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Goodsmile Racing, 100 Races & Counting

A look back on the Hatsune Miku GT Project's history on the eve of race number 100 at Motegi!

This weekend, Goodsmile Racing are celebrating the 100th in the Autobacs Super GT Series for their world-renowned Hatsune Miku GT Project. It was a milestone that was meant to be celebrated at the end of May in Suzuka Circuit, but due to a mid-season schedule change brought on by a spike in COVID-19 infections, the 100th race now takes place this weekend at Twin Ring Motegi, accompanied by a month-long, commemorative exhibition at the Akiba CO Gallery in Tokyo.

Goodsmile Racing promotes themselves, pridefully and faithfully so, as “The Racing Team Powered by Fans”. Indeed, a total of 1,792 personal sponsors, who support the team financially through seasonal sponsorship pledges in exchange for one-of-a-kind memorabilia and fan experiences, are signed on for this weekend’s race at Motegi. GSR’s personal sponsorship campaign, which predates the establishment of the ubiquitous crowdfunding platform Kickstarter, has united traditional racing fanatics and junkies of all things adjacent to anime, ever since the first car adorned with the image of the virtual idol Hatsune Miku made its debut in the summer of 2008.

In the years since, what is now “Goodsmile Racing & Team UKYO” have won three GT300 Drivers’ Championships, two GT300 Teams’ Championships, while amassing nine wins, 24 podiums, and 68 top-ten finishes as of the completion of the 2021 Fuji 500km on 4 May.

The core of the team has gone largely unchanged over the past decade, consisting of legendary three-time champion drivers Nobuteru Taniguchi and Tatsuya Kataoka; team director and retired Formula 1 national hero Ukyo Katayama, and lead engineer Takao Kohno, the CEO of the RS Fine racing garage which prepares the team’s vehicles.

Team president Takanori Aki, who is also the CEO of the team’s parent company/namesake Good Smile Company, first got into motorsport as a sponsor in the 2007 Rally Japan. And in 2008, Goodsmile Racing as it is known today first took part in Super GT, with a humble BMW Z4M Coupé kit car fitted with a 5-litre V8 engine and an antiquated H-pattern gearbox.

Back then, Goodsmile Racing was merely a title sponsor for a team known as Studie GLAD Racing, a partnership between BMW tuning company Studie AG, and import auto parts supplier GLAD Japan, currently known as Advance Step. Those formative years saw the team get plenty of attention as the series’ first itasha – a term for cars adorning anime, manga, or video game characters which literally translates to “painful car”, but can also be a term of endearment in some circles.

True to the literal meaning of itasha, the years 2008 and 2009 were full of growing pains. The milestones were small and gradual, it was an accomplishment just to be able to start some races, let alone finish them, even after changing engines and gearboxes. Their first top-ten finish at Autopolis in ’09 would have felt like a race victory.

Journeyman drivers Yasushi Kikuchi and Shozo Tagahara carried the team through much of those first two seasons, while Taku Bamba was brought in at the 2009 Suzuka GT Summer Special to bring in race-winning GT300 experience.

The withdrawal of Advance Step from Super GT after the 2009 season meant Goodsmile Racing had now gone from being just a sponsor, to managing the team. Lost to time is the 2010 season, where GSR partnered with prestigious Japanese outfit Cox Speed Incorporated, a team which had won the very first championship in what is now GT300 back in 1994, but is best known for managing Audi Sport Team Goh, winners of the 2004 24 Hours of Le Mans.

With Porsche and new tyre supplier Hankook, GSR & Cox entered three races with an older Porsche 996 GT3 RSR, before switching to the 997 GT3-R for the final three races, one of the very first FIA homologated GT3 cars to race in Super GT. Three top-ten finishes for the duo of Bamba and Masahiro Sasaki, plus a one-off Suzuka summer endurance appearance for 2003 GT300 Champion Mitsuhiro Kinoshita, were the highlights of a season where the team showed genuine progress.

But once again, GSR would be forced to reorganize after Cox withdrew from Super GT at season’s end, one of several teams involved in the GT300 class that left amid the global recession’s detrimental effect on Japanese motorsport, known locally as the “Lehman Shock.”

The trajectory of Goodsmile Racing changed instantly from 2011 onward: Studie returned as a partner, and Ukyo Katayama (Team UKYO) became the team’s new sporting director. The addition of Taniguchi gave the team a credible ace driver capable of leading the team towards a championship alongside the returning Bamba. RS Fine had become the team’s maintenance garage, where they would prepare a new-to-Japan BMW Z4 GT3, purchased from the Schubert Motorsport team fresh off a win in the Dubai 24 Hours.

In just the third race with this new core, the number 4 GSR Miku Z4 scored the team’s first victory in Sepang in their 20th race. The atmosphere within the team changed from that day forward. A second win came on home soil three months later in the summer race at Fuji Speedway. Taniguchi & Bamba entered the final race at Motegi just five points from the top of the GT300 Championship. They went on to win from pole for the third time in as many races, clinching an improbable first championship for GSR & Studie with Team UKYO, the first championship for a GT3 car, the first (and only) GT300 title for Bamba – and a long-awaited first GT300 crown for Taniguchi, a perennial title contender over his first nine seasons in Super GT.

And just to put an exclamation point on the season, Bamba and Taniguchi won their respective legs of the non-championship JAF Grand Prix at Fuji!

2012 saw the arrival of former Toyota works driver Kataoka to partner Taniguchi in the flagship Hatsune Miku Z4, now carrying the number 0 as part of a new, informal tradition for the GT300 class champions. Takao Kohno also moved into his new role as Chief Engineer for the first time. While unsuccessful in retaining their championship, a win at the prestigious Fuji 500km, and regular top-ten finishes demonstrated that this was a team built to compete for many years to come.

2012 also marked the only time where Goodsmile Racing ran as a two-car outfit, deferring the number 4 to a second team piloted by Bamba and the returning Sasaki. They drove the Fuji 500km with a plain hood on their car after a practice crash, but the team’s supporters turned the carbon bonnet into an art canvas. Unfortunately, Bamba and Sasaki struggled for most of the season, and both drivers were let go when GSR & Studie scaled back to just a single car for 2013.

Pressing forward with the new lineup of “NOB & TK”, plus guest driver Jörg Müller at the Suzuka 1000km, GSR & Studie mounted a late rally for the 2013 GT300 title, claiming back-to-back wins in the sixth and seventh rounds of the season at Fuji and Autopolis, respectively. Taniguchi & Kataoka would finish the year third in the standings.

That offseason, Goodsmile Racing and Studie AG parted ways, with Studie breaking away to form their own GT300 team. With the departure of Studie and team president Yasuaki “Bob” Suzuki, Ukyo Katayama was elevated to the role of team director for the newly rebranded Goodsmile Racing & Team UKYO.

If there were any concerns about whether the separation of GSR and Studie would harm the Hatsune Miku GT Project, they were laid to rest when Taniguchi & Kataoka won the opening round at Okayama. Then they followed it up by winning the Fuji 500km, the first time that a GT300 squad had won back-to-back races to open a season since 1998 and they were able to successfully ride the momentum of those consecutive victories to the end of the season. Taniguchi & Kataoka clinched their second GT300 Drivers’ Championships with a third place finish at the Motegi finale, defeating the Gainer Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG of Katsuyuki Hiranaka & Björn Wirdheim on a tiebreaker after both teams finished level on 78 points.

With their second championship in four years, Goodsmile Racing had fully transformed their image from anime novelty act to perennial powerhouse. Their second act began in earnest after the 2014 season. Their trusty Z4 GT3 was near the end of its lifespan, and the separation from Studie gave GSR & Team UKYO the incentive to change allegiances from BMW to Mercedes-Benz.

The one and only season for the GSR/Miku Mercedes SLS AMG was tough. Taniguchi & Kataoka failed to win a race for the first time since joining together and finished a dismal 11th in the standings, but they did salvage a second-place finish to end the season at Motegi on a high note. A new car was right around the corner in the form of the new Mercedes-AMG GT3.

With the new AMG GT3, Goodsmile Racing & Team UKYO rebounded somewhat, with Taniguchi/Kataoka finishing seventh in the standings, and earning two podiums including one on the debut for their new car at Okayama, and another to end the season at Motegi. But still, a race win was elusive – the level of competition in Super GT had increased dramatically over the five years since winning their first championship!

Everyone within the team, and all of the Hatsune Miku GT supporters, still believed that GSR & Team UKYO could become champions again in 2017.

Winning the season-opening race at Okayama and ending a three-year winless skid for Taniguchi & Kataoka affirmed their status as contenders for the 2017 GT300 Championship, but one of the other major stories of the 2017 season was Goodsmile Racing’s brave new adventure overseas!

A one-off entry in the 24 Hours of Spa-Francorchamps was an unexpected, but very welcome surprise. With the support of RAM Racing, and with Kamui Kobayashi joining Taniguchi & Kataoka on the driver lineup, hopes were high going into the race weekend. Sadly, that first venture to Spa began with a crash that wrote off their primary car, hours of work just to get a second car ready to start the race, then a DNF for their efforts after colliding with another car on Sunday morning.

The following week, Taniguchi and Kataoka scored a second-place finish at Fuji. After a tough Suzuka 1000km, they bounced back with another second-place finish at Chang International Circuit in Thailand to reclaim the top spot in the standings going into Motegi.

Just as it was in 2014, a third-place finish at Motegi was all Goodsmile Racing & Team UKYO needed to win their third championship in a seven-year span, solidifying their place as the greatest GT300 team of a generation, with Taniguchi & Kataoka equalling the record for the most GT300 Drivers’ Championships with their third each.

2018 saw Goodsmile Racing venture back to the SRO Intercontinental GT Challenge – only this time it was to compete in the newly reformatted Suzuka 10 Hours. Taniguchi, Kataoka, and Kobayashi were able to undo the misfortunes of Spa 2017, climbing from 21st to finish fifth after ten blistering hours of racing.

In Super GT, Taniguchi and Kataoka were able to consistently score top-ten finishes and pick up podium finishes in three of the last four rounds, including a second place finish in the revived Fuji 500 Miles. But a crucial victory eluded them, and they finished fourth in the Drivers’ Championship.

2019 would be Goodsmile Racing & Team UKYO’s most ambitious campaign to date: Super GT, and two Intercontinental GT Challenge appearances at Spa and Suzuka.

Just like the previous year, 2019 would see Taniguchi and Kataoka stand on the podium with a second-place finish at a soaking wet round at Sugo. They finished third in the championship standings.

The Spa-Francorchamps effort was run under the Goodsmile Racing & Type-Moon Racing banner, supported by Team Black Falcon and with Adam Christodolou joining Taniguchi & Kataoka. The race ended in a painful fashion, as Kataoka suffered a heavy crash at Blanchimont during the night time.

Thankfully there was much better luck for GSR & Team Ukyo at the Suzuka 10 Hours: Taniguchi, Kataoka, and Kobayashi worked together to finish 10th in the race, collecting bonus prizes including being voted “Team of the Day” by the fans in attendance and watching abroad.

For the 2020 season, GSR & Team UKYO adopted Mercedes-AMG’s new AMG GT3 “Evo” package, then waited out the first unmitigated wave of the COVID-19 pandemic before finally taking to the track. Taniguchi & Kataoka were once again able to crack the podium twice, but not the top step. They finished third at Suzuka in October, and second at Motegi in November, but ended the season eighth in the table. For the first time, Goodsmile Racing were unable to maintain their run of winning the championship every three years as they did in 2011, 2014, and 2017.

Which brings us just two races into the 2021 season, and the celebration of 100 races (plus change) for Goodsmile Racing. However, it’s been 34 races since their last victory, over four years and three months ago, the longest drought in the team’s history.

Taniguchi recently turned 50 years old, and Kataoka is 42, managing multiple racing teams alongside his Super GT driving duties – but both men are still as sharp behind the wheel as they’ve ever been. Katayama has more than proven his worth as a successful manager, and Aki-san is a sharp president that believes in his team and the supporters who’ve backed them to this point. The reality is, however, GT300 is as competitive a class in any form of top-level sports car racing as ever, and new powerhouse teams have emerged on the scene to make things much more difficult for the three-time champions to live with.

Maybe, in this special 100th race, or some time in the very near future, the bubbly, vibrant Hatsune Miku car and the two living legends who drive it will take the chequered flag in victory once again. Every Goodsmile Racing supporter believes they can still win and become champions, yet again. And as long as that hope endures, Goodsmile Racing will keep competing to fulfil their fans hopes and wishes – then, now, and hopefully for 100 more races to come.

Images courtesy of: Goodsmile Racing, SRO Motorsports Group, Pierre-Laurent Ribault, GT Association (GTA)