerumo came back from 14 points out of first place to win the title on the final race of the season.

Yes, Super GT’s annual pilgrimage to Suzuka is “only just” a 52-lap sprint race, as opposed to the 173-lap endurance festival of recent years. But consider that this will not be a race decided by weight handicaps, rather, it will be decided by close racing and relentless pace from all of the front-runners.

And consider that its new place in the calendar, the end of May and the last race before a month-long hiatus and the start of the Summer Series, makes this revival of the Suzuka 300km a truly pivotal race in the championship for both GT500 and GT300 classes. To the winners, they receive 20 crucial championship points and all the momentum heading into this year’s “Mid-summer triple” of Buriram, Fuji, and Sugo. You don’t have to win the Suzuka 300km to be a title contender, but it’d be very difficult to climb out of a deep deficit with a poor result in this race.

And of course, there’s the feeling of accomplishment of winning a major race at Suzuka, a milestone that any driver will cherish for the rest of their lives, to have mastered one of the world’s most demanding, challenging circuits that has remained mostly unchanged for over a half-century.

Lexus started 2017 by winning the first four races of the season with their new LC500. Through the first two races in 2018, however, Lexus Gazoo Racing are still without a victory.

But Lexus and Toyota have a strong track record at Suzuka, especially in recent times. They won four of the last six Suzuka 300kms, and they won the 1000km five times in the Super GT era – including a hat trick of wins from 2014 to 2016.

After anchoring Toyota’s 1-2 finish at the 6 Hours of Spa-Francorchamps, Kazuki Nakajima and Kamui Kobayashi are back in Super GT this weekend. Nakajima, the Suzuka 1000km winner in 2014, comes back to the #36 au TOM’s LC500 with Yuhi Sekiguchi. Kobayashi, whose 2012 Japanese Formula 1 Grand Prix podium finish remains one of his career milestones, returns to the #39 Denso Kobelco SARD LC500, with Heikki Kovalainen – who finished 2nd at the Fuji 500km two weeks ago.

Felix Rosenqvist will be in Berlin to continue his Formula E championship challenge, so his place in the #6 Wako’s 4CR LC500 will be taken by James Rossiter, a back-to-back 1000km winner in 2014 and 2015. It’ll be Rossiter’s first time driving with Kazuya Oshima, and with Lexus Team LeMans Wako’s, led by Juichi Wakisaka – who scored his very first win in this race in 1999.

But the active king of Suzuka may be Yuji Tachikawa, lead driver of the #38 ZENT Cerumo LC500 that he shares with Hiroaki Ishiura. Their win in the 2016 Suzuka 1000km was Tachikawa’s fourth at Suzuka in a Super GT championship event. Add his non-championship win in the 2001 Suzuka 1000km, and that gives Tachikawa five GT500 wins at Suzuka. Ishiura’s no slouch at Suzuka either, he scored his first career GT500 win in the Summer Endurance Race in 2009.

And of course, the reigning GT500 champions, Ryo Hirakawa and Nick Cassidy, will be out to pick up more crucial points in their championship challenge as they’ve done through the first two races this year in the #1 KeePer TOM’s LC500.

The last time the Suzuka 300km was run, it was a Nissan GT-R that won it. In fact, Nissan have won 10 Super GT championship races at Suzuka, the most of the “big three.”

The winner that year was João Paulo de Oliveira, driving Kondo Racing’s #24 GT-R. This year, Oliveira’s back with that same team, with a new co-driver in Mitsunori Takaboshi – who scored a podium finish in his GT500 debut at Suzuka in 2016. Can Oliveira, last year’s 1000km pole winner, bring the #24 Forum Engineering Advan GT-R back to the top step?

Spearheading the Nissan title challenge is the #23 Motul Autech GT-R of Tsugio Matsuda and Ronnie Quintarelli, who won the Fuji 500km two weeks ago, giving Matsuda a milestone 20th career victory and the championship lead to NISMO.

But with 52 kilograms of Success Ballast applied, they will be the first team, and the only team, to be saddled with the “Stage 1” fuel flow restrictor along with 35 kilograms of physical ballast. That fuel flow restriction from the standard 95 kilograms per hour down to 91.8 kg/h may not hurt them through the sweeping curves of the first sector, but in the flat-out blasts to Spoon Curve and through 130R, the lower fuel burn means lower horsepower where they need it most, especially in a sprint. Matsuda, Quintarelli, and NISMO have a game plan in mind though, and will surely look to getting more points here at Suzuka, a podium or top five would be a big boost.

Carrying small handicaps are the #12 Calsonic Impul GT-R (Daiki Sasaki/Jann Mardenborough), which rallied to finish 6th at Fuji two weeks ago, as well as the #3 CraftSports Motul GT-R (Satoshi Motoyama/Katsumasa Chiyo). Motoyama never won the 1000km in thirteen tries, and his only Super GT win at this track came in this race in 2008. But Chiyo was the star of a winning drive in GT300, in the 2015 Suzuka 1000km.

While Nissan and Lexus are entering this race primed for victory, Suzuka Circuit is still Honda’s home ground. Eight victories at Suzuka in Super GT competition, not including four additional non-championship victories in the Suzuka 1000km from 1999 to 2004.

Honda’s quintet of NSX-GTs started strong in Okayama, but were comparatively off the mark in Fuji. But there’s reason to believe that the favourites for victory may be Naoki Yamamoto, Jenson Button, and the #100 Raybrig NSX-GT of Team Kunimitsu.

Button’s made 15 Formula 1 starts in Suzuka, capped with a win in 2011 for McLaren, and a 2004 podium finish for BAR-Honda. In an in-season official test in April, Button set an unofficial GT500 lap record and led both days of the test with the fastest time. But it’s Yamamoto’s Suzuka record that’s even more impressive. A win in the 2013 Suzuka 1000km, and four podiums in GT500, including one on his Super GT debut in the 2010 running of the 300km. Four career wins in Super Formula at this track, including one in the opening round of the season, just three weeks ago.

We don’t know what ballast level they were running at the Suzuka test, but if it was in or around the 34kg mark they’ll run at this weekend, there’s a very real chance they could be the favourites on paper to win, and win big.

2nd place in the championship, the #17 Keihin NSX-GT (Koudai Tsukakoshi/Takashi Kogure) will look to rebound from a difficult race at Fuji at Suzuka, a track where Keihin Real Racing were always quick – but never lucky enough to win the 1000km. The #8 ARTA NSX-GT (Tomoki Nojiri/Takuya Izawa) was best of the Hondas at Fuji, and they don’t carry a great deal of ballast into Suzuka.

And of course, there’s the reigning Suzuka 1000km champions, the #64 Epson Modulo NSX-GT (Bertrand Baguette/Kosuke Matsuura). The only team to go scoreless in the first two races this season. Last August, they came home the surprise winners to end a 10-year winless drought for Nakajima Racing. Will the only Dunlop runners in the GT500 field spring yet another surprise at Suzuka this year?

The GT300 class also looks as competitive as ever this year, and Suzuka should see the higher-downforce JAF-GT300 and Mother Chassis cars spring to life around the circuit’s abundant high-speed corners.

The latest round of Balance of Performance changes will impact the Mother Chassis runners, though, they’re loaded with an extra 30 kilograms of BoP weight from the previous two rounds at Fuji. It shouldn’t take cars like the #18 UPGarage 86 MC (Yuhki Nakayama/Takashi Kobayashi) out of contention, as they lie second in the championship. It also shouldn’t hamper the #25 Hoppy 86 MC (Takamitsu Matsui/Sho Tsuboi), not when Matsui’s coming off a class win at the Nürburgring 24 Hours with Toyota, or with Tsuboi coming off a breakthrough 2nd place in his GT500 debut at the Fuji 500km.

Another driver who had success at the N24 last week was Naoya Gamou, who along with Haruki Kurosawa in the #65 LEON Cvstos Mercedes-AMG GT3 won the GT300 class in last year’s Suzuka 1000km with a brilliantly-executed strategy. They’re back at Suzuka having started the 2018 season with two fourth-place finishes, and can easily factor in for the victory at the 300km.

Takuto Iguchi and Hideki Yamauchi also won their class at the N24 for Subaru, and now after a heartbreaking engine failure took their #61 Subaru BRZ R&D Sport out of podium contention at Fuji, they look to get the Blue Boxer back on the top step of the podium, at a track where Subaru and R&D Sport won four times in a span of seven years from 2010 to 2016.

Looking at the championship picture, with their landmark victory at Suzuka, the #55 ARTA BMW M6 GT3 of Shinichi Takagi (now GT300’s winningest driver of all-time) and Sean Walkinshaw will carry a 52 kilogram handicap into Suzuka, a track where Takagi hasn’t won since the year 2000, and where the M6 hasn’t fared well in its two outings in the 1000km. Third in the championship is the #7 D’station Porsche 911 GT3-R (Tomonobu Fujii/Sven Müller), Müller just off a 9th place finish at the Nürburgring. Both will be aiming for big points to stay at the front of the title fight, as will the UPGarage 86 of Nakayama & Kobayashi.

Other teams to watch for in the fight for the win will be the #0 Goodsmile Hatsune Miku AMG (Nobuteru Taniguchi/Tatsuya Kataoka), carrying just 18kg of ballast as they seek Goodsmile Racing’s first win at Suzuka. Gainer’s new Nissan GT-Rs scored a breakthrough podium finish at Fuji, but at Suzuka, it’s the #10 car (Kazuki Hoshino/Hiroki Yoshida) that has an edge with Hoshino at the wheel: He won the Suzuka 1000km three times in GT300, once in GT500, and just won the Super Taikyu Suzuka 5 Hours in a GT-R in April.

LM Corsa’s two Lexus RC F GT3s will be a factor: The #60 Syntium RC F (Hiroki Yoshimoto/Ritomo Miyata) has a three-time Suzuka 1000km class winner in Yoshimoto, and the #96 K-Tunes RC F (Morio Nitta/Yuichi Nakayama) needs to rebound after a sluggish start to 2018.

And of course, this will be the first Suzuka outing for the new Honda NSX GT3s, and one man who’s eager to try and win the race for Honda is the great Ryo Michigami, a three-time overall winner of the Suzuka 1000km. But those were in non-championship outings, and Michigami has never won a Super GT points race at Suzuka. Can he and Hiroki Otsu pilot the #34 Modulo Kenwood NSX GT3 to victory at this year’s 300km in its first outing?

DSC will have extensive coverage of the Suzuka GT 300km Fan Festival, which can be seen internationally live on NISMO TV, and in Japan on the J Sports networks, on Sunday 20 May at 14:40 JST (local time) / 6:40 AM BST.