We preview the 46th and the final running of Japan’s biggest sportscar race, the Suzuka 1000km, where Formula 1 star Jenson Button is set to grab the headlines.
The Suzuka 1000km is the longest-running and the most prestigious race on the Super GT calendar. It’s been held annually since 1966 and has, on certain occasions, been part of the FIA World Sportscar and GT1 Championships.
How big is the Suzuka 1000km?
While the Suzuka 1000km may not be a household name overseas, both the race and the Super GT series enjoy huge following in Japan. Over the years, the Suzuka 1000km has attracted several international racing stars, including Mark Webber and Andre Lotterer, among others.
Super GT is primarily divided into two categories, GT500 and GT300. The GT500 category features bespoke cars made by manufacturers according to a specific set of regulations. They are powered by a 2.0-litre, four-cylinder turbocharged engine which produces over 650 bhp. Honda and Lexus (through Toyota) field the same engine in Super Formula.
The GT300 category is a little more complicated than its bigger sibling, featuring three entirely different types of cars. In addition to the FIA GT3 cars, the category also has JAF-GT300 (heavily-modified production cars) and Mother Chassis cars (a standard tub around which teams can build a car).
All eyes will be on 2009 Formula 1 world champion Jenson Button, who will make his Super GT debut on board a Mugen-run Honda NSX GT. The 37-year-old teams up with former GT300 champion Hideki Mutoh and Daisuke Nakajima, brother of former F1 racer Kazuki.
Like any driver making a transition from single-seaters to sportscar racing, Button’s two biggest challenges will be adapting to a closed-cockpit car and sharing it with two experienced teammates.
Other notable drivers
While most international racing fans will have their focus solely on Button, other well-known names likes defending Super GT champion Heikki Kovalainen, F1 podium finisher Kamui Kobayashi and Nakajima will also be present. Super GT regulars Jann Mardenborough and James Rossiter make it three British drivers in the GT500 class.
In the GT300 class, BMW factory driver Augusto Farfus and another ex-F1 star, Christian Klien, will also be competing.
Three of Japan’s biggest car brands, Honda, Toyota (through luxury arm Lexus) and Nissan are all present in Super GT’s premier GT500 category.
In accordance to the new regulations, Lexus introduced the brand new LC 500 as a replacement for the ageing RC F. The car made a dominant debut at Okayama, locking out the top six spots. Since then it has won all but one race.
Although ballast is likely to be a major handicap for Lexus squads at Suzuka 1000km, the Toyota-owned brand remains the favourite for a fourth successive win at the Japanese endurance classic.
There are plenty of heavyweights in the Lexus brigade. Yuhi Sekiguchi and Toyota LMP1 drivers Kamui Kobayashi and Yuji Kunimoto have a decent shot in the #19 WedsSports car, while defending champions Kovalainen and Kohei Hirate are also strong contenders.
The #38 Zent Cerumo pairing of Yuji Tachikawa and Hiroaki Ishiura have won twice at Suzuka 1000km, so has championship leader Rossiter, who will share the #36 TOM’S car with Kazuki Nakajima.
Honda introduced a brand new NSX-GT this year that is based around the second-generation version of the production car.
Despite an all-new car, Honda has struggled to match the pace of the Lexus, although its most recent victory at Fuji brings some hope.
Honda hasn't won the Suzuka race since 2013.
The #8 ARTA squad of Tomoki Nojiri and Takashi Kobayashi will lead the charge for Honda, having won the previous round of the season in Fuji.
#100 Team Kunimitsu’s Takuya Izawa and Naoki Yamamoto are also expected to be competitive, while Button’s Mugen team will take advantage of a low ballast on Honda’s home turf.
Unlike Honda and Lexus, Nissan has only introduced an incremental upgrade to the GT-R this year. This has put the marque a firm last in the pecking order, although it has still managed to score a few podiums.
Nissan looked stronger at Fuji following an upgrade engine, but chances of a seventh Suzuka 1000km win appear slim.
Three-time Suzuka 1000km winner Satoshi Motoyama and Blancpain Endurance Cup champion Katsumasa Chiyo will race the #46 Mola entry, one of the two Nissan squads to score a podium this year.
The other one is the full factory-backed #23 NISMO entry of 2015 Super GT champions Ronnie Quintarelli and Tsugio Matsuda.
It will also be interesting to see how GT Academy graduate Jann Mardenborough performs in the #12 Team Impul alongside Hironobu Yasuda.