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The Road To A Dream: Part 2

All the key moments in the lead up to the Dream Race, from May 2016 to now

Here we go with Part 2 of RJ O’Connell’s in-depth look at the lead up to this weekend’s Super GT X DTM Dream Race in Fuji. If you missed Part 1, you can read that HERE.

11 May 2016: Rumours of the death of Class One prove to be greatly exaggerated, but one part of the Class One Steering Committee has dropped out. GTA Chairman Bandoh and ITR Chairman Aufrecht hold the 5th steering committee meeting in Tokyo, but IMSA representatives are absent from the meeting, never to return.

IMSA has now abandoned its plans for its stand-alone Class One championship. Ultimately, the priority for IMSA now becomes the restructuring of its WeatherTech SportsCar Championship after two seasons of growing pains after unifying Grand-Am with IMSA’s American Le Mans Series.

The new Daytona Prototype International (DPi) platform they’ve announced in October 2015 certainly looks like a smart solution, one that will not only serve as their top category in the WeatherTech SportsCar Championship, but could give the Automobile Club l’Ouest (ACO) something to think about as they deliberate the future of their premier class in the FIA World Endurance Championship. But ultimately, GM, Ford, and Chrysler were all approached about the new “DTM America” or “New Trans Am” series and making a car for it, and all of them baulked at the idea.

Without IMSA, Super GT and DTM are moving forward on their own, with representatives from Toyota, Honda, Nissan, Audi, BMW, and Mercedes signing a document along with Chairmen Bandoh and Aufrecht to complete and issue the Class One Technical Regulations by September 2017.

“GTA, ITR, and participating automakers actively exchanged opinions,” said Chairman Bandoh. “And we agreed and signed the agreements to deploy the Class One regulation to both series from 2019 season and to crate and issue the Class One regulation by September 2017.

“We also confirmed to integrate the technical regulations of both series as much as possible while respecting the difference of the race formats in the course of deploying the Class One regulation and that one of the objectives of commonly using the Class One regulation is to realize the World Final, an opportunity for the automakers/teams of Japan and Germany to run together. Also, in addition to the common parts counting over sixty items currently, we will consider standardizing uprights as well as aerodynamics parts that are only standardized in terms of drawings to increase the number of common parts.”

“I am confident that by having this meeting ending in success the collaboration between SUPER GT and DTM will accelerate as we proceed.”

7 October 2016: DSC’s Deputy Editor, Stephen Kilbey, has a talk with Audi’s Dieter Gass, the head of their DTM programme, to get his thoughts on the ongoing progress in getting DTM to move to Class One regulations in a year where the series delayed the crucial introduction of the new four-cylinder turbo engines.

“Well, we are still having some discussions and in particular on the technical side to prepare the technical regulations. But you have to admit that by not introducing the four-cylinder engine next year, that was a bit of a blow for the co-operation,” says Gass.

“The Japanese already run that engine, and now we know that we won’t get it until 2019. In that sense it was unfortunate. But we will continue with the discussions and try to set something up.”

Reflecting on going to the 2014 Sugo GT 300km Race, Gass had this to say about the current Super GT product: “I have to say I really like how the event was organised and the passion of the people. It’s a bit purer than DTM, it’s not as sophisticated and corporate. I don’t want to say it’s more ‘motorsport’ but it has a better ambience in the paddock.”

24 October 2016: With the 2017 Super GT Series on the horizon, all three of the new GT500 cars take to the track for the first time for an in-season private test.

Lexus unveiled the LC500 as the successor to their current RC F in August. Nissan also updated their GT-R, and Honda has revealed a revised NSX-GT that now resembles the new production car – critically, it is still a mid-engined vehicle, but no longer has a hybrid powertrain. Revised aerodynamic regulations will result in 25 per cent lower downforce, in theory, the cornering speeds will go down, and the straight-line speeds will go up.

After these test session, the cars will be unveiled to the public before November’s Grand Final at Twin Ring Motegi in advance of their 2017 debuts.

21 March 2017: A massive shakeup in the board of directors takes place at ITR, resulting in Formula 1 legend Gerhard Berger replacing Hans-Werner Aufrecht as the Chairman of the DTM series.

In his introductory press conference, Chairman Berger says: “The first task I will focus on in the coming weeks is gaining a deeper insight into the details with the support of my colleagues. We will then use this strong basis for creating a joint strategy for the future. While doing so, I consider the further development of our international partnerships, also with regards to new manufacturers, spectacular racing cars that also command the drivers’ respect as well as a format combining both sport and entertainment as particularly important.”

Aufrecht had led the series for over 30 years, but “the father of DTM” will still remain as part of the series as the boss of Mercedes-AMG Team HWA.

Berger will now attempt to pick up where Aufrecht left off in the Class One talks with the GTA, which have seemingly made so little forward progress in recent years. To the point that many, including some Super GT-obsessed youth from the Deep South of America that DSC recently on-boarded to head up their coverage of the series, are sceptical that it’ll ever happen by this point.

24 July 2017: DTM falls further into turmoil at home with the announcement that Mercedes-Benz will leave the series at the end of 2018 to devote more focus to their Formula 1 programme, by now the established dynasty of the series, and begin plans to tackle the FIA Formula E Championship as a factory.

This would leave only Audi and BMW to field cars in the DTM, unless a third manufacturer is found to replace Mercedes-Benz, who will not get to see the adoption of the new regulations that, according to rumours, they stalled out for two years.

Swiss privateer team R-Motorsport will get the blessing of Aston Martin to introduce the British marque to DTM in 2019 and fill the void left by Mercedes-Benz, but not before this latest headache puts the future of Class One into further jeopardy with new DTM Chairman Berger left to assess his series’ future.

27 September 2017: At long last, for the first time since the talks of Class One began, GT500 cars from Super GT will share a track with DTM cars as the GTA and ITR announce two demonstration runs across Germany and Japan.

The first will take place on the weekend of October 13-15 at the DTM’s season finale at the Hockenheimring in Germany, while the second will take place on the weekend of November 11-12 at Twin Ring Motegi, host of Super GT’s finale.

“This is a great honour for us. I am delighted that Super GT cars will be making an appearance at a DTM event for the first time,” says ITR Chairman Berger. “This is not only a special treat for our fans, but also a strong sign for the future of the DTM, and of how seriously the cooperation with the Japanese GTA organisation and the series’ three manufacturers is being taken.”

“Work on the new regulations is in full swing,” said Berger, who is beaming with excitement for what the new engine and chassis regulations can do for his series. “We want to find the balance between technologically advanced cars, with which manufacturers are able to demonstrate their expertise, and racing cars that can be run without legions of engineers. And we want high-performance racing cars that stretch the drivers.”

14-15 October 2017: On the morning of the first leg of DTM’s season finale, the German crowd at the Hockenheimring got their first look and listen to the future of their series.

For the first time ever, GT500 and DTM cars shared a track in a demonstration run held at the historic Formula 1 venue. Reigning GT500 Champion Heikki Kovalainen was selected to represent Toyota and Lexus in their Lexus LC500 R&D car, while Nissan brought over the record-breaking four-time GT500 Champion Ronnie Quintarelli and his red number 23 Motul Autech NISMO GT-R.

Another demonstration was done before Sunday’s final race, and Chairman Bandoh was on hand for the pre-event press conference. “Today, this collaboration [between Super GT and DTM] reached a historic milestone. Our best Super GT cars were running here on the Hockenheimring at an official DTM race. October 14 2017, marks the start of a new era of German and Japanese motorsports, and will go down in the history of both countries.”

Later that day, René Rast is crowned DTM Champion in his first season.

11-12 November 2017: The weekend of the Motegi GT 250km Grand Final marks the first time that the three manufacturers of DTM, Audi, BMW, and the outgoing Mercedes, will join the three manufacturers of Super GT’s premier class, Lexus, Honda, and Nissan on track at Twin Ring Motegi.

Former GT500 champion Loïc Duval (Audi), Augusto Farfus (BMW), and Maro Engel (Mercedes-Benz) make the trip to Japan for these demonstration runs, joined by Kovalainen, Quintarelli, and Tomoki Nojiri, in the Honda NSX-GT that couldn’t make the trip to Germany in October. This will be the last time the Silver Arrows do such a demonstration, as no cross-promotional demos were done for their last season in 2018.

There were two demo runs, one on Saturday, and one on Sunday, and on Sunday, the DTM cars also took part in the parade lap just before the start of the final race of the Super GT season, to the applause of the Japanese fans.

In a press conference on Saturday, Chairman Bandoh remarked: “We were able to show our GT500 machines, the GT-R and LC500, to the European fans at DTM’s final round at Hockenheim. And then we were able to show three DTM cars to the Japanese fans at Super GT’s final round at Motegi. It was a heartfelt moment to see GT-R and LC500 lined up with three DTM cars on the track at Hockenheim. Today, the six cars got together, and I got emotional again.”

“What I and Chairman Bandoh are trying now is not simply to deepen our friendship, but to create a common set of regulations for both series,” added Chairman Berger.

By this point, the September 2017 goal for the ratification of the Class One Technical Regulations hasn’t been met, and the ultimate goal of a unified race between Super GT and DTM is still on hold. But there is constant engagement and transparency between the two series and to their fans. Things are looking up.

Ryo Hirakawa and Nick Cassidy become the youngest-ever GT500 Drivers’ Champions, driving Lexus Team KeePer TOM’s to the 2017 title.

23 June 2018: On Saturday morning at Nuremberg, site of the DTM’s crown jewel event at the Norisring street circuit, the Class One Technical Regulations are finalized at last, between Chairman Bandoh and Chairman Berger.

The DTM will finally adopt the two-litre, direct injection, turbo four-cylinder engines for their cars starting in 2019, along with extensive aerodynamic changes for the cars to cope with the new engines. Super GT agrees, in turn, to modify their own regulations to bring them further in line with the DTM cars, among them a common floor, electronic control unit, suspension upright – by 2020.

And, last but not certainly least, the DTM and Super GT agree to a series of exhibition exchange races, one in Germany and Japan, slated for the autumn of 2019.

“As you can see from the great success of our show runs done in both Germany and Japan last year, we have further deepened our partnership,” says Chairman Bandoh. “I am deeply convinced that all fans of motorsport across both countries, and all over the world, will come to appreciate the joint races that we have planned, and that Super GT and DTM will continue to develop greatly into the future,” Bandoh added.

“My intentions are that all parties will put the highest priority on the joint race between Super GT and the DTM,” says Chairman Bandoh.

29 March 2019: Weeks before the start of the 2019 Super GT Season, the first details of the long-anticipated exchange race between DTM and Super GT finally come to light.

The idea of a full-on exchange race in Germany is scaled back a bit, instead, the three GT500 manufacturers will each send one car and team to compete in the DTM finale at the Hockenheimring on the weekend of 4-5 October.

But the full-fledged exchange race will still happen in Japan, at Fuji Speedway, on 23-24 November. The plan is originally for twelve DTM cars representing Audi, BMW, and newcomers Aston Martin, and twelve GT500 cars representing Lexus, Honda, and Nissan, to take part in the event, which will consist of two 55-minute sprint races across the weekend, identical to a DTM race format.

The first ground rules are also starting to surface through reports in the Japanese press such as auto sport Magazine: The GT500 teams will run Hankook tyres in the exchange race, but the DTM teams will not have the advantages of push-to-pass or the Drag Reduction System (DRS).

Chairman Bandoh and Chairman Berger thank one another for making the dream a reality.

Just two weeks prior, as IMSA and the ACO are going down divergent paths on the future of the top classes of their series, BMW’s motorsport manager Marquardt suggests that maybe the future of the premier class at Le Mans should be a hybridized version of the Class One regulations. It now seems forever ago that Class One was a daydream of the past. Now it’s being brought up as the future.

3 August 2019: On the eve of Super GT’s new endurance round, the Fuji 500 Miles, Chairman Bandoh and Chairman Berger host a press conference to announce the name of their long-awaited Super GT vs DTM exchange race at Fuji Speedway: The Super GT x DTM Dream Race, as well as a support race for GT3 and JAF-GT300 cars, the auto sport Web Sprint Cup, to be held during the weekend.

The ground rules first reported are now confirmed, two 55 minutes + 1 lap races, one pit stop for tyre changes only, Hankook tyres for all teams, no DRS or push-to-pass.

The announcement gave Chairman Bandoh time to reflect on the journey that brought them to this point.

“GTA has been discussing with DTM organizers ITR since 2010 on how we can integrate our regulations. Based on our determination to build a common set of regulations between Europe and Asia while reducing costs, we created a detailed plan and engaged in numerous discussions for building a common ruleset where the same engine and same monocoque are used across both series. It took a very long time, but we finally got here, and Super GT and DTM are racing in the same format with 2-liter direct-injection turbo engine from this year onward.”

“The road up to here was not short nor flat, and we received various kinds of criticisms and complaints. But we always had a determination in our mind to make Super GT global by becoming as competitive as Europe and expand and develop motorsports wider and further. In the course of our initiative, we brought three GT500 cars to Hockenheim for a demonstration run to show Super GT to the German people, and we also had a similar event at Motegi, and that was all for making Class 1 known by more and more people.”

“Maybe it was not noticeable, but the two parties had been putting efforts in completing this integrated regulations known as Class One. Unfortunately, while we were working together on this, one of the manufacturers, Mercedes, left, and Hans-Werner Aufrecht, former ITR president who we started out the work together, also left. Despite the situation, Gerhard Berger, who took over the role of chairman, put a lot of his effort and we were able to complete the Class One regulations which enabled us to realize this Dream Race.

“All the work we continued to put forth bore fruit here, and, with completion of Class One regulations, we can now organize a big race in Europe and Asia under the same rules. I am very grateful to be able to take the first step towards that. I’m also very happy to see a race under the Class One regulations held in Japan.”

“I’m relieved that we finally reached this point. That is my honest feeling now. All six manufacturers are coming together as one to hold and show a race to the fans in Japan as well as in Europe. A new chapter of motorsports unfolds from here.”

That Sunday, Kazuya Oshima, and Toyota’s new WEC prodigy Kenta Yamashita, win the Fuji 500 Miles, kicking their run to the GT500 Championship into overdrive.

11 September 2019: Another three-year cycle of GT500 regulations is coming to a close this season, and at Suzuka Circuit, the three manufacturers, Toyota, Honda, and Lexus, unveil their new cars for the 2020 season which now fully comply with the Class One regulations.

These cars are referred to in the Japanese press as “Class One+ɑ” now boasting the common ECU, floor, and suspension parts from the DTM. And crucially, all of the cars are front-engined, per the revised GT500 regulations now mandating that the engine be placed in front of the cockpit – including the new Honda NSX-GT, which joins the revised Nissan GT-R, and the returning Toyota GR Supra.

“The decision [to switch to a front-engined configuration” was not an easy one for us, as we did not want to abandon the mid-engined layout of the NSX,” said Honda Motorsports General Manager, Hiroshi Shimizu. “Ultimately, we made the decision to comply with the new regulations so that Honda could continue to compete in GT500. We think that both decisions will ultimately be welcomed by our fans worldwide.”

For the first time since 2003, the three most recognizable Japanese supercars of the last golden age, the GT-R, the Supra, and the NSX, are racing together in GT500 starting next season.

4-6 October 2019: It’s the “prelude to a dream” at the Hockenheimring in Germany. For the first time, Super GT’s three factories in GT500 are sending one of their cars and teams to compete in the DTM finale at the Hockenheimring. They won’t race for championship points, but rather for pride.

Reigning GT500 Drivers’ Champion Jenson Button represents Honda and Team Kunimitsu in his Raybrig/ZF Honda NSX-GT, and on the Saturday race, he qualifies an astonishing 6th in mixed conditions and fights back through adversity to finish 9th.

That result would be the high point as both NISMO and Lexus Team TOM’s failed to crack the top ten. Tsugio Matsuda and Ronnie Quintarelli, the most successful driver pairing in Super GT history, represented NISMO, and Hirakawa and Cassidy represented TOM’s and Lexus. Matsuda’s race on Saturday was ruined by a prop shaft failure on the formation lap, while Cassidy crashed out in the rain early on Sunday.

Having to learn the characteristics of the less-grippy Hankook Ventus tyres used in the DTM, with inclement weather, a different pit stop format that tested the mechanics, with no push to pass or DRS, all of this on a brand new track for the teams and a few of the drivers, meant that there was no chance that the GT500 cars could blow away the DTM cars.

Yet, they still represented the series proudly.

By this point, Aston Martin withdrew from the dream race at the end of a difficult first season. Audi commits to sending DTM champion Rast and Mike Rockenfeller and Super GT legends Benoît Tréluyer and Loïc Duval. BMW counters with DTM champion Wittman, Japanese ace Kamui Kobayashi on loan from Toyota, and the legendary athlete Alex Zanardi. Instead of just twelve teams, all fifteen GT500 teams will now race at Fuji in November.

And now, the road ends, and a dream that is ten years in the making is finally set to be fulfilled.

From the origin on the grid at Motegi, we’ve made it to Fuji Speedway, and the summit of the Super GT x DTM Dream Race. What happens from here could help shape the future of sports car and touring car racing as we know it today.