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Unpacking The 2018 Suzuka 10 Hours

RJ O'Connell reflects on last weekend's IGTC race in Japan

When it was announced on 4 March, 2017 that the Suzuka 1000km, the signature race of the Autobacs Super GT Series, would transform into the Suzuka 10 Hours and become a GT3-centric showcase event of the SRO Intercontinental GT Challenge from 2018, many sports car racing fans, and in particular many fans of Super GT, had valid reason to be concerned about the potential of the revamped event.

Super GT’s product is unique to anything else in the world of contemporary sports car racing. Headlined by the incomparable GT500 class at the top, a four-way open tyre war, the unique and innovative JAF-GT300 and Mother Chassis cars that compete on even footing with GT3 cars with little to no concessions.

In contrast, the product seen in the SRO Intercontinental GT Challenge, and by extension the Blancpain GT Series and its many offshoots, is commonplace to the point of oversaturation – much like the GT3 formula as a whole.

And after a 2017 Suzuka 1000km that saw record-setting times in qualifying from the GT500 teams, a dramatic battle for the overall win in GT500 claimed for Honda an underdog team, a brilliant strategic play for the GT300 win that wasn’t decided until the final 10 minutes of the race, and the highly-anticipated sports car racing debut of Formula 1 World Champion Jenson Button, how would its successor be able to follow through, as “just another box-standard GT3 endurance race?”

Then, as the race itself drew closer, the pessimism started to recede. As high-quality teams filled the grid of 35 cars, and as Suzuka Circuit spared no expense to promote the inaugural 10 Hour running of the Summer Endurance Race for sports cars with special events in and around the circuit, the pessimism went away, replaced by genuine anticipation.

From what I could pick up from covering this race from Super GT World HQ, a/k/a DSC’s Very American Shed, there was an overwhelming sense that every team and every driver that showed up enjoyed being there, not withstanding the blistering heat of Sunday afternoon that topped out at 35°C. The press that came from all corners of the world to cover the event enjoyed a hospitable and friendly atmosphere, as did the spectators who attended over four days of on-and-off track activity.

As an event, the only thing that didn’t go as planned wasn’t a fault of the race organisers. Thursday morning’s planned city center parade, one inspired by the city parades of GT cars in the build up to the 24 Hours of Spa, was a victim of monsoon conditions that also extended out into the afternoon’s “Paid Practice.”

Everything else, however, went just perfectly. Saturday night’s open pit walk, and the Dekotora festival at the Circuit, showcasing commercial trucks decorated with neon lights and eye-popping artwork, was a hit. Two days of Ibiza foam parties helped keep the fans cool as the temperatures gradually climbed with each passing day. Talk shows hosted by drivers, live music, kid-oriented activities. No expense was spared to make this a fan-friendly event.

And the race itself was fantastic.

While the race for the overall lead was pretty much a done deal in the second half of the race, fantastic battles for position could be seen further down the field all the way to the chequered flag.

Raffaele Marciello, Tristan Vautier, and Maro Engel authored a flawless victory for the #888 GruppeM Mercedes-AMG GT3, in its special Gundam livery that was a fan-favourite, especially in the young overlap of auto racing and animé fans.

One thing that stands out about this victory is what it meant to Marciello, who carries on the back of his racing helmet the stylized number 17 that his late friend Jules Bianchi raced with in his brief Formula 1 career, the number that was retired when he passed away from injuries sustained in a racing accident at Suzuka during the 2014 Japanese Grand Prix.

Bianchi’s life was taken just as he was achieving his F1 dream. For Marciello, who was part of the Ferrari Driver Academy from 2010 to 2015, the F1 dream never came to fruition despite the talent he displayed as a Formula 3 champion and race winner in what is now Formula 2.

His switch to GT3 racing with Mercedes has given “Lello” new life as a racing driver, and now the biggest win of his career, one overflowing with emotion as he dedicated his Suzuka 10 Hours victory to Bianchi.

Maro Engel, the everyman of Mercedes sports car racing, now has a Suzuka victory to go along with his marquee victories at Macau and the Nürburgring. And Tristan Vautier, whose talents were never rewarded with a proper chance at success in IndyCar, continues to be a revelation in his switch to sports cars.

What GruppeM Racing’s victory also does is reinforce the strength of endurance racing’s fastest growing market in continental Asia. They were the first Hong Kong-based team to win the Suzuka Summer Endurance Race. They looked every bit the part of a proper elite-level racing team.

Joining them on the overall podium was the Audi of Absolute Racing, based out of the People’s Republic of China, another team that has had a winning pedigree not just in Asia but also in North America in the Pirelli World Challenge. On Saturday, the pole position was won by HubAuto Corsa of Taiwan.

And all three of these teams have another common thread: They’re all top-flight customer teams in the Blancpain GT Series Asia. So are KCMG, who’ve enjoyed a class victory in the 24 Hours of Le Mans, and Craft-Bamboo Racing from the Porsche camp, who both ran well but didn’t get the results that their speed should have rewarded them at the end of the 10 Hours. In just two seasons, Blancpain GT Asia is becoming a proving ground for genuine top teams that can beat the best European, North American, and Japanese teams.

As Blancpain GT Asia and the Asian Le Mans Series continue to grow each passing year and the quality of their grids ascends higher and higher, the myth that the Asian market is not a viable place for top-flight motorsport to take place just becomes short-sighted, willfully ignorant noise.

The other angle of this race was how the select teams of the Autobacs Super GT Series would fare against the established big-name teams and drivers from the west.

And no team rose to the occasion better than Mercedes-AMG Team Goodsmile (Goodsmile Racing & Team UKYO). As the reigning GT300 champions from Super GT, the third title they’ve won in seven years, they were expected to be the leading force from the Super GT contingent. But, their only Intercontinental GT Challenge effort prior to this, their 2017 Spa 24 Hours appearance with RAM Racing, may have painted them as a substandard outfit in the eyes of those not familiar with their stellar work in Super GT. A weekend that was bookended by wrecks, and little to no running near the front.

They had some familiarity with the control Pirelli tyres from that Spa experience, and this time out, they put in a brilliant performance – one that would have easily won them a “Spirit of the Race” Award if one was up for grabs.

They started 21st after being caught out by a late red flag during the final minutes of Saturday’s Pole Shootout, but Nobuteru Taniguchi, Tatsuya Kataoka, and Kamui Kobayashi combined to elevate the Hatsune Miku AMG through the field and into fifth place with two hours to go. It then came down to a final pursuit from Bentley’s Maxime Soulet, with Kataoka tasked to hold the Belgian off during the final hour of the race and the most exciting battle of that last hour.

The main grandstands were illuminated with fans carrying glowsticks, a tradition lovingly borrowed from another Suzuka endurance race, the 8 Hour superbike race, and the entire grandstand was lit up in a teal green for Miku, cheering Goodsmile Racing on to a fifth-place finish as they held off the silver Bentley piloted by one of the most established GT racers on the planet today.

It fittingly won this all-Japanese team the “Asia Award” for the best team with at least two Asian drivers, and a podium celebration with them standing on the top step. Anyone familiar with his F1 and WEC exploits knows the caliber of driver that Kobayashi is, he did more than his fair share in the result.

The feature article I wrote last July profiling Nobuteru Taniguchi’s unlikely ascent from the grassroots of Japanese drift driving and several odd jobs to fund a fledgeling career to his multiple championships in Super GT and his Spa 24 Hours debut as the ace of Goodsmile Racing, was one I took great pride in, as it helped spread awareness of a driver that is a true national racing legend across multiple disciplines.

And Kataoka is every bit as good as his two co-drivers, as demonstrated with his unwavering resolve in keeping Soulet at bay for the final hour, a GT500 race winner, GT300 champion, and even a successful team boss in Super Formula.

It was a popular result for a team that has become more than a novelty for their anime-inspired liveries, but a genuine top team with a global following.

Super GT’s contingent was also bolstered by an eighth-place finish for Audi Team Hitotsuyama, where Alessio Picariello showed his potential as a future cornerstone of the Audi customer racing programme, alongside Richard Lyons and Ryuichiro Tomita, who apart from a spin from Tomita, never made a misstep all day long.

Pro-Am teams also stole the spotlight at times. The pole position was won by the #28 HubAuto Corsa Ferrari of Nick Foster, who led the first hour until a drive-through penalty for having personnel on the grid past the permitted time frame. Foster, David Perel, and Hiroki Yoshida drove well above their Silver/Silver/Bronze designations.

So too did the eventual class winners at Sun Energy 1 Racing, Mikaël Grenier had many fun battles with Matt Griffin, Luca Stolz’s opening stint was a thrill ride and demonstrated the young German’s potential as a future champion, and while Kenny Habul couldn’t keep pace with the other pros around him, he did what he needed to do first and foremost, drive a clean race and put the team in contention to win their class.

And give a call as well to the only Am Cup car in the field, the Sato, Yamashita-SS/Rn-sports Mercedes team from Osaka, Japan. Two 50-something gentleman drivers in Atsushi Sato and Norio Kubo, and a true young amateur in Ryosei Yamashita, getting a podium celebration of their own as they were able to finish the race with no accidents and no mechanical issues, something quite a few teams weren’t even able to accomplish with far more resources and more accomplished drivers!

The only thing that was sorely missing from the Suzuka 10 Hours field was a true presence from the lone holdout of Japan’s “big three”: Toyota. With no Lexus RC F GT3s and no Toyota Prius GTs, and only Kamui Kobayashi and Kohei Hirate representing them as factory drivers on loan to other manufacturers, there was just one Toyota badged car in the field: A Dome-built Toyota 86 MC fielded by Team UPGarage, who receive no support from Toyota.

They along with the Lotus Evora MC of Cars Tokai Dream28 struggled for overall pace on the much-harder Pirelli tyres than the softer, grippier Super GT tyre compounds they’re used to, which prevented them from potentially being able to spring a surprise on the heavier, brawnier GT3 cars with their lightweight frames and supreme downforce.

Toyota originally pledged a factory-backed effort for the Suzuka 10 Hours that never materialized, with most of their factory drivers taking part in an Inter Proto Series race at Fuji Speedway on the same weekend. As the Nissan GT-Rs flirted with victory before misfortune and the Honda NSX GT3s all saw the chequered flag, it felt like Toyota had scored a clumsy own goal by not taking part – here’s hoping they can commit to the race in 2019.

Now for the “areas of opportunity”. The things that need a rethink for 2019.

There were claims that the race regulations weren’t made available outside the native Japanese. They were unfounded claims, the regulations were distributed to competitors in Japanese and English, as is the case for events like Le Mans – where the regs are in French and English.

But there were communication issues during the first phase of qualifying that led to a lengthy delay before the Pole Shootout, and eventually four cars, including the race-winning #888 GruppeM Mercedes, being added into an expanded Top 24 Shootout after fastest laps in Q1 were deleted due to track limits violations but not communicated reliably to the teams.

There’s certainly nothing wrong with a strict enforcement of track limits in a time where many feel its too relaxed, especially on circuits with big expanses of tarmac run-off past the white lines.

That Blancpain GT Series events are typically behind a premium subscription paywall in the USA is a constant pain point. Any series, really, that has its racing behind a paywall, it’s always a pain point. The Japanese coverage for the event saw flag-to-flag coverage on free-to-air TV. For most European and Asia-Pacific countries, however, it was all behind a paywalled streaming app, and the investment was not worth it.

Only the last 90 minutes aired on this network’s television channel, only the last 90 minutes had lap-by-lap commentary, and the streaming feed even went out for at least an hour.

North American audiences were also expecting the race to be behind a paywall, with gritted and gnashed teeth all the way, until at the last minute the subscription provider released their exclusive live streaming rights to this event and made it free to air on the IGTC YouTube channel.

I would have had no qualms paying to see the race personally, as the Suzuka 10 Hours is an event that’s worth my monetary investment. But its understandable why people look negatively upon the prospect of premium streaming subscriptions for sports car races, especially when the Bathurst 12 Hour, another IGTC event, is live and free annually, and when Super GT races on NISMO TV pull in big audiences without a paywall. And, especially, when the return on investment is insufficient.

That leads to the other big pain point of the live broadcast of the Suzuka 10 Hours on the GT World channel: Pit-FM’s commentary from Dave Fromm and Atsuki Kido, who took heavy criticism even from a few Super GT drivers who were watching the race.

Pit-FM are a local radio station based at Suzuka Circuit which does quick updates for the fans in attendance for events like the Suzuka 10 Hours, the F1 Japanese Grand Prix, and all other races at Suzuka. They also broadcast music and driver interviews at trackside, which were not heard during the live broadcast, resulting in tons of dead air on their side, which ironically was well-received.

Pit-FM are not and will not aspire to be Radio Show Limited, and that’s not a criticism. They operate on entirely different models and provide different services. Fromm and Kido weren’t tasked to do in-depth, lap-by-lap race analysis and commentary, and probably were not expecting to have their audio broadcast to an unreceptive audience, which is way less than fair to Kido especially, who has an extensive background covering motor racing and working as an interpreter in Japan.

The problem is that they were a hastily-added commentary solution with no dedicated comms team in place like Bathurst or Spa. There was no commentary at all for the live broadcast of qualifying on Saturday, and the only live video of the practices on Thursday and Friday was just a video rebroadcast of the live timing screens.

Which was the only live timing accessible to the masses, because for the race and qualifying, it was only made available through an app and desktop client which only works when connected to Suzuka Circuit’s Wi-Fi, meaning nobody could access live timing to follow the race unless they were at the track. That’s a massive misstep, as egregious as Super GT’s insistence to put their live timing for all sessions behind a paywall on an iOS-exclusive app year after year.

It’s a shame that the presentation of this event to the global audience left so much to be desired, because when you get past that, the Suzuka 10 Hours was a great first event that can easily stand on its own as a marquee event and not just as another leg of the IGTC, just as Bathurst and Spa do on an annual basis.

Hand over heart, I would still much rather watch a Super GT race if given the choice between that or a GT3 showcase event like the Suzuka 10 Hours, but this race was genuinely a positive experience to take in, not just as a writer but as a fan. The racing was good. The events around the racing were planned well. The drivers loved the challenge of tackling Suzuka, including over 60 of the 105 drivers that had never raced this circuit before. The teams loved being there.

If the event was given the treatment in presentation to match that of a Bathurst 12 Hour or Spa 24 Hours, it would really help the race go a long way in solidifying itself in this new era for an event with a half-century of amazing history behind it, and what, hopefully, will be a great future ahead of it.

Images courtesy of SRO Motorsports Group / Dirk Bogaerts Photography