The answers that SUPER GT's Fuji return promises to provide
This weekend’s fourth round of the SUPER GT season - the Fuji GT 100 Lap Race, to give it its official title - brings to an end what has felt like an endless wait since the previous round at Suzuka at the end of May.
Not only that, but it also promises to provide some much needed hints about how the rest of the 2022 campaign is likely to unfold.
In fact, given that we’ve basically only had two-and-a-half races so far, with little in the way of consistent performers across them, it’s been hard to be overly certain about which teams are likely to be in the hunt when the title finally gets decided at Motegi in November.
For what it’s worth, a quick recap: the first three races of the season so far have been won by three different manufacturers, with Toyota (Okayama), Honda (Fuji) and Nissan (Suzuka) all having a single victory apiece under their belts. To make things even more egalitarian, all three races so far have featured a top three comprising a single car from each brand.
If you were to tot up a notional ‘manufacturers’ standings’ based on the top two results of each manufacturer per race, Toyota leads on 57 points, with Nissan on 51.5 and Honda on 49. But if pushed to pick which car looks to have an edge over the competition, the early evidence might just lead you to place your money on Nissan and its all-new Z.
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Of course, we can’t say with certainty what would have happened had the Fuji 450km Golden Week race in May gone the full distance instead of being cut short by Mitsunori Takaboshi’s terrifying crash at the wheel of the #3 NDDP Racing Z.
But, given that Takaboshi was pressuring Yuhi Sekiguchi’s SARD Toyota at the time of the incident, there’s a solid chance that he and Katsumasa Chiyo would have ended up celebrating their first victory in GT500 at that track, instead of just a couple of weeks later at Suzuka.
Admittedly, NDDP's Suzuka win was made easier by a) other cars having more (but not much more, because of half-points) success ballast, and b) taking a fresh engine penalty-free. But such was the #3 car’s dominance that even if they had arrived at Suzuka with a stage one fuel restrictor and older engine, you have to think they would have still scored solid points.
Takaboshi and Chiyo’s victory has put them to the top of the standings, just over the points threshold for a power-sapping stage one fuel flow restrictor this weekend at Fuji. They are equal with Rookie Racing Toyota pair Kenta Yamashita and Kazuya Oshima, who won the opener at Okayama and have bagged some additional minor points in the two races since.
Logic would dictate that these two cars will struggle with their fuel restrictors. But over a 450km race in which two stops are mandatory, tyre strategy and longevity will be key, especially with temperatures likely to be in the region of 30 degrees Celsius. The strong top speed of the Z and GR Supra means passing on Fuji’s long main straight usually isn’t too hard.
If Takaboshi and Chiyo find their Michelins working well in the heat, another top-five finish or perhaps even a sniff of the podium can’t be ruled out. If they can do something similar three weeks later at Suzuka - also a 450km event that’s likely to be run in very hot conditions, and at the track where the Z is known to perform - it would put the #3 pair in good stead indeed.
With only more race (Sugo) to survive after that before the success weight starts coming off from the penultimate round at Autopolis, there’s no obviously better contender for the ‘title favourite’ label at this stage.
That said, Yamashita and Oshima have previous form when it comes to defying the success ballast odds at Fuji, and as SARD showed in May, a well-timed full-course yellow or safety car can always transform the fortunes of a car that doesn’t appear to have the raw speed.
Next in the standings are Honda’s three Bridgestone-shod NSX-GTs, with Team Kunimitsu (Naoki Yamamoto/Tadasuke Makino), Real Racing (Koudai Tsukakoshi/Nobuharu Matsushita) and ARTA (Tomoki Nojiri/Nirei Fukuzumi) set to carry 40kg, 36kg and 30kg respectively. Hardly a help, granted, but not a dealbreaker in a long, hot race, either.
It was the ARTA car that won the last Fuji race in what can only be called bizarre circumstances. Nojiri and Fukuzumi were promoted to third on the road following Takaboshi’s race-ending crash to the top step of the podium, as both the SARD and TOM’S Toyota GR Supras that were running ahead at the time of the red flag took penalties.
ARTA chief engineer Ryan Dingle felt that a relatively late, and long first pitstop had put the #8 Honda in a strong position to leap ahead of its rivals at the second round of stops. But he also made the admission that the NSX-GT’s extra drag meant that passing a healthy Toyota or Nissan along the straight was equally not a terribly likely proposition.
Things may be a little different this time around given the extra heat means less dense air, and therefore less of a straight line speed dividend for low-drag cars. But all other things being even, a Honda is likely to have a harder time recovering from a bad grid position.
Another thing that the high temperatures could impact is strategy, particularly when it comes to double-stint the tyres, which was made a possibility for the first time in the Golden Week Fuji race thanks to SUPER GT’s decision to no longer mandate driver changes at every pitstop. Higher temperatures (and heavier cars) not only makes managing tyres that much more of a challenge, it also makes tyre warm-up easier, removing one of the key advantages of double-stinting strategy: eliminating a slow out lap on cold tyres.
In the May race, several teams, including ARTA, SARD and Racing Project Bandoh, were planning to forego tyre changes at the second round of stops, but because of the red flag we never got to see how it all would have played out. But with two 450km races coming up where strategy will be at least as important as speed, getting these types of call right could end up being the difference between being in a position to fight for the title and not.
There are several GT500 teams who could use a big result at Fuji. TOM’S and SARD know this is their last chance to bank big points at what remains one of the best tracks for the Toyota GR Supra, while NISMO pair Ronnie Quintarelli and Tsugio Matsuda will be feeling pressure to close the gap in the standings to their Nissan colleagues Takaboshi and Chiyo and prove they aren’t past it.
Racing Project Bandoh, the pole-winning team in May, too will be hoping to take advantage of hot temperatures at a track where its Yokohama tyre is proven to work well as it seeks to put an end to a painful losing streak dating back to the 2016 season.
If you consider things from a race distance point of view, so far we’ve not even had a third of the season. The truncated Fuji race has restricted us to less than 900km of running so far, but over the remaining five rounds, we have a bumper 1800km of racing to look forward to.
By Sunday evening, we should have a clearer picture of which manufacturer really has the edge in this most unusually tightly-contested of seasons.
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