Endurance racing is at the heart and soul of sports car racing. All of the major 24 hour races, Le Mans, Daytona, Spa-Francorchamps, the Nürburgring, Dubai, are events that are storied and brimming with history, races that every team, every driver, every manufacturer desires to win like no other.
From 1994 to 2008, Japan had an endurance race on home soil, in the northern island of Hokkaido at the Tokachi International Circuit. The Tokachi 24 Hours was the blue riband event of the N1 Endurance Championship, now known as the Pirelli Super Taikyu Series, for 15 years.
But when Japan plunged into a deep recession and energy crisis in 2008, the Tokachi circuit was shuttered, and the 24 hour race went away for a decade. And ever since the end of the “Lehman Shock”, Super Taikyu had longed to one day host another marquee 24-hour race of their own, one to attract the top teams and drivers from Japan and around the world.
That time has now arrived, at Fuji International Speedway, the spiritual home of endurance racing in Japan. Home of the WEC’s 6 Hours of Fuji. Home of the Golden Week 500km race for Super GT, and this August, the revival of the Fuji 500 Miles. Home of the prestigious Inter-TEC touring car race of the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. And now, for the first time in 50 years, Fuji Speedway will host a 24 hour race of its own: The Fuji Super TEC 24 Hours.
This event was a 10-hour race last year, already the longest on the Super Taikyu calendar. But the expansion to 24 hours gives the Super TEC a true feeling of being a marquee race in the Japanese racing calendar. The diverse spread of car classes and drivers of all skill levels make this race a lot like the 24 hour races at Dubai, or the Nürburgring.
The first winners of the Fuji 24 Hours in 1967 were Toyota, with their legendary 2000GT supercar. In 2018, the 24 Hour race at Fuji will be contested by the GT3-spec Audi R8s, Nissan GT-Rs, Lexus RC Fs, and Porsche 911s. There will be GT4 sports cars and TCR touring cars, Porsche Carrera Cup cars, and souped-up production versions of several popular Japanese civilian sports cars like the Toyota 86 and Mazda Roadster, and they’ll all race together through the light of day, the dark of night, and into the sunlight again.
52 teams and over 250 drivers are entered, most from Japan, with a handful from all corners of the globe from China, Hong Kong, Malaysia, and Macau, to Great Britain, France, Belgium, and Austria.
The Fuji Super TEC 24 Hours is so much more than just the third round of the Pirelli Super Taikyu Series. It’s the culmination of a ten-year quest to bring a great race around the clock to Japan, and if successful in bringing spectators and great racing to the speedway this weekend, could grow to become one of the landmark pro-am endurance races around the world.
At the head of the field, is the FIA GT3 category known as “ST-X”, which has seven cars entered – and one big name that’s missing from the entry.
Kondo Racing’s #24 Nissan GT-R are one of the favorites in the category, with a team staffed by young students of the Nissan Automotive Technical College. But given the distance of the event, and to ensure the well-being of their student engineers and mechanics, Nissan and Kondo Racing made a mutual agreement to sit this race out. The dominant champions of this class in 2016, and the fastest team in the pre-season test at Fuji, Kondo Racing’s absence potentially breaks this fight for the overall victory wide open.
Nissan still have two strong challengers for the overall victory: Endless Sports won the 7-hour Fuji Super TEC in 2014, and the 8-hour race in 2015 – though, that was with a BMW Z4 GT3, not their current Nissan GT-R NISMO GT3. GTNET Motor Sports opened the 2018 season with a victory in the Suzuka 5 Hour race. Both teams are brimming with a good mix of solid gentleman drivers and experienced pros like Hideki Yamauchi (Endless Sports), Kazuki Hoshino, and Hironobu Yasuda (GTNET).
D’station Racing may be the favourites with their Porsche 911 GT3-R. They did very well this January in the Dubai 24 Hours, and they have a strong driver lineup anchored by 2004 Le Mans 24 Hours winner, Seiji Ara. They can also lay claim to a dominant victory at the most recent round of the Super Taikyu series, last month at Sportsland Sugo.
MAX Racing and their Lexus RC F GT3 may be new to the series, but with technical support from the Toyota and the respected Tsuchiya Engineering team, they have a solid foundation underneath them. They also have legendary racer Tetsuya Tanaka on their team, the most successful driver in the history of the old Tokachi 24 Hours – a race Tanaka won five times. He’s going for his sixth 24 Hour race win in Japan this weekend.
And the other Super Taikyu newcomers are the three-car fleet from Hong Kong-based Phoenix Racing Asia and their three Audi R8 GT3s. The Phoenix Racing name is established throughout endurance racing in Europe and sports car racing in Asia, and their cars are stacked with talented drivers – from veterans like André Couto and Alex Yoong, to young stars like Shawn Thong, Max Hoffer, and Alessio Picariello. Phoenix Racing Asia enters the Fuji 24 Hours as strong dark horses for victory.
ST-TCR has been a success since it was introduced in Super Taikyu last season, and this will certainly be a category to watch – especially if they can go the full 24 hours.
Dome Racing’s two Honda Civic Type Rs have been the dominant powerhouse of the class in its brief history, and it’d be hard to find a better driving crew than the one assembled for the #97 Civic – anchored by F1 alumni Shinji Nakano and former GT500 driver Takashi Kobayashi, plus young Hiroki Otsu and Keishi Ishikawa. The #98 Civic is led by defending series champion Hiroki Katoh, but the ageless GT300 star is the only pro driver on his crew.
Audi have still been trying to win their first ST-TCR race, and they bring four customer cars to the Fuji Super TEC 24h. But the sole Volkswagen Golf TCR from Team Adenau, who won this race last year in its 10 Hour variant, have once again brought in a secret weapon: Three-time GT500 Drivers’ Champion and Super GT legend, Juichi Wakisaka.
For the first time since it was established in 2017, the FIA GT4-based “ST-Z” class will be represented on the Super Taikyu grid, in the form of a Porsche Cayman GT4 from Team BEND. They project to be right in between the ST-TCR runners, and the Porsche Carrera Cup cars from the ST-1 class, of which there are two: One from D’station Racing featuring Super GT and drift legend Manabu Orido, one from apr Racing, with former GT500 champion Masami Kageyama leading the way.
Only in ST-X, ST-Z, and ST-TCR will there be the designation of “Gentleman”, “Platinum”, and “Expert” driver ratings – different from the FIA standard. Platinum-rated drivers may not exceed 9 hours, 36 minutes (40 percent) total behind the wheel, and the Gentleman-rated drivers need at least 4 hours, 48 minutes (20 percent) to be classified. The pace of the Expert and Gentleman drivers, then, will be huge in determining who comes out on top. For the other classes, the driver selection is laissez-faire.
ST-2 typically has been dominated this year by the TOWA INTEC Racing Subaru WRX STI, and the Shinryo Racing Team’s Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution Xes. But this 24 hour race might just bring Team Nopro’s diesel-powered Mazda Axela (Mazda3) into contention. It’s a mighty ask, as the front-wheel drive Mazda is way down on power and pace compared to the petrol-powered rally-sport cars in the class, but their advantage will lie in supreme fuel mileage.
A great example of the free-reign driver selection in the lower classes comes in ST-3, where Le Beausset Motorsports have stacked their roster full of Toyota factory racing drivers in their #62 Lexus RC 350. Two-time and defending Super Formula champion Hiroaki Ishiura, and two-time GT500 champion Kohei Hirate, join Toyota young drivers Kenta Yamashita and Ritomo Miyata, and Koki Saga, to form a super team.
But Okabe Jidosha Motorsports’ duo of Nissan Fairlady Zs – now carrying the Evangelion-inspired colours from EVA Racing – are coming off a win at Sugo, and the #38 Lexus of Tracy Sports, with GT300 legend Morio Nitta and accomplished endurance racer Ryohei Sakaguchi, are also certainly in the fight for victory.
ST-4 has, pound-for-pound, one of the most star-studded fields on the grid, headlined by TOM’s Spirit and their Toyota 86 that has won the last seven races in a row in this class. TOM’s Spirit’s lineup of drivers features Yuichi Nakayama, Naoya Gamou, and Takamitsu Matsui, who all drove for Toyota Gazoo Racing at the Nürburgring two weeks ago.
Add the presence of GT500 stars like Kazuya Oshima (#29 T’s Concept 86) and Yuji Kunimoto (#884 Shade Racing 86), with top-flight GT300 drivers like Tatsuya Kataoka (#28 T’s Concept 86) and Yuhki Nakayama (#13 Endless 86), and even legends like Akira Iida (#29 T’s Concept 86) and Eiji “Tarzan” Yamada (#77 Cusco Racing 86), and ST-4 will be undoubtedly one of the classes to keep an eye on over the course of the event.
ST-5, the entry-level category, will once again have a thrilling petrol vs. diesel dichotomy – because the two Mazda Demio (Mazda2) runners from Team Nopro and Over Drive Racing have a decided edge in fuel economy, and aren’t too far off the pace of the teams fielding the faster Honda Fits and Mazda Roadsters.
Eight women are also entered between ST-4 and ST-5, headlined by 20-year-old Formula 4 standout Miki Koyama in the #29 T’s Concept 86, Junko Takahashi in the #32 Nissoku apr Mazda Roadster, and the six women entered in the #50 Love Drive Racing Mazda Roadster – Marie Iwaoka, Hiroko Komatsu, Anna Inotsume, Sayaka Kano, Megumi Tsujita, and Yumiko Sekizaki.
With reports from qualifying and updates after the first hour and through every quarter of this race, DSC will be your English-language home for extensive coverage of the Fuji Super TEC 24 Hours.
The live action can be seen live and free on Super Taikyu TV, the series’ official YouTube Live channel, starting with qualifying at 12:00 noon JST (local time) on Friday 1 June.
The race start is set for Saturday, 2 June, at 3:00 PM JST (local time). That’s 7:00 AM BST (UK & Ireland), 8:00 AM CEST (Western & Central Europe), 2:00 AM EDT (US Eastern), 4:00 PM AEST (Eastern Australia).