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2019 Suzuka 10 Hours Preview: Pro Cup

Twenty-three star-studded GT teams from ten manufacturers challenge for the overall victory, but only one will win the 48th running of Japan’s great race!

The main portion of dailysportscar’s field guide to the 2019 SMBC/BH Auction Suzuka 10 Hours is here. In this article, we take an extensive dive into the 23 teams and cars from the Pro Cup category, representing 10 different manufacturers, and their drivers.

SUZUKA 10 HOURS ENTRY LIST >>>

This year’s Suzuka 10 Hours is the 48th running of the Summer Endurance at Suzuka Circuit, as well as the fourth round of the 2019 Intercontinental GT Challenge (IGTC) and DSC will be reporting live from the event for the very first time this week!

The inaugural running of the Suzuka 1000km in 1966 was won by a Toyota 2000GT, and it took drivers Sachio Fukuzawa and Tomohiko Tsutsumi just over eight hours to complete the requisite 167 laps around Suzuka Circuit. Last year, in the inaugural running of the Suzuka 10 Hours, the winning team completed 276 laps or 1,603 kilometres.

This year they’ve come to reset the distance record and fight for the overall victory and the winner’s share of a 100 million Yen prize purse. Teams from the East to the West. Drivers young and old, proven champions and hobbyists. The biggest names in sports car racing. They’re all converging upon Suzuka Circuit for the chance to win Japan’s great race.

Our field guide goes in order of the current IGTC Manufacturers’ Championship, starting with the current leaders, and reigning champion manufacturer at the Suzuka 10 Hours.

(Missed Part 1 of our Suzuka 10 Hours preview? Catch up HERE >>>)

Mercedes-AMG

The dawn of the new era of the Suzuka summer endurance race was dominated by Mercedes-AMG. A 1-2 overall finish, and a Pro-Am Cup victory for their fleet of customer teams. Maro Engel, Raffaele Marciello, and Tristan Vautier led 222 of 276 laps in a dominant performance as Mercedes-AMG Team GruppeM Racing and their Mobile Suit Gundam-inspired livery became the first team from Hong Kong to win the event.

The composition of the Silver Arrows fleet is different in this year’s Suzuka 10 Hours, but the goal is the same. After the CLK-GTR won back-to-back 1000kms in 1997 and 1998, Mercedes hopes the AMG GT3 can go back-to-back in 2018 and 2019 via any of their four teams competing in the Pro-Am cup, and for IGTC Championship honours.

GruppeM Racing return to defend their Suzuka crown with their new gold and green “snakeskin” livery. They also return with two-thirds of the winning driver lineup from 2018, Marciello and Engel. An emotional victory at Suzuka was a highlight in a year where Marciello won the Blancpain GT Series Drivers’ Championship. The Swiss-Italian supernova, still only 24 years old, maybe, pound-for-pound, the quickest GT driver on the planet.

Engel won the Blancpain GT Endurance Cup in 2018 and currently leads the GT World Challenge Europe standings heading into Suzuka. The German took pole position at the Spa 24 Hours in Team Black Falcon’s Promare anime art car, just as Marciello took pole position at Bathurst for GruppeM, winning the Allan Simonsen Trophy in doing so.

Replacing Vautier this go-round is Maximillian Buhk, the current IGTC Drivers’ Championship co-leader and a Blancpain “triple crown” champion, winning the Endurance Cup in 2013, World Challenge Europe in 2015, and the Blancpain GT Series overall in 2016. Buhk finished 7th in last year’s Suzuka 10 Hours.

In getting Engel back to GruppeM, Mercedes-AMG has moved Maximillian Götz to Craft-Bamboo Racing, entering their first Suzuka 10 Hours as a Mercedes-AMG customer team after campaigning with Porsche in 2018. This driver change splits the IGTC championship leaders, as Götz – previously the 2014 World Challenge Europe Champion – joins 2018 Blancpain Endurance Cup champions Luca Stolz and Yelmer Buurman for Suzuka.

Götz was part of the team that finished 2nd in last year’s Suzuka 10 Hours, while Stolz was a star in last year’s race, pushing SunEnergy1 Racing to the Pro-Am Cup victory and even leading the race outright at stages. Buurman, a two-time winner of the Dubai 24 Hours, is coming to the Suzuka 10 Hours for the very first time.

And it’s not the first time that Mercedes-AMG has made a driver change with IGTC Drivers’ Championship implications: Marciello was split from GruppeM, Buhk and Götz at the Spa 24 Hours, to reunite him with his team from the Blancpain GT Series in Europe.

The third member of the 2018 Suzuka 10 Hours winning crew, Frenchman Tristan Vautier, returns as the reigning IGTC Drivers’ Champion and he does so with a new team: Strakka Racing, the UK-based squad who scored 2nd and 7th place finishes in last year’s race.

Another reigning champion for Mercedes will share the spotlight in Strakka’s number 44 Mercedes: The two-time, reigning and outgoing Deutsche Tourenwagen Masters (DTM) Champion, Gary Paffett. Since Mercedes’ DTM withdrawal at the end of 2018, Paffett has been embarking on new adventures for the Silver Arrows, from GT racing to Formula E with HWA RaceLab. Paffett is one of two past DTM champions in the field.

Scottish driver Lewis Williamson, 2nd in last year’s Suzuka 10 Hours with Strakka, returns to complete the number 44 Mercedes’ all-pro lineup, which has struggled in its first two IGTC appearances of 2019.

But by far, Mercedes-AMG Team Goodsmile are the most popular team in the field. The three-time GT300 Champions of the Autobacs Super GT Series, led by team principal Ukyo Katayama, return to challenge the Suzuka 10 Hours after finishing 5th in a mighty duel with Bentley in the final hour. It’s a chance to put the frustrations of Spa behind them once again.

Three-time GT300 Champions, Nobuteru Taniguchi and Tatsuya Kataoka, are pillars of GSR, and they return with the team’s “X-Factor” – Daytona 24 Hours champion, Kamui Kobayashi, who will be one of a number of Toyota factory drivers appearing for other marques with Toyota themselves having no involvement in the race. Kobayashi hasn’t done an endurance race since his bitter last-hour defeat at Le Mans for Toyota, and he’d like to atone for that and enter the upcoming WEC campaign with positive momentum.

“NOB & TK” are each in their 15th Suzuka summer endurance race. Kataoka, a GT500 race winner and Super Formula team principal, was a GT300 class winner on debut in the 2003 Suzuka 1000km. Taniguchi, the street racer, drift champion, and video car magazine host turned GT racing champion and legend, has never won the event before.

Goodsmile Racing’s loyal fans from Japan and abroad, many of whom support the team as personal sponsors through their quarterly crowd-funding initiatives – will be cheering them on to victory at Suzuka.

Porsche

With 11 Suzuka 1000km victories, Porsche is the most successful foreign manufacturer in the history of this event. Their last overall win was in the 1994 Suzuka 1000km, 25 long years ago, with the Larbre Competition 911 Turbo-S of Wollek, Jarier, and Pareja.

Victories at the Bathurst 12 Hour and the 24 Hours of Spa have put Porsche within striking distance of Mercedes’ lead in the IGTC Manufacturers’ Championship, just eight points back of the Silver Arrows. Porsche have two of their new 2019 911 GT3-Rs ready to race the Suzuka 10 Hours for the first time.

Earl Bamber Motorsports (EBM) are owned by the two-time Le Mans 24 Hours champion, who drove in this race last year. Bamber’s team will hope to replicate an improbable win for the upstart squad at Bathurst, with the trio of Romain Dumas, Sven Müller, and Mathieu Jaminet, who retired from the Bathurst 12 Hour as their sister car went on to victory.

Dumas’ exploits in sports car racing need very little exposition. If there’s a major endurance race to win or an EV record to set, chances are the French legend has smashed! But before Dumas went on to a career highlighted by two overall victories in the 24 Hours of Le Mans and the 2016 World Endurance Drivers’ Championship, he got his sports car racing start in the All-Japan GT Championship (now Super GT), and even won the Open Class in the 2002 Suzuka 1000km! This is Dumas’ fourth appearance in the event.

Müller and Jaminet are Porsche motorsport stars of the future, each with Porsche Carrera Cup titles to their names. Müller, in his third Suzuka summer enduro, raced full-time in Super GT from 2017 to 2018, while Jaminet, in his second start, enters as the reigning champion of Germany’s ADAC GT Masters series. The trio rebounded from their DNF at Bathurst with top-fives at Laguna Seca and Spa-Francorchamps.

Meanwhile, the Bathurst 12 Hour winning drivers – Dirk Werner, Dennis Olsen, and Matt Campbell – are entering together with their fourth different team in as many IGTC rounds. This time out, it’s with Chinese customer team Absolute Racing, who represent Porsche’s Asia-Pacific region. Werner, Olsen, and Campbell, joint-3rd in IGTC Drivers’ standings, haven’t been back to the podium since their Bathurst victory, which they look to change.

Werner’s share of the Bathurst victory gave the German veteran a long-awaited signature endurance race victory after years of seconds, thirds, and various near-misses in big events. He is the veteran partnering two rising stars of the Porsche junior programme and past Carrera Cup national champions, 24-year-old Campbell, and 23-year-old Olsen.

Campbell’s heart-stopping overtakes on the likes of Chaz Mostert and Jake Dennis won’t soon be forgotten to sports car faithfuls, cementing his place as one of the best Australian drivers in motorsport. Olsen, who once battled future F1 stars like Charles Leclerc, Alex Albon, Esteban Ocon, and George Russell in single-seaters, is now on his way to his own bright future with the Stuttgart marque. Each are making their first trek to the Suzuka 10 Hours – and they’re expected to put on another show!

Audi

It’s impossible to understate the impact that Audi Sport and their customer teams have had in building GT3 into the platform that it is today. 2019 has been a continuation of that success, highlighted by victories in the Nürburgring 24 Hours and Dubai 24 Hours for the new-for-2019 Audi R8 LMS GT3 “Evo”.

Suzuka remains as maybe the big GT3 showcase event that Audi has yet to win in their time on top. Third and fourth in last year’s 10 Hours, Audi now desperately need two of their three R8s on the podium to have any chance at winning a fourth consecutive IGTC Manufacturers’ Championship – though some of their drivers do have a better shot at the Drivers’ Championship.

Audi’s three-car IGTC effort starts with Audi Team Hitotsuyama, their Super GT representatives. Richard Lyons, Ryuichiro Tomita, and Alessio Picariello return to improve upon an 8th place overall finish in last year’s Suzuka 10 Hours.

For 2004 Japanese Top Formula and GT500 Drivers’ Champion Lyons, 2019 marks his 15th Suzuka summer endurance race appearance. The Ulsterman is part of an elite group of only four drivers to win the Japanese “Double Championship,” and only two drivers to win races in Super GT’s top class for all three manufacturers. But Lyons is now chasing his elusive first victory in the Suzuka summer endurance race: 2nd in 2006 is his best finish in 14 previous starts.

If Lyons is to finally end his Suzuka summer jinx, he has two excellent young drivers to work with. From Nissan GT-R one-make champion to GT300 top performer, Tomita won his first Super GT race in the 2015 Suzuka 1000km. It’s Tomita’s sixth appearance in the race, and for the “Belgian Bullet” Picariello, Team Hitotsuyama’s impressive third driver, it’s his second.

The most successful Audi Sport customer racing team of all, Team WRT bring just a single car to the dance after a two-car effort finished 4th and 9th in last year’s Suzuka 10 Hours. Honouring 25 years of Audi’s RS performance line with their special Nogaro Blue paint scheme and car number 25, Team WRT have brought in the reigning Nürburgring 24h winners Dries Vanthoor and Frédéric Vervisch with Kelvin van der Linde.

21-year-old Dries Vanthoor has emerged rapidly from his older brother Laurens’ shadow. His Nürburgring victory is the latest in a growing collection of career accolades that also includes overall victory in the Bathurst 12 Hours and class victory at Le Mans. What more can he accomplish in the years to come?

Nürburgring was the second big 24-hour race win for Vervisch, who won the Dubai 24h this January, and Vervisch has been pairing GT successes with touring car victories in WTCR. The two Belgians are paired with Van der Linde, the elder of two South African racing brothers and himself a Nürburgring champion in 2017. Van der Linde was 3rd overall last year with Absolute Racing, who edged out Team WRT for the last podium place by just two-tenths of a second.

Speaking of Absolute Racing, they’re back as well with Audi, in addition to their Porsche squad, they’re the only team in the field representing multiple manufacturers! They bring forth the all-German trio of Christopher Haase, Christopher Mies, and Markus Winkelhock to drive the white number 125 Audi, also honouring the quarter-century of Audi RS. Three more GT champions and three more past champions of the Nürburgring 24 Hours!

Haase, Audi’s highest ranked pilot in the Drivers’ Championship, was the only driver of the three to race in the event when it was the Suzuka 1000km, in 2014 with Team Hitotsuyama. Mies, the two-time, back-to-back Bathurst 12 Hour champion, comes over from WRT in exchange for Van der Linde, and has amassed one of the most impressive CVs for a driver that’s only just turned 30! The two Christophers were Blancpain GT Endurance Cup champions together in 2012.

The unbreakable Markus “Winkelrock” one-off F1 folk hero, GT3 champion, second-generation racing superstar, Winkelhock has built an incredible legacy already and he’s not intent on slowing down soon. He’s one of only 11 drivers to win the Nürburgring 24 Hours three times, one of only two drivers in the field to win the IGTC Drivers’ Championship, and twice a winner of the Spa 24 Hours.

BMW

This year in the Suzuka 10 Hours, two BMW M6 GT3s will bid for the overall honours, looking for another signature victory for BMW before the M6 comes to the end of its run on top by 2022.

It was BMW, of course, who led the charge for the rise of GT3 in Japan when the old Z4 of Goodsmile Racing won the 2011 GT300 Championship in Super GT. Their last overall win as a manufacturer was in 1982, after that, BMW engines powered the McLaren F1 GTR to back-to-back wins in ‘95 and ‘96.

Unlike last year, BMW have IGTC Manufacturers’ honours to fight for, so they’ve brought two of their best teams from Germany, the first being Walkenhorst Motorsports. 13 months ago, they won the Spa 24 Hours, but it’s been rough going ever since for Henry Walkenhorst’s squad, the valleys bottoming out with a DNF at Bathurst and a double-DNF at the ‘Ring.

Walkenhorst brings just a single car anchored by the undervalued Norwegian Christian Krognes, alongside Dutch driver Nicky Catsburg, and Danish BMW newcomer Mikkel Jensen. All three drivers are making their Suzuka 10 Hours debuts. Only Catsburg, with his World Touring Car experience, has raced here before.

Krognes has been leading the charge for Walkenhorst at the Nürburgring for the better part of the last four years. Jensen is just months into his tenure as a BMW factory driver. Catsburg comes over after being involved with the M8 GTE project in the 2018-19 WEC season. All three are young and mega-talented, with something to prove in this race.

BMW Team Schnitzer continues on through an emotional 2019 season. Months after the sudden passing of legendary team founder Charly Lamm, his absence is still felt throughout the entire BMW racing family. Schnitzer’s team is anchored by two long-time touring car veterans: 2011 DTM Champion Martin Tomczyk, and 2013 vice-champion Augusto Farfus.

Farfus does have three previous appearances in the Suzuka summer endurance, finishing 3rd in GT300 class in 2014. The Brazilian is the reigning FIA GT World Cup champion at Macau, which was Lamm’s final victory at the helm of Team Schnitzer. 16-year DTM veteran Tomczyk, meanwhile, is attacking Suzuka for the very first time in his career. Farfus and Tomczyk scored back-to-back top-five finishes at Bathurst and Laguna Seca this season.

New to the team for the Suzuka 10 Hours is another new factory driver recruit, Nick Yelloly, a former single-seater and Porsche Supercup standout. In his six months with BMW, Yelloly is already leading the China GT Championship standings. Can he succeed where Chaz Mostert had done before him in previous rounds?

Ferrari

Last year, Ferrari won pole position at the Suzuka 10 Hours. The Italian marque have not made it onto the podium in this event since the 1996 Suzuka 1000km when one of their F40 LMs finished 2nd overall.

Ferrari is the only other winning manufacturer in the IGTC this season – taking the victory in the California 8 Hours at Laguna Seca. Ferrari has also claimed GTE Pro class victory in the 24 Hours of Le Mans.

HubAuto Racing, the Taiwanese team that took pole position in last year’s Suzuka 10 Hours – and won this year’s California 8 Hours in convincing fashion – are back once again with a retooled lineup built around World Challenge Asia vice-champion Nick Foster, last year’s Suzuka pole winner and the only constant member of the crew this season.

Continuing the exodus of Toyota factory drivers for this event, HubAuto has brought back 2017 GT500 Champion Nick Cassidy for his second outing with the team, and brought in 2016 GT500 Champion Heikki Kovalainen to complete this mega-talented squad! Kovalainen, of course, has his pedigree as a Grand Prix winner over his seven-year F1 career prior to Super GT, but he’s never finished better than 8th in three previous Suzuka 1000kms.

Cassidy, on the other hand, is the young man in the form of his life, already the youngest GT500 Champion in history, a close runner-up in the 2018 Super Formula Championship to title rival Naoki Yamamoto. Once again, Cassidy is in the hunt for both the GT500 and Super Formula titles. The 25-year-old Kiwi superstar finished a close 2nd in the 2016 Suzuka 1000km, his best result over his first three appearances.

CarGuy Racing enters as the reigning, undefeated Asian Le Mans Series GT champions, and are months removed from their debut at Le Mans. Team owner Takeshi Kimura has stood aside to get the best available driving talent for his team to challenge for the overall victory, headlined by Ferrari works drivers James Calado and Miguel Molina.

2017 GT World Endurance Champion Calado was the Platinum star that led CarGuy to the Asian Le Mans Series title and their first Le Mans appearance. Months later, Calado went back to his regular WEC drive at AF Corse, and won the GTE Pro category, his first victory in the event.

Molina comes over in search of his second win of the IGTC season, after winning the California 8 Hours for HubAuto. He currently leads the Blancpain Endurance Cup and World Challenge America standings and was just announced as AF Corse’s newest GTE Pro driver in the WEC. The Brit and the Spaniard will be joined by CarGuy mainstay, Japanese-Italian Kei Francesco Cozzolino, who’s rediscovered his form with CarGuy after years in the racing wilderness.

Bentley

Over the past five years, Bentley Team M-Sport has built a top-quality GT programme with the burly Continental GT3. They’ve won races and titles around the world since 2014. But a win in the biggest endurance races in GT racing still eludes them.

2019 is the 100th anniversary of Bentley, and M-Sport’s two second-gen Continental GT3s would love nothing more than to finally capture an elusive first IGTC race victory for the Crewe-based marque.

The number 107 car is fielded for the winning crew from this year’s 6 Hours du Castellet at Paul Ricard Circuit – Steven Kane, Jules Gounon, and Jordan Pepper. It’s been just a little over a year since Pepper succeeded Bentley legend Guy Smith, and the South African has since proven he’s more than up to the task of filling in Smith’s boots.

Second-generation driver Gounon was a Spa 24 Hours overall winner and ADAC GT Masters champion before joining Bentley at the start of 2018. He continues to lead a growing youth movement for Bentley Motorsport in recent years.

Kane is now the veteran leader of Bentley Team M-Sport, the man who helped capture their first Blancpain GT victories in 2014. He’s the only driver still with the team since their inception five years ago and has seen the victories and defeats along the way, including three near misses in a row at Bathurst.

The number 108 Bentley, meanwhile, is the car that if not for the problematic placement of the kill switch, might have won the Bathurst 12 Hours this February. Andy Soucek returns for another crack at Suzuka, having finished 6th behind local favourites Mercedes-AMG Team Goodsmile in 2018.

Before Bathurst this year, Soucek also saw Spa 24 Hours victory in 2016 slip away from him in heartbreaking fashion. He was due to be partnered with regular co-driver Maxime Soulet, but Bentley confirmed this morning that he has been forced to skip the trip to Suzuka while he awaits the birth of his first child. Soulet had been the only regular member throughout the season after Soucek missed Laguna Seca, while after the departure of Vincent Abril, Bentley has trialled several drivers in the last two IGTC rounds.

Partnering Soucek will be Alex Buncombe, a regular at Bentley in the Blancpain Endurance Cup this year and Seb Morris.

24-year-old Welshman Morris drove a Bentley Continental GT3 to the 2017 British GT Championship title and is another young Bentley rising star making his second appearance as an M-Sport driver.

Nissan

The leading Japanese manufacturer in the IGTC is Nissan, who’ve scored a total of seven overall victories in the Suzuka summer endurance race, the last coming in 2012.

Nissan is now represented in the Pro Cup only by the two KC Motorsports Group (KCMG) GT-R GT3s after the late withdrawal of Tairoku Racing and a star-studded cast that was to feature Nissan legend Satoshi Motoyama and rising sports car ace Harrison Newey. But if any team’s up to the task, KCMG is certainly the team to do it!

The first team from Hong Kong to win the LMP2 class at Le Mans, KCMG is back after a humiliating double-DNF in the 2018 Suzuka 10 Hours with their two GT-Rs. Alexandre Imperatori, Oliver Jarvis, and Eduardo Liberati return to drive their number 18 (now 018) GT-R, which finished 7th overall at Bathurst.

Imperatori was one of the first KCMG-backed talents to rise to race prominence, and while the Swiss driver would probably want a mulligan on the last safety car restart at Bathurst, he remains one of the team’s best and brightest drivers – leading KCMG to landmark achievements, including their first WEC victories in LMP2, over the past decade since joining the team.

Jarvis is the man at the top of his game right now, from the road course record at the Daytona 24 Hours to breakthrough victories at Mazda Team Joest that have the long-struggling manufacturer now surging to a late title push in IMSA’s top class. In 2007, Jarvis joined Lexus Team TOM’s as a third driver as Lotterer and Wakisaka won the Suzuka 1000km. Liberati, the quick Italian who was GT Asia’s final champion in 2016, is no slouch at the wheel either.

It’s been a tougher campaign for the number 35 KCMG GT-R this year, but any driver lineup featuring Nissan racing aces Tsugio Matsuda and Katsumasa Chiyo is never, ever out of the discussion for Suzuka 10 Hours victory!

Matsuda is a first-ballot Hall of Fame-calibre driver, his accomplishments speak for themselves: The first GT500 driver to 20 career wins in Super GT, and back-to-back GT500 and Super Formula Championships as a driver. As his storied career nears its sunset, Matsuda is enjoying his first trips to other IGTC venues, and he’s been having success as KCMG’s new Super Formula team director. Oh, by the way – Matsuda is also a past Suzuka 1000km champion, the overall winner in 2008 with Calsonic Team Impul.

Four years removed from the year that launched him to stardom, Chiyo returns to Suzuka in need to prove a point that the successes of 2015 – the Bathurst 12 Hour victory, the Blancpain Endurance Cup title, the GT300 class win at Suzuka – were no fluke, after a frustrating 2018 season saw Chiyo-san displaced from both of Japan’s top categories. Burdon is a product of KCMG’s LMP3 programme in Asian Le Mans Series, and even after a terrifying crash at the Nürburgring, the young Aussie has proven to be a great acquisition for KCMG’s Intercontinental GT Challenge efforts.

Honda

Like the Hanshin Tigers at their home ground of Koshien Stadium, Honda teams have a definite “home field advantage” when racing at the Honda-owned Suzuka Circuit. Whether it’s in F1, or whether it’s in the Suzuka Summer Endurance Race, which Honda has won 8 times, their first coming 20 years ago in 1999.

Honda brings three NSX GT3 EVOs to the Suzuka 10 Hours in pursuit of their ninth victory in the event, two from Super GT and Japan, one from Europe.

The first of Honda’s representatives from Super GT is Team UPGarage. They may be owned by a used aftermarket auto parts retailer, but there’s nothing second-hand about this team – who have the backing of Dome Racing as a technical partner!

Their full-time Super GT lineup of Takashi Kobayashi and Kosuke Matsuura lead the way, in their 10th entries into the summer endurance classic. Kobayashi won pole position for Autobacs Racing Team Aguri in 2010, then watched from the pit wall as his teammates Yuji Ide and Ralph Firman took the victory. Matsuura returns after missing last year’s event. In his most recent appearance, the 40-year-old veteran took an emotional victory for Nakajima Racing in the final Suzuka 1000km, shedding tears after the biggest win of his career.

The third driver is 22-year-old Tadasuke Makino, one of the brightest stars to emerge from Honda’s young driver programme. A stellar debut performance in the 2016 Suzuka 1000km at 19 had the paddock buzzing about Makino’s future prospects. Makino has since returned to Japan after intermittent success in Europe over the last two years – including a landmark first Formula 2 victory in Monza last September!

JAS Motorsport, entering as Honda Team Motul, launched Honda’s maiden IGTC challenge earlier this year when their number 30 NSX GT3 won pole for the California 8 Hours. They’ve since followed that up with an encouraging 6th place finish in the wet and wild Spa 24 Hours and look to Suzuka to do good by their partners at Honda.

For Baguette, this Suzuka summer endurance race is special to him as he won the final 1000km running of the event for Nakajima Racing, his first career Super GT race win. He’s back this time after being off the grid in the inaugural 10 Hours, riding the high of that much-needed top-six finish at home in Spa-Francorchamps. Baguette has another all-new cast of co-drivers, including Japanese veteran Hideki Mutoh, another member of Honda’s GT500 fleet. The former IndyCar Rookie of the Year won the pole for the 2016 Suzuka 1000km.

Suzuka will also mark the racing return of Marco Bonanomi, the lead test driver for the NSX GT3. Bonanomi is also known for his time with Audi Sport Team Joest in their third LMP1 cars at Le Mans from 2012 to 2015.

The third IGTC Honda, also representing Super GT, is entered by Modulo Drago Corse, the team founded by the lead driver and Honda racing legend Ryo Michigami. Michigami has recruited his protege Hiroki Otsu and second-generation driver Daisuke Nakajima to partner him in the number 034 car.

Michigami will be making his 22nd appearance in the Suzuka Summer Endurance Race, the most of any active professional driver. He won Honda’s first Suzuka 1000km in ‘99. He won them their first GT500 title in Super GT in 2000. With back-to-back wins in the 2003 and 2004 Suzuka 1000kms, Michigami is one of two drivers in the field who has a chance to tie Kunimitsu Takahashi’s record of four overall victories in the event.

Alongside him is 25-year-old Otsu, weeks removed from a podium finish with Modulo Drago Corse in the Fuji 500 Miles, a young man with a bright future ahead of him as a future GT500 prospect for Honda. The younger of two racing brothers, Daisuke Nakajima is still searching for the breakthrough victory to help him match the standard set by his father Satoru, and his older brother Kazuki. This is Nakajima’s eighth straight start in this race.

Lamborghini

After back-to-back victories in the Daytona 24 Hours and Sebring 12 Hours, Lamborghini Squadra Corse looks to continue their recent ascent to the top of the GT3 ladder with a victory at the Suzuka 10 Hours.

While Lamborghini won’t enter the IGTC until next season, they’re supporting two cars from Super GT ever-presents Team JLOC (Japan Lamborghini Owner’s Club), two cars that have a real shot at taking the overall victory, which would be the first at Suzuka for Lamborghini. And what a win it would be for team owner Isao Noritake, and for everyone at JLOC in their 25th anniversary season!

JLOC’s number 87 is just a few weeks removed from an improbable victory in the Super GT Fuji 500 Mile Race. They’ve brought an entirely different crew of drivers to Suzuka – the all-Japanese lineup of Takashi Kogure, Yuya Motojima, and Yuhi Sekiguchi.

For the past decade, Kogure was one of Honda’s best and brightest factory drivers. The 2011 Suzuka summer endurance champion returns for his 15th consecutive start in the race – but his first with Lamborghini, after joining Team JLOC following his departure from Honda. Motojima is a skilled young GT3 driver, a Porsche Carrera Cup Japan champion in 2015, with 3 Super GT podiums to his name, all of them driving for JLOC, including his first at the 2017 Suzuka 1000km.

Sekiguchi once drove full-time for JLOC from 2010 to 2011 in Super GT. This was during the most trying stretch of his young career before the dynamic 31-year-old driver developed into one of the top Toyota factory drivers in Super GT and Super Formula over the last few seasons. Sekiguchi has already won the Super GT 300km race at Suzuka this May – can he win the Suzuka 10 Hours in his 12th try.

JLOC’s flagship car, the number 88, has been infused with additional support from Lamborghini, including the star-studded factory driver lineup of Andrea Caldarelli, Marco Mapelli, and Dennis Lind. The trio already has chemistry together as co-drivers for FFF Racing Team in the Blancpain GT Series.

2017 Blancpain GT Endurance Cup champion Caldarelli joined Lamborghini full-time in 2018 after spending six seasons as a Toyota Gazoo Racing driver in Super GT’s premier class. On his debut Suzuka 1000km appearance in 2012, the Italian driver finished 2nd. This will be Caldarelli’s eighth consecutive start in the event.

Mapelli drove this number 88 JLOC Lamborghini Huracan full-time in Super GT last season, now he returns for a one-off with the same team and crew for his second Suzuka 10 Hours. Caldarelli and Mapelli are currently second in Blancpain GT Series points this season. Plus Danish newcomer Lind, the reigning GT World Challenge Asia champion, the trio are leading the Endurance Cup standings with one round remaining.

McLaren

Only fitting that the most-anticipated entry from a mainstream perspective closes out our Suzuka 10 Hours field guide: The return to top-flight professional motor racing for two-time Formula 1 World Champion, Mika Häkkinen, for the new Planex SmaCam Racing team from Japan.

McLaren Customer Racing Japan’s BoP-motivated withdrawal of their two-car entry means that Planex SmaCam Racing’s new McLaren 720S GT3, backed by the technical staff of top Super GT GT300 team Gainer (class winners of the 2015 Suzuka 1000km), is the only McLaren on the grid. No BoP drama was going to deny Häkkinen his much-anticipated Suzuka 10 Hours debut, at the circuit where he clinched each of his two Formula 1 World Championships.

Häkkinen’s accomplishments at the wheel of an F1 car need little exposition, his two world titles, his 20 Grand Prix victories, his great battles with Michael Schumacher over twelve seasons. 57-year-old gentleman driver Katsuaki Kubota, on the other hand, has some F1 experience of his own, as a historic F1 driver, wheeling around legendary machines like the Lotus 72D and 97T around exhibition races. Kubota is also an independent owner/driver on the All-Japan Formula 3 Championship trail, where he races full-time.

For all the attention rightfully focused towards Häkkinen, Hiroaki Ishiura truly is the staff ace at Planex SmaCam Racing. After all, the 38-year-old Japanese driver is in top form at an age where some drivers’ skills would start to diminish. Ishiura is a two-time Super Formula Champion, a former GT300 Drivers’ Champion in Super GT, and a two-time overall winner of the Suzuka summer endurance race, in 2009 and 2016.

With a star-studded driver lineup and a technical team that has 20 years of winning experience in Super GT, Planex SmaCam Racing will be among the fan-favourites in the Suzuka 10 Hours field. Can Häkkinen roll back the years and lead McLaren to their third victory in the event, their first since back-to-back wins in 1995 and 1996?

DSC will have continuing coverage throughout the Suzuka 10 Hours this week. The race starts at 10 AM JST (local time), on Sunday, 25 August.

Photo Credits: Stéphane Ratel Organisation (SRO), Andrew “Skippy” Hall, Pierre-Laurent Ribault, Fabian Weingart/BerzerkDesign, Audi MediaCentre, JLOC, Planex Cars