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Autopolis GT 300km Preview: The “Super Fortnight” Kicks Off

Two races over two weeks to determine the title contenders, can Honda or Nissan stop the Lexus winning streak?

There are just three races left in the 2019 Autobacs Super GT Series. And before the season comes to a climax at Twin Ring Motegi on November 3rd in the 250km Grand Final, the final leg of the “mid-summer triple” approaches the Autopolis GT 300km Race, held in the remote Autopolis International Racing Course in the Kyushu region of Japan.

Situated near the city of Hita in Oita Prefecture, just 50 kilometres northeast of the city of Kumamoto and 120 kilometres southeast of Fukuoka, and at 800 meters above sea level, Autopolis has long been considered the hidden jewel in the Japanese racing calendar. A facility as advanced as Suzuka, Fuji, or Motegi today, yet often-forgotten in the years since the circuit’s F1 ambitions were broken in the early 90s.

Of course, with its inclusion as a real-world venue in Gran Turismo Sport, Autopolis has become a track that now resonates with its casual and competitive players, who now know what the Japanese national racing circuits have known for years – this is a uniquely challenging circuit. A combination of eighteen fast, medium, and slow corners, a great degree of elevation change, more places to overtake than one might imagine, and an abrasive road surface that eats up tyres.

Autopolis has been a near-permanent fixture on the Super GT championship calendar since 2003, absent only in the economic crisis of 2010, and in 2016 when the great Kumamoto earthquakes inflicted damage upon the circuit and its surrounding areas. The track has since been restored, with new facilities and a new surface that’s just as demanding as the old one.

While this is the last race of Super GT’s informal Summer Series, this is also the first race of what could be called the “Super Fortnight.” This race, along with the following round in Sportsland Sugo just two weeks later, serves as elimination races that will ultimately determine who will go on to Motegi to battle for the GT500 and GT300 Championships.

And what a difficult race this could be for the points leaders and winners of the last two races at Lexus Team Wako’s Le Mans.

This is the last race before Success Ballast handicaps will be pared down, and at this stage, the #6 Wako’s 4CR Lexus LC500 will be on Maximum Ballast: 100 kilograms, applied as 50 kilograms of weight, and a “Stage 3” fuel-flow limiter dropping them to 85.5 kg/hour from the standard 95 kg/h.

Team director Juichi Wakisaka and his star drivers Kazuya Oshima and Kenta Yamashita have won the last two races in succession, a pole-to-win triumph at Buriram that ended a five and a half-year winless drought, and a controversial victory at the Fuji 500 Miles that swung on a Safety Car intervention, as rival drivers took to social media to protest the timing of their decisive third pit stop of the race. Lead driver Oshima will be trying to net as many points as possible, knowing the weight break they’ll get at Sugo won’t compare to that of their rivals.

Yamashita, just a week out from his FIA World Endurance Championship debut in the 4 Hours of Silverstone, will be out to do the same as his star continues to rise beyond the Super GT landscape.

They won’t be alone in trying to bid for Lexus’ third consecutive victory at Autopolis, and their fifth in a row in Super GT, going back to the Fuji 500km in May, to match the mark they themselves set in 2016-17 through the last race of the RC F and the first four races for the LC500.

Each of the last two Autopolis Super GT rounds have been won by a Lexus LC500 from TOM’s Racing. Last year, it was the #37 KeePer TOM’s LC500 of Ryo Hirakawa and Nick Cassidy, taking the victory after a late pass that attracted its own controversy of perceived team orders to benefit the 37 crew over the #36 au TOM’s LC500 of Kazuki Nakajima and Yuhi Sekiguchi.

On +38kg of weight and the Stage 3 fuel-flow limiter, Hirakawa and Cassidy’s chances of scoring a fourth straight top-5 finish – let alone back-to-back Autopolis victories, seems unlikely, but it’d be hard to count out the young lions in the blue and white Lexus, which is second in the points standings. Cassidy is in pursuit of a “Double Championship” of his own after moving to the top of the Super Formula Championship, while Hirakawa is that series’ most recent race winner.

A win seems more likely for the orange and white number 36 of reigning World Endurance Drivers’ Champion Nakajima, and Sekiguchi, who won the Super Formula race at Autopolis this May in dominant fashion. They’ll look to rebound from crashing out of the Fuji 500 Miles, and they’ve only got +48kg of Success Ballast, no fuel flow limiters, to work with this weekend. Another team looking to rebound after a hard-luck Fuji 500 Miles is the #38 ZENT Cerumo LC500 (Yuji Tachikawa/Hiroaki Ishiura), they are fourth in the standings but lost a considerable points haul when the wheels literally fell off in Fuji a month ago.

And don’t count out the “outsiders” of the Lexus camp: The #39 Denso Kobelco SARD LC500 (Heikki Kovalainen/Yuichi Nakayama), and the #19 WedsSport Advan LC500 (Yuji Kunimoto/Sho Tsuboi), have each run well at this track over the last two years, and they’re both in a good place when it comes to Success Ballast.

Nissan has won seven of the fourteen previous championship rounds held at Autopolis since 2003. Theirs has been a season of promise and potential, but despite the speed of their fleet of GT-Rs, a win still eludes them in 2019. The #23 Motul Autech NISMO GT-R of Tsugio Matsuda and Ronnie Quintarelli needs a win badly to keep pace with the other title contenders.

This might be the place for the “Red Car” to win based on historical achievements. Matsuda and Quintarelli have each won here three times, the most of any active drivers, including back-to-back wins with NISMO in 2014 and 2015. NISMO as a team has six victories at Autopolis, four of which were led by long-time Nissan GT500 ace Satoshi Motoyama, a record four-time winner at the track, whose 2011 charge from 13th to the lead in a “do-or-die” championship round is still remembered fondly. And if Matsuda is as dogged and determined as he was in the Suzuka 10 Hours, he and the four-time GT500 champ Quintarelli should be a podium contender as they were in the last round at Fuji

That said, with the “Stage 2” fuel flow limiter (88.6 kg/h) and +43kg of weight handicap, Nissan’s hopes of finally getting on the board with their first win of 2019 might rest with one of their three other teams.

At 35, 32, and 28 kilos of ballast respectively, the #12 Calsonic Impul GT-R (Daiki Sasaki/James Rossiter), the #3 CraftSports Motul GT-R (Kohei Hirate/Frédéric Makowiecki), and the #24 Realize Corporation Advan GT-R (Mitsunori Takaboshi/Jann Mardenborough) all have the driving skill and expertise in strategy to pull it off. Impul, NDDP Racing with B-Max, and Kondo Racing have all combined for one podium this season.

But what’ll help them, as well as the flagship NISMO team, is that Nissan has introduced their mid-season engine upgrade at Autopolis. That could very well be the difference-maker for the quartet of GT-Rs.

The countdown clock is ticking if Naoki Yamamoto, Jenson Button, and Team Kunimitsu are to defend their GT500 Championship titles in 2019. Honda’s only win of the season came in the rain-shortened Okayama round. Since then, the two podiums for the #1 Raybrig NSX of Yamamoto and Button at the Fuji rounds, 3rd in the 500km, 2nd in the 500 miler, account for all of Honda’s podiums since that opening race.

Those also account for Team Kunimitsu’s only points in 2019, two podiums, offset by three races compromised by accidents, have them 5th in the points. Who knows what the long-term future will hold for Yamamoto, who’s now becoming more and more a fixture in the Formula 1 paddocks, and for Button, whose 2020 plans aren’t a certainty? In their short-term future, they need to get the royal blue Raybrig NSX back on the podium. They’re sitting on +41kg of weight and a “Stage 1” fuel flow limiter (91.8 kg/h), not ideal, but not terrible for a podium finish.

The only other Honda with a reasonable shot at the title at this stage is the #8 ARTA NSX-GT (Tomoki Nojiri/Takuya Izawa), which sat on pole position last year in Autopolis, and has been relatively consistent all year to come into this round 6th in points. For the other three Honda teams, their title hopes are virtually non-existent at this stage. It has been an immensely frustrating season for the #17 Keihin NSX-GT (Koudai Tsukakoshi/Bertrand Baguette), but carrying just 20kg of Success Ballast, they’re probably the favourites to win the race and take out all the frustration of the last few rounds out on the field.

The #16 Motul Mugen NSX-GT (Hideki Mutoh/Daisuke Nakajima) scored its best finish of the year in Fuji in August, while the #64 Modulo Epson NSX-GT (Narain Karthikeyan/Tadasuke Makino) has four tenth-place finishes as their only points this year. The time is ticking on Honda’s title defence, as the days of their mid-engined GT500 challengers seem to be numbered.

While the story in GT500 is of 14 other teams trying to chase down a massive points gap to leaders Oshima and Yamashita, the story in GT300 is that of a title fight that’s been blown wide open, spurred by a rookie class that has enjoyed massive success.

Sheer consistency has the #55 ARTA Honda NSX GT3 of Shinichi Takagi and rookie Nirei Fukuzumi on top of the tables by four and a half points over the #56 Realize/Nissan Gakuen GT-R NISMO GT3 of Kazuki Hiramine and newly-crowned All-Japan Formula 3 Champion Sacha Fenestraz. The top 13 driver combinations are separated by less than 20 points with three races remaining.

But rookies Fukuzumi and Fenestraz will race with heavy hearts this week, after the sudden and devastating loss of their friend Anthoine Hubert in the Formula 2 feature race at Spa-Francorchamps. Fukuzumi was Hubert’s teammate in the GP3 Series in 2018, while Fenestraz is a French driver on the rise, just as Hubert was before his untimely death on August 31.

Last year’s winning car, the #96 K-Tunes Lexus RC F GT3 (Morio Nitta/Sena Sakaguchi), remains in the hunt despite three non-scoring results offsetting their two wins in the first three races. These top three cars in the points are heavy on Success Ballast, peaking with the #55 ARTA NSX GT3 on +73kg of weight.

Both of Gainer’s Nissan GT-Rs are winners this season, the #11 of Katsuyuki Hiranaka and Hironobu Yasuda, and the #10 of Kazuki Hoshino and Keishi Ishikawa. It’s been a good year for the Japanese-made GT3s. Perhaps, the biggest surprise of 2019 has been the form of Team JLOC, who have both of their Lamborghini Huracán GT3s in the top six in the standings. A shock win in the Fuji 500 Miles wasn’t expected for rookie Tsubasa Takahashi and veteran André Couto in the red #87 T-Dash Huracán, but the 25 points for victory has them fourth. Meanwhile, it’s been a more consistent year for the white #88 ManePa Huracán of Takashi Kogure, and Yuya Motojima, one of a handful of local favourites hailing from the Kyushu region. They’re 6th in the standings.

JAF-GT300 and Mother Chassis vehicles are expected to be quick here, where they’ve taken pole position in the last four races at Autopolis, and split those last four race wins. Of this group, the #52 Saitama Toyopet GreenBrave Toyota Mark X MC of Shigekazu Wakisaka, and another local hero, Kumamoto native Hiroki Yoshida, is top of the tables, just 12 points out of the lead in 8th.

Favourable ballast may help the #61 Subaru BRZ R&D Sport (Takuto Iguchi/Hideki Yamauchi), and the #25 Hoppy Toyota 86 MC (Takamitsu Matsui/Kimiya Sato), which has two pole positions but no podiums or victories. They’re sitting on 34 and 32 kilos of ballast. Fukuoka-based Team Mach, who’ve already scored their best-ever finish at Suzuka, come back to Autopolis with the #5 Advics Mach Syaken MC86 (Natsu Sakaguchi/Yuya Hiraki) looking like credible podium contenders yet again, sitting on just 30kg of ballast.

Goodsmile Racing & Team UKYO represented Super GT proudly in the Suzuka 10 Hours, now it’s back to the chase for the title for the #4 Goodsmile Hatsune Miku Mercedes-AMG GT3 (Nobuteru Taniguchi/Tatsuya Kataoka), who’ve yet to score a podium all season. Success ballast will favour them, as it will for the #65 LEON Pyramid Mercedes-AMG GT3, the defending GT300 Champion car.

K2 R&D LEON Racing embarks on a new era with Haruki Kurosawa moving from lead driver to team principal, and Togo Suganami moving up from FIA Formula 4 to make his GT300 debut alongside reigning series champion Naoya Gamou. Much will be expected of 23-year-old Suganami, a pupil of Juichi Wakisaka, and the man who swept both Autopolis races in F4 last season.

The other driver change to take note of will be in the #33 EVA-RT X Works GT-R GT3, where Shaun Thong will be partnered by Japanese-American Shinya Sean Michimi, who’s been mightily impressive for Ron Reichert and Marchy Lee’s squad as their third driver. Can they become the first fully-fledged team from Hong Kong to podium in Super GT? With Thong and Michimi, the purple and green GT-R are a dark horse to do just that!

And don’t ignore the challenge of the #7 D’station Aston Martin Vantage GT3 (Tomonobu Fujii/João Paulo de Oliveira) – quick, but devastatingly unlucky in recent races – or the other customer Hondas, like the #34 Modulo Kenwood NSX GT3 (Ryo Michigami/Hiroki Otsu) which scored its first podium here last year, or the #18 UPGarage NSX GT3 (Takashi Kobayashi/Kosuke Matsuura), 2nd best of the Super GT squads at the Suzuka 10 Hours. The title chase in GT300 could completely turn on its head by the time we get to Sugo in two weeks time!

The “Super Fortnight” kicks off with the Autopolis GT 300km Race, this Sunday, September 8, at 2:30 PM JST (local time) / 5:30 AM BST / 6:30 AM CEST / 1:30 AM EDT.

Images courtesy of Pierre-Laurent Ribault, the JAF, and GTA