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Motegi GT Grand Final Preview: The Battle For the Championship

One more race remains in the 2018 Super GT season, who will claim the championships in GT500 and GT300?

For the 25th time, Japan’s premier category of endurance sports car racing will crown its set of champions. And for the tenth year in succession, the summit is Twin Ring Motegi, which lies just 140 kilometers northeast of Tokyo at the eastern border of Tochigi Prefecture.

It’s the eighth and final round of the 2018 Autobacs Super GT Series, the Motegi GT 250km Race “Grand Final”. The last 53-lap, 250 kilometer battle in a season that began seven months ago in Okayama, traveled twice through Fuji, then through Suzuka, Sugo, Autopolis, and even to the kingdom of Thailand in Buriram.

This magnificent, challenging 4.8 kilometer road course is still a marvel of modern circuit design in the years since it was completed in 1997, shadowed by the 1.5 mile superspeedway oval that now serves as a carpark for the masses and a historical artefact much like the high-speed banked oval at Monza. Combinations of fast, medium-speed, and low-speed corners, elevation changes, and plenty of places to pass, it’s a track that makes a perfect venue for a climactic season finale, as it has every year since 2009.

Just in this past decade alone, this final race of the season at Motegi has given us plenty of incredible moments. Juichi Wakisaka and Takashi Kogure going doorpanel-to-doorpanel for the victory in 2010. The first-lap clash between James Rossiter and João Paulo de Olivera in 2014. Ronnie Quintarelli winning his record-breaking fourth GT500 title with NISMO in 2015. And Takeshi Tsuchiya, after 21 years of trying, winning his first Super GT title with his family’s team in his very last race in 2016.

This is the race that all the preparation from the teams and drivers has been building up to. The previous 2,800 kilometers of racing, the days of testing before and during the season, the pit stop practices, and every fine-tuning of the ideal race setup.

This weekend, there is no Success Ballast to decide who will win the championships in Super GT. This race, and this final, decisive battle for the GT500 and GT300 Championships, comes down to the skill of the drivers, the preparation and strategy of the teams, and the unencumbered potential of the cars.

And this weekend, we are anticipating one of the great “winner-take-all” prize fights for the GT500 Championship, the fastest GT racing category in the world. The #100 Raybrig Honda NSX-GT of Naoki Yamamoto & Jenson Button, and the #1 KeePer TOM’s Lexus LC500 of defending series champions Ryo Hirakawa & Nick Cassidy, are tied at 67 points each. Two of the most celebrated teams in the series, and four of the best drivers anywhere in the world, and whoever finishes first between them will most likely win the title in 2018.

For the challengers at Raybrig Team Kunimitsu, they are on the horizon of a moment that has been a quarter-century in the making.

The great Kunimitsu Takahashi and his team have been racing in Super GT since the inaugural 1994 season. Their royal blue Raybrig NSX is a car recognizable the world over, even to car enthusiasts who might never have seen a Super GT race before. But for all their history and success between wins in Super GT, the All-Japan Touring Car Championship, and even a class win in the 1995 24 Hours of Le Mans, a GT500 championship title is the one prize that has eluded Team Kunimitsu for 25 years.

Naoki Yamamoto, who debuted in 2010 with Team Kunimitsu and has spent the majority of his career with this team, is on the precipice of not only his first GT500 Drivers’ Championship, but after winning the Super Formula Championship two weeks ago at Suzuka, could become the first “Double Champion” of Japan since 2004, and only the fourth-ever to hold both the GT500 and Japanese Top Formula titles in the same year.

And “super rookie” Jenson Button, after 17 years in Formula 1, could begin the first full year of his second racing career by winning the championship in his first full season in GT500. Even for a previous F1 World Champion, the switch to sports car racing is no easy task after a lifetime in single-seaters. Button has helped raise the profile of Super GT exponentially in his short time on the circuit, and a championship victory would be quite popular the world over.

To do this, however, they would need to defeat the reigning champions at Lexus Team KeePer TOM’s, a proven championship-winning team, and two drivers who still have their entire racing futures ahead of them.

Ryo Hirakawa and Nick Cassidy are trying to become the first back-to-back champions since Tsugio Matsuda and Ronnie Quintarelli in 2014-15, and after their come-from-behind victory at Autopolis in October, they’re now level on points with Yamamoto & Button.

Both Hirakawa and Cassidy are proven race winners and champions, no longer stars in waiting, but stars of the present, and good health willing, two stars of the future who could carry Toyota’s racing division for the next 20 seasons.

Hirakawa is making good on the potential he demonstrated as the top prospect of the new Toyota Young Driver Program (TDP), and Cassidy, who’s helped Super GT find a new and emerging market of ravenous racing fans in his native New Zealand, will be motivated to extract some payback after falling just one point and less than a second short of winning the Super Formula title from Yamamoto.

Lexus also have the advantage of having the quickest car in the most recent in-season official test at Twin Ring Motegi. With the experience of team director and Le Mans champion Masanori Sekiya to guide them from the pit wall, TOM’s are in a familiar setting of battling for a championship in the premier class of Super GT – another trophy would add to this team’s already legendary 45-year legacy.

In 2006, the GT500 championship came down to these same two front-running teams: Team Kunimitsu versus Toyota Team TOM’s. That season, it was Juichi Wakisaka and André Lotterer who won the battle for TOM’s at Fuji Speedway. This year at Motegi, anything can happen.

But if things go awry for both of the main title challengers, there are still two more teams that, despite sitting a long way out of the points lead, can still seize the opportunity to score a massive come-from-behind championship victory.

Trailing by twelve points in third place, is Yuhi Sekiguchi in the #36 au TOM’s LC500, with his co-driver, the 2018 Le Mans champion Kazuki Nakajima. Sekiguchi has taken the hard road to the pinnacle of Japanese motorsport, after being dropped by Toyota as a teenager, struggling through a brief spell in European single-seaters, and finding his way back to Japan via Nissan before coming back to the fold with Toyota.

With at least a victory or a second-place finish, 31-year-old Sekiguchi can cap off his best Super GT campaign to date with his first title.

Nakajima will play a supporting role as he cannot take a share of the Drivers’ Championship for himself, but this race could be the last time we see him, or Kamui Kobayashi (#39 Denso Kobelco SARD LC500) race in Super GT for the foreseeable future. This is due to Super GT and the FIA World Endurance Championship having two clashing calendar dates in 2019. Lexus are also set to bid farewell to Felix Rosenqvist (#6 Wako’s 4CR LC500) as he moves onto the IndyCar Series from 2019.

The #8 ARTA NSX-GT of Tomoki Nojiri and Takuya Izawa are seventeen points back in fourth place, and must win to have any chance of winning the championship – and overturning the largest championship deficit to win it on the final day since Yuji Tachikawa and Toranosuke Takagi came back from 14 points down to win the 2005 GT500 titles for Toyota Team Cerumo.

For Autobacs Racing Team Aguri, it’s the culmination of a years-long rebuilding process that’s taken them from the cellar of the GT500 standings back into being perennial race winners. This is in large part thanks to the rapid development of ace driver Nojiri, and Izawa is in the best form he’s had in a long time, hoping to win his first Super GT title after 10 years on the circuit.

It’s a microcosm of Honda’s turnaround as a whole since the start of 2017, but even though the HRD Sakura motorsport facility is just a 45 kilometer drive away from this second of two Honda-owned circuits in Japan, Honda haven’t won at Motegi since 2009 – when ARTA farewelled the first-generation NSX-GT with a race win.

Meanwhile, a quartet of Nissan GT-R NISMO GT500s will be racing for pride in this last race of the season. While they cannot win the championship, they are certainly more than capable of disrupting the title fight.

Nissan’s challenge will be led by defending Motegi Grand Final winners Tsugio Matsuda and Ronnie Quintarelli in the #23 Motul Autech NISMO GT-R. These two drivers have enjoyed incredible success at Motegi, with Matsuda winning here four times, and Quintarelli winning three times – in 2014 and 2017, they’ve won as a tandem. The “red car”, as well as the “blue car” – the #12 Calsonic Impul GT-R (Daiki Sasaki/Jann Mardenborough) will each be all in to win the last race of the season for Nissan.

And in addition, this Motegi Grand Final could be the final ride for Super GT legends like 47-year-old Satoshi Motoyama (#3 CraftSports Motul GT-R), and 43-year-old Yuji Tachikawa (#38 ZENT Cerumo LC500), who’ve both driven over 20 seasons in the premier category – if this does indeed prove to be their final race, they’ll both want to sign out on their top form.

As important as the GT500 championship battle is, there is an equally important battle going on for the GT300 championship titles.

Six teams enter this final race of the season with a mathematical chance of winning the GT300 Championship titles. But it’s the #55 ARTA BMW M6 GT3 of Shinichi Takagi and Sean Walkinshaw that has a commanding 12-point lead over the other five contenders, and with a fourth-place finish or better, they’ll clinch the GT300 title.

As big as their sweep of the two long-distance races at Fuji Speedway were for the #55 ARTA BMW of Takagi & Walkinshaw, their drive from 22nd to 4th at the last race in Autopolis might have been the defining moment of the season, especially if they are able to clinch the championship at Motegi.

Takagi, who’s tied for the joint lead in career wins in the GT300 class, is seeking his first drivers’ title since winning it with ARTA in 2002. Walkinshaw, in just his third Super GT campaign, would love to follow in his great father’s footsteps with a championship title of his own. This would be BMW’s third Super GT title as a manufacturer, and their first with the sole remaining M6 on the GT300 grid.

Needing at least a second-place finish to have any chance of the title is the #65 LEON Cvstos Mercedes-AMG GT3 (Haruki Kurosawa/Naoya Gamou), which won this race last year en route to finishing 2nd in the championship. Kurosawa is also looking for his first series title in his 16th season, alongside rising star Gamou.

And the only JAF-GT300 car in the “championship six” is the #31 Toyota Prius apr GT (Koki Saga/Kohei Hirate), in the final race for the mid-engined, hybrid-V8 Prius GT. They too need a second-place finish or better to stand a chance at the title.

Saga, who’s been with the Prius GT project since the very beginning in 2012, would love to send the Prius GT off with its first championship, as would two-time GT500 champion co-driver Hirate, who is eager to try and earn his way back into the premier class.

Hopes of a repeat championship win for the #0 Goodsmile Hatsune Miku AMG (Nobuteru Taniguchi/Tatsuya Kataoka) rest on either a win or a second place from pole position. Their hopes of a record-breaking fourth championship in eight years for both team and drivers aren’t extinguished just yet, but after a difficult race at Autopolis, the Miku AMG has a tough climb to the top spot ahead of them.

And both the #96 K-Tunes Lexus RC F GT3 (Morio Nitta/Yuichi Nakayama) and the #11 Gainer TanaX Nissan GT-R NISMO GT3 (Katsuyuki Hiranaka/Hironobu Yasuda) have to win to have any chance of the championship, potentially a record fourth for Nitta, a second for Yasuda, and/or a long-awaited first for Nakayama and Hiranaka, who’ve come close many times before in recent years.

It’s entirely possible that the championship can be overturned in the final race of the season: Masataka Yanagida and Kazuki Hoshino won the 2010 GT300 Championship from 11 points back in 2010, while in 2012, Kyosuke Mineo and Naoki Yokomizo overturned a 9 point deficit.

Look as well towards the cars looking to play the role of spoiler in this final race: Potent JAF-GT300 and Mother Chassis cars like the #61 Subaru BRZ R&D Sport (Takuto Iguchi/Hideki Yamauchi) and the #25 Hoppy Toyota 86 MC (Takamitsu Matsui/Sho Tsuboi), the #21 Hitotsuyama Audi R8 LMS (Richard Lyons/Ryuichiro Tomita) which won its first and only race here in 2016, the #9 Gulf NAC Porsche 911 GT3-R (Rintaro Kubo/Keishi Ishikawa) which was quickest at the Motegi test – and of course, the #34 Modulo Kenwood Honda NSX GT3 (Ryo Michigami/Hiroki Otsu), coming off its first podium finish and looking to win one for the home manufacturer.

The Motegi GT 250km Race “Grand Final” goes green this Sunday at 13:30 JST (local time) / 4:30 GMT / 5:30 CEST / 11:30 PM EST (Saturday) / 15:30 AEDT.

NISMO TV will carry the race outside of Japan with Sam Collins and Leigh O’Gorman on commentary, and extended highlights can be seen after the race on the Jenson Button TV YouTube channel with commentary from Toby Moody. For viewers in Japan, every session can be seen on the J Sports family of networks, with commentary from Sascha Boeckle, Hidetoshi Mitsusada, and Takuya Yura – Jiro Takahashi and Amie Izawa will be reporting from pit lane.

Images courtesy of the GT Association (GTA) and Mobilityland Corporation.