Dailysportscar will be coming to you live from legendary Suzuka Circuit for the SMBC/BH Auction Suzuka 10 Hours on August 25, the fourth round of the 2019 Intercontinental GT Challenge, and the 48th running of the Summer Endurance sports car race at Suzuka.
The first part of DSC’s field guide takes a deep dive into the 13 teams from the Pro-Am Cup, Silver Cup, and Am Cup categories. Driving the same cars as their Pro Cup counterparts, but featuring lineups with clubman racers and gentleman drivers, whose presence is still at the heart of GT3 racing, even as it has evolved into a manufacturer-driven, all-pro showcase platform.
But make no mistake, these “races within the race” mean the world to the teams taking part. The top finishers in each Cup category each get a split of the 100 million total prize purse, and a magnificent trophy of their own – and the bragging rights that come with being recognized for all time as winners in the mini-battles within Japan’s great race.
Pro-Am Cup teams typically feature one professional driver and two amateurs. This year there are five teams entered in this class, three from Japan, two from the United Kingdom. Last year, SunEnergy1 Racing won the class in convincing fashion, even briefly leading the race outright en route to a 10th place overall finish.
Where better to start our look at the Pro-Am field than with Super GT ever-presents from Nagoya, Cars Tokai Dream28, with the only non-GT3 car in the Suzuka 10 Hours field!
Built on the Mother Chassis platform and designed by Mooncraft Engineering’s legendary founder Takuya Yura, the Lotus Evora MC is the 4.5 litre, V8 powered super silhouette special boasting supreme downforce and aero at the expense of less horsepower compared to its GT3 counterparts. The car also lacks driver assists like traction control or ABS, making it tricky for an amateur to drive at the limit.
With a combined 48 starts between them, Kazuho Takahashi, Hiroki Katoh, and Hiroshi Hamaguchi have the most cumulative experience in this event. Gentleman racer Takahashi, at 66, is the oldest driver in the field – and entering his 23rd Suzuka summer enduro, he has more starts than any other driver. His long-time pro teammate Katoh, a 51-year-old two-time GT300 vice-champion and seven-time Le Mans entrant, enters his 18th Suzuka race – and his 16th in a row, the longest active streak of any driver in the field.
Takahashi and Katoh, the GT300 class winners in the 2005 and 2007 Suzuka 1000km, are joined by Hiroshi Hamaguchi, who’s been gaining experience as a top am driver on the European and Asian GT World Challenge circuits.
The defending Pirelli Super Taikyu Series ST-X (GT3) Champions, GTNET Motor Sports, were a last-minute entry into the race with their 2015-specification Nissan GT-R GT3. They’ve just come off of back-to-back victories in the Fuji Super TEC 24 Hours, and are well on their way to clinching back-to-back titles in Super Taikyu. This Osaka-based team will also be eligible to score Intercontinental GT Challenge drivers’ and manufacturers’ points for Nissan!
GTNET’s regular pro-am duo of Kazuki Hoshino and Teruhiko Hamano once again lead the charge. Second-generation driver Hoshino, the son of Nissan legend Kazuyoshi, won the 2006 Suzuka 1000km driving for his father’s team, then added another three GT300 class victories to his name in ‘08, ‘09, and ‘12. This is the 16th start in the event for the 42-year-old veteran, and the first for his am driver teammate Hamano, who’s become the top gentleman driver in Super Taikyu’s top class over the last two years.
Third driver Eiji “Tarzan” Yamada is a household name in Japanese tuner car culture – a car magazine writer, Time Attack champion, and occasional drifting competitor. 57-year-old Yamada, who’s also a GT300 race winner in Super GT, enters his first Suzuka enduro in 13 years, and his 6th in total.
LM Corsa are regulars in Super GT’s GT300 class with Lexus – but this is a new project with the new 2019 Porsche 911 GT3-R Type 991.2, and a totally different driver-crew led by racing brothers Juichi and Shigekazu Wakisaka, with Suzuka clubman racer Kei Nakanishi, a GT3 rookie. They are another IGTC-eligible squad, GT300 class winners in the 2014 Suzuka 1000km.
Juichi Wakisaka is a bona fide Japanese racing legend. He’s regarded as one of Super GT’s best-ever drivers, as a three-time GT500 champion with Toyota. Since retiring from GT500, he’s led Lexus Team LeMans to back-to-back victories as a team principal this year, mentoring the likes Juichi won his third Suzuka 1000km in 2007, one of two active drivers who’ve scored three overall victories in the summer endurance classic. In 2002, Juichi and his younger brother Shigekazu Wakisaka won the Suzuka 1000km for Team LeMans, becoming the first siblings to do so.
Shigekazu is a back-to-back winner of the event himself, with past experience in Japan’s top categories that defy his current Bronze rating. Shigekazu has been driving GT300 upstarts Saitama Toyopet GreenBrave to unprecedented Super GT success in 2019. This summer, he and Nakanishi completed a first successful race meeting for the new LM Corsa Porsche in the World Challenge Asia race at Suzuka.
The first of two Pro-Am teams from the UK are Leicester’s Garage 59, the 2016 Blancpain GT Endurance Cup Champions. Without the likes of R-Motorsport or D’station Racing in the field, Aston Martin will be wholly represented by Garage 59 and their Pro-Am number 188 Vantage GT3.
Garage 59 co-owners Alex West and Chris Goodwin were Am Cup winners in this year’s Blancpain GT 6 Heures du Castellet alongside Top Gear star Chris Harris, in this same Aston Martin Vantage GT3. For Sweden’s West, it’s his first time in this Suzuka summer endurance race, and for Goodwin, it’s his first start in 22 years! The Aston Martin performance test driver last competed in the 1997 Suzuka 1000km in a McLaren F1 GTR shared with Gary Ayles and Stefan Johansson.
Garage 59 has called up fleet Frenchman Côme Ledogar as their Pro driver. Ledogar was part of the 2016 championship-winning lineup for Garage 59, by now an established top star in GT racing, and in Prototypes – he and West were Asian Le Mans Series teammates this past winter in LMP2.
Just 37 miles away in Northamptonshire is the home base of Team Strakka Racing, just a few minutes up the A43 from Silverstone Circuit – fittingly, the number is 43 for the second of their two Mercedes-AMG GT3s, this being their Pro-Am car starring back-to-back IMSA GT Daytona Champion, motorsport trailblazer Christina Nielsen.
Nielsen will be the first woman in seven years to enter the Suzuka summer endurance race. She’s been doing double-duty in 2019, between IMSA with Meyer Shank Racing, and the World Challenge Asia series with GruppeM Racing. Some will see the special dispensation to re-rate Nielsen from Silver to Bronze to satisfy the Pro-Am requirements as curious at best – because she is a seriously accomplished racer on merit, not a run-of-the-mill amateur.
Nielsen will be partnered with another IMSA GTD alumni, 26-year-old Austrian Dominik Baumann, the 2016 Blancpain GT Series Drivers’ co-Champion. Baumann and Nielsen finished 10th overall together in the California 8 Hours at Laguna Seca.
Malaysia’s Adrian Henry D’Silva, from the Porsche Carrera Cup Asia series, completes the number 43 Strakka Racing lineup – all three of them entering the race for the very first time.
New to the Suzuka 10 Hours for 2019 is the Silver Cup class, limited to maximum driver grades of Silver-Silver-Silver, as it says on the tin.
The field has three teams from Australia, and two from Japan. The first of the Japanese squads is Callaway Competition with Bingo Racing, a collaboration between top ADAC GT Masters squad Callaway Competition and top Porsche Carrera Cup Japan (PCCJ) team Bingo Sports.
There’s no mistaking the bellowing roar of the Callaway ‘Vette’s 6.2-litre V8 engine. This will be one of the more popular entries in the field, a car seldom seen outside of Europe. Team owner Shinji Takei, whose Best Heritage Japan company sponsors the race, is a serious gentleman racer in his own right – an overall Porsche Carrera Cup Japan champion in 2017.
The Callaway Competition/Bingo Racing partnership brings in two excellent young drivers from both parties and both countries: From Germany, Markus Pommer, and from Japan, second-generation driver Ryo Ogawa. Both have success in single-seaters and sports cars to their names.
Two-time PCCJ champ Ogawa’s Suzuka 10 Hours debut comes 32 years after his late father, Hitoshi, won the 1987 Suzuka 1000km for Toyota Team TOM’s. Pommer is in the midst of a stellar ADAC GT Masters campaign, winner of three races already this season.
Based just a few kilometres from the circuit in the city of Yokkaichi, World Challenge Asia contenders ARN Racing have partnered with championship-winning Super GT team apr Racing – the architects of the Toyota Prius GT project, to form “apr with ARN Racing”.
Instead of their current Porsche 911 GT3-R, apr and ARN have elected to field the Ferrari 488 GT3 that they ran last year, nominated as an IGTC entry for the prancing horse. Gentleman driver Hiroaki Nagai led ARN Racing to the Super Taikyu ST-X Class championship in 2017 with this very same 488 GT3. Nagai is back for his fourth start in this race, alongside 24-year-old rising star Yuta Kamimura, currently second in PCCJ points and a podium scorer in World Challenge Asia this year.
And then there’s Manabu “Max” Orido, Nagai’s regular Super GT co-driver, entering his 18th Suzuka summer endurance race. Two-time GT300 Champion Orido’s popularity transcends circuit racing – as a former street racer, drift legend, time attack star, and video car magazine personality. But the 51-year-old legend has never taken an overall or class victory in 17 previous starts. Will 2019 see Orido finally stand on the top step of a podium at Suzuka?
The first of the Australian squads is Wall Racing and their Lamborghini Huracan GT3 with its wild and hypnotic livery last seen in this year’s Bathurst 12 Hour – where they finished 12th overall and 4th in their class.
GT3 am driver Adrian Deitz has with him two fellow Aussies: Cameron McConnville and Tony D’Alberto, who bring with them a combined total of 500 starts’ worth of experience in the Australian Supercars Championship in their careers. McConnville is Deitz’ regular co-driver on the Australian GT Championship circuit for Wall Racing, while D’Alberto, the reigning Australian Endurance Champion, is Wall Racing’s ace in TCR Australia.
But Suzuka Circuit represents a new challenge for team owner and fellow Supercars alumnus David Wall and for his three drivers. For all the racing experience that McConnville and D’Alberto have, neither have driven at Suzuka before.
Unlike Wall Racing, their Australian counterparts AMAC Motorsports do have recent experience at Suzuka. This privateer team from the World Challenge Asia, like apr with ARN Racing, are also fielding a different car from their usual fare – in this case, their old Type 997 Porsche 911 GT3-R from their time in Australian GT.
Team founder, 61-year-old Andrew Macpherson, has been running full-time in World Challenge Asia for the last two seasons, alongside his co-driver, William Ben Porter. They’ve also competed in the Bathurst 12 Hour together in years past, as has Brad Shiels, the third member of this all-Aussie trio.
Decided underdogs against newer cars and more experienced drivers, yes, but AMAC Motorsport are determined to win the Silver Cup all the same – and potentially score IGTC points for Porsche as well!
And then there’s SunEnergy1 Racing, the Australian-American team making their first appearance on the IGTC circuit since this February at the Bathurst 12 Hours. They move over to the Silver Cup after a dominant performance in the Pro-Am Cup for 2018. Theirs is the only car registered for IGTC Bronze Drivers’ Championship points – just finishing the race would wrap up the title for their bronze driver, Kenny Habul.
Habul continues as the face of SunEnergy1 – in between Bathurst and Suzuka, he’s brought the team along to a new challenge in the International GT Open series. Mikaël Grenier is back with the team, the French-Canadian having played a part in their impressive run at Suzuka last year. He won the inaugural Blancpain GT Endurance Silver Cup title last season.
Nico Bastian is the third member of the team, taking the place of his countryman Luca Stolz. A solid acquisition, as Bastian was just crowned as the new Silver Cup champion in the Blancpain Endurance series following the 24 Hours of Spa. The blue and flame Mercedes-AMG GT3 could very well be the favourites to win their second Cup class in as many years at Suzuka.
Limited to all-Bronze driver crews, the Am Cup features three cars – unlike last year, when Sato-SS Sports won the class entirely unopposed.
The Super Taikyu regulars return with the same grey Mercedes-AMG GT3 that they fielded in 2018, as well as the same Cup-winning drivers from last year: Super Taikyu veteran Atsushi Sato, young amateur GT300 driver Ryosei Yamashita, and Formula 4 independent Norio Kubo.
Sato-SS Sports are just a month removed from their first podium in Super Taikyu, and this year they’ll relish the challenge of having a real battle for the Am Cup top honours.
Their main challengers from Super Taikyu are first-year GT3 runners MP Racing, who finished 2nd in the Fuji 24 Hours this June. They are also registered as one of Nissan’s IGTC entries – a big honour for such a young amateur team, who are also set to race the 2018-spec GT-R for the first time.
Yusaku Shibata is MP Racing’s only driver with significant GT3 experience. The GT300 regular and five-time All-Japan Gymkhana Champion makes his fourth appearance in the summer endurance classic. For MP Racing’s primary clubman racer Joe Shindo, and for Takumi Takata, a PCCJ gentleman racer, it is their first appearances.
The Am Cup is completed by Malaysia’s Arrows Racing – no relation to the F1 independents of yesteryear – and their Honda NSX GT3 from the World Challenge Asia series. They too are an IGTC entry, representing Honda.
Philip Ma, a veteran sports car racer from Hong Kong, joins his countryman Jacky Yeung, a GT Asia GTM class champion. Macau’s Alex Liu (Lic Ka), a TCR and Carrera Cup specialist, completes their lineup. All three Arrows drivers are familiar with the mean streets of the Guia Circuit in Macau, so the similarly narrow margins of Suzuka won’t feel too uncomfortable.
In part two of DSC’s Suzuka 10 Hours field guide, we’ll take a deep dive into the 23 Pro Cup entrants.
Image Credits: Stephane Ratel Organisation (SRO), Pierre-Laurent Ribault, Andrew “Skippy” Hall, Corvette Motorsport, AMAC Motorsport, Super Taikyu Organisation (STO)