Yesterday, I outlined the challengers for the GT500 championship in the 2014 Autobacs Super GT Series. Today, I look at Super GT’s second class. The one that has, historically, given us rotary-powered Miatas and AE86 Truenos competing as recently as the year 2000. The one that pits the finest FIA GT3 supercars against the pride of Japan and their purpose-built JAF GT300-spec cars. As mentioned before, there’s only one race remaining after the inaugural event in Thailand at Chang International Circuit on October 5th, and that’s the 250km race at Twin Ring Motegi in November. The weight handicaps have been slashed down to 1kg per point in GT300 as well, and only the top two teams are carrying fuel flow restrictions in addition to the maximum 50kg of lead ballast allowed, which means the championship-contending cars will be able to run closer to flat-out than they were over the summer.
Examining the primary contenders for the GT300 championship begins with a look at the three-headed monster that is BMW’s Super GT effort, which has combined for three victories and takes up three of the top five places in the championship table. They were expected to be strong this season, and my goodness, are they ever.
Let me go into full nerd mode here for a split second. Hatsune Miku isn’t an anime character. She’s a Vocaloid. It’s a huge difference, y’all.
And once upon a time, the only thing Goodsmile Racing had going for it was the fact that they had Hatsune Miku on the car. Then in 2011, after two otherwise irrelevant campaigns where they were just lucky to make it onto the grid at all for most weekends, the team aligned with Japanese F1 alumni Ukyo Katayama, signed drifter-turned-GT racer Nobuteru Taniguchi, and bought a BMW Z4 GT3 that already won championships in Europe. They dominated the 2011 season with three victories, claiming the title in the process – the first for Taniguchi after nine seasons, the first for BMW as a manufacturer, and the first for an FIA GT3-specification car in the GT300 class. Fast-forward three years, Hatsune Miku is still the team’s title sponsor and mascot and will even be a musical guest on fellow BMW team owner David Letterman‘s Late Show next Wednesday, Goodsmile Racing has split from Studie AG, the outfit with whom they joined forces with to win the championship in 2011, and yet they’re still leading the championship with 56 points and back-to-back victories to open the season at Okayama and Fuji I. Even with a colossal eighty kilogram handicap accumulated in the first two races that weighed them down all summer (which will now be cut to a more manageable 56kg in Thailand) they are still in the lead after adding two top-5 finishes at Fuji II (4th) and a crucial 5th place at Suzuka. Both Taniguchi and co-driver Tatsuya Kataoka are both seeking their second GT300 championships as drivers – Kataoka won his in 2009, driving for Racing Project Bandoh in their famous WedsSport Lexus.
So what happened with the alliance between Studie AG and Goodsmile Racing, exactly? Studie AG broke off to form what is, in essence, the works BMW team in Super GT. They went all-out in the offseason and signed former 24 Hours of Le Mans winner and GT500 class veteran Seiji Ara away from Bandoh’s struggling GT500 outfit, and exported longtime factory racer Jorg Muller to Japan for his debut Super GT campaign. Yet, despite the hype surrounding their debut as a stand-alone entrant, they are the only BMW team in GT300 to go winless this year. But they’ve kept a steady, consistent approach to remain 13 points of their former allies at GSR. They’ve finished on the podium twice, first in their stand-alone debut at Okayama with a 2nd, then added a third place at Suzuka, and only finished out of the points once. Ara, despite his successes outside of Japan, is still seeking his first championship of any kind in Super GT, having spent the bulk of his career here in the GT500 class. Muller, 45, would surely be the oldest rookie champion in the GT300 class – a title that would bolster an already strong resume that includes two Nurburgring 24 Hours victories, and series championships in the American Le Mans Series and International Formula 3000.
And then there’s the third BMW team, one that was also formed just this off-season, and one that thanks to a class victory at the Suzuka 1000km, is now established as a title contender. It’s LM Corsa, and drivers Akira Iida and Hiroki “Daiki” Yoshimoto. LM Corsa endured a brutal start to the 2014 season with two finishes outside the top-20, which led many to wonder if former GT500 champion Iida’s return to the series after six years away was worth it, or if former Toyota F1 prospect Yoshimoto should have stayed at JLOC where he raced last year. Since then, they’ve rattled off four points finishes, and just won the biggest race of the year, to claw back to within twenty points of the lead. Iida is looking to become the first driver to win a championship in both classes since Masataka Yanagida. Yoshimoto, who was second in the 2012 championship driving for the now-defunct Aston Martin works squad A Speed, would like to add a GT300 championship trophy to the collection next to all the music awards he’s won as the lead singer of the rock band d.o.a.
BMW as a manufacturer are seeking their second-ever Super GT championship, third if you count them as part of McLaren’s 1996 GT500 domination powered by BMW V12 engines. But they aren’t the only German marque with a shot at the title.
Mercedes-Benz has never won a championship as a manufacturer in Super GT, and neither have longtime GT300 contenders GAINER, who have previously operated as a works team for Ferrari and Audi, and are now the top Mercedes team in the class. Katsuyuki Hiranaka has spent the last six seasons driving at GAINER, and has finished runner-up in the championship an agonizing two times in the last three seasons. Bjorn Wirdheim, former F3000 champion, Jaguar F1 tester, Champ Car driver and yes, the same Bjorn Wirdheim who once forgot where Monaco’s start/finish line was – is still looking for his first championship since moving to Japan full-time in 2006. Last year, GAINER won two races and fell short of the title to Team Mugen. This year, they have no wins, but four podium finishes. Yet, it’s the mishaps – a collision while battling for first place at Sugo which forced an early retirement, and then being mired in 10th at Suzuka, that have cost them two big chances to not only go into Thailand with the championship lead, but perhaps put it out of reach this weekend. Currently, they are in second place, just two points out of the lead. With the weight handicaps reset, Hiranaka and Wirdheim need to dig deep in the next two races to avoid yet another disappointing shortfall for GAINER.
Subaru R&D Sport’s BRZ is the highest-ranked of the JAF GT300-spec cars in the GT300 championship standings, with drivers Kota Sasaki and Takuto Iguchi sitting in fourth place, eighteen markers back of first. They won at Fuji II in a torrential downpour, finished second in Autopolis – but in addition, have three non-points finishes, and were really lucky to come away with 9th at Suzuka having been a non-factor all race – uncharacteristic for a team that previously won three of the last four runnings of the Suzuka 1000km. The BRZ is lightning quick over a single lap in qualifying, when hooked up to their class-exclusive Michelin tyres they’ve won seven pole positions since 2013, but have just two wins in return in that same timeframe. They need a strong result in the last two races to stay in the title fight. Sasaki, who currently holds the all-time GT300 record for pole positions, is seeking his second championship in GT300. For 26-year-old Iguchi, who spent last season in semi-exile and only came back to full-time competition when longtime Subaru ace pilot Tetsuya Yamano retired from driving, a first GT300 championship would help his career regain and maintain the traction it had been missing since being dropped by Team SARD after the 2011 season.
And yes, there are more teams out there that are still mathematically eligible to win the championship. Both Honda CR-Zs fielded by reigning champs Team Mugen and ARTA, the former featuring recent first-time Super Formula winner Tomoki Nojiri, the latter of which has claimed all three victories for the CR-Z hybrid over the last two seasons. The Toyota Prius entered by APR with the most successful GT300 driver in history, Morio Nitta, at the wheel. The Mercedes of LEON Racing driven by Haruki Kurosawa, younger brother of former TOM’s driver and Champ Car backmarker Takuya Kurosawa. The Nissan GT-R of NDDP Racing that features GT Academy graduate Lucas Ordonez. And both JLOC Lamborghinis, now a winning team once again thanks to veterans Manabu Orido and Takayuki Aoki. Realistically, all of them are too far back to put on a serious challenge at this stage – the Prius has massive reliability issues, the NDDP Nissan has yet to even claim a podium, the CR-Zs and Lambos have piled up a ton of non-scoring finishes between them, and LEON Racing may not have the resources yet to mount a serious title challenge.
So will the BMW juggernaut romp to the championship in GT300, or will the Silver Arrows of Mercedes-Benz or the deep blue Boxer attack of Subaru spoil the party for Bavaria’s favorite automaker? As compelling as the GT500 title race is, the GT300 championship may be just as interesting to follow over the last two races.