In May of 1994, a new racing championship was born at Fuji Speedway, and with it, a tradition that has endured for the better part of 25 years. Japan’s Golden Week holidays mean one thing for auto racing fans in the country: The Fuji GT 500km Race.
Held annually on the 4th of May, the history of the Fuji 500km traces back even before the first Golden Week GT race at Fuji in 1994, but all the way back to 1971 with the first 500km race for sports cars at the spiritual home of sports car and endurance racing in Japan. As the Indianapolis 500 is tied to Memorial Day weekend in America, the Fuji 500km is a tradition of this time of year, and this date on the calendar.
2018 will mark the 24th Super GT race at Fuji held during the Golden Week holidays, and it’ll be the 34th running of a 500km sports car race at the cathedral of speed that sits in the shadow of Mount Fuji. It’s a special race, the one race that boasts the highest attendance of any event on the Super GT calendar, every single year, rain or shine. And an important race it is as well, this frantic, 110 lap, three-hour mad dash, that could truly set the table for the championship battles that will unfold from here.
Last year, Lexus reigned supreme at the mountain. Their Lexus LC500 crushed the competition, and swept the podium places in GT500, continuing an astonishing run to open the 2017 season. Their RC F GT3 finally won its first race in the GT300 class.
This track truly is home ground for Toyota, Lexus, and their supporters. Lexus enter the 2018 season without the same overwhelming advantage that they started last season with, but they are never to be counted out in the Fuji 500km – they’ve combined for 16 victories at Fuji Speedway.
And when it comes to this track, the #38 ZENT Cerumo LC500 of Yuji Tachikawa and Hiroaki Ishiura are almost always the top performers at the circuit.
With their dominating victory in this race last year, the “Fuji-Meister” Tachikawa extended his own personal record with his eighth career Super GT win in Fuji – and his fourth in this event. His co-driver Ishiura also has a stellar record at Fuji, as a three-time Fuji 500km winner himself. With a combined 24 podium finishes at this track between them, and little ballast to hamper them – could Lexus Team ZENT Cerumo take another 500km victory?
Don’t overlook either the defending GT500 champions, Ryo Hirakawa and Nick Cassidy, and the #1 KeePer TOM’s LC500 – which put on a frantic charge from 9th on the grid to 3rd and on the podium in the season opening round at Okayama. It was a solid start to their title defense, and Super GT’s awesome young guns are ready to erupt at the mountain. And the #19 WedsSport Advan LC500 (Yuji Kunimoto/Kenta Yamashita) were one of two Yokohama-clad cars that did exceptionally well in the pre-season tests at Fuji, also fielding two young and hungry drivers.
Of course, Lexus Team LeMans Wako’s are a sentimental pick going into this Fuji 500km, after the sudden death of their beloved race engineer Kenji Yamada just a week ago.
Drivers Kazuya Oshima, Felix Rosenqvist, and team director Juichi Wakisaka, along with the rest of the crew behind the #6 Wako’s 4CR LC500, will look to end a four-year, 34-race winless drought dating back to November 2013, and to grab their first win at the speedway since the 2001 Fuji 500km. They’ll do this with the additional motivation to make their late friend and mentor Yamada proud.
Fuji Speedway is Toyota’s home track, but Kazuki Nakajima and Kamui Kobayashi, the two biggest home-grown faces of their international racing enterprises, won’t be at the 500km as they honour their commitments in the FIA World Endurance Championship at the 6 Hours of Spa-Francorchamps.
In their place, Briton James Rossiter will make his return to the cockpit of the #36 au TOM’s LC500 alongside Yuhi Sekiguchi – a brash combination that will look to rebound from a sluggish start at Okayama. And Sho Tsuboi, the 22-year-old prospect of the Toyota Young Driver Programme, steps up from GT300 to make his GT500 debut in the #39 Denso Kobelco SARD LC500, which he’ll share with Heikki Kovalainen.
Rossiter won the 2013 Fuji 500km, just his second career Super GT race. And Tsuboi won the GT300 class at this event a year ago for Lexus.
As much as Fuji Speedway is home turf for Lexus and Toyota, Nissan have enjoyed as much success if not more. Seven Fuji 500km victories in the last 15 years, five wins at the last eight races held here, including a hat trick of 500km victories in 2014, 2015, and 2016.
And unlike this time last year, Nissan truly have the power to bring the fight to their rivals at Lexus and Honda. At Okayama, they looked as if they could have a genuine chance at the victory – before both the #23 Motul Autech NISMO GT-R of Tsugio Matsuda & Ronnie Quintarelli, and the #24 Forum Engineering Advan GT-R of J.P. Oliveira & Mitsunori Takaboshi, were struck down with penalties for jump start,
It’ll only look to light a fire underneath Matsuda and Quintarelli, who won back to back Fuji 500kms in 2015 & 2016, to atone for the opportunity they felt was taken away at the last race. They performed exceptionally well at Fuji last year, even at a horsepower disadvantage down the main straightaways. Matsuda will also look to score his landmark 20th victory, at a track where he’s already won four times in his career.
Oliveira is a three-time Fuji winner, and his teammate Takaboshi was fast in the pre-season test at Fuji. Satoshi Motoyama, lead driver of the #3 Craftsports Motul GT-R which he shares with Katsumasa Chiyo, has also won here three times, all three times in the 500km. The blue #12 Calsonic Impul GT-R last won at Fuji in the summer of 2016, but Jann Mardenborough won in the GT300 class in 2016, and Daiki Sasaki scored his first GT500 win at Fuji in 2015.
For Honda, their 1-2 victory at Okayama was their first 1-2 finish in five years. Now Honda will look to end a winless drought at the Golden Week race at Fuji, an event they haven’t won since 2000.
The #17 Keihin NSX-GT of Koudai Tsukakoshi and Takashi Kogure came away with the victory in Okayama, ending Real Racing’s seven-year winless drought. At Fuji, they enter the weekend carrying 42 kilograms of Success Ballast, as the weight is added on for the first time this season. Kogure is the most experienced driver in the field who’s yet to win a race at Fuji; the 38-year-old is winless in 26 career starts, Tsukakoshi yet to win here in 17 tries.
The #100 Raybrig NSX-GT of Naoki Yamamoto and Jenson Button also carries a fair bit of weight, 30kg. But Yamamoto is a man in form, coming off a confident victory at Suzuka Circuit to open his Super Formula campaign last week. And Button is a driver reinvigorated, his first Super GT podium at Okayama, a new deal in place for the rest of the WEC season starting at Le Mans – things are looking up 2009 World Champion could push the weekend attendance for the Fuji 500km over the 100,000 mark.
Honda also won the most recent race at Fuji Speedway, courtesy of the #8 ARTA NSX-GT that thrashed the competition in last August’s 300km race. Tomoki Nojiri & Takuya Izawa will pilot the third of three Bridgestone-clad Hondas that are expected to be a factor come Thursday and Friday.
GT300 will almost certainly see the FIA GT3 cars come into the forefront. The 1.5 kilometer long front-stretch lends itself to the big horsepower and big engines of the GT3 runners, which have won this race the last four years running.
The winning Lexus from last year’s Fuji 500km now has a new number and a new sponsor, but the Bridgestone-clad #96 K-Tunes RC F of Yuichi Nakayama and Morio Nitta still has the specs to make it two in a row for LM Corsa. Adding Nitta, a seven-time GT300 class winner at Fuji and five times a winner in the Golden Week race, certainly doesn’t hurt their chances!
Nitta is tied for the most career GT300 victories at Fuji with another legend of the category, Nobuteru Taniguchi, who along with three-time Fuji winner Tatsuya Kataoka will look to pilot the #0 Goodsmile Hatsune Miku Mercedes-AMG GT3 to a top finish at the Fuji 500km. The threat of the #65 LEON Cvstos AMG (Haruki Kurosawa/Naoya Gamou) and their Bridgestone tyres can’t be overlooked either.
German GT3 cars will absolutely be in the mix here at Fuji. The #7 D’station Porsche 911 GT3-R (Tomonobu Fujii/Sven Müller) went on an absolute tear to finish 2nd after starting 20th at Okayama, now they go into Fuji, a track where they tested well at in March, to gain even more points towards their title bid. And with three straight wins in the summer Fuji race, Autobacs Racing Team Aguri (ARTA) and their #55 BMW M6 GT3 (Shinichi Takagi/Sean Walkinshaw) have a perennial threat to win at the mountain.
As for the new GT3 cars from Japan? The Honda NSX GT3 showed great speed here, so look to the #34 Modulo Kenwood NSX GT3 (Ryo Michigami/Hiroki Otsu) for a star performance. And the word is that the two 2018 Nissan GT-R NISMO GT3s from Gainer have improved significantly since the Fuji test.
While the JAF-GT and Mother Chassis teams have a harder time making up the power deficit, their strengths will likely lie in tyre strategy. Look for a team like the #18 Upgarage 86 MC (Yuhki Nakayama/Takashi Kobayashi), the #31 Toyota Prius apr GT (Koki Saga/Kohei Hirate) or the #61 Subaru BRZ R&D Sport (Takuto Iguchi/Hideki Yamauchi) to gain track position by forgoing a tyre change during one of the two pit windows.
In GT300, a longer race means third drivers for select teams. With Sho Tsuboi promoted to GT500 this weekend, Tsuchiya Engineering have called up Tsubasa Kondo to drive the #25 Hoppy 86 MC with Takamitsu Matsui, and legendary driver, now team director & chief engineer Takeshi Tsuchiya is also entered into the car as well.
There’s a good mix of veteran talent and youth amongst the wildcard entries into the event. Shinji Nakano (#26 Taisan Audi R8) brings with him a solid endurance racing CV in recent years. Yuya Sakamoto (#50 EXE Mercedes-AMG GT3) is another crafty and quick veteran. Kei Cozzolino (#777 Carguy ADA NSX GT3) and Richard Bradley (#48 Shokumou.jp GT-R) both have plenty of speed and prior experience in Japan, Bradley, making his Super GT debut, also has a Le Mans class win to his name. Takuro Shinohara (#21 Hitotsuyama Audi R8) is also entered into his first Super GT race.
As a reminder, practice and qualifying are both on Thursday, and the 110-lap main race is on Friday with a 2:40 PM (JST) start. International viewers can watch the race live and in full on NISMO TV, and catch extended highlights on Jenson Button TV with commentary from Toby Moody.
Even in a jam-packed banner weekend for sports car racing, you certainly won’t want to miss the 2018 Fuji 500km!