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.

A championship title would be an important career milestone for both drivers. Matsuda has thirteen career Super GT victories in the top class, good enough for third all-time. He’s won back-to-back Formula Nippon championships, and in the most recent round of the World Endurance Championship in Austin, Texas, he helped give the KCMG team their very first LMP2 class victory in the WEC. But the closest Matsuda has come to winning a Super GT championship was in 2002 where he and Nakajima Racing teammate Ralph Firman missed out on the title by a single point to Esso Team Le Mans and drivers Juichi Wakisaka and Akira Iida. Now it seems as if Matsuda, at age 35, is in the best position to finally win the GT500 drivers’ championship. In addition, a championship title could also bolster Matsuda’s bid for a seat at Nissan’s LMP-1 programme at Le Mans. Quintarelli, on the other hand, is no stranger to championship glory in the GT500 class. Quintarelli won back-to-back championships driving for the MOLA team in 2011 and 2012, and the 35-year-old Italian could become the first non-Japanese driver to win three GT500 championships, a feat that’s kind of snuck up on a lot of people including myself. Only one driver has won three titles in a quicker timeframe, and that was when former Nissan driver Masahiko Kageyama won his three GT500 titles in consecutive years from 1993 to 1995. And Quintarelli certainly can’t be counted out of a promotion to the LMP-1 squad for next year, either.

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Lexus Team TOM’s are the only multi-car operation in Super GT’s top category, and they have both their cars in title contention this year. But it’s their “B-team” – the #37 KeePer RC-F driven by Daisuke Ito and Andrea Caldarelli – that’s actually leading their title bid, as they sit in 2nd with a four-point deficit to 1st place (56 points). They made history by claiming the first GT500 victory in the era of the current regulations at Okayama Circuit, and have finished in the points in all six races so far – and sheer consistency has often proven to be a winning strategy in Super GT in the past.

Ito is looking to become the second driver to win two or more GT500 titles for two or more different manufacturers, joining two-time champion Michael Krumm, who has won championships for Toyota (1997) and Nissan (2003). Ito left Honda after dominating the 2007 season with the ARTA squad, and this is by far the most successful year the 38-year-old veteran has had under the Toyota/Lexus banner, with he and Caldarelli’s victory at Okayama being just the second championship race that Ito has won since joining the manufacturer in 2008. Caldarelli, who came over from the defunct Toyota Team Kraft in 2013 (along with title sponsor KeePer), is looking to become the youngest GT500 champion in history, at 24 years and 10 months old. If he does so, he will surpass former TOM’s driver Andre Lotterer, who had just turned 25 when he won his first of two titles in 2006.

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After winning the biggest race of the season in August at Suzuka, the “A-team” of TOM’s – the famous #36 Petronas RC-F that once carried the colors of Castrol in a bygone age – is now once again a contender for the title, but only James Rossiter can claim the spoils as he is the only driver to appear in every race for the team. If you’re wondering why, it’s because Rossiter’s regular co-driver Kazuki Nakajima had to hand the keys over to Ryo Hirakawa for Fuji I and Autopolis as Nakajima was fulfilling commitments with the Toyota LMP-1 team at Spa and Le Mans. If Rossiter claims the title on his lonesome, he will become the first driver to win the GT500 championship as a solo effort since Ryo Michigami did it in 2000 for Mugen Dome Racing.  He’d also become the second British champion of the GT500 class, joining Richard Lyons, co-champion in 2004 with NISMO. Currently, Rossiter sits in a tie for 4th, with 47 points (-13 to Matsuda and Quintarelli). And even though Nakajima cannot win the title this year unless bizarre circumstances force Rossiter to miss the final two races (he’s still mathematically eligible with 39 points), Nakajima – who is becoming a star in sports cars after a brief and dismal F1 career – will drive at 100 percent to ensure that his co-driver can secure the championship.

Either entry is looking for the fourth title won by TOM’s (1997, 2006, 2009), with the #36 car having won all three titles for TOM’s.

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As recognizable as the bright blue livery of the #12 Calsonic Nissan GT-R is in Super GT – think of it as the series’ equivalent of Dale Earnhardt’s black and silver GM Goodwrench Chevrolets – it’s hard to believe that Team Impul, the team that fields said Calsonic Nissans, the organization run by legendary Japanese driver Kazuyoshi Hoshino, hasn’t won a championship in this series since 1995. They established a frenetic pace early in the season with a win at Fuji I and two additional podiums in Okayama and Autopolis. Since then, they’ve only finished 9th at Sugo, 8th at Fuji II, and 10th at Suzuka after an overly-eventful race that saw Joao Paulo Lima de Oliveira involved in numerous controversial incidents. This has led to them falling back to third place with an eleven-point deficit.

But it’s certainly not over yet for Impul in their bid to snap a 20-year title drought, which has run far too long for their liking, or their supporters’. Oliveira is in line to become the first Brazilian champion in either class. He’s also second in the Super Formula championship with a four-point deficit to Kazuki Nakajima – if he were to claim both titles, he’d become only the fourth driver since 1993 to win championships in both Japan’s top sports car championship and Japan’s top open-wheel championship, and the first since Richard Lyons in 2004. The others are Pedro de la Rosa (1997) and Satoshi Motoyama (2003). His teammate, 30-year-old Hironobu Yasuda, who came to the team this year to replace the departing Matsuda, is looking to become just the second driver to win a title in both classes – Yasuda was the 2008 GT300 champion for MOLA, who currently employ the only other driver to match this accomplishment – the two-time GT500 and two-time GT300 champion, Masataka Yanagida.

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Perhaps the biggest shock this year, especially considering how it began for the manufacturer, is that a Honda team is still contending for the title with two races remaining. That team is the #18 Weider Modulo Dome squad, and their contending driver is Naoki Yamamoto, who has shared a car with Frenchmen Jean-Karl Vernay and Frederic Makowiecki this year. Yamamoto is tied with the only other solo championship contender, James Rossiter, for fourth in the championship with 47 points. Despite the NSX Concept-GT’s appaling lack of pace and reliability in the opening races, primarily caused by the additional weight of both the car’s unique hybrid powertrain and mid-engined layout, coupled with chronic overheating issues, Yamamoto has still scored points in every race this year, and when he and Makowiecki won a monsoon-soaked race at Fuji in August, it marked a hard-fought and well-deserved return to the top step for the NSX name plate. They added a 3rd place finish at Suzuka on Honda’s home circuit, and by the time Vernay returns to the car in time for the race at Motegi – Honda’s other home circuit, Yamamoto could still be in with a shot at the title.

A title for 26-year-old Yamamoto would be a great addition on his trophy case, next to the Super Formula championship that he won last season. As with TOM’s driver Rossiter, he’d become the first solo Driver’s Champion since 2000. If Dome wins the title this year, it’ll be their third championship – they won in 2000 as Mugen Dome, and again in 2010 with the then-new HSV-010 model and drivers Takashi Kogure and Loic Duval.

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And then, sitting at the very fringe of title contention though at risk of dropping out at Thailand, are Eneos Team Le Mans and ZENT Team Cerumo. Team Le Mans drivers Kazuya Oshima and Yuji Kunimoto are currently 18 points out of first place in 6th, and have scored podium finishes in the first two races with two top-5s at Sugo and Suzuka to keep them alive. The team’s testing pace and Oshima’s new bleach-blonde hair grabbed headlines earlier in 2014, but Team Le Mans, who has won at least one race in the last two seasons – but only after going the previous eight and a half seasons without a win – need another win to keep their slimming title hopes alive. Oshima and Kunimoto would be the youngest tandem to win the GT500 championship at an average age of 25, and Kunimoto would be in line to claim the moniker of the youngest champion in the GT500 class.

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Team Cerumo are the reigning GT500 champions, but they have endured an up-and-down season in their title defense. Drivers Yuji Tachikawa and Kohei Hirate won at Sugo and were second in Fuji I, but also have three finishes outside the points to drag them down to seventh – 21 points back of the lead. They’re in a tough spot for sure, but they’re not out of contention just yet – you can never count out a team that has Yuji Tachikawa at the wheel. Tachikawa is already the winningest driver in series history, claiming the record at Sugo with his 16th career victory to go ahead of Satoshi Motoyama. If he and teammate Hirate were to rally from a 21-point deficit and become the first repeat champions since MOLA and the pairing of Quintarelli and Yanagida in 2011-12, Tachikawa would also win his series-record fourth GT500 championship. Hirate, once an F1 hopeful with the backing of Toyota, but now establishing himself as one of Super GT’s elite talents, would become the youngest two-time champion in series history at age 28.

Now that you know the stories that have brought the major players in the championship to where they are, it stands to reason that you should be getting really excited about the final two races of the Super GT season. I know I am.

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