Twenty years ago on this day, 31 March, the McLaren F1 GTR and Honda NSX made their debuts in the Super GT Series at the opening round of the 1996 championship in Suzuka Circuit. It’s been two decades since that first round in Suzuka, and the unique legacies that both manufacturers have created in Super GT are still fondly remembered as the 2016 season approaches.
The path to their collision course in Japan was born eight years prior, when McLaren Honda dominated the 1988 Formula 1 World Championship in their first season together. Over a span of five years, the Honda-powered McLarens, driven by the likes of Alain Prost and Ayrton Senna, were the single most dominant constructor in F1.
The McLaren F1 and the Honda NSX were their manufacturers’ ultimate road-going sports cars; conceived, developed, and launched during the zenith of their F1 successes. The F1 was the fastest production automobile in the world for over a decade, and still remains one of my favorite cars ever made. The NSX was an ultra high-tech, yet reliable and practical supercar that could run circles around even the finest that Ferrari had to offer. In 1995, the F1 and the NSX raced together for the first time at the 24 Hours of Le Mans.
The McLaren F1 GTRs dominated Le Mans that year, winning the race outright on its debut, taking four of the top five overall positions – and it was academic that they’d steamroll the competition in the GT1 category. Meanwhile in the GT2 class, a sole Honda NSX defeated a field mostly dominated by the mighty Porsche 911s to win the category.
For 1996, both cars would enter what was then known as the All-Japan Grand Touring Car Championship (JGTC) for the first time.
The JGTC was in only its third full season as the replacement to the previous All Japan Sports Prototype Championship (JSPC). The awesome Nissan Skyline GT-Rs had won every championship held so far, while the Toyota Supra was starting to emerge as its number one rival. Even the likes of Porsche and Ferrari had taken a few wins in the series’ top division, known from 1996 as “GT500”.
So for the JGTC, acquiring both McLaren and Honda in one season was a monumental gain for what was still a young series, trying to establish itself as a worthy successor to the JSPC. For the first time, Japan’s three most awesome sports cars were racing together in the same series – the Skyline GT-R, the Supra, and now the NSX. For the American reader, just think of the first time the Corvette, Mustang, and the Viper raced together on the track – it was that awesome.
It was also a chance for McLaren to expand what rapidly became a sports car racing juggernaut, just in the course of 1995 alone. In addition to their victory at Le Mans, the F1 GTR dominated the BPR Global GT Series, Europe’s premier sports car racing championship (and the earliest forerunner to the current Blancpain GT Series).
For 1996, McLaren launched a two-car, full-on factory racing team to compete in the JGTC’s top category. Team Lark McLaren, as they were known, were led by rookie team principal Kazumichi Goh, and were the only team in the history of the JGTC to be sponsored by a major tobacco brand – Lark Cigarettes.
At their disposal were two of the newest versions of the F1 GTR, driven by a four-man all-star lineup: Former Le Mans winner and reigning BPR GT champion John Nielsen and former F1 driver David Brabham in one car; and former Japanese Touring Car champion Naoki Hattori in the other, paired with a 20-year-old rookie from the German Formula Three circuit named Ralf Schumacher – the younger brother of the reigning Formula 1 World Champion, Michael.
Hattori, Schumacher, Nielsen, and Brabham formed an international dream team for McLaren, whose sights were aimed squarely on not only becoming JGTC champions, but completely dominating the series in doing so.
Meanwhile, Honda were preparing for their GT500 debut as well, powered by the same team and car that won at Le Mans: The Honda NSX GT2 of Team Kunimitsu, led by the legendary Kunimitsu Takahashi, and his protegé, Keiichi Tsuchiya.
Kunimitsu, the “iron man” of Japanese motorsport, was the first Japanese rider to win a world Grand Prix motorcycle race in 1961. When he switched from two wheels to four wheels in the mid-’60s, he further cemented his racing legend, winning the JAF Grand Prix Formula Two race, four JSPC Drivers’ Championships, claiming a record four victories in the Suzuka 1000km and two more in the Fuji 1000km (now the WEC 6 Hours of Fuji), as well as racing in the 1977 F1 Japanese Grand Prix as a local privateer.
Tsuchiya was a star driver of the Group A era of the old Japanese Touring Car Championship (JTCC), but he’d truly made his name in motorsport as the foremost innovator of modern drift driving. The “Drift King”, as Tsuchiya came to be known, was actually inspired by the flambouyant driving techniques of Takahashi from back in his days in touring car racing in the late ’60s and early ’70s.
Takahashi and Tsuchiya had been racing together since the 1992 Japanese Touring Car Championship (JTCC) season, and their triumph at Le Mans in ’95 was the biggest victory that they’d achieved. For Tsuchiya, the feeling must have been totally surreal: Most drivers never get a chance to even meet their heroes in person, but he had just taken a categorical victory in the greatest endurance race in the world with his hero.
Already a winning organization in the JGTC, Team Kunimitsu switched from Porsche to Honda for ’96, ending Takahashi’s long association with Porsche that powered him to countless championships in the ’80s, and bringing his racing career full-circle, almost thirty years after he rode his last motorcycle race for Honda.
Team Lark McLaren, and Team Kunimitsu Honda, were set to battle for six rounds in the 1996 All-Japan Grand Touring Car Championship. The first round was at Suzuka, the historic racing home of Honda, and a place that had already been the host for so many of McLaren’s biggest F1 moments – both the good, and the bad.
The GT Association (GTA), the sanctioning body of the JGTC, began the 1996 season by imposing strict performance handicaps on the McLaren F1 GTR. The McLaren’s mighty BMW V12 engine was restricted from 600 horsepower to just under 450 horsepower, a twenty-five percent cut. Weight was added to the car, which weighed just over 1,000 kilograms. This was in the JGTC’s pursuit of parity between manufacturers, a goal the series wanted to achieve upon its creation in 1993.
Despite the restrictions, the number 60 McLaren captured pole position for the opening round at Suzuka in a wet-weather qualifying session, with Hattori turning in the fastest lap by just 0.011 seconds. Their teammates weren’t so lucky, as Nielsen could only qualify the number 61 McLaren in thirteenth place, four seconds slower than Hattori.
Right in between the two McLarens, the number 100 Advan BP Honda NSX of Team Kunimitsu qualified a surprising seventh place. The rain negated the NSX GT2’s massive horsepower deficit – at under 390 HP, it was far less powerful than the Skylines, Supras, and even the restricted McLarens – but Tsuchiya turned in a great lap, just 1.2 seconds slower than the polesitter, to get well up the grid for the race.
By Sunday morning, the rain that washed through qualifying was entirely gone. A beautiful, sunny sky cascaded over Suzuka Circuit for the 300 kilometer race to open the 1996 season.
Hattori got a great start from pole position, but so too did ex-F1 driver Eric Comas in the Castrol Cerumo Supra. Within a few laps, Comas had caught and passed Hattori’s McLaren, and went decisively into the lead – not at all what McLaren had expected in their JGTC debut! Well behind them, Takahashi started the Advan NSX, trying to hold on to as many positions as possible, while Brabham began the sister Lark McLaren’s charge through the field.
Halfway through the race saw the teams pit for tyres, fuel, and a driver change. Hattori gave way for young Schumacher in the #60 McLaren, then Comas pitted his Supra to let co-driver Hidetoshi Mitsusada assume the lead of the race. Brabham had already made up several positions in the #61 McLaren, and Nielsen, the reigning champion of Europe, was going to make up even more.
The Advan NSX had a decent race up to that point, staying in the top ten for most of the day. But on lap 31, as Takahashi was set to hand the car over to Tsuchiya, a leak in the fuel line was discovered. Several minutes of hasty repairs ultimately proved futile: The NSX’s first race ended in a DNF, to the disappointment of Honda’s many supporters in attendance.
Shortly after the pit stops, Schumacher – making his sports car tracing debut on this weekend – began to catch Mitsusada’s Supra, and passed him for the lead. As it turns out, a similar fuel system issue would end the Castrol Cerumo Supra’s race just two laps short of the finish, but by then, Schumacher was already out to an unassailable lead in the McLaren.
With just a handful of laps to go, Nielsen already had the #61 McLaren up from thirteenth starting position and into third place. Suddenly, they began rapidly catching the legendary Masahiro Hasemi‘s Unisia Jecs Skyline, which was also starting to drop off the pace dramatically. On lap 48, Nielsen made his move at Spoon curve, and took second position away.
All Schumacher and Nielsen had to do was bring their cars home, as the Lark McLarens scored a historic 1-2 finish in their debut race in the JGTC at Suzuka. Hattori and Schumacher in car 60 won by thirty seconds ahead of Brabham and Nielsen in car 61. Takahashi and Tsuchiya could only wonder what would have been, if their NSX had held together for twenty more laps.
As it turned out, this one opening race was a microcosm of the seasons to come for both the Kunimitsu Honda and the Lark McLaren teams.
The McLaren F1 GTR took pole position and fastest lap for every round, an unprecedented and monumental feat. Even with the power and weight restrictions, the car could have won every race in 1996, if not for a summer swoon that not only ended their bid at a perfect season, but ultimately impacted the championship battle between the two Lark McLaren cars.
Despite having overwhelming pace compared to their teammates, a string of three consecutive off-track DNFs saw the duo of Hattori and Schumacher down in eighth place, and thirty-three points in the hole to championship leaders Brabham and Nielsen with just two rounds remaining. If the #60 team had any hope of winning the title, they needed to win out, and needed some misfortune out of the other team’s camp.
In the penultimate round at Sugo, Brabham was caught up in a second-lap crash that saw him get hit flush in the right side door by Eiichi Tajima‘s Porsche 911. Brabham escaped injury thanks in large part to the McLaren F1’s unique central cockpit position, but the chassis was effectively written off. Hattori and Schumacher won the race, closing their deficit to thirteen points with one race left.
At the finale at Mine Circuit, Hattori and Schumacher won their third race of the 1996 season, from their fifth pole of the season, and picked up their fourth fastest lap award – leading the league in all three categories. They did all that they could to come back and win the GT500 championship. But Brabham and Nielsen, now in a year-old chassis – in fact, the very same chassis that won at Le Mans the year before – held on to finish fourth and take the championship by just three points.
Despite only winning one race, in May at Fuji Speedway, John Nielsen and David Brabham were steady and consistent all season, offsetting the sheer pace and, frankly, horrid luck of their younger teammates.
Further down in the paddock, the fortunes of Team Kunimitsu and the Advan Honda NSX would seldom improve throughout the 1996 season. Takahashi and Tsuchiya finished the season seventeenth in the championship, with only eight points and a best finish of seventh at the second Fuji round held in July. The NSX GT2 simply wasn’t powerful enough to match its peers in GT500, even in the category’s formative years.
And as it turned out, it was to be the last time that the dream team of Kunimitsu Takahashi and Keiichi Tsuchiya would race together. 27-year-old Akira Iida, the third driver from their Le Mans winning efforts, replaced Tsuchiya at Team Kunimitsu in 1997. Takahashi retired from racing at the end of 1999, ending a legendary career that spanned nearly five decades. Tsuchiya would retire a few years later in 2003.
When all was said and done, 1996 was a historic year for McLaren in sports car racing. In addition to winning the GT500 championship in the JGTC, they successfully defended their BPR GT Series crown, and won the British GT Championship. They became the first foreign manufacturer to win the JGTC’s top prize in its young history.
But when their Japanese rivals objected to their outright dominance, the GTA proposed even further performance restrictions on the F1 GTR. In protest, Team Lark McLaren quit the series after just one year.
Kazumichi Goh took the team to Le Mans, where after several attempts, they won the race outright in 2004, fielding an Audi R8 prototype for Seiji Ara, Rinaldo Capello, and Le Mans’ greatest champion, Tom Kristensen.
1996 champions Brabham and Nielsen never raced in the JGTC again, but Brabham’s breakthrough in the JGTC finally rewarded the potential for greatness that wasn’t realized in F1. Brabham went on to win the 1997 Bathurst 1000 Supertouring race, two American Le Mans Series drivers’ championships, and in 2009, he won the 24 Hours of Le Mans for Peugeot. Today, he’s working to bring his family’s name back to the highest levels of motorsport with the Project Brabham organization.
Hattori became the Japanese Touring Car Champion in ’96, and just missed out on winning the Formula Nippon championship that year to Schumacher. Ralf Schumacher became the first rookie champion of Japan’s top formula racing series, and graduated to F1 the following year, winning six Grands Prix in an eleven-year career and, on his best days, getting the better of his brother from time to time.
McLaren’s last involvement in Super GT ended last year, after three disappointing seasons with the MP4-12C GT3 race car in the second-tier GT300 class. Disappointingly, just as McLaren’s GT programme finally seems to be hitting their stride with victories in Blancpain GT and the Bathurst 12 Hour race, a McLaren will not be on the grid in Super GT to celebrate the twentieth anniversary of their remarkable GT500 championship.
But from the respective disappointment of the NSX’s maiden campaign in what is now Super GT, Honda saw it as an opportunity to improve, and ultimately establish themselves as rivals to Toyota and Nissan.
For 1997, Honda added a second team, the Mugen x Dome Project – an alliance between Japan’s top engine tuner and car constructor. Team Kunimitsu entered an alliance with another of Japan’s best constructors, Mooncraft Engineering, and gained a new title sponsor in headlights maker Raybrig, who’ve remained with the team ever since. They built a totally new NSX that had the power and the downforce to compete with the Skyline GT-Rs and the Supras.
By the end of the ’97 season, the NSX had picked up its first podium finish and pole position. In ’98, the NSX won its first race – and ended up winning a record seven consecutive races thereafter, a streak that lasted into the following season. In 2000, the Castrol Mugen NSX of Ryo Michigami finally captured Honda’s first GT500 championship. More new teams were formed, led by Honda’s F1 legends of yesteryear such as Satoru Nakajima and Aguri Suzuki.
Only a raft of performance restrictions kept the NSX from pummeling their arch-rivals, Nissan and Toyota, into dust until the original NSX was retired after the 2009 season. Even still, Honda claimed a second championship in 2007, and a third in 2010, with the short-lived HSV-010 concept.
Today, Honda have 48 GT500 victories to their name, and their new-generation NSX still competes with the Nissan GT-R and the Lexus RC-F (representing Toyota) in a heated, three-way battle for manufacturer supremacy, where loyalty to the badge, something that has gone largely by the wayside in many other series, still means something to the drivers and teams that race for Honda in Super GT.
Kunimitsu Takahashi’s team has been loyal to Honda for twenty years now. But despite their tenure and their status as one of the most popular teams in Super GT, Team Kunimitsu and their famous Raybrig NSX have yet to win the GT500 championship. They came closest in 2006, finishing runner-up by a single point. They came close again last season, finishing third in the championship.
Current Raybrig drivers Takuya Izawa and Naoki Yamamoto form one of the most popular driver pairings in the series today, and despite winning their first race together just last year, they might be the best driver duo the team has ever had since Kunimitsu retired from racing. Wouldn’t it be something special, then, to see them break through and win the Raybrig NSX’s very first GT500 championship in 2016?
When McLaren and Honda first came to Super GT twenty years ago, they changed the series as we know it today. Honda’s arrival turned what had been a heated two-way rivalry between Nissan and Toyota into a legitimate three-way rivalry between Japan’s biggest automakers, with their flagship supercars fighting for their honour. McLaren, with their outright dominance of the ’96 campaign, became the catalyst for the GT500 cars to continue to develop until they one day became faster than every last one of the most dominant GT cars in the West.
Twenty years ago, McLaren and Honda arrived in Super GT, and created their own dueling legacies in the series. For McLaren, theirs was forged in the fire of one explosive and awesome season of greatness. For Honda, it was only the first passage of a story that has now been told over twenty years, and whose finest chapter might yet be written in 2016.