The stage is set for what could go down as the greatest championship-deciding race in the history of the Autobacs Super GT Series.
This weekend, Super GT makes its fourth and final trip to Fuji Speedway for Round 8 of the 2020 Super GT season, the Takanokono Hotel Fuji GT 300km Race, on Sunday 29 November 2020. The Race will broadcast the event live on their YouTube channel for international audiences outside of Japan.
This weekend will mark the first time that Super GT’s last championship round will take place at Fuji Speedway since 2008. No matter the venue, there have been several memorable championship-deciding races in the quarter-century history of the Super GT, previously known as the All-Japan GT Championship. Save for a handful of dominant campaigns, the championship battles in both classes have usually come down to the final race of the season.
But in the history of the JGTC/Super GT, there has never been a GT500 Championship that has been as closely contested amongst so many different teams going into the final round of the season, as we have before us in 2020’s final round at Fuji.
The Success Ballast system of weight handicaps and fuel-flow restrictors that helped maintain a competitive balance in Super GT through the first seven rounds, is not a factor. Since 2009, all Success Ballast is removed in the last round of the season to ensure that the race and the championship are ultimately determined by the strongest team with the fastest car and drivers, and the best strategy.
It has come to this: The top six teams in the GT500 Drivers’ Championship standings are covered by just four points after seven races. And depending on the outcome of qualifying, each of those six teams can clinch the championship outright by winning Sunday’s 66-lap, 300-kilometre race.
The championship-leading #17 Keihin Honda NSX-GT of Koudai Tsukakoshi and Bertrand Baguette, has won twice this year already – including Round 2 at Fuji in August. Managed by former driver Katsutomo Kaneishi, Real Racing have never won the GT500 title since joining the series in 2007, nor have their two drivers: Tsukakoshi, who’s spent his entire 12-year, 100+ race career with Real Racing, or Baguette, who very nearly missed the start of this season due to travel restrictions.
Ryo Hirakawa, driver of the #37 KeePer TOM’s Toyota GR Supra, won the first race of the season at Fuji back in July. Hirakawa and Nick Cassidy won the 2017 GT500 Championship with the KeePer TOM’s team, and they since finished runner-up in the last two seasons. This weekend, Kenta Yamashita, the outgoing GT500 Champion of 2019, will aid Hirakawa’s bid to become a two-time GT500 Champion (and the first solo champion since Ryo Michigami in 2000).
The #23 Motul Autech Nissan GT-R NISMO GT500 of Tsugio Matsuda and Ronnie Quintarelli are Nissan and Michelin’s sole challengers for the title. Matsuda is in pursuit of his third GT500 Championship, Quintarelli is trying for a record-extending fifth GT500 Championship, and NISMO are bidding for a record eighth set of Drivers’ and Teams’ titles – all of which have eluded them since 2016. However, they also need to reverse a trend of lacklustre finishes at Fuji Speedway this season, if they are to have any chance of winning the race and the championship.
Team Kunimitsu’s entry, the #100 Raybrig NSX-GT of Naoki Yamamoto and Tadasuke Makino, will make its final run in these colours this weekend at Fuji. The team has been a consistent points-scorer for most of the season with six top-six finishes. 2018 GT500 Champion Yamamoto is going for his second championship to match the two Super Formula titles he already has, and GT500 sophomore Makino is bidding for his first championship. What a lovely send-off it would be, for the Raybrig NSX-GT to win in its last run.
After a win in the last round at Twin Ring Motegi, the #8 ARTA NSX-GT of sixth-year GT500 veteran Tomoki Nojiri and GT500 rookie Nirei Fukuzumi could complete the most improbable championship comeback in GT500 history – from 39 points down after the first four races, all the way to the top of the table. This team is now firing on all cylinders in the second half of 2020, trying for ARTA’s first title since 2007, and the first for both drivers.
And the #14 Wako’s 4CR GR Supra, the TGR Team Wako’s Rookie car with the same sponsor as the 2019 Championship-winning car. Kazuya Oshima is trying to become the first repeat champion since Matsuda & Quintarelli in 2014-15, and Sho Tsuboi is going for his first title in just his second full season in the top class. One thing this team has in their favour? In three previous races at Fuji, they have three podium finishes.
In total, ten teams will enter this weekend with a mathematical chance at becoming the GT500 Champion. This includes four dark horses who face increasingly long odds to become champion. Just as a quick refresher, 20 points are on offer for victory, 15 for finishing second, 11 for third, then 8, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, and 1 for the rest of the top ten finishers. In addition, there is a bonus championship point available for the pole sitter in qualifying. 21 points is the maximum available for the weekend.
The #36 au TOM’s GR Supra of Yuhi Sekiguchi & Sacha Fenestraz started the year strong enough that they’ve remained in the hunt all year. They’re currently six points out of first place. Without the bonus point for pole position, they can win the title by winning the race, with both the #17 and #37 finishing 3rd or lower. They need a minimum 4th-place finish to have a chance. Between the #36 and #37 TOM’s cars, the organisation is going for its fifth GT500 Drivers’ title – and this would be the first for the number 36 crew since 2009.
Yuichi Nakayama is the only driver to run every race in the #39 Denso Kobelco SARD GR Supra this year. He and 2016 GT500 Champion Heikki Kovalainen won Round 5 at Fuji in October. If they win at Fuji again this weekend, they need the #17 and #37 to finish 4th or lower, and the #23, #8, and #100 to finish 3rd or lower, for Nakayama to become the champion on his own, and for manager Juichi Wakisaka to take back-to-back titles with two different teams. They need a minimum 3rd place finish to stay in it.
Fifteen years ago, Yuji Tachikawa and Toyota Team Cerumo were 14 points out of first place going into the last round of the season, but won the 2005 finale at Suzuka to take the title. Once again, Tachikawa and co-driver Hiroaki Ishiura are 14 points out of first place, needing a win or 2nd place to have a chance at the title. For Cerumo and driver/manager Tachikawa, it would be their fourth championships – which would see Tachikawa tie Quintarelli’s record for the most Drivers’ Championships – and for 13-year GT500 veteran Ishiura, a long-awaited first title in the premier class of Super GT.
The #64 Modulo NSX-GT of Takuya Izawa and Hiroki Otsu needs the maximum 21 points available, a pole-to-win victory, and lots of divine intervention on their behalf to win the title – which would be Nakajima Racing’s first, and the first for both drivers. It’s very unlikely, though, given the Dunlop-clad Modulo NSX’s previous lack of success at Fuji this season.
Fuji Speedway is a “home track” for Toyota, who own the circuit, and their GR Supra GT500 has excelled in straight-line speed. Which is why the mood in the paddock suggests that Toyota has the advantage. But Honda’s new NSX-GT, with it’s low-drag package, has also been running well in the previous rounds at Fuji this season. And what developments have Nissan brought to the table, in order to catch up with their rivals?
In the event of a tie atop the table, the Keihin NSX and Motul GT-R have two wins each, the KeePer Supra, ARTA NSX, and Denso Supra have a win each, but none of these teams have any second-place finishes. The au Supra has two second-place finishes, and the Raybrig NSX, Wako’s Supra, ZENT Supra, and Modulo NSX have one second-place finish, but none of these teams have won a race.
The ARTA NSX and Wako’s Supra have two third-place finishes, the Raybrig NSX and au Supra have one. For the teams that have wins but no other podium finishes, the next-best finishes are as follows: 5th for the Keihin NSX, two 4ths for the KeePer Supra, 7th for the Motul GT-R, and two 5ths for the Denso Supra. There’s a real possibility that we could see a repeat of 1997, which saw multiple tiebreakers needed to decide the GT500 Champions on countback.
It’s highly likely that we’ll also see some of the best wheel-to-wheel racing action of the season. Just in recent history, the final round of the Super GT season has given us moments such as Wakisaka and Takashi Kogure’s all-out scrap for the win in 2010, and even last year’s sensational pass through the gravel moment between Yamashita and Sekiguchi, which ultimately decided the championship. The opportunity also exists for the five teams not mentioned to play the role of championship spoiler and end their difficult seasons on a high note.
You only have to look over at the GT300 Class, and their championship fight that will happen simultaneously. The last time that the Super GT season finale was held at Fuji, in 2008, the title came down to a decisive pass for position on the final corner of the final lap of the race. Similarly, in 2006, the title was decided on a final-lap retirement. And even just last year, the final race of the season saw the race victory change hands just a few hundred metres from the finish – so as the old cliche goes, it’s never over ‘til it’s over!
From a field of 30 cars, seven teams will enter this weekend’s race with a mathematical possibility of becoming champion – led by the top two teams in the championship, the #56 Realize Nissan Automobile Technical College GT-R GT3 of Kiyoto Fujinami & Joao Paulo de Oliveira, and the #65 LEON Pyramid Mercedes-AMG GT3 of Naoya Gamou & Togo Suganami. They’re separated by just five points at the top of the standings.
Fujinami and Oliveira won the last round at Fuji and the most recent race at Motegi. It would be a first title for both Fujinami, and for Oliveira, who’s come so close to a GT500 title many times, but is still seeking his first championship in his 15th season in Super GT. It would also be a first title in any class for Kondo Racing, in their 20th anniversary as an organisation.
This past fortnight, Masahiko Kondo announced that he would be taking a leave of absence from his team for the rest of the year, in light of a personal scandal that has exploded onto Japanese tabloids. It is our sincerest hope that this development has not shaken the confidence of the #56 team.
Their nearest contenders, Gamou & Suganami of K2 R&D LEON Racing, won the September round at Motegi, and finished on the podium at the last Fuji race in October. LEON Racing won the GT300 title by coming back from a record 12-point deficit in 2018. But they cannot afford a repeat of 2019’s heartbreak, where they ran out of fuel out of the final corner. For Gamou it would be his second title, and for Suganami, who took over mid-way into 2019 after team director Haruki Kurosawa stepped aside from full-time driving, it would be his first.
The other five teams will have to overcome the largest points deficit ever, in order to win the title in the last race.
The #11 Gainer TanaX GT-R of Katsuyuki Hiranaka & Hironobu Yasuda needs a minimum 2nd place finish, and if they win the race, they need the #56 to finish 5th or lower, and the #65 to finish 3rd or lower (pole position bonus notwithstanding). This would be Gainer’s first title since 2015, Yasuda’s second GT300 title (he took the title in the aforementioned 2008 finale), and a first for Hiranaka, in his 16th season.
After winning the first race of the 2020 season, the #52 Saitama Toyopet GreenBrave Toyota GR Supra of Hiroki Yoshida and Kohta Kawaai will be keen to end the season as they started it. It would cap off a four-year rising arc from upstarts to champions for the team, in the first year for their new JAF-GT300 car. It would be the crowning achievement for 37-year-old career journeyman Yoshida, and an improbable championship-crowning debut season for Kawaai.
Subaru have never won a Super GT championship, but the #61 Subaru BRZ R&D Sport of Takuto Iguchi and Hideki Yamauchi could finally end a long drought for the manufacturer, and for the R&D Sport team, which has never won a championship in their 20 years in the series. Iguchi & Yamauchi, who’ve been together with this team since 2015, are also seeking their first titles.
Toshiki Oyu wants to do what his predecessor Nirei Fukuzumi did in the #55 ARTA Honda NSX GT3 last season – win the GT300 Championship in his rookie year in sports cars. Reigning champions Autobacs Racing Team Aguri may not have veteran ace Shinichi Takagi, who is still rehabilitating from injuries. But ARTA still have a competitive driver combination with Oyu and Nobuharu Matsushita, and the ARTA NSX has finished 3rd and 2nd in its last two races at Fuji.
The #52, #61, and #55 teams need a win, the #56 to finish 7th or lower, and the #65 to finish 4th or lower. If any of them qualifies on pole, they might be able to win the title by finishing 2nd.
Lastly, the #4 Goodsmile Hatsune Miku AMG of Nobuteru Taniguchi & Tatsuya Kataoka needs the maximum number of points available to have any shot at a fourth title in the last ten years for GSR & Team UKYO. But if they pull it off, Taniguchi and Kataoka would set a new record with their fourth GT300 Drivers’ Championship, and Goodsmile Racing will maintain a nifty streak of winning a championship every four years.
This final race of the 2020 season could also prove to be a final chance for any of the other GT300 teams to end the year with a strong result. A win, a podium finish, or even a top ten would suffice.
Every team has multiple races’ worth of data to reference when preparing for this final race at Fuji Speedway, but one factor that hasn’t been in play all season is cold weather. Temperatures are projected to hover around the single-digits Celsius, or perhaps, just barely crack 10 degrees C. Teams and tyre manufacturers haven’t been subject to this kind of climate since pre-season testing back in March. Initial weather reports also suggest a non-zero chance of rain, just below 50%.
On-track action starts Saturday 28 November with Practice at 9:00 AM JST (local time) and Qualifying at 1:15 PM JST.
Green flag time for Sunday’s race is 1:00 PM JST / 4:00 AM GMT / 5:00 AM CET / 11:00 PM (Saturday) EST, with The Race‘s live stream coverage starting at 25 minutes before the top of the hour.