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Fuji 500km Preview: Silver Anniversary Of The Golden Week Race

DSC looks at the field ahead of the second round of the 2019 Super GT season

Every racing championship steeped in years of history has its traditions. The Autobacs Super GT Series is no different. Twenty-five years ago, on May 1, 1994, the All-Japan Grand Touring Car Championship (JGTC), as it was known at the time, held the first race of its inaugural championship season at Fuji Speedway: The All-Japan Fuji GT Race.

This was the beginning of JGTC, later Super GT, racing at Fuji during Japan’s Golden Week holiday celebrations. An extended series of public holidays essentially serving as one long holiday: A time for the working populace to take time away to be with their families, a time for travellers to visit from all corners of the world. And much like the ties between the Indianapolis 500 and American Memorial Day weekend, GT racing at Fuji is now one of the great sporting events of Golden Week, more specifically, the fourth of May.

In 2001, the Golden Week race at Fuji went from a 300-kilometre race to a 500-kilometre race, thus reviving the Fuji 500 Kilometer Sports Car Race, first held in 1971, 1974, and every year from 1977 to 1991. It was a staple event of the All-Japan Endurance and Sports Prototype Championships from ‘83 to ‘91, the predecessor to today’s Super GT as the top level of sports car racing in the country.

The revived Fuji 500km has been a showcase event of Super GT ever since, a Golden Week sporting tradition that’s endured for twenty-five years, one of the very, very rare motor races that are held on a set date, May 4th, no matter which day of the week it may fall upon. A bit like mixed martial arts on New Year’s Eve, or pro wrestling in the Tokyo Dome on January 4th.

A crowd of over 90,000 spectators will be on hand over two days to take in the second round of the Autobacs Super GT Series, its signature race, the Fuji 500km, drawing in crowds larger than other marquee sports car races in the country, including the FIA World Endurance Championship’s 6 Hours of Fuji, and the Suzuka 10 Hours!

The Heisei era that began in 1989 with the reign of Emperor Akihito had given racing fans in Japan nearly 30 years of incredible racing memories, overlapping the last years of the previous All-Japan Sports Prototype Championship, and the entirety of Super GT’s history to this point. Now, in the first race of the Reiwa era, the name “Reiwa” meaning “beautiful harmony”, what memories will be created for this generation?

Fuji Speedway has been the “home circuit” for Toyota Motor Corporation, who purchased the circuit in the fall of 2000 and funded the massive 18-month renovation into the state-of-the-art, 4.563 kilometre circuit that it is today. There’s plenty of pride on the line for the six factory Lexus LC500s in the GT500 class, who struggled to put just three cars in the top ten during the rain-shortened season opener at Okayama International Circuit just a little over two weeks ago.

Amongst the Lexus runners, the #38 ZENT Cerumo LC500 is always a favourite to win at Fuji, especially whenever Yuji Tachikawa is at the wheel. Tachikawa, the “Fuji-meister” of Super GT’s premier category has a record eight career victories and eleven pole positions at Fuji Speedway. Of those eight victories, four of them have come at the Fuji 500km, most recently in 2017 alongside his co-driver Hiroaki Ishiura, who himself has three victories in the event, second only to Tachikawa!

The other big story out of the Lexus camp going into this race is aboard the #36 au TOM’s LC500, the team that won the 2013 Fuji 500km, and won the Fuji 500 Mile Race last August, both times led by ace driver Kazuki Nakajima. Nakajima, of course, will be at Spa-Francorchamps instead of Fuji honouring his commitments to Toyota in the WEC. So in his place, Ritomo Miyata, the 19-year-old top prospect of the Toyota Young Driver Programme (TDP), will make his first GT500 start alongside co-driver Yuhi Sekiguchi in the #36 au LC500. Can Miyata win his maiden GT500 outing in his step up from his regular GT300 drive with LM Corsa?

Amongst the rest of the Lexus crew, there’s the #37 KeePer TOM’s LC500 (Ryo Hirakawa/Nick Cassidy), with Cassidy coming in as the winner of the Super Formula season opener at Suzuka two weeks ago. The #6 Wako’s 4CR LC500 (Kazuya Oshima/Kenta Yamashita) has a previous winner of this event driving in Oshima, and a three-time race winner, Juichi Wakisaka, as team director.

The #39 Denso Kobelco SARD LC500 (Heikki Kovalainen/Yuichi Nakayama) finished a sensational second place as Sho Tsuboi nearly took victory in his one-off GT500 debut in that car last year. Speaking of Tsuboi, he and Yuji Kunimoto in the #19 WedsSport Advan LC500 were the best of the Lexus camp in the rain-shortened Okayama GT 300km Race, and they could be a dark horse to win the whole thing at Fuji.

While Fuji is Toyota’s home ground, Nissan have as many GT500 victories as Toyota at the circuit, 13 each, dating back to the inaugural JGTC race in 1994, won by the Calsonic Skyline GT-R of Masahiko Kageyama. And when it comes to Golden Week races at Fuji, Nissan is only one win back of Toyota/Lexus, 10-9.

The #23 Motul Autech NISMO GT-R of Tsugio Matsuda and Ronnie Quintarelli won this race last season, which accounted for Nissan’s only GT500 victory of 2018. They also won this race in 2015 and 2016, so they’ll be going for their fourth win in the last five years at the Fuji 500km. A fourth win for Matsuda and Quintarelli which would equal Tachikawa’s record of Fuji 500km victories in the JGTC/Super GT era.

The Nissan GT-Rs looked rejuvenated after winter testing, and after locking out the front row in qualifying at Okayama before taking four of the top five places in the race. Another car that’s expected to do well is the #12 Calsonic Impul GT-R (Daiki Sasaki/James Rossiter), two drivers who took their first GT500 victories at Fuji, looking to end a nearly two and a half year winless drought for Kazuyoshi Hoshino’s team.

And it’d be unwise to count out the #3 CraftSports Motul GT-R (Kohei Hirate/Frédéric Makowiecki) running on the same Michelin tyres used by the #23 Motul GT-R, or the #24 Realize Corporation Advan GT-R (Mitsunori Takaboshi/Jann Mardenborough) with their two excellent young drivers.

In the wet conditions, Honda surged to the front of the field at Okayama, and the #8 ARTA NSX-GT of Tomoki Nojiri and Takuya Izawa took the first victory of the 2019 season. But that was only after a controversial clash of Honda front-runners: The #100 Raybrig NSX-GT of defending champions Naoki Yamamoto & Jenson Button was punted off while battling with the #17 Keihin NSX-GT of Koudai Tsukakoshi & Bertrand Baguette, leading to the Raybrig NSX going in the gravel, and the Keihin NSX being penalized while running first on track.

Honda missed a chance at a clean sweep of the podium, and now it’s off to Fuji Speedway where, traditionally, Honda has struggled for success. It’s been nineteen years since Honda last won at Fuji Speedway on Golden Week: Not since the 300km race in 2000 has a Honda won this event. But they’ve won the summer race at Fuji in the years since, most recently in 2017. They certainly have the horsepower to hang with the Nissan and Lexus runners along the 1.5-kilometre front straight.

Can the ARTA NSX of Nojiri & Izawa open the year with back-to-back victories? Can the Keihin and Raybrig teams atone from the bust-up at Okayama? Could there be a relative upset in the cards via the #16 Motul Mugen NSX-GT (Hideki Mutoh/Daisuke Nakajima) or the #64 Modulo Epson NSX-GT (Narain Karthikeyan/Tadasuke Makino)?

Since only half-points were awarded at Okayama, only half the Success Ballast was handed down to the top ten finishers from the first race. There aren’t really any cars that are at a disadvantage, with only the ARTA NSX on as many as 20kg of ballast

Over in GT300, in the battle of the FIA GT3 cars versus the JAF-GT300 and Mother Chassis cars, the GT3s have a massive advantage at Fuji Speedway. GT3 cars have won the last six races at Fuji, and since the start of the “GT3 Revolution” in 2011, they’ve won 13 of the 16 races at Fuji over eight years!

But amongst the GT300 field, no team has had more success in recent years than Autobacs Racing Team Aguri. They won the last three Fuji Super GT races in a row going back to August 2017, and four of the last six at Fuji, with their previous BMW M6 GT3. Now they hope to give their new #55 ARTA Honda NSX GT3 Evo its first victory in 2019.

If Yuji Tachikawa is the “Fuji-meister” of GT500 with his eight wins, ARTA’s ace driver Shinichi Takagi, with nine wins, is the “Fuji-meister” of GT300. Together with his new co-driver Nirei Fukuzumi, Takagi will hope to lead ARTA to a fourth consecutive GT300 class victory at Fuji Speedway, and his fifth victory in the Golden Week race at Fuji.

That said, Takagi isn’t the only GT300 legend who’s had success at Fuji: The #96 K-Tunes Lexus RC F GT3 won at Okayama three weeks ago, and Morio Nitta has won at Fuji seven times – five of them on Golden Week, a GT300 class record. Can Nitta and rookie Sena Sakaguchi open 2019 with back-to-back victories? Or could it be the #4 Goodsmile Hatsune Miku Mercedes-AMG GT3 (Nobuteru Taniguchi/Tatsuya Kataoka), anchored by six-time Fuji winner Taniguchi, who’s won this event twice alongside Kataoka in 2012 and 2014?

There are many intriguing cars in amongst the GT3 ranks. The Nissan GT-R NISMO GT3s looked quick here in pre-season testing, but they have many “walking wounded” after incidents at Fuji. The aforementioned Honda NSX GT3 Evos also looked quick here in testing, and there’s pride on the line for the three Lexus RC F GT3s at Toyota-owned Fuji.

The new cars, the #7 D’station Aston Martin Vantage GT3 (Tomonobu Fujii/João Paulo de Oliveira) and the #720 McLaren 720S GT3 (Seiji Ara/Álex Palou) both want to make up for difficult first outings in Super GT with bounceback results in this second round of the season.

But don’t rule out a JAF-GT300 or Mother Chassis victory. These cars have the speed over a single lap, as demonstrated by the freshly-rebuilt #25 Hoppy Toyota 86 MC (Takamitsu Matsui/Kimiya Sato) taking pole in last summer’s Fuji 500 Mile Race. A car like that, or the #61 Subaru BRZ R&D Sport (Takuto Iguchi/Hideki Yamauchi) or the #52 Saitama Toyopet GreenBrave Toyota Mark X MC (Shigekazu Wakisaka/Hiroki Yoshida) could threaten the top step on strategy, typically gentler on tyres than the GT3s.

With several GT300 teams bringing in third drivers, including debutants Alessio Picariello (#21 Hitotsuyama Audi R8 LMS), Kazuto Kotaka (#30 Toyota Prius apr GT), and Shinya Sean Michimi (#33 EVA Racing Test-01 X Works GT-R), there’s even more variables in play that’ll make GT300 worth following this Saturday. Which extra drivers will make the biggest impact for their teams? Who will make the boldest strategic calls when it comes to four tyres, two tyres, or none at all on the two crucial pit stops?

The green flag flies this Saturday at 2:30 PM JST (local time), 6:30 AM BST.

The race will be made available to international viewers, and, credit where it is due, it’ll be free-to-air for this round and the remainder of the 2019 season thanks to the intense demand that this series has from the few, yet loyal Super GT fans across the world.

DSC will, in turn, continue to bring you the most in-depth and uncompromised coverage of each and every round of the 2019 Autobacs Super GT Series, this is our commitment to you.

Images courtesy of Toyota, Nissan, ARTA Project, and the GT Association (GTA).