Super GT Title Fights: GT500

The Autobacs Super GT Series returns to action on October 5th at the Chang International Circuit in Buriram, Thailand for the inaugural running of the Buriram United Super GT Race. Thailand succeeds Malaysia and the Sepang Circuit as the series’ lone fly-away event in the championship, after nearly fifteen years of Super GT cars racing at Sepang. This race, and then the final round of the championship at Twin Ring Motegi in November, will decide who comes away with the GT500 championship in 2014.

To make things more interesting, the weight handicaps that have been accumulated by all the teams over the first six races have now been reset to one kilogram per point scored. By letter of the law, teams are allowed a maximum of 50kg of physical lead ballast, with any additional success ballast added on as fuel flow restrictions. Those fuel flow restrictions create interesting strategic battles for endurance races like the one at the Suzuka 1000km this August, but with the remaining two events being 300km and 250km respectively, it was a good move for the series’ sanctioning body, the GTA, to “trim the fat” in a manner of speaking. It’s a much more extreme version of the Balance of Performance system from the World Endurance Championship and United SportsCar Championship, or the ballast systems used in the British Touring Car Championship and the DTM.

At least seven teams and driver combinations representing all three manufacturers in GT500 – Lexus, Nissan, and Honda – have a mathematical chance at winning the title with two races to go and a maximum of forty (40) points available. Let’s take a look at what’s at stake for these teams and their drivers.

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NISMO are the most successful team in the history of Super GT, having won the top class championship a record six times since 1993, and being a strong contender for the championship virtually every year they compete as the factory team in the Nissan stable. But after losing out on the 2011 championship despite claiming a series-leading three race victories with Satoshi Motoyama and Benoit Treluyer, NISMO went on a two-year winless drought that was finally snapped at the third round in Autopolis. To draw a comparison, this is like if Team Penske suffered a two-year winless streak in IndyCar. Even in the ultra-competitive GT500 class, this was a completely uncharacteristic run of futility for a successful and internationally-recognized organization. Now, after breaking their 18-race winless streak in June, and on the back of two consecutive 2nd-place finishes at Fuji II and Suzuka, NISMO drivers Tsugio Matsuda and Ronnie Quintarelli hold a four-point lead in the standings with a total of 60 points. Continue reading “Super GT Title Fights: GT500”

The 2014 Super GT Season Masterpost

If you’ve been missing this year’s Super GT championship, you’ve been missing out on the best multi-class sports car racing action in the world, honestly.

It’s been a big year for Super GT’s GT500 class, as new regulations meant to unify the class with the machines of the DTM series in Europe mean that the world’s fastest silhouette sports car class has gotten even faster, with new engines producing over 600 brake horsepower and new lap records being set at every single event. In addition, Honda has revived the legendary NSX brand, and Lexus’s new challenger, the RC-F, looks mean and is wicked fast. Nissan’s flagship GT-R model has been revamped to conform with the new regulations as well. There’s a true rivalry between the big three manufacturers of Japan here that’s reminiscent of the manufacturer rivalries anywhere else.

Meanwhile in the GT300 class, FIA GT3-spec cars from BMW, Mercedes-Benz, Aston Martin, Nissan, Audi, Porsche, and McLaren compete against purpose-built GT300 cars based on the likes of the Subaru BRZ, Honda CR-Z, and even a Toyota Prius. If you’re a racing fan who loves a large variety of cars mixing it up, this is the class you want to watch, and it’s just as awesome as GT500. Does Blancpain GT have a Toyota Prius powered by a 3.4 liter V8 engine attached to a hybrid powertrain mixing it up with the BMW Z4s and McLaren MP4-12Cs? I rest my case.

With one round remaining in the championship and both class titles up for grabs at Twin Ring Motegi, there’s no better time to catch up than right freaking now. And thanks to the power of new media, you could marathon the first seven rounds of the championship in two days tops.

Rounds 1 through 7 have been subtitled by Yu Omori, who in addition to working as an everyman for Rehagen Racing in the Pirelli World Challenge, also runs the /r/super_gt subreddit – and I can’t thank him enough for offering to subtitle the original Japanese broadcasts for this season. For the most recent round of the championship, a bombshell was dropped when Radio Le Mans – yes, the same crew that calls the 24 Hours of Le Mans, the World Endurance Championship, the European Le Mans Series and also hosts Midweek Motorsport – announced they would be calling the Suzuka 1000km, the series’ marquee event, and thanks to NISMO you can watch it on YouTube in its entirety, all six hours’ worth, with English commentary provided by lead man John HindhaughGraham Goodwin of DailySportsCar.com, and Sam Collins of Racecar Engineering (though geographic restrictions may apply).

I’ll add the final two rounds of the championship from Twin Ring Motegi when they happen, but until then, do take a few hours out of your free time and catch up on what has been a great season for Super GT so far.

Continue reading “The 2014 Super GT Season Masterpost”

The Case For Ryo Hirakawa in GP2

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In 1999, Eddie Irvine and Heinz-Harald Frentzen were second and third in the Formula 1 World Championship, posting career-best seasons they would never come close to replicating in their remaining careers. Ralf Schumacher carried an in-flux Williams organization to fifth in the World Constructors’ Championship by himself at age 23. Pedro de la Rosa scored a point on his F1 debut for a woeful Arrows squad. And Mika Salo got the F1 chance of a lifetime as Michael Schumacher’s injury substitute at Ferrari.

Not a single one of these drivers graduated to Formula 1 via the International Formula 3000 Championship, though. All of them were products of the Japanese Formula 3000 Championship, and its successor from 1996, the Formula Nippon championship. A series that ran on only one Formula 1 circuit (Suzuka) as opposed to the small handful of circuits International F3000 shared with Formula 1.

Fifteen years later, the series that currently exists as Super Formula is making small steps towards regaining that relevance as a genuine F1 feeder series. Very small steps, though.

Andre Lotterer’s Formula 1 appearance at the Belgian Grand Prix ended the same way the last noteworthy German F1 driver debuting at Spa in a green car’s outing did – a quiet mechanical failure and a DNF on Lap 2. In terms of intra-team performance, however, Lotterer outqualified teammate Marcus Ericsson – who, like Lotterer, has won championships in Japan with the TOM’s organization – by almost a full second in the wet conditions. This has raised questions as to whether or not Ericsson is a worthy F1 talent, but do give credit to Lotterer, one of the greatest active drivers in all of motorsport, for performing as admirably as can be under the circumstances and proving that he is Formula 1 material, even if his heart lies squarely in Le Mans.

Caterham were rumored to be eyeballing another TOM’s driver to appear in Free Practice 1 at the Japanese Grand Prix in October, only this time it was 24-year-old Andrea Caldarelli. Caldarelli has substituted for both Lotterer and his Audi teammate Loic Duval in Super Formula this year. He has previously tested for both Ferrari and Toyota’s F1 teams, and he currently sits 2nd in the GT500 standings in Super GT with a chance to become the youngest ever champion in the class. It is his commitment to the Super GT title fight that ultimately led him to turn down Caterham’s offer, and instead race in Thailand that weekend as the series heads to the new Chang International Circuit in Buriram for the penultimate round of the 2014 championship.

Lotterer became the first driver since former Super Aguri driver Sakon Yamamoto to graduate to Formula 1 via Japan’s top open-wheel championship and compete in a Formula 1 Grand Prix. Yamamoto’s appointment was eight long years ago, and with the creation of GP2, GP3, and the Formula Renault 3.5 Series, Super Formula has become, until recently, completely redundant as a feeder series to Formula 1, when it had seen its alumni reach the pinnacle of F1 success as recently as July 6th, 2003 – the day of Ralf Schumacher’s 6th and final F1 victory in Magny-Cours.

When they were still in the sport, Toyota groomed F1 hopefuls such as Kamui Kobayashi, Kohei Hirate, and Keisuke Kunimoto in the European ladder rather than in Japan. Takuma Sato, a dedicated Honda driver, only spent a year in the Japanese Formula 3 series before moving to Europe, and eventually winning the British Formula 3 Championship in 2001.

Toyota has been out of Formula 1 for five years, and have no intentions to return any time soon. But they’re the primary backers of the man that is now Japan’s top open-wheel prospect, and a driver that must now be introduced to the European open-wheel ladder via the GP2 Series in 2015 and given a chance to succeed in F1 – Ryo Hirakawa. Continue reading “The Case For Ryo Hirakawa in GP2”