Fuji’s Golden History: Super GT on Golden Week

 

It’s the second-biggest race of the Super GT calendar, and it happens during one of Japan’s biggest holiday celebrations. The Fuji 500 Kilometer race, a tradition of the Golden Week holidays for over twenty years, will run exactly one week from today – on a Wednesday, May 4.

There are motor races that are so deeply synonymous with a holiday in North America: Memorial Day has both the Indianapolis 500 and the Coca-Cola/World 600 at Charlotte, American Independence Day is the season of the Coke Zero/Firecracker 400 at Daytona, and Labor Day has, for the better part of 65 years, been linked to the Southern 500 at Darlington. And the ties to the Fuji 500km and the Golden Week holiday are no different.

Specifically, it’s the date of May 4, a date that for many years fell between two official holidays and was, in itself, declared a holiday. For most of the last twenty-two years, the Fuji 500km has been held on this date – no matter what day of the week it occurs.

If the Suzuka 1000km at the end of August is like the Daytona 500, or the Bathurst 1000, then the Fuji 500km could be considered analogous to the Southern 500, or the Clipsal 500 at Adelaide – the second-biggest race on the calendar, illuminating with a prestige and pedigree that has made it a perennial fixture on the Super GT calendar.

The origins of the 500 kilometers

Forty-five years ago, the very first 500km race at Fuji for sports cars was held, won by a McLaren M12 Can-Am prototype driven by Tadashi Sakai. From 1977, the race became part of the Fuji Long Distance Series, and in 1985, it was added to the All-Japan Sports Prototype Championship, first as the series’ finale from ’85 to ’87, then as the season opener from ’88 until ’91.

_Fuji-1985-11-24From ’71 until the last running of the race in the JSPC in ’91, the list of former champions of the Fuji 500km – drivers and cars alike – reads like a “who’s who” of Japanese motorsport icons and a list of quintessential racing prototypes. Masahiro HasemiKazuyoshi HoshinoMasanori Sekiya, Keiichi Suzuki, and Yojiro Terada were among the great legends who won the Fuji 500km over those first twenty years. Even two Le Mans-winning gaijin drivers Vern Schuppan and Stanley Dickens won the race.

But none were more successful than the Iron Man of Japanese racing, Kunimitsu Takahashi, who won the race three times driving Porsche’s greatest Group C prototypes – the 956, and its’ successor, the 962C. The 956 and 962C won the Fuji 500km seven times in a row from 1983 until 1989, a forgotten piece of dominance that only fortifies both cars’ legendary statuses as global racing icons. Before then, cars like the BMW M1 that dominated Group 5 racing, and prototypes from the likes of March and Alpine won this race.

In addition, there was a very prolific endurance touring car race, the Inter-TEC 500km, held at Fuji Speedway from 1985 to 1998. It saw many top teams from the European and Australian championships pitted against the top teams and drivers from Japan, and in 1987, was part of the World Touring Car Championship.

621LJust within the Group A era alone, from ’85 to ’93, the Inter-TEC 500km was won by a host of legendary racing machines: The Volvo 240 Turbo, the Ford Sierra Cosworth RS500, and the incomparable R32 Nissan Skyline GT-R. The list of winning drivers, equally as legendary: Johnny Cecotto, Klaus Ludwig, Allan Moffat, Anders Olofsson, and in the last Group A race in 1993, an up-and-coming star from Denmark named Tom Kristensen. Just to name a few. And among the local heroes, the legendary Calsonic Skyline of Hoshino and Toshio Suzuki won it twice.

A new series, and a new tradition

JGTCFuji1994_Start

1 May, 1994 was the date of the opening round of the first full season of the new All-Japan Grand Touring Car Championship (JGTC), held at Fuji Speedway. The first running of the All Japan Fuji GT Race was won by the famous Calsonic Skyline, still run by Hoshino, but now driven by Masahiko Kageyama – the series’ first champion, and the only man to win three GT500 championships in succession.

It was a successful re-launch of top-level Japanese sports car racing, after the collapse of the JSPC in 1992. And with that re-launch, a new tradition was born: A race on the Golden Week holiday, held annually at Fuji Speedway. Porsche, McLaren, and Toyota won the next three runnings of the event. But the 1998 race was doomed before it even got underway. Heavy rain and a dense fog bank contributed to a parade lap pileup that saw Tetsuya Ota‘s Ferrari F355 erupt in a horrific fireball.

As most of the marshalls rushed to help Porsche driver Tomohiko Sunako, who had badly fractured his right leg, Ota would have surely burned to death – similar to the appalling death of Roger Williamson in the ’73 Dutch GP – were it not for the intervention of Mazda RX-7 driver Shinichi Yamaji, who extinguished the flames and helped Ota free himself from his burned Ferrari before the first corner worker got to him. The ’98 race was delayed, and eventually cancelled, with no winner declared.

iida99celebrationOut of the near-tragedy of ’98, came a great triumph the following year. Kunimitsu Takahashi took the final win of his storied 39-year racing career in the 1999 All Japan Fuji GT Race. His Raybrig NSX co-driver, Akira Iida, leaped off the pit wall and ran out onto the track to congratulate his mentor – potential safety hazards and fines be damned! Honda repeated as race winners the following year, but soon afterwards, the balance of power in Fuji would shift drastically – and the Golden Week race at Fuji would undergo a massive change in 2001.

The return of the 500km

Fuji_Speedway
Photo © Toyota Gazoo Racing

For 2001, the Fuji 500km would return on the Golden date of May 4, ten years after the last JSPC-sanctioned running, and three years after the Japanese Touring Car Championship folded, consigning the Inter-TEC race to history along with it. This was now the longest race in the JGTC championship, with the Suzuka 1000km held as a non-championship event until 2006, and in terms of prestige, this was now by far the biggest race on the calendar.

The revival of the 500km combined the history of the JGTC’s Golden Week race with the old Fuji 500km of years past. It also coincided with Toyota Motor Company’s purchase of the circuit from Mitsubishi Estate in late 2000. For the first time ever, Toyota had a “home track” much like Suzuka Circuit and Twin Ring Motegi, both “home tracks” for their perennial nemeses, Honda.

And the first race under the ownership of Toyota was won, fittingly, by a Toyota Supra, the Esso Ultraflo Team Le Mans Supra of Hideki Noda, and new co-driver Juichi Wakisaka, who stunned the JGTC paddock by defecting from Honda in the off-season. It was Wakisaka’s second straight victory on May 4, with as many different manufacturers. In total, the brands of the Toyota Motor Company have won the Fuji 500km nine times, more than any other manufacturer.

The rebirth of Fuji, the genesis of the “Fuji-meister”

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Photo © Toyota Motor Corporation

 

After the 2003 season, Fuji Speedway was closed for over a year. A new layout designed by Hermann Tilke drastically reprofiled the circuit, especially in the final sector, where a long, sweeping right-hand corner was replaced by an uphill complex of low-speed corners. The changes were made with Formula 1 in mind, as circuit owners Toyota went full speed ahead into F1 in the new millennium – with the hopes of getting a modernized Fuji back on the World Championship calendar for the first time since 1977. For the first time ever, there would be no racing at Mount Fuji in 2004.

In 2005, the year the JGTC was rebranded into Super GT, the circuit re-opened, just in time for the Fuji 500km to return to its traditional May 4 date – the last time until this year the race was held on a Wednesday. Taking the first victory on the new Fuji circuit was the ZENT Cerumo Toyota Supra, driven by Toyota’s greatest performer on the mountain, Yuji Tachikawa.

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Photo © Yoshinori Onishi

Tachikawa became known as the “Fuji-meister” for his exceptional record at Toyota’s home circuit: He enters the 2016 Fuji 500km race with seven victories, ten pole positions, and fifteen total podium finishes at Fuji Speedway. He is to this mountain, what a driver like Craig Lowndes is to another famous racing mountain, Mount Panorama in Australia – an all-time legend and a star performer of the current age.

At the 500km, Tachikawa has won three times, tied for the most Fuji 500km/All Japan Fuji GT Race victories in the Super GT era with two other legends of the series, his long-time fellow Toyota driver Wakisaka, and Satoshi Motoyama.

Recent years

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Photo © Nissan

Toyota continued their home field advantage with wins in 2006 and 2008, but they now carried the Lexus badge, with the SC replacing the Toyota Supra after 2005. In 2009 and 2010, the national energy crisis shortened the race to 400 kilometers. In 2011, the effects of the horrific Tohoku earthquake and tsunami shortened the race back to 300 kilometers, before it was restored to its traditional 500 kilometer distance in 2012.

The 2012 Fuji 500km saw Wakisaka drive to the final victory in his Super GT career, and the following year, both the Toyota and Lexus brands claimed a double victory for Toyota Motor Company – their most recent triumph in this race.

Toyota Motor Company still owns Fuji Speedway, but in the last two years, Nissan have dominated the track. In the 2015 Fuji 500km, Nissan took a 1-2 finish in both the GT500 and GT300 categories, only the third time in Super GT history this has ever been accomplished by a single manufacturer. Defending series champions Tsugio Matsuda and Ronnie Quintarelli are the defending champions in GT500, while Andre Couto and Katsumasa Chiyo won last year in GT300.

 

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Photo © Nissan

The changes to Fuji Speedway in 2005 were almost unanimously met with negative reception among fans at the time, namely in the F1 community as the track spent two dreary seasons on the calendar in 2007 and 2008. The change of the old last corner into a string of six second-gear corners was just as heinous as the modernizations to the Hockenheimring carried out in 2002. The racing isn’t supposed to be good through the final sector – and yet, some of Super GT’s most frantic wheel-to-wheel battles have sustained throughout the new corner complex.

This is still the fastest track on the calendar, and no venue has hosted more Super GT events than Fuji Speedway. The amazing fan support – especially from the “home team” Toyota and Lexus, the lineage of the race’s history, the great racing action – it makes the Fuji 500 kilometer race a staple of the calendar, and a must-watch event for anyone who boasts themselves as a die-hard fan of sports car and endurance racing.

It is a Golden Week holiday tradition, and the race itself is a sterling, shimmering, solid gold gem of the racing season around the world.

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