Super GT Preview: Motegi GT 250km Race

01-MK4_3807

While NASCAR Nation makes a big hoopla about four-time series champion and six-time race winner in 2014 Jeff Gordon being pushed – figuratively and quite literally – out of the final race for the championship by Ryan Newman, who so far has yet to win a race in the 2014 season and could, if he does not win this weekend but just finishes ahead of Kevin HarvickDenny Hamlin, and Joey Loganocould become the first driver in the modern era of what is now the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series to win the championship without winning a single race – therefore invalidating the new, polarizing Chase for the Championship format that was based entirely upon rewarding individual race winners – I, as a fan and ambassador for the Super GT Series, would like to tell you, the reader at home and abroad – we did it first, and we did it better! Three times in fact. Three times in a span of four years, the GT500 class champions have won the championship without having a single race victory: Ryo Michigami was the first zero-win champion of the JGTC in 2000, Yuji Tachikawa and Hironori Takeuchi repeated a year later, and Satoshi Motoyama and Michael Krumm did it in 2003. And they didn’t need no stinkin’ elimination-style championship format to pull it off! Just a consistent strategy of scoring points and avoiding excessive weight handicaps accumulated over the course of a season!

There will not, however, be a winless champion in the GT500 class when the championship is decided this weekend at Twin Ring Motegi this Sunday (or late Saturday depending on which time zone you’re watching from). Motegi, of course has been no stranger to crowning champions, even beyond hosting the final round of the Super GT Series championship annually since 2009. A month ago, Marc Marquez captured his second MotoGP championship in as many seasons at Motegi. Motegi has also hosted CART World Series and IndyCar Series championship events as recently as 2011, and NASCAR exhibition events back in the late 1990s when the circuit was a new attraction.

This will be a busy weekend in racing, not just with the NASCAR season finale in Miami, the World Endurance Championship’s penultimate race at the Bahrain International Circuit, and the World Rally Championship finale at the legendary Wales Rally GB, but also the 61st Macau Grand Prix in which Formula 3 cars, touring cars, and superbikes will race around the Guia circuit – but please, do consider squeezing in some time for Super GT this weekend. Especially if you’ve never seen it in action, or have never seen it but want to see it – this two-class clash of the fastest and most technologically advanced silhouette cars competing on the same circuit with a mixture of the best cars the FIA GT3 specifications have to offer, and originally-designed Japanese silhouette cars that can compete on even footing with their western rivals. Especially considering that NISMO TV and Radio Le Mans are expected to broadcast this final, championship-deciding race as they did for the crown jewel event, the Suzuka 1000km in August. (EDIT: Now confirmed by John Hindhaugh himself on Twitter)

If you need to catch up and binge-watch the entire season of action before the race this weekend, please consult the newly-updated 2014 Super GT masterpost!

Now, for four words that will make Super GT fans really happy going into this championship finale…

THE BALLAST IS RESET

Yep. Forget all the accumulated success ballast over the course of the season – it’s gone, all of it, for the first time since the season opener all the way back in April at Okayama Circuit. This means that the only factors that will determine the championship outcome from here on out should be the drivers’ skill and the tactics of the engineers and principals on the pit wall, with only marginal differences between the three manufacturers’ cars in GT500 and how they work with the various tyre manufacturers. And at 250 kilometers in length, the shortest race in the series will be a true sprint to the championship.

Both the GT500 and GT300 championships will be decided this weekend. Between eight drivers for five teams in the GT500 class, and six drivers representing three squads in the second-tier GT300 class.

THE FIVE-WAY SCRAMBLE

GT500 TITLE

Toyota Team TOM’s celebrated a championship this past weekend when Kazuki Nakajima won his second Super Formula championship in the last three years at Suzuka. This weekend, Nakajima will play a supporting role as co-driver James Rossiter tries to secure his first championship, and a fourth Super GT title for TOM’s. Right now, the #36 Petronas RC-F team is on an unstoppable roll – Rossiter and Nakajima won the Suzuka 1000km race in August, and then in October, won the inaugural Super GT race at Chang International Circuit in Thailand with a daring strategy to not change tyres during their mid-race pitstop, taking advantage of the new, slick, asphalt surface to gain track position and win the race. TOM’s employed the same no-tyre pit strategy on the #37 KeePer RC-F, whose drivers Daisuke Ito and Andrea Caldarelli sit three points back of Rossiter, at the Thailand race. TOM’s, the only two-car team in the GT500 class, has been a consistently strong force all season, and they have two mighty bullets in their chamber to take their shot at becoming the first team to win both the Super GT and Super Formula championships in the same year since Super GT was founded in 1993. And you can guarantee that the two teams will not be rendered docile by extreme team tactics if it came down to a last-lap battle for the win. Seems to be a common theme among Petronas-liveried cars in 2014.

Ito is the only TOM’s driver who has won in Motegi in 2003 – but he’s had awful luck since then – just two top-10 finishes in his last nine starts here, including a 6th last year with Caldarelli. Rossiter and Nakajima finished 5th at Motegi last season in the Brit’s first appearance, Nakajima preceded that with two eighth-place finishes with TOM’s in 2011 and 2012, and won here in Super Formula in his first championship season in 2012.

Kazuki Nakajima (right, with Andre Lotterer and TOM's director Nobuhide Tachi) cannot win the GT500 championship, but he will assist James Rossiter's title bid for Lexus Team TOM's.
Super Formula champion Kazuki Nakajima (right, with Andre Lotterer and TOM’s director Nobuhide Tachi) cannot win the GT500 championship, but he will assist James Rossiter’s title bid for Lexus Team TOM’s.

Tsugio Matsuda and Ronnie Quintarelli had a big opportunity to put the championship almost out of reach in Thailand, instead they finished a dismal 10th in the NISMO #23 Motul GT-R following a drive-through penalty for colliding with a backmarker, and fell from a four-point championship lead all the way down to a six-point deficit in third. Motegi is where NISMO took their most recent win before winning in Autopolis back in June, all the way back in 2011. The good news is that both Matsuda and Quintarelli have won in Motegi before – Matsuda won twice for Nakajima Racing in 2001 and 2004, while Quintarelli helped to snap a seven-race winning streak at this circuit for Honda back in 2008 as a driver for Hasemi Motorsport. But Matsuda has just one podium finish (2nd, 2007) since his last Super GT win at Motegi. Quintarelli’s record here has been better – he’s finished in the points in each of his last four Motegi races, including back-to-back podiums in 2011 and 2012 driving for MOLA.

Early-season favorites Hironobu Yasuda and Super Formula vice-champion Joao Paulo Lima de Oliveira are seven points back of Rossiter in the iconic #12 Calsonic GT-R, seeking Team Impul’s first championship in Super GT since 1995. They salvaged their title aspirations with a gutsy drive from last place to 3rd in Thailand following a disappointing effort in Suzuka. While Oliviera did win here in Super Formula back in August – his fourth Super Formula victory at Motegi in the last five years, in fact – neither driver has a favorable record at Motegi in Super GT. A 5th for Oliveira in 2007 is the only top-5 finish here between both drivers in a combined 13 starts. (Fun fact: Oliveira’s lone IndyCar Series appearance came here in 2011, as a wildcard entry substituting for Sebastian Saavedra.)

And again, there is that looming factor of the highest-placing Nissan driver(s) potentially being named to drive for the factory LMP1 team in the FIA World Endurance Championship as extra motivation – even if it means losing them from the Super GT ranks as a result. (Paging Kamui Kobayashi and former one-off entrant Adrian Sutil…)

But the wildcard here is the lone Honda still in championship contention, the #18 Weider Modulo NSX driven by championship contender Naoki Yamamoto. Yamamoto is the longest of long shots with a 14-point deficit to Rossiter, and the NSX only came into its own after the Lexuses and Nissans were weighed down (and after the NSX was allowed to shed a few kilograms mid-season). But Yamamoto has scored points in all four of his previous Motegi starts. He has a new co-driver this weekend in Takuya Izawa, replacing Frederic Makowiecki whose 2014 Super GT campaign ends due to his commitments for Porsche Team Manthey in the WEC (a return to Japan in 2015 is not out of the question, however). Izawa returns from Europe after a dismal spell in the GP2 Series that ends next weekend in Abu Dhabi – and Izawa is a former winner here, for ARTA in 2009. Honda may not have won at their second home track since then, but they do have ten victories here since 1998 – most among all manufacturers – and all of Honda’s entries will be highly motivated to finish what has been a strange season of peaks and valleys on a high, especially Yamamoto, Izawa, and the entire Dome/Honda team.

BMW VERSUS MERCEDES

GT300 TITLE

An emotional moment happened here in Twin Ring Motegi when Nobuteru Taniguchi won his third race of the 2011 season, and with it, the GT300 class championship, driving for GSR & Studie with Team Ukyo – the first Super GT championship for BMW, but an emotional victory for the then-40-year-old driver, who once worked in a body shop to fund his fledgeling racing and drifting careers and didn’t break into the GT300 class until his early 30s – and after so many race victories and close calls, he finally won it all in his 9th season. Taniguchi and Tatsuya Kataoka will each be looking for their second GT300 championships, and they have a massive advantage (by Super GT standards) going into the final race – two wins, and a string of three consecutive top-5s to give them 67 points and a nine-point advantage. In a year where Goodsmile Racing and team principal Ukyo Katayama might have been expected to struggle as BMW Team Studie spun off from GSR & Studie to create their own team, they’re looking as good as they did in 2011. With all the success ballast shed, they may be able to put the hammer down and seize the championship by the throat – especially seeing as two-time Motegi winner Taniguchi has a nine-race points streak here, and Kataoka finished 4th as his co-driver in his last two starts here as a GT300 class driver.

Nobuteru Taniguchi celebrates his first GT300 title with co-driver Taku Bamba in 2011.
Nobuteru Taniguchi celebrates his first GT300 title with co-driver and fellow first-time champion Taku Bamba in 2011.

But their old allies may prove to be their strongest foes. Studie haven’t won a race all season, they’re only nine points back due to a consistent record on the back of three podium finishes and six points-scoring finishes. Former Macau Grand Prix winner, International Formula 3000 champion, and 24 Hours Nurburgring winner Jorg Muller, and former Le Mans 24 Hours winner Seiji Ara were brought in to help bring a championship to BMW’s new de facto works team, and what better place to do it than with a win in the most important race of the season to date? Ara has a career-best 3rd place finish here in the GT500 class, in 2003 as a driver for the now-defunct Tsuchiya Racing. His last top-5 finish was in 2012 for Racing Project Bandoh. This is Muller’s first appearance at Twin Ring Motegi.

Katsuyuki Hiranaka and Bjorn Wirdheim won this race last year driving the Gainer-entered #11 Dixcel Mercedes SLS AMG, and they desperately need another victory here to boost their chances and avoid allowing Gainer to finish 2014 as GT300 runners-up for the third season in the last four years. The SLS AMG GT3 has significantly less downforce than the BMW Z4 GT3 of GSR and Studie’s teams, but a lot more power under the hood – and they’ve come close to victories earlier in the season. Both drivers have had great success here before as well – Wirdheim finished in the top-5 in his first three starts here in the GT500 class (2006-08), Hiranaka has four top-5 finishes in the last five Motegi races, including their 2013 win.

MISCELLANEOUS NOTES

  • Satoshi Motoyama returns to the site of his last Super GT victory in 2011. If he fails to win this weekend, his personal winless streak extends to three seasons – his longest since debuting in the GT500 class in 1997.
  • GT500’s youngest driver, 22-year-old Daiki Sasaki recorded his first GT500 podium finish in Thailand in October, finishing 2nd.
  • SARD driver Hiroaki Ishiura and Real Racing driver Toshihiro Kaneishi are the most noteworthy drivers in GT500 to have not won at Motegi. Ishiura has finished in the points in each of his six starts in the top class, with four consecutive top-5 finishes. Kaneishi has ten starts at Motegi in the GT500 class, with three podiums in the last five years and seven top-10 finishes.
  • Congratulations to charter GT Academy graduate Lucas Ordonez for capturing his first GT300 class victory at Chang International Circuit. Putting aside the objective commentator for a bit, Ordonez has been one of my favorite drivers ever since his professional debut, and I’m glad to see the Spaniard finally rewarded with a first victory after a few close calls in 2014.
  • Last year’s Motegi winners, Kazuya OshimaYuji Kunimoto, and the ENEOS Lexus Team LeMans team still have a chance to win at least one race for the third successive season. The longest active losing streak in the GT500 class is that of Epson Nakajima Racing, who last won at the Fuji 300km race in 2007.
  • Motegi is the site of the final Super GT victories for both Andre Lotterer (2010) and Benoit Treluyer (2011) before both drivers shifted focus to Audi Sport Team Joest’s endurance racing efforts.
  • This is expected to be the final Super GT race for the retiring Lamborghini Gallardo GT3 FL2 and McLaren MP4-12C GT3 models, as they will be replaced in GT3 championships across Europe and North America by the new Huracan GT3 and 650S GT3 respectively.
  • Team Taisan return to the GT300 class after skipping the Thailand round – their first no-show in their long and storied Super GT history. They had planned to switch from the Nissan GT-R GT3 to the Ferrari 458 Italia GT3 for this race, but no chassis were made available due to the GT3 race in Macau this weekend – the switch may yet happen in 2015, however.
  • The Toyota 86-MC won its debut in the Thailand Super Series this past weekend. But a Mother Chassis entry will not be back at Motegi, so the earliest you may see it again is in 2015, when Mooncraft Co., who constructed the Daytona Prototype-derived Shiden for the GT300 class, plans to build a Lotus Evora on the MC platform.

This is gonna be a must-watch race for sports-car racing fans and I hope many will watch.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s