Two years ago, endurance racing in the Autobacs Super GT Series faced an uncertain future. From 2006 to 2017, the Suzuka 1000km, a race with a half-century of history and lineage, was the showcase event of the championship.
When it changed into the Suzuka 10 Hours and became part of the Intercontinental GT Challenge, it was decided that the Fuji 500 Mile Race, a staple event of the All-Japan Endurance and Sports Prototype Championships, would be revived in its place, taking the traditional mid-summer date on the JGTC/Super GT calendar that was once held by the Japan Special GT Cup, a 300 kilometre race at Fuji.
This year marks the 17th running of the Fuji 500 Mile Race, first held from 1977 to 1992, and revived once again in 2018. The Fuji 500 Miles represents that start of the second half of the 2019 season. A 177-lap, 805-kilometer race, paying extra points to the top 10 finishers – 25 points to the winner, for instance, instead of the standard 20. In this stage of the championship, the informal Summer Series, the top teams are loaded down with heavy amounts of Success Ballast, and fuel-flow limiters that can sap the GT500 cars of the straight-line speed they need to pull their way down the 1.475 kilometre front stretch.
Next August, the roar of engines at Fuji Speedway will be silent. The games of the 32nd Summer Olympiad in Tokyo will grip the nation, and road cycling events will call the legendary 4.563 kilometre circuit home for the Olympic and Paralympic Games in 2020. So, this year’s Fuji 500 Miles will be the last until 2021. Fitting, then, that one world-class sporting event would give way to another next summer!
The first half of the 2019 Autobacs Super GT Series has defied expectations. When the rain began to fall at the start of the Fuji 500km in May, it seemed as if the showers that washed away the season-opening race in Okayama would never end. But through the first three races proper, the racing has been immense. Terrific lead battles. New talents rising to the forefront in both classes. Predictably, through four races, this championship is wide open in both GT500 and GT300 classes, with four different winners in four races in the premier category of GT500.
Much to the delight of Fuji Speedway circuit owners Toyota Motor Corporation, four of their six cars enter the Fuji 500 Miles in the top five of the GT500 Championships, and their top three are separated by just 5 and a half points after four races.
Of course, much can change in this and the next three races, but 2019 couldn’t have started much better for the Lexus LC500s in their swansong season. Three victories in a row, going for a fourth at Fuji in the longest race of the year and having just locked out the GT500 podium at Chang International Circuit in Buriram, Thailand.
Last year, it was a Lexus 1-2, more specifically, a TOM’s Racing 1-2. The #36 au TOM’s LC500 of Kazuki Nakajima and Yuhi Sekiguchi prevailed over their stablemates Ryo Hirakawa and Nick Cassidy in the KeePer TOM’s LC500. Both teams return for another shot at the victory in 2019.
Championship leaders Kazuya Oshima and newly-minted WEC LMP2 challenger Kenta Yamashita in the #6 Wako’s 4CR LC500 jumped to the top of the tables after breaking a nearly six-year winless drought for Lexus Team LeMans, in the most recent round in Thailand. And never, ever count out Lexus Team ZENT Cerumo in a race at Fuji Speedway, not with Fuji-meisters Yuji Tachikawa and Hiroaki Ishiura, with a combined 13 career victories at this track – including three months ago in this year’s Fuji 500km!
But of course, it won’t be particularly easy for any of these championship-contending Lexus teams to win the race. In the last 10 years of summer endurance races in Super GT, the winner has only carried an average of 30.8 kilograms of Success Ballast. All of them have 48kg or more, and the Wako’s LC500, KeePer TOM’s LC500, and ZENT LC500 each have fuel-flow limiters on their cars this weekend.
So for a chance at a fourth consecutive victory, Lexus Gazoo Racing’s best chances may come via the #39 Denso Kobelco SARD LC500 of Heikki Kovalainen and Yuichi Nakayama, with only 40kg of Success Ballast, and the #19 WedsSport Advan LC500 of Yuji Kunimoto and Sho Tsuboi, with 35kg.
Kovalainen and Nakayama are coming off of three straight top-five finishes, and Kunimoto and Tsuboi just scored their first podium of 2019 at Buriram.
Last year’s Fuji 500 Mile Race was ultimately a TOM’s 1-2, but it was Nissan who appeared to have the race locked down through most of the way before misfortunes struck them down.
With less than 30 laps to go, Calsonic Team Impul seemed assured of their first victory since the summer of 2016 – only for the #12 Calsonic Impul GT-R to suffer from a loose intercooler pipe, costing them the victory. All Jann Mardenborough could do was slump in resignation along the pit wall as co-driver Daiki Sasaki limped the Calsonic GT-R to the garage.
Sasaki and new co-driver James Rossiter will try and avenge Team Impul’s devastating loss 12 months ago – while Jann Mardenborough, now driving for Kondo Racing alongside Mitsunori Takaboshi, still seeks his first GT500 victory in the #24 Realize Corporation Advan GT-R.
Nissan made headlines all throughout the 2018-19 offseason thanks to a massive restructuring of their driver crews and leadership of their Super GT activities. Improvements to their cars had them flying high during the first two races at Okayama and Fuji. But in the last two races at Suzuka and Buriram, they’ve largely suffered, with only one top-five finish between their four cars in those two races. Their drivers are suffering from a reported lack of grip at the rear, hurting their long-run pace. An issue that Nissan will have hoped to have found a resolution to before this weekend.
The #23 Motul Autech NISMO GT-R (Tsugio Matsuda/Ronnie Quintarelli) is Nissan’s top challengers in the GT500 title race. Just 10.5 points outside of first place, but on a cold streak that started when Quintarelli crashed out at Suzuka. Will they be able to right the ship at a track where they’ve excelled, winning the Fuji 500km in 2015, 2016, and 2019?
One car to keep an eye on? It may very well be the second of the two Michelin-clad GT-Rs, the #3 CraftSports Motul GT-R (Kohei Hirate/Frédéric Makowiecki). They are one of only two cars that have scored points in all four rounds this season. Both drivers have won at Fuji before in GT500s, and, crucially, they’re only carrying 32 kilos of Success Ballast with no fuel-flow limiter.
Just 28 kilos on the #24 Realize GT-R, and 19kg on the Calsonic GT-R – if the Nissan teams have a better understanding of their long-run pace, then for sure, they’ll be in contention.
And what of Honda, who won the last 300 kilometre summer race at Fuji two years ago? They might be hoping for more rain to offer a reprieve from the increasing temperatures from which their five Honda NSX-GTs have suffered tremendously. But defending GT500 Champions Naoki Yamamoto and Jenson Button are just hoping for a clean race.
In the Fuji 500km, Yamamoto led a marvellous fightback to take him and Button to third place from running all the way in last following an early spin in the heavy rain. That looked to be the race wherein the #1 Raybrig NSX-GT would begin its championship defence, following their emotional dust-up with the #17 Keihin NSX-GT (Koudai Tsukakoshi/Bertrand Baguette) in Okayama.
At Suzuka, Button was swept up in an awkward accident trying to pass GT300 traffic and suffered a puncture with 10 to go. Then at Buriram, while battling for position, Button was hit again, punctuating a terrible weekend for Honda, where only one of their cars scored championship points. These three incidents in four races have left Yamamoto and Button 24 points out of the GT500 points lead with four races left to run.
The feeling up and down the paddock is that this is a must-win race for Naoki & JB. The good news is that Success Ballast will be on their side: They have just 22kg to carry at Fuji. Coming back in the second half of the season from such a deficit isn’t impossible, but the Raybrig NSX-GT has to get a break this weekend.
In fact, none of the Hondas will be carrying any fuel-flow limiters as part of their Success Ballast. That includes the #8 ARTA NSX-GT (Tomoki Nojiri/Takuya Izawa), the winners of that rain-shortened race in Okayama, and who also took a hit to their title hopes after being caught up in that three-Honda crash in Buriram. They’re still in a decent position, trailing the points leaders Oshima & Yamashita by just 15 markers in 6th – and a podium could put them right near the top of the tables once again.
Frustrating seasons for the #17 Keihin NSX, the #64 Modulo Epson NSX-GT (Narain Karthikeyan/Tadasuke Makino), and the #16 Motul Mugen NSX-GT (Hideki Mutoh/Daisuke Nakajima) have them sitting at just +12kg, +5kg, and +4kg respectively for the Fuji 500 Miles. Of the other Hondas, it’s by far the Keihin NSX of Tsukakoshi & Baguette that has the potential to turn their season around with a podium finish.
But as the last running of the Super GT Suzuka 1000km proved in 2017, Nakajima Racing and their tyre partners at Dunlop are more than capable of putting it together for an endurance race, and there have been flashes of pace out of Team Mugen as well.
If they struggle to maintain pace in hot temperatures though, this Fuji 500 Mile Race may be the moment where Honda runs out of time on their championship defence.
Just as big as the GT500 title race, is the race in GT300, where just 16 points cover the top eleven teams in the Drivers’ Championship!
Domestic manufactured GT3s hold the top five places in the GT300 Championship. Three of those five are Nissan GT-R NISMO GT3s. In contrast to the recent struggles of their GT500 factory programmes, GT300 customer teams are enjoying a terrific season.
Thanks in no small part to the two Gainer team GT-Rs, the #10 Gainer TanaX triple a GT-R (Kazuki Hoshino/Keishi Ishikawa) that won last round out in Buriram, and the #11 Gainer TanaX GT-R (Katsuyuki Hiranaka/Hironobu Yasuda) that won in May in the Fuji 500km. Both times they had to fight off the challenge of the #56 Realize Corporation Nissan Gakuen GT-R (Kazuki Hiramine/Sacha Fenestraz), who just narrowly lost the win in Buriram on a last-lap pass!
Any one of those three could win it, but it’d be wise to keep an eye on a team that’s rewriting the rules for non-Japanese GT300 squads: The #33 EVA Racing X Works GT-R (Marchy Lee/Shawn Thong/Shinya Sean Michimi), the Hong Kong-based entry who showed that their 7th at the Fuji 500km was no fluke by finishing a team-best 6th in Buriram.
The lead in the GT300 Championship is down to just a half-point between the #55 ARTA Honda NSX GT3 of Shinichi Takagi and rookie Nirei Fukuzumi, and the #96 K-Tunes Lexus RC F GT3 of Morio Nitta and fellow rookie Sena Sakaguchi, the leading representative of the home manufacturers.
After narrowly coming from behind to snatch the victory of the Fuji 500km on the final lap, ARTA’s GT300 squad are shooting for history with an unprecedented fifth consecutive Fuji summer race victory, undefeated in this calendar event since 2015 – including a thrashing of the field in 2018. Even with the new car and a rookie driver in Fukuzumi, and even with 61 kilograms of Success Ballast, counting the ARTA NSX GT3 out of contention at the Fuji 500 Miles would be a foolish proposition.
After another difficult venture to Spa-Francorchamps, Nobuteru Taniguchi and Tatsuya Kataoka return to Japan in their #4 Goodsmile Hatsune Miku Mercedes-AMG GT3, propping up a Mercedes challenge alongside the #65 LEON Pyramid AMG of defending series champions, Haruki Kurosawa and Naoya Gamou, each team looking for Mercedes’ first win of the season. The #88 ManePa Lamborghini Huracan GT3 (Yuya Motojima/Takashi Kogure) scored a podium here and has the pace – and especially the straight-line speed – to compete for victory.
And when it comes to strategy, Mother Chassis runners like the #25 Hoppy Toyota 86 MC (Takamitsu Matsui/Kimiya Sato/Takeshi Tsuchiya) and #52 Saitama Toyopet GreenBrave Toyota Mark X MC (Shigekazu Wakisaka/Hiroki Yoshida), and JAF-GT300 runners like the #61 Subaru BRZ R&D Sport (Takuto Iguchi/Hideki Yamauchi) and #31 Toyota GR Sport Prius PHV apr GT (Koki Saga/Yuichi Nakayama) will feel empowered to roll the dice on a few two-tyre stops and fuel-only stops.
As the Fuji 500 Miles is the longest race on the calendar, 13 teams are rolling out three-driver lineups in GT300.
Of them, the biggest “plus-one” maybe Darren Turner, the three-time GT class winner of the 24 Hours of Le Mans, making his Super GT series debut in the #7 D’station Aston Martin Vantage GT3 with Tomonobu Fujii and João Paulo de Oliveira. This is a car that did very well at Buriram before a late puncture knocked them out of the points. D’station Racing is expected to be a threat for victory, especially with Turner now joining the already potent duo of Fujii and Oliveira.
GT500 and GT300 veteran Björn Wirdheim is back after a year and a half away from the series, driving the #22 R’Qs Motor Sports AMG GT3 with Hisashi Wada and Masaki Jyonai in a one-off appearance. The back-to-back GT300 vice-champion with Gainer might need a miracle to get his teammates into the points, yes, but it’ll be a welcome return for the Swede to the Super GT paddock all the same.
Watch for Alessio Picariello as well, in the #21 Hitotsuyama Audi R8 LMS (with Richard Lyons/Ryuichiro Tomita), which came back from a puncture to finish 8th in Fuji this May.
Several teams that elected to stay home instead of traveling to Thailand return to action, including the #5 Advics Mach Syaken Toyota MC86 (Natsu Sakaguchi/Yuya Hiraki/Ryohei Sakaguchi), which finished 2nd in its last appearance at Suzuka, and like the #25 Hoppy 86 MC, has a knack for maximizing double-stints on a single set of tyres. This could also be a great place for the #720 McLaren Customer Racing Japan 720S GT3 (Seiji Ara/Álex Palou) to score its first points, especially after rookie Palou put on a Super Formula masterclass at Fuji just a few short weeks ago.
The 2019 Fuji GT 500 Mile Race promises to be a classic, starting this Sunday at 1:30 PM JST (local time), 5:30 AM BST (UK & Ireland), 6:30 AM CEST (Western & Central Europe), 12:30 AM EDT (Eastern US & Canada). It’s an endurance race you won’t want to miss!
Images courtesy of Toyota, Nissan, Aston Martin, and Pierre-Laurent Ribault