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2021 Fuji 500km Preview: The Golden Week Tradition Returns!

A look behind, and forward, to this special race

Super GT’s Fuji GT 500km Race may not be one of the longest, most gruelling sports car races in the world. But the Fuji 500km is still significant for where it lies on the Japanese sporting calendar: Every 4th of May, right in the heart of the Golden Week holiday period, a series of public holidays celebrated since post-World War II reconstruction which effectively forms a full week of leisure time for Japan’s citizens (and, up until the COVID-19 pandemic, the nation’s busiest period of tourism from abroad). The Fuji 500km is synonymous with Golden Week and the 4th of May, in the same way, that Le Mans is synonymous with June and the summer solstice, or how the Indianapolis 500 is synonymous with American Memorial Day weekend in late May.

Of course, the history of motor racing on Golden Week goes back several generations before the inception of the Autobacs Super GT Series, back to the first runnings of the Japan Grand Prix sports car race in the 1960s, the birth of modern automobile racing in post-war Japan. That race later found a permanent home at the then-new, 6 kilometre Fuji Speedway from 1966. With the passage of time and the evolution of Fuji Speedway into the 4.563 kilometre modern circuit that it is today, other events such as the Fuji Grand Champion Series and the All-Japan Endurance/Sports Prototype Championship (JSPC) Fuji 1000km occupied the coveted Golden Week calendar slot.

In 1994, a new tradition was born with the first race of the all-new All-Japan Grand Touring Car Championship (JGTC) being held during the holiday period at Fuji Speedway. Fast forward to 2001, and the JGTC made its annual Golden Week trip to Fuji even more special by reviving the Fuji 500km, a race held between 1971 and 1991, typically as part of the JSPC calendar in March or November. This was Super GT’s first true endurance race, and this year will be the only race to run longer than the standard 300km distance.

Save for 2004 during Fuji Speedway’s massive renovation period, and save for last year when COVID-19 disrupted the racing calendar in Japan as it did so many other norms in life, the Fuji 500km has been held on the Golden Week holiday in Japan every year for the past two decades. And from 2012 to 2019, the event has consistently drawn over 80,000 spectators to Fuji Speedway in the town of Oyama over the two-day “weekend”, with race day attendance in excess of 50,000 – outdrawing even the prestigious Suzuka 1000km when it was on the Super GT calendar through 2017.

There isn’t a big cash prize for the winner, there are no more points for victory than any other race on the calendar – and to Super GT’s detriment, they generally promote this race in the same manner that they would any other championship round on the calendar. But for its history, its interlocking lineage that spans generations of Japanese motorsport enthusiasts, the Fuji 500km on 4 May is the most prestigious event in Super GT.

Which leads back to the present day – where this Tuesday, after a year’s absence, the Fuji 500km returns to the Super GT calendar on its traditional date. 44 cars across 2 classes will battle for the victory in their respective classes, in this critical second round of the 2021 Super GT season. A thrilling season opener at Okayama three weeks ago is still fresh in the memory. And if this year’s Fuji 500km is anything like the mixed-conditions slugfest that unfolded in 2019, the fight for the GT500 honours will be a gripping tale as it unfolds over the scheduled 110 laps of racing.

In the four races held at Fuji Speedway in 2020, Toyota and Honda split the victories at two each. But three weeks ago at Okayama, with special Balance of Performance in place, Toyota opened 2021 with a commanding sweep of the podium positions, and a clear advantage over Honda and Nissan. And of course, at the Toyota-owned Fuji Speedway, there will be added incentive for their great form to continue into the Fuji 500km.

Success Weight is in play for the first time, meaning that Okayama winners (and championship leaders) Kazuya Oshima and Kenta Yamashita will have 40 kilos of Success Weight onboard their #14 Eneos X Prime Toyota GR Supra as they look to become the first team to win back-to-back races to open a season since 2016. The #36 au TOM’s GR Supra (Yuhi Sekiguchi/Sho Tsuboi) is ready to fight back after a tough runner-up finish punctuated by Tsuboi’s relentless attacking style that came to the forefront in his 20+ lap duel with Yamashita at Okayama.

Last time the series visited at Fuji Speedway, the #37 KeePer TOM’s GR Supra drove a perfect race and led until the final seven hundred metres of last year’s final battle. Can Ryo Hirakawa, who opened 2020 with a commanding victory at Fuji, and co-driver Sena Sakaguchi banish the demons of last year’s devastating collapse? Don’t forget either, that the #39 Denso Kobelco SARD GR Supra (Heikki Kovalainen/Yuichi Nakayama) won at Fuji last October in the fifth round of the season.

Of course, when it comes to Fuji Speedway, no driver has won more times at this circuit than Yuji Tachikawa – the “Fuji-Meister” who is going for his tenth career win at this circuit, and his sixth in the 500km. Tachikawa and Hiroaki Ishiura have won two of the last three Fuji 500kms, in 2017 and 2019, for TGR Team ZENT Cerumo – not to mention, four of Ishiura’s six career GT500 victories are at the Fuji 500km.

Honda haven’t won at Fuji on Golden Week since the year 2000, the last season before the Fuji 500km’s revival. Their front-engined NSX-GT did win Round 2 of the 2020 season at Fuji, in a 300km race in August – but certainly, there’s more incentive to win this year’s second round and end a twenty-one year drought.

The return of GT500 co-champion Tadasuke Makino is one of the big stories in the lead-up to this race. Team Kunimitsu will work Makino back into the cockpit as a third driver alongside Naoki Yamamoto and Hideki Mutoh in the #1 Stanley NSX-GT, in his first race since being hospitalized with meningitis in December 2020. Yamamoto and Makino won last year’s finale at Fuji to clinch the championship.

The #17 Astemo NSX-GT (Koudai Tsukakoshi/Bertrand Baguette) won here this past August of course, and finished best of the Honda fleet three weeks ago at Okayama. And the confidence will be high in the camp of the #8 ARTA NSX-GT (Tomoki Nojiri/Nirei Fukuzumi) – as Nojiri has opened 2021 with back-to-back victories in the Super Formula Championship, including the Fuji round in April.

Nissan’s hopes for a GT500 victory will almost surely be led by the #23 Motul Autech GT-R of Tsugio Matsuda and Ronnie Quintarelli. The NISMO super squad won the Fuji 500km in 2015, 2016, and 2018 – worth noting, the latest of those three wins is also the most recent GT500 victory for Nissan at Fuji. They’ll also be eager to bounce back from a costly DNF at Okayama.

Fuji’s power sections, namely the 1.475km home stretch, will be the biggest measure of how much ground Nissan have gained with their NR4S21 engines. The other Michelin-clad Nissan, the #3 CraftSports Motul GT-R (Kohei Hirate/Katsumasa Chiyo), and the Bridgestone-clad #12 Calsonic Impul GT-R (Kazuki Hiramine/Nobuharu Matsushita), should also be in the mix for points as they were at Okayama – but they’ll surely be wanting to finish further up the order than 9th and 10th.

Bridgestone teams dominated the running order at Okayama – so what can the likes of Dunlop and Yokohama do to fight back? It’s been 15 years since Dunlop tyres have won the Fuji 500km, and the scoreless result at Okayama wasn’t what either the #16 Red Bull Motul Mugen NSX-GT (Ukyo Sasahara/Toshiki Oyu) or the #64 Modulo NSX-GT (Takuya Izawa/Hiroki Otsu) expected after strong form in pre-season testing. Yokohama, represented by the #19 WedsSport Advan GR Supra (Yuji Kunimoto/Ritomo Miyata) and the #24 Realize Corporation Advan GT-R (Mitsunori Takaboshi/Daiki Sasaki), haven’t won on Golden Week at Fuji since 1997 – and like Dunlop’s two teams, neither of the Yokohama cars finished in the points at Okayama.

Note that for the entire GT500 field, the engines will be running at full power with the restoration of the standard 95 kilogrammes per hour fuel flow rate.

As the battle in GT300 unfolded at Okayama, four championship favourites asserted themselves over a great battle for the top spot. But it was the defending series champions, the #56 Realize Nissan Automobile Technical College GT-R of Kiyoto Fujinami/João Paulo de Oliveira, who outlasted their nearest competitors and took the win in the opening race of the 2021 season.

The Nissan GT-R GT3 is perfectly suited to Fuji’s smooth surface and abundant power sections, but the #56 Realize GT-R of Fujinami and Oliveira may be in for a tough challenge to try and win back-to-back rounds: They’re carrying 60kg of Success Weight this weekend. That may just open the door for either of Gainer’s two cars to fight back: The #11 Gainer TanaX GT-R (Katsuyuki Hiranaka/Hironobu Yasuda) was in that lead battle at Okayama, and this duo won the last Fuji 500km in 2019. But one car to watch will be their sister car – the #10 Gainer TanaX with Impul GT-R (Kazuki Hoshino/Keishi Ishikawa): They showed flashes of speed at Okayama in their first race after switching to Dunlop tyres, and their 3kg of Success Weight may as well amount to zero.

The more powerful FIA GT3 cars should, in theory, be favoured to win at a circuit like this. After all, GT3 vehicles have won the last six Fuji 500kms, from 2014 to 2019. Autobacs Racing Team Aguri have been excellent here in recent years, and a race victory would be a perfect way for the #55 ARTA Honda NSX GT3 (Shinichi Takagi/Ren Sato) to bounce back from a scruffy first round – especially when considering that Takagi has nine career wins at Fuji. The #65 LEON Pyramid Mercedes-AMG GT3 (Naoya Gamou/Togo Suganami) will be aiming at back-to-back podiums to start the season, while the #4 Goodsmile Hatsune Miku AMG (Nobuteru Taniguchi/Tatsuya Kataoka) will want to bounce back after a poor outing at Okayama by their lofty standards. It would also be tough to overlook the potential of JLOC’s pair of Lamborghini Huracán GT3s, the #88 JLOC Huracán (Takashi Kogure/Yuya Motojima) and the #87 Granseed Huracán (Kosuke Matsuura/Natsu Sakaguchi), or even the #96 K-Tunes Lexus RC F GT3 (Morio Nitta/Hibiki Taira).

And in the first race since the death of team founder Haruo Tsuchiya was announced to the world, the #25 Hoppy Porsche 911 GT3-R (Takamitsu Matsui/Kimiya Sato) will be a strong sentimental favourite, hoping to end a long winless drought for Tsuchiya Engineering – and an even longer drought for Porsche in Super GT.

But let’s not forget that the traditional GT300 vehicles – including the Mother Chassis – actually won three of the four races held at Fuji last year. Two of those belonged to the #52 Saitama Toyopet GreenBrave Toyota GR Supra of Hiroki Yoshida and Kohta Kawaai, to start and finish the 2020 season. Even with 33kg of Success Weight, they should be considered a heavy favourite for victory. It’s not just their V8-powered GR Supra GT300 that looks mega quick in 2021: The #244 Takanoko-no-yu GR Supra (Atsushi Miyake/Yuui Tsutsumi) and the #60 Syntium LM Corsa GR Supra (Hiroki Yoshimoto/Shunsuke Kohno) were both strong at Okayama on their debuts.

The hybrid powertrain of the #31 Toyota GR Sport Prius PHV apr GT (Koki Saga/Yuhki Nakayama) gives them an edge in the power department amongst their peers, while the new #61 Subaru BRZ R&D Sport (Takuto Iguchi/Hideki Yamauchi) will try and use their agility to their advantage. And don’t overlook the Mother Chassis cars, especially the #2 muta Racing Lotus Evora MC (Hiroki Katoh/Ryohei Sakaguchi/Kazuto Kotaka) – it’s the same car that won Round 2 at Fuji last season, and the addition of Kotaka as a third driver – one of four three-man crews in the GT300 field – should make them a favourite for the pole position.

There’s no obligation to change all four tyres during pit stops, of which this will be a two-stop race – meaning there will be some teams trying two-tyre pit stops, and fuel-only stops, to gain track position ahead of their rivals. It’s especially viable for the lighter GT300 cars, and certain GT3 runners will try this as well.

Qualifying will take place on Monday 3 May, and as mentioned, the Fuji GT 500km Race will take place Tuesday, 4 May. Start times for both sessions are 14:30 JST (local time), 6:30 BST, 7:30 CEST, and 1:30 EDT.