The Autobacs Super GT Series, formerly known as the All-Japan Grand Touring Car Championship (JGTC), was born out of the same circumstances that led to the birth of Group GT1 in European sports car racing. After the death of Group C prototype racing, GT1 would soon become the gold standard.
In fact, the premier class of Super GT, known today as GT500, was called GT1 from 1994 to 1995. And throughout the history of the category, GT1 cars that raced in or aspired to race in the BPR Global GT and FIA GT Championships, would end up racing in the JGTC/Super GT.
One team, quite famously and to the ire of the domestic manufacturers like Toyota and Nissan, swept the GT500 Drivers’ and Teams’ Championships with a GT1 car from overseas. Then, something unforeseen happened – as GT500 deviated from being purely production-based sports cars into super silhouettes, the factory-built GT500s ended up being faster than even the most extreme GT1 cars from overseas by the end of GT1’s lifespan.
And while there were GT1s that won races and even titles in Japan, many more weren’t as successful, but were every bit as memorable, be it for their stark visual stylings or the ear-shattering noise from their large-displacement engines. A few more, never even made it to the starting grid, yet the visions of what could have been, they still linger in the minds of avid Super GT fans.
This is DSC’s look back at the GT1 cars that shaped the landscape of the JGTC & Super GT, and it could not have begun anywhere else, but with the pink and black starships from the UK, Team Lark McLaren’s two F1 GTRs that swept the GT500 Drivers’ and Teams’ Championships in 1996.
Four wins in six races, a perfect six-for-six pole positions and fastest laps. Three wins and second in the Drivers’ standings for the number 60 (chassis #13R) of Naoki Hattori and Ralf Schumacher, and a race win and the championship for the number 61 (chassis #14R and #04R) of John Nielsen and David Brabham.
Right from the drop, the Andy Blackmore-liveried Lark McLarens, both managed by Kazumichi Goh, prepared by Team LeMans, and backed directly by McLaren CEO Ron Dennis, bloodied the nose of the Japanese manufacturers, even with the 6-litre BMW V12 detuned to under 450 horsepower, even with massive weight handicaps, nothing could slow them down it seemed.
In the face of the GT Association (GTA) proposing further handicaps, the team withdrew after just one season in the JGTC. There is more information and in-depth reports of every race that year to be read, in our February 2019 retrospective of Team Lark McLaren’s 1996 campaign.
That wasn’t the end of the F1 GTR’s life in Super GT, however.
The 1997-spec F1 GTR “longtail” made its debut in 1999, with privateer Team Take One purchasing chassis #19R, ironically from Goh-san’s squad. 1988 All-Japan Sports Prototype Champion Hideki Okada was partnered with Yoji Yamada, gentleman racer, team owner, and then-president of Nippon Shinpan bank.
By mid-2000, Yamada stood down in favour of the electric 21-year-old prospect Tsugio Matsuda, who finished 4th on debut at TI Circuit Aida (Okayama International Circuit). In 2001, Macau native André Couto joined Okada, and the duo scored the F1 GTR’s final competition victory, winning from pole position at the season finale held at Central Park Miné Circuit.
By 2001, a second longtail McLaren, chassis #25R, was entered for privateer Hitotsuyama Racing, sponsored by motorcycle apparel maker Yellow Corn. Associate sponsor Unocal 76 inspired a change of number to 76.
Naoki Hattori joined the team in the middle of 2001, and alongside Eiichi Tajima, recorded the F1 GTR’s last competitive podium finish and pole position, at Twin Ring Motegi in 2002.
The Hitotsuyama McLaren made just two more starts in 2005, both at Fuji Speedway. When Tajima and Mikio Hitotsuyama finished 17th at the Fuji 300km on 25 September, it closed out the F1 GTR’s incredible racing history after a decade.
Before going back further into the history books, Hitotsuyama Racing’s other privateer efforts in the GT500 class also warrant a mention, the last GT1 cars that started a Super GT race in the premier category.
The common thread to those efforts was Prodrive, who first built the Ferrari 550 GTS that won back-to-back FIA GT Drivers’ and Teams’ Championships in 2003, and in 2004, when Chassis #105849 was shipped to Japan for Hitotsuyama Racing.
GT500 and Japanese top formula race winner Hidetoshi Mitsusada drove the Hitotsuyama Ferrari from 2004 to 2005, partnered by gentleman racer Tadao Uematsu in ‘04, then another GT500 & top formula race winner, Takuya Kurosawa, in ‘05. In two seasons, the 550 GTS was only able to manage a best finish of 12th at the 2005 Sportsland Sugo round.
The second effort, in 2009, was with the Aston Martin DBR9 GT1, twice a class winner at Le Mans, and another Prodrive creation.
This was DBR9 Chassis #104, fielded by Hitotsuyama in collaboration with the legendary Nova Engineering under the “Advan Team Nova” banner. Longtime Toyota GT500 star Takeshi Tsuchiya joined rock-solid amateur driver Akihiro Tsuzuki in a limited slate of three races – the Okayama opener, and both races at Fuji.
The DBR9 managed a trio of 14th place finishes, as it simply couldn’t match the factory GT500 cars for downforce, often jokingly referred to as a “GT400”. This effort was the last time that a GT1 car ever took to the track for a Super GT race.
However, these Hitotsuyama Racing cars had success elsewhere in Japan: The Ferrari racked up back-to-back GT1 class titles in the short-lived Japan Le Mans Challenge from 2006 to 2007, and the Aston finished 2nd in class at the 2009 Okayama 1000km, the first event in the history of the Asian Le Mans Series.
When the “prototype” GT1 class of the mid-to-late 90s was abolished, the cars of the former GT2 category were then elevated to GT1 status henceforth, including the Porsche 911 GT2 (993-generation), which retroactively became the only other GT1 to win a title in Super GT!
Team Taisan’s #33 Porsche 911 GT2 was the first winner, at the All-Japan Fuji GT Race with drivers Hideshi Matsuda, by then a regular challenger at the Indianapolis 500, and Kaoru Iida.
Matsuda and Keiichi Suzuki would go on to win the series finale at Miné Circuit, while the duo of Masahiko “Matchy” Kondo and Anthony Reid won the penultimate round at Sugo.
Matsuda finished 4th in the GT1 Drivers’ Championship, while Team Taisan, with their fleet of Porsche 911 GT2s (and Ferrari F40s) won the Teams’ Championship over the Calsonic Nissan Skyline GT-R of Hoshino Racing.
Team Taisan would continue to field the 911 GT2 in 1996 but scored only three top-ten finishes in the year of the McLaren F1 GTR’s onslaught. By mid-1997, with only a single tenth-place finish, Taisan replaced their last 911 GT2 with the Chrysler Viper GTS-R.
Several other privateers fielded the 911 GT2 in the premier class, like the aforementioned Team Take One, from 1995 to 1998. Yoji Yamada and Eiichi Tajima finished 2nd in the 1995 finale at Miné, their best finish with the Porsche. Kazuo Mogi, the JGTC’s first polesitter, drove for them in ‘97, before Okada joined in ‘98.
Rank Up Tomei Sports (1995), Taku Motor Sports/Team TMS (1996-97), Prova Motorsports (1996), and Suzuki Bankin (1997) also ran the 911 GT2 in the premier class. Pictured above is the yellow Châteraisé TMS Porsche, which was driven not only by Kaoru Iida, but also the likes of future GT500 champions Michael Krumm and Ralph Firman, and the courageous Tetsuya Ota.
The 993-generation 911 GT2 was later detuned to race in GT300, where it spent another three seasons in the hands of teams like Team Gaikokuya, Team Sigma Tec, and Ability Motorsport, who took the car’s last podium finish in the series in 2000, finishing 2nd in class at Sugo.
Meanwhile, Team Taisan started their journey with the new Chrysler (Dodge) Viper GTS-R, the GT2 sensation (later elevated to GT1 like the 911 GT2) with its massive 8-litre V10 engine. Who better to race this modern American muscle car than the Indy 500 veteran Hideshi Matsuda, and the “Drift King” Keiichi Tsuchiya, who had raced in NASCAR’s exhibition races at Suzuka?
The Taisan Viper finished 8th at the 1997 championship finale at Miné, then finished 6th in the first leg of the All-Star Race at Motegi.
The Taisan Viper scored two more top-tens in GT500, 10th at Sugo in ‘98 with Matsuda and Reid, 9th at Suzuka in ‘99 with Matsuda and Tajima, but otherwise failed to score points in the top class. Midway through the 2000 season, Team Taisan withdrew from the GT500 class and detuned the Viper down to GT300 spec.
Eiji “Tarzan” Yamada and Takayuki Kinoshita’s third-place finish in GT300 at the 2001 Miné round was the Viper GTS-R’s only JGTC podium in either category. In November 2018, Team Taisan’s Viper was sold at auction for 6.6 million yen.
Team JLOC (Japan Lamborghini Owners’ Club) have raced in Super GT since the very first season, and they fielded two different generations of racing Lamborghini models that were built for GT1 competition, and later, developed by JLOC specifically for GT500.
First, there was the Lamborghini Diablo GT-1. Originally conceived to race in Europe, it only raced in Japan with JLOC from 1997 to 2000. Hisashi Wada and Naohiro Furuya scored two top-ten finishes in 1998 with the JLOC Diablo GT-1, a car that was a hit with the fans due to the banshee roar of its six-litre V12, the most powerful GT500 engine on the grid.
JLOC’s Diablo GT-1 was also the first Lamborghini to appear in a Gran Turismo game, exploiting a Japanese licensing loophole for the release of Gran Turismo 3: A-Spec on the PlayStation 2!
The Diablo GT-1 was the base for the Diablo JGT-1 introduced by JLOC in 2001 – using the same engine and gearbox, but a reworked chassis and suspension, and other parts specially-built for JGTC competition.
Try as they could, Team JLOC never had the resources to develop the Diablo JGT-1 to the same spec as the factory GT500s – and the car never finished higher than 14th over three seasons of racing.
In 2004, the Lamborghini Murciélago R-GT – co-developed with Audi Sport and Reiter Engineering, was introduced, and Team JLOC developed it into the Murciélago RG-1 for use in GT500. Also, a box-standard R-GT made a few appearances in 2004 from Malaysian hopefuls Amprex Motorsports.
But even with the new car, JLOC were overmatched in GT500. So, by mid-2005, a decision was made, the Murciélago RG-1 would drop down to the GT300 class.
And, on 19 March 2006, after twelve years of fruitless efforts in the top class, the switch down to GT300 paid off when Marco Apicella and Yasutaka Hinoi drove the number 88 Aktio Murcié RG-1 to the class victory, JLOC’s first!
The RG-1 racked up another three podium finishes in its GT300 lifespan, 2nd at the 2007 Fuji 500km with Apicella and Koji Yamanishi, then 3rd at Motegi in ‘08, and 3rd at Fuji again in ‘09, both with Yamanishi and Atsushi Yogo.
From a thoroughbred Lamborghini to a loving replica, one of the most beloved rarities amongst Super GT fans is the RGS Mirage GT-1, formerly of the British GT Championship.
The Countach replica, with its Chevy V8 engine, made its way to Japan with Team Sri Lanka in 2000. But in four attempts, Dilantha Malagamuwa and his co-drivers could never even make it to a GT500 starting grid with the Mirage GT-1.
Three years later, Team LeyJun, run by Osamu Nakajima, whom this sport so dearly misses, gave the Mirage GT-1 its GT300 class debut.
The car only finished a single race, at Fuji in 2003, the first leg in a double-header race weekend in July that replaced the Sepang round due to the SARS pandemic. Tatsuya Mizutani finished 24th in class, 4 laps down. The Mirage GT-1 still remains a cult classic among Super GT fans to this day, if only for its rarity.
This file saves the best for last, the tales of machines that never made the grid. The first venture is well-known: Team Goh Motorsports’ failed comeback with the Maserati MC12 GT1, winner of a whopping six consecutive FIA GT/GT1 Championships from 2005 to 2010.
Ten years after winning the GT500 titles as head of Team Lark McLaren, two years after winning Le Mans outright as an Audi Sport customer, Kazumichi Goh brought the controversial MC12 over from Europe, to be driven by two-time Le Mans class winner Jan Magnussen, and 2004 overall Le Mans winner Seiji Ara.
Team Stile Corse attended the pre-season test at Suzuka Circuit and quickly found themselves overmatched. For as radical as the MC12 was in European competition, the GT500 super silhouettes were even faster. And no matter how much top speed the MC12 had in the straights, it was being devoured in the corners by the Honda, Nissan, and Lexus factory teams.
Getting the car to Japan in itself was a hassle, and Magnussen never tested the car after returning home to Denmark with an illness. On 15 March 2006, Stile Corse announced that they had withdrawn from the season-opening Suzuka 300km. In time, they announced their permanent withdrawal, and the Maserati MC12 never raced in Super GT after all.
But there’s one more story of Group GT1 cars in Super GT that has rarely been told.
The Mercedes-Benz CLK-LM, which succeeded the CLK-GTR, went undefeated in the 1998 FIA GT Championship, it won every race it entered except Le Mans. After the abolishment of the “old” GT1 in 1999, the CLK-LM had nowhere to race, nowhere it seemed, except the All-Japan GT Championship.
Enter MTCI, an upstart internet provider with a 10 billion yen public offering and an insatiable lust to get into motor racing as a sponsor at the peak of the dot-com boom. They were sponsoring Benetton in F1, they were sponsoring Takuya Kurosawa’s ill-fated CART World Series venture, and they also were the sponsor of an upstart JGTC team.
In March 2000, auto sport Magazine of Japan’s front page carried the story that MTCI Racing Team would enter the Mercedes-Benz CLK-LM for the upcoming JGTC season, the ultimate “GT1 prototype” racing against the Supras, Skylines, and NSXes. Little is known about the entry apart from Marco Apicella being appointed as the first driver.
However, somewhere along with the negotiations between MTCI and Mercedes-Benz, and perhaps in large part from the shame of the CLR’s massive failure at Le Mans in ‘99, the sale fell through. MTCI Racing Team would instead field a privately-built Porsche Boxster in GT300, with Apicella driving.
By season’s end, MTCI and its race team had collapsed into bankruptcy after the dot-com bubble burst. Chairman Yu Hayakawa was later arrested in 2002 for stock sales fraud. And save for its victory in the 1998 Suzuka 1000km, the Mercedes-Benz CLK-LM never raced in Japan.
Image Credits: Suzuka Circuit/Mobilityland Corporation, Fuji Speedway/FISCO, Lamborghini, BH Auction, Respo Oil Tuning, Janos Wimpffen, Pierre-Laurent Ribault, John Brooks, Minoru Kobayashi, Tomoaki Sugimoto, Yoshihide Ashizawa, Kiyoto Hirai, Makoto Irino, teru987, Hiro-kun (twitter.com/kun71094249), Fire’s Room, and the GT Association (GTA)