Only one race has been on the Autobacs Super GT Series calendar, every year, since its inaugural season in 1994. It’s not Fuji Speedway, it’s not Suzuka Circuit. It’s the flowing, undulating, 3.7 kilometer Sportsland SUGO circuit, nestled away in the woods of the town of Murata in Miyagi Prefecture in northern Honshu.
It’s a track reminiscent of other short, undulating road courses like Brands Hatch and Laguna Seca, tracks that, like Sugo, have incredible pedigrees as a host of automobile and motorcycle racing. And in its twenty-five year history as a Super GT venue, dating back to the days of the All-Japan GT Championship, Sugo has given fans some of the greatest moments in series history.
In 2007, they saw Juichi Wakisaka, Ryo Michigami, and Daisuke Ito cross the start-finish line three abreast in a fantastic battle for the lead, creating one of the most iconic images in Super GT history, the famous “3 Wide Pass”.
In 2003, Wakisaka’s last-corner, bump-and-run pass on Érik Comas brought the crowd to its feet. It stood as the closest finish in the GT500 class’ history, until 2010, when the Hondas of Koudai Tsukakoshi and Takashi Kogure raced out of the final corner, and Tsukakoshi pipped Kogure to the line by 0.025 seconds, scoring Keihin Real Racing’s first Super GT victory.
Then just last July, on a damp track, the Lexus of Kohei Hirate and the Nissan of Satoshi Motoyama treated us to a fantastic final-lap clash for the victory. The two drivers banged wheels in pursuit of the victory, but it was Hirate who drove away the winner for Lexus Team SARD.
It’s why this 81-lap race, maybe even as much as the races at Fuji or Suzuka if not even more so, is a must-watch for Super GT fans this weekend. It has the potential to be another instant classic. This is the final race in Super GT’s 2018 “mid-summer triple”, and there are just three races left, this, the 300km race in Autopolis, and the 250km Grand Final at Twin Ring Motegi.
As many as 21 points are at stake in this critical 6th round of the 2018 Super GT Series, one that sees the top nine teams in the premier GT500 category separated by just eighteen points, with the top nine championship-eligible driver combinations separated by seventeen points.
First, there are the championship front-runners, including five Lexus LC500s in those nine front-running positions in the tables. Sugo is traditionally a track where the Toyota Motor Company has excelled, they’ve won eleven races at Sugo, including six in a row from 2001 to 2006, and the win last July courtesy of Lexus Team SARD.
The defending GT500 champions, Ryo Hirakawa and Nick Cassidy, have a seven-point lead in the championship, their #1 KeePer TOM’s LC500 has scored three podiums and finished every race in the points so far this season. This year, it’s Cassidy who’s taking on the starring role of this team as he not only leads the Super GT drivers’ standings, but the Super Formula drivers’ championship as well, trying to become Japan’s first “Double Champion” in 14 years.
Also in the mix is the #36 au TOM’s LC500 of Kazuki Nakajima & Yuhi Sekiguchi, the latter of whom excels at Sugo, and sits second in the GT500 Drivers’ Championship, while Le Mans winner Nakajima still leads the World Endurance LMP Drivers’ Championship for Toyota in WEC.
But they’ll both have heavy Success Ballast handicaps to wrestle with, especially the KeePer LC500 of Hirakawa & Cassidy – which is carrying, for the first time this year, the “Level 3” fuel-flow restrictor of 85.5 kilograms per hour, plus 44 kilos of weight ballast.
The au LC500 of Nakajima & Sekiguchi carries the “Level 2” fuel-flow restrictor (88.6 kg/h), as does the #39 Denso Kobelco SARD LC500 (Heikki Kovalainen/Kamui Kobayashi), last year’s winning team at Sugo, and 2nd in 2016. So too does the #6 Wako’s 4CR LC500 (Kazuya Oshima/Felix Rosenqvist). The #38 ZENT Cerumo LC500 (Yuji Tachikawa/Hiroaki Ishiura) is in title contention as well, but still carries a fuel-flow limiter, theirs is only the “Level 1” (91.8 kg/h).
Those fuel-flow limitations that affect outright top speed don’t hurt quite as much at a track like Sugo, where downforce, handling, and car balance reign supreme. That said, it won’t exactly help in the high-speed sections of the track, in particular the run out of the infamous 110R to the First Corner at the north end of the circuit, and the run through Rainbow Corner to Horseback Corner at the south end.
The only Lexus not encumbered by fuel-flow limitations is the #19 WedsSport Advan LC500 of Yuji Kunimoto and Kenta Yamashita, and they have one thing that could be a benefit to them during the race: The expected longevity of their Yokohama tyres. The #24 Forum Engineering Advan Nissan GT-R (João Paulo de Oliveira/Mitsunori Takaboshi) won at Sugo in 2016 by running their one set of Yokohama tyres the entire distance.
Those teams, along with the #16 Motul Mugen NSX-GT (Hideki Mutoh/Daisuke Nakajima) could benefit, with their tyres, and with carrying very little success ballast and scoop up the victory.
Traditionally, Nissan have struggled at Sugo, winning only three times including 2016. They introduce their one in-season update for their NR20A engine this weekend, just as Lexus and Honda did at the Fuji 500 Mile Race.
Leading the way for Nissan in the championship battle once again is the #23 Motul Autech NISMO GT-R (Tsugio Matsuda/Ronnie Quintarelli), now 6th in the standings after difficult outings at Buriram and Fuji. But there’s two other Nissan GT-Rs that warrant attention for the victory.
The #3 CraftSports Motul GT-R (Satoshi Motoyama/Katsumasa Chiyo) has the same driver lineup that just barely lost out on the victory at Sugo last July, and are trying to bounce back after two straight non-scoring races. They are not fuel-flow limited, and neither is the #12 Calsonic Impul GT-R (Daiki Sasaki/Jann Mardenborough), which led 94 laps of the Fuji 500 Miles, only to fall out of the points as a pipe broke loose in the engine bay.
And of course, the Yokohama-clad #24 Forum Engineering GT-R of Oliveira and Takaboshi could be in for a solid day ahead.
Honda come into Sugo with three of their five NSX-GTs in the big pack at the head of the GT500 Championships. But a recent Balance of Performance change sees the mid-engined NSXes pegged back just a little bit.
The minimum weight goes up 10 kilograms from 1034 to 1044, a subtle change, but one meant to keep the mid-engined Hondas in touch with the front-engined Lexus and Nissans. Honda have seven wins at Sugo, their last coming in 2015.
Leading the way are Naoki Yamamoto and Jenson Button in the #100 Raybrig NSX-GT, the duo still looking for their first win of the 2018 season. Sugo was the site of Team Kunimitsu’s first Super GT win in 1994, and their most recent, in 2015.
The #17 Keihin NSX-GT (Koudai Tsukakoshi/Takashi Kogure), winners at Okayama this April, and the #8 ARTA NSX-GT (Tomoki Nojiri/Takuya Izawa), winners at Suzuka this May, are also solidly in the championship hunt. The three Bridgestone-clad Hondas all carry the “Level 2” fuel-flow restrictors, but even still, they’ve been properly quick all season long.
Lastly, the #64 Epson Modulo NSX-GT (Bertrand Baguette/Kosuke Matsuura) may be bottom of the table for now, but they ran well in wet/dry conditions at Sugo last year, as their Dunlop tyres tend to do. And recall that it was in the sixth round of 2017, the final Suzuka 1000km, that the Epson NSX broke Nakajima Racing’s 10-year winless drought in stunning fashion.
GT300 will see 28 cars entered due to the reduced garage capacity at Sugo. The final grid spot came down to a season-long battle between the unseeded #2 Cars Tokai Dream28 Lotus Evora MC and the #777 CarGuy ADA Honda NSX GT3, with the Lotus of Kazuho Takahashi and Hiroki Katoh getting the final grid spot.
The 28-car field will also be the test case for a new qualifying format, where the field is split into two groups of 14 in two separate Q1 sessions, with the top seven in each session advancing into Q2 and the fight for pole position.
Calling a winner will be tough. The technical nature of Sugo should, in theory, favour the JAF-GT300 and Mother Chassis cars. But all three sub-classes of cars, including FIA GT3, have won this race in the last three years.
At the top of the standings, the #55 ARTA BMW M6 GT3 of Shinichi Takagi and Sean Walkinshaw, coming off their season sweep of the Fuji Speedway rounds, lead by six points. But as a consequence, they’ll carry the maximum 100 kilograms of Success Ballast into a track where the ARTA M6 has retired in both 2016 and 2017 due to accidents. Their goal will simply be to leave Sugo with as many points as possible.
Second in the championship lies the #31 Toyota Prius apr GT, the winning car from 2016, with Koki Saga, and Kohei Hirate, the winner of that awesome GT500 class battle with Motoyama in 2017. The combination of the Prius’ high downforce and mid-ship layout, combined with the extra jolt of their hybrid powertrain, may be enough to overcome a stiff 90kg Success Ballast handicap of their own. Another JAF-GT300 car, the #61 Subaru BRZ R&D Sport (Takuto Iguchi/Hideki Yamauchi), has the speed to contend, but is trying to overcome a string of three mechanical DNFs in the last four races.
A Mercedes-AMG GT3 won last year’s race at Sugo, and two are in prime championship position thanks to relentless consistency: The #65 LEON Cvstos AMG (Haruki Kurosawa/Naoya Gamou), which dominated the early portion of the race before being caught out in mid pit-cycle Safety Car interventions. And the defending GT300 champions, the #0 Goodsmile Hatsune Miku AMG of Nobuteru Taniguchi and Tatsuya Kataoka, will be brimming with confidence after an awesome fifth place finish in the Suzuka 10 Hours – they’re still in search of their first Super GT win of 2018.
Mother Chassis cars like the #25 Hoppy Toyota 86 MC (Takamitsu Matsui/Sho Tsuboi) and the #18 UPGarage 86 MC (Yuhki Nakayama/Takashi Kobayashi) will be a hot pick to win at Sugo, after all, this is where the Mother Chassis platform picked up its first Super GT win, via the #25 Tsuchiya Engineering team.
The two Lexus RC F GT3s from LM Corsa, the #60 Syntium RC F GT3 (Hiroki Yoshimoto/Ritomo Miyata), and the #96 K-Tunes RC F GT3 (Morio Nitta/Yuichi Nakayama) are also favoured to do well as they had a strong race here last year. Another car that had a great performance at the Suzuka 10 Hours, the #21 Hitotsuyama Audi R8 LMS (Richard Lyons/Ryuichiro Tomita), just wants to finish up what’s been a frustrating season, with just a single 10th place finish as their high watermark.
As for last year’s winning team, the #11 Gainer TanaX GT-R (Katsuyuki Hiranaka/Hironobu Yasuda) will try and repeat the feat with a brand new car, and a reworked driver combination that had Björn Wirdheim alongside Hiranaka last season.
Hiranaka will also be a sentimental favourite as the lone driver from Hokkaido Prefecture in the field. The northernmost island is reeling from the devastation of a 6.6 magnitude earthquake on 6 September that has left over 40 dead and over 600 injured, with thousands of homes damaged or still without power.
Under those circumstances, auto racing alone cannot put back together broken homes, nor can it come close to healing the hearts of those who have lost family members, friends, or loved ones. It can provide a temporary relief and source of entertainment for those who need it. Here’s hoping, especially, for an exciting and safe race.
The green flag waves at 2:00 PM JST (local time) / 6:00 AM BST / 7:00 AM CEST / 1:00 AM EDT, and NISMO TV will carry flag-to-flag coverage of the race for international viewers.
Images courtesy of Toyota, Nissan, and the GT Association