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. Continue reading “Fuji’s Golden History: Super GT on Golden Week”

Dueling Legacies: McLaren, Honda, and the 1996 JGTC

Twenty years ago, McLaren and Honda competed in Super GT for the first time. This is the story of that first race, the first season, and the legacies they created in 1996.

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. Continue reading “Dueling Legacies: McLaren, Honda, and the 1996 JGTC”

Juichi Wakisaka: A look back on a legend

Juichi Wakisaka retired from driving on Wednesday, bringing a legendary career to a close.

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Image Credit – © Toyota Motor Corporation

Juichi Wakisaka announced his retirement from Super GT’s premier category of racing during Toyota Gazoo Racing’s 2016 motorsport press conference, bringing one of the most sensational careers in racing to a close.

Wakisaka’s retirement will likely not be reflected upon to the same degree as that of another recently retired Toyota sports car legend, Alexander Wurz. He never got the chance to test his skill in the 24 Hours of Le Mans, or in the World Endurance Championship or any of its forerunners. He never got to compete in Formula 1. In fact, he rarely competed outside of his native Japan, save for his fairly recent efforts in the Nürburgring 24 Hour race with Gazoo Racing.

But to everyone in the Toyota racing family, his home for the last fifteen years, he is a respected, revered legend, amongst his fellow drivers, amongst the mechanics and engineers who’ve worked with him over a career that spanned twenty-one years in total since graduating from karting in 1995, and amongst fans, young and old, who will so dearly miss him as a competitive driver. Continue reading “Juichi Wakisaka: A look back on a legend”

The Final Battle: Breaking down Super GT’s title contenders

motegi 2015 preview

The 2015 Autobacs Super GT Series season will come to a close on Sunday (or late, late Saturday evening) – and yet again, we’re going to have a thrilling race for the GT500 crown with six teams and their twelve drivers still mathematically eligible for the championship going into this final 250 kilometer race at Twin Ring Motegi.

The GT300 title has already been decided in favor of International veteran racer Andre Couto, who won the Drivers’ Championship for GAINER at Autopolis. It was an emotional scene after the race, after Couto, a veteran of eleven seasons in GT500 and now two seasons in GT300 competition, dedicated the championship to his team, who won a Drivers’ Championship for the first time in over a decade of racing, his 2015 co-drivers Katsumasa Chiyo (who really should be considered for Driver of the Year honors in any credible sports car racing publication) and Ryuichiro Tomita (who will almost surely be in the frame for a full-time GT300 drive next year), and then to his late son Afonso, who died of childhood leukemia in November of 2010 at the age of seven.

Couto and Chiyo won’t have to push too hard when they race at Motegi with the championships already decided, however, if they drive the Tanax GT-R to a podium finish, Couto will be the first GT300 driver to amass 100 points in a season since Keiichi Suzuki and the late Shingo Tachi in their historic 1998 season, where they won an astonishing five of six races driving a Toyota MR2 jointly fielded by Team Taisan and Tsuchiya Engineering (now Team Samurai).

championship table 2015

The GT500 championship, however, is far from decided, with six teams still mathematically eligible as the above table demonstrates. Realistically, it will likely be a two-horse race between the Calsonic Nissan GT-R of IMPUL and the Motul Nissan GT-R of defending champions NISMO, with three of the other four teams absolutely needing to win to have any chance of winning the championship. But as last year proved, an early mishap can potentially blow the whole thing wide open. So what’s at stake for the championship contenders in Motegi? Continue reading “The Final Battle: Breaking down Super GT’s title contenders”

Andre Lotterer’s Journey to Formula 1

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He is the most accomplished driver under the age of 35 that has never started a Formula 1 race.

Until this weekend.

The news that Andre Lotterer, the ace driver of the Audi Sport Le Mans Prototype program(me), and who is also driving for legendary Toyota factory racing team TOM’s in the Super Formula championship in Japan, would be making his Formula 1 debut at this weekend’s Belgian Grand Prix – at age 32 – was first reported on Monday, and came as even more of a shock as the news that broke later in the afternoon (or evening) that Toro Rosso will be making Max Verstappen the youngest driver in Formula 1 history next year, at age 17. Which is almost half of Lotterer’s current age.

At 32 years old, Lotterer is only a few months older than when former Audi teammate Allan McNish made his F1 debut for Toyota in 2002. He lasted just one year before going back to endurance racing. He is one year older than the last driver to make his Formula 1 debut past the age of 30 – Yuji Ide. In fact, those three men – Lotterer, McNish, and Ide, account for all of the Formula 1 rookies to have made their F1 debuts past the age of 30 since 1997. By the time fellow German Michael Schumacher turned 32, he had already won his third World Championship, and had passed Ayrton Senna for second on the all-time Grand Prix wins list. And by the time Senna himself was 32, he was already a three-time champion with McLaren after his legendary and controversial championship duels with Alain Prost, who at age 32, had won the first two of his four World Championships with McLaren, and was running down the all-time wins record of Sir Jackie Stewart, who himself was a two-time champion by age 32. By the time Stewart retired in 1973, he had passed the all-time wins record of Jim Clark, who himself had planned to retire after the 1968 season as the winningest driver in Formula 1 World Championship history at the time, before the tragic Formula 2 accident at the Hockenheimring that claimed his life…at the age of 32.

Yet also, at age 32, Damon Hill had just won his first Grand Prix for Williams a month shy of his 33rd birthday, and only one year after his Formula 1 debut for Brabham. The man who founded the team, the late Sir Jack Brabham, won both his first race and first World Championship in 1959 at the age of 33. Nigel Mansell, the man who former Lotus team director Peter Warr said would never win a Grand Prix “so long as he had a hole in his arse”, finally proved his old boss wrong when he won the 1985 European Grand Prix at Brands Hatch in a Williams-Honda, just two months after he had turned…32. Continue reading “Andre Lotterer’s Journey to Formula 1”