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Fuji GT 500 Mile Race Preview: Super GT’s New Endurance Tradition

Second half of 2018 Super GT season starts with a pivotal summer endurance race at Fuji Speedway

From 1977 to 1984, Fuji Speedway held a 500 mile race for sports cars, one that first served as part of the circuit’s popular Grand Champion series. Then from 1985 to 1992, the Fuji 500 Miles became a permanent fixture of the All-Japan Sports Prototype Championship. When it was part of the JSPC, the Fuji 500 Miles was one of the series’ most popular events, bringing in big crowds and big-name drivers over the summer holiday in late July.

When the JSPC’s successor, the All-Japan GT Championship (JGTC), spawned in 1994, a new summer sports car race at Fuji was started: The Japan Special GT Cup, later known as the Fuji GT 300km Race.

A compliment to the Golden Week race at Fuji earlier in the year, the Fuji 300km saw many landmark moments in Super GT history, from Honda’s first GT500 win in 1998, to the 2006 and 2008 season finales that saw the GT300 championship decided on the final lap of the final corner, to just last year, when Autobacs Racing Team Aguri (ARTA) became the first team to take a double pole-to-victory in both classes of Super GT.

Last year, the Autobacs Super GT Series bid farewell to the Suzuka 1000km, which was the series’ endurance round of the championship. It has since metamorphosed into the Suzuka 10 Hours. But Super GT will continue to keep the flame of endurance racing alive at Fuji, by reviving a summer tradition of its predecessor series, uniting it with its own, and giving new life to the Fuji GT 500 Mile Race, the first running of the event in over a quarter-century.

In the heyday of the Fuji 500 Miles of the generation past, the legendary Group C prototypes from the great houses of speed, Porsche, Mazda, Toyota, and Nissan, were the stars of the show. Today, their spiritual successors in the GT500 class, the Honda NSX-GT, the Nissan GT-R, and the Lexus LC500, will battle it out for 177 laps, 807.651 kilometers, in the summer heat at the foothill of Mount Fuji in Shizuoka Prefecture. The layout of the circuit is changed from the 500 Miles of old, but at its core, the character still remains largely the same, from the 1.5 kilometer front stretch to the challenging, high-speed Coca-Cola and 100R corners.

For the macro of the Super GT championships as a whole, the Fuji GT 500 Mile Race could be a turning point. It’s the fifth round of an eight-race season, and the second leg of Super GT’s “Summer Series” and more points will be at stake for the teams involved. Where a win at any other race would pay 20 points, this race pays 25, then 18 for second place, 13 for third place, down to 10, 8, 6, 5, 4, 3, and 2 for the rest of the top ten. Points that could prove pivotal come the season finale at Twin Ring Motegi in November.

But most importantly, this is the chance for a new event to take the place of the Suzuka 1000km of years’ past, which had become recognized around the world as Super GT’s marquee event by the end of the era last August. The Fuji GT 500 Mile Race’s long-term success will hinge upon the faith in the unique action that Super GT provides compared to almost anything else in the GT racing landscape, and on the faith of its fans to support the race in large numbers at the track.

The temperatures are at their highest. The weight of Success Ballast is mounting, and so is the pressure to deliver as the second half of the Super GT season begins. And what better stage to bring at all to the fore than at the stage of the series’ new endurance racing tradition?

In the GT500 class, the battle for race victories stands with Honda leading with two wins, at Okayama and Suzuka. Nissan won the Fuji 500km in May, and Lexus finally got on the board with a win in Thailand at Chang International Circuit. For the overall championship in GT500, however, just 11 points separate the top 8 driver tandems in the standings. And now, Success Ballast and in particular, fuel-flow restrictors, become a factor in these middle races, where it will be of importance not just to pick up a victory, but to consistently maximize the points haul when the outright performance of the car is hampered the most.

That should mean that Lexus won’t have it easy, then, to win the longest race of the season, held at Fuji Speedway, the “home track” for Toyota’s flagship luxury badge. Of their six cars, four are over the 50 kilogram Success Ballast threshhold for fuel-flow restrictions.

Championship leader Heikki Kovalainen and co-driver Kamui Kobayashi piloted the #39 Denso Kobelco SARD LC500 to a big win in Buriram in July, giving Kovalainen the points lead, and Kobayashi, his first Super GT win. With that success comes the burden of 70 “kilos” of Success Ballast, but 34kg of that weight will be removed, and replaced with the “Stage 2” fuel flow limiter, slashing their intake from the standard 95 kg/hour, to 88.6 kg/h. That’s going to mean less fuel to the engine, and less power to the engine on Super GT’s biggest power circuit.

With the “Stage 1” fuel flow limiter (91.8 kg/h) onboard, the #6 Wako’s 4CR LC500 (Kazuya Oshima/Felix Rosenqvist) and the #1 KeePer TOM’s LC500 (Ryo Hirakawa/Nick Cassidy) have it a bit easier, but not entirely easy – though Oshima and Rosenqvist are just removed from their first podium of the season, and Cassidy just won the most recent Super Formula round held at Fuji last month. Also in this group of “Stage 1” handicapped Lexus, is the #38 ZENT Cerumo LC500 (Yuji Tachikawa/Hiroaki Ishiura). Tachikawa is the “Fuji-meister” with a record 8 Super GT wins at the Speedway, while Ishiura, making his 100th Super GT race entry, also runs well at Fuji.

If not those four, who would stand out as the favourite to win the Fuji 500 Miles for Lexus?

With just 30 kilos of ballast and no fuel-flow limits to worry about, the #36 au TOM’s LC500 of Kazuki Nakajima and Yuhi Sekiguchi should be the favourite from the Lexus fleet on paper – but beyond just the advantageous ballast situation, they are doubly motivated after Buriram, a race they could have easily won, only to run out of fuel on the final lap and finish outside the points. Nakajima is still beaming from the pride of his long-awaited Le Mans victory, and this team has had great success in the prior endurance races at Suzuka, 3rd, 1st, 1st, and 2nd from 2013 to 2016.

A win for the famous number 36 TOM’s car would be a popular one, and the potential for another great race for the #19 WedsSport Advan LC500 (Yuji Kunimoto/Kenta Yamashita) on +26kg exists as well following a breakthrough podium in Thailand.

But even despite the ballast situation, Lexus have one more potential ace up their sleeve: They’re rumoured to be bringing out the second of two engine specifications for this season, for this race. What horsepower they might have lacked compared to the Honda and Nissan runners to start the season, Lexus are determined to claw it all back.

Nissan’s main championship challenger is the #23 Motul Autech NISMO GT-R of Tsugio Matsuda and Ronnie Quintarelli, which took a rather dominant victory at the 500km on Golden Week. They are looking to become just the fourth team in history to sweep both races at Fuji in a GT500 campaign, it’s not happened since 2005.

On 62 “kilos” of Success Ballast, read: 45 kilos of weight plus the “Stage 1” fuel-flow limiter, Matsuda and Quintarelli won’t have it easy, at least on paper. But much like the #36 Lexus TOM’s crew, NISMO have also had terrific runs on impossibly high ballast in the last few Suzuka 1000kms, all with the same crew of Matsuda, Quintarelli, and team boss Yutaka Suzuki calling the shots. They were 2nd in 2014 and 2017, carrying 84 and 82 kilos respectively.

But if it’s not the “Red Car,” maybe the “Blue Car” could claim the victory for Nissan at the Fuji 500 Miles. The #12 Calsonic Impul GT-R (Daiki Sasaki/Jann Mardenborough) took its last win at the 2016 Fuji 300km. They’re running lean on ballast, just 36 kilos on board. Sasaki took his first GT500 win in the 2015 running of that race, and Mardenborough’s only Super GT win, at least to date, came in at Fuji during his season in GT300.

If nothing else, it would be somewhat fitting that the team run by Kazuyoshi Hoshino – who won the last JSPC Fuji 500 Miles in 1992, would win the first Super GT Fuji 500 Miles in 2018.

Masahiro Hasemi is also a former winner of the Fuji 500 Miles (1990), and he sits aboard the pitbox for the #3 CraftSports Motul GT-R (Satoshi Motoyama/Katsumasa Chiyo) that’s also a strong contender on +18kg, with Kondo Racing’s #24 Forum Engineering Advan GT-R (João Paulo de Oliveira/Mitsunori Takaboshi) on +14kg also looking to ignite what has been a stagnant campaign so far.

Nissan are holding their cards close as to whether or not this will be the time they bring their latest engine updates, but recent history is on their side: In the nine races at Fuji since the start of the current two-litre turbo GT500 formula, the GT-R has won six of them. Can they make it 7 out of 10 this weekend?

Honda won the last Fuji 300km, and they’re in the midst of a renaissance in GT500. Their championship challenges are spearheaded by the #100 Raybrig NSX-GT of Naoki Yamamoto and Jenson Button, who are second in points behind Kovalainen. But the Fuji 500km wasn’t the strongest race for Honda in May, and now the Raybrig NSX-GT is fuel-flow limited, but Yamamoto has been a star this year, to the extent that he’s genuinely eased the burden off the shoulders of his World Champion co-driver.

The #8 ARTA NSX-GT (Tomoki Nojiri/Takuya Izawa), of course, led ARTA’s big double-pole-to-win at this race’s predecessor last August, and they’re not fuel-flow limited, nor is the #17 Keihin NSX-GT (Koudai Tsukakoshi/Takashi Kogure), they’re just carrying 48 and 50 kilos of pure weight, respectively.

But with on +16kg, the #16 Motul Mugen NSX-GT (Hideki Mutoh/Daisuke Nakajima) is a genuine threat to put the Mugen team back on the top step of a GT500 podium, and so too are the team that won the final Suzuka 1000km last August in a thrilling upset, the #64 Epson Modulo NSX-GT of Bertrand Baguette & Kosuke Matsuura, which with +6kg on board for this race, is in a very similar situation to the one they entered Suzuka with last summer, when they won it all.

Like Nissan, Honda aren’t committed just yet to bringing an engine upgrade this weekend for their NSX-GTs. They may wait until the next race in Sugo to revamp their engines for the rest of the season. They certainly started the season with a healthy enough power advantage, but do they have it in the budget to afford a bit of complacency now?

Over the course of this 177-lap race, there will be four compulsory pit stops for driver changes and refuelling. For the GT500 runners, pit work from the mechanics will be important to determining the victor on the day. Drivers won’t get an equal share of drive time as a result, so who will be best suited to start, and in doing so, close out the race?

Much as strategy could be important in GT500, in GT300, it will be almost assured that a bold strategy call will win or lose the race for a title-contending team. We saw it in last year’s Suzuka 1000km, where the #65 LEON Cvstos Mercedes-AMG GT3 (Haruki Kurosawa/Naoya Gamou) used one of its five mandatory stops on the opening lap to effectively run a mock four-stop strategy that won them the race.

A decision to take two tyres, or no tyres, on a stop will be something of a risk in the hot conditions at Fuji. But with the right tyre management, the track position to be gained will be oh, so valuable.

The #0 Goodsmile Hatsune Miku AMG (Nobuteru Taniguchi/Tatsuya Kataoka) hasn’t had a strong season in defence of their GT300 titles, consistent points, but no podiums yet. But Fuji has always been a good track for Goodsmile Racing & Team UKYO, and they’re tipped as a favourite to win on just +32kg Success Ballast (all weight).

Recent history deeply favours the #55 ARTA BMW M6 GT3 (Shinichi Takagi/Sean Walkinshaw), as ARTA have won the GT300 class at the Fuji 300km from pole position the last three years running, and Takagi has the record for the most GT300 victories at Fuji with 8, including the Fuji 500km this May. Even on +52kg, this car is a genuine threat at the four-peat in the summer race at Fuji.

The #11 Gainer TanaX Nissan GT-R NISMO GT3 (Katsuyuki Hiranaka/Hironobu Yasuda) leads the GT300 standings after their win at Buriram in July, but now they’re over the “magic number” of 70kg Success Ballast to work against, at +74kg. They’ll most likely just be trying to hang on to a podium finish.

What will be fascinating to see is how the JAF-GT300 and Mother Chassis runners compete in this race. Fuji by far favours the more powerful FIA GT3 cars for out-and-out pace. But long-distance races, and aggressive tyre strategies, favour the lighter JAF-GT/MC cars that can run easier on their tyres. Out of that pack, the #31 Toyota Prius apr GT (Koki Saga/Kohei Hirate) and the #61 Subaru BRZ R&D Sport (Takuto Iguchi/Hideki Yamauchi) look strong, not the least because the Prius will also be racing on its “home ground”.

So too do the #25 Hoppy 86 MC (Takamitsu Matsui/Sho Tsuboi/Tsubasa Kondo), the #18 UPGarage 86 MC (Yuhki Nakayama/Takashi Kobayashi), and even the #5 Mach Syaken MC86 Y’s Distraction (Natsu Sakaguchi/Yuya Hiraki/Kiyoto Fujinami).

And that leads to the next subject of this Fuji 500 Miles: the “wild-card” factor of third drivers. Former GT300 champions Manabu Orido (#30 Toyota Prius apr GT), Masataka Yanagida (#360 RunUp Rivaux GT-R), and Kyosuke Mineo (#9 Gulf NAC Porsche 911 GT3-R) all look to make an impact, as will internationally-proven veterans like Shinji Nakano (#26 Taisan Audi R8 Fukushima) and Richard Bradley (#48 Shokumou.jp GT-R). Some will have a very limited role in the race, others will need to get a big share of the drive time to help their teams succeed.

Biggest wild-card of them all? Bentley factory driver Jules Gounon, joining the #117 EICars Bentley Continental GT3 with Yuji Ide and Ryohei Sakaguchi, and bringing with him more support from Bentley Motorsport’s HQ in Crewe that could bring them into the fight for the victory.

All the ingredients are in place for a fantastic Fuji GT 500 Mile Race on Sunday. The green flag waves at 1:30 PM JST (local time) / 5:30 AM BST / 6:30 AM CEST / 12:30 AM EDT / 2:30 PM AEST, with live coverage on NISMO.TV for viewers outside Japan, and J Sports 4 for viewers inside Japan.

DSC will be your hub for in-depth post-qualifying and post-race reports – you absolutely won’t want to miss what’s sure to be an instant classic in the shadow of Fuji-san!

Images courtesy of Toyota, Nissan, Honda, and the GT Association