Story by Will Silk
Forty years ago the world was enjoying the height of heavy weight sports car action with such famous series as the SCCA Can-Am Challenge, and the European counter-part to the Can-Am, the Interseries. Both of these road racing venues brought out the best in technological developments running in accord with FIA Group 7 rules, which initially stated that a car need only have four wheels, two seats, and full body work in order to compete.
Since 1974, when a number of issues conspired to end the golden era of the Can-Am, road racing enthusiasts have had to search long and hard the world over to find a series that offered anything similar to those wonderful days of the late 1960s and early 1970s. One series that offers such potential, and is currently being expanded, is the Super GT series based in Japan.
Super GT has been around for over a decade, initially known as the Japanese Grand Touring Championship or JGTC. The JGTC was an officially recognized GT Series by the FIA; however when the Japanese auto makers that dominate the series pushed for its expansion beyond Japan’s borders, the title was changed to Super GT. The Super GT is a semi-endurance series with two drivers sharing a car and is divided into two categories, the GT500 class and the GT300 class. The “500” in “GT500” is used to indicate cars of up to 500 horsepower, the “300” indicating cars with up to 300 horsepower. The GT500 class is made up of cars that merely resemble the production cars that they are based on. More of a “silhouette” formula, the GT500 formula offers constructors more free reign in the design of their race car, where as the GT300 class is tied much more to production car origins. This article will focus on the GT500 class, as it is the class that has been gaining world wide notoriety in recent years.
As mentioned above, the GT500 class is more of a silhouette-type of racing formula. Cars are expected to loosely resemble the production cars whose badges they bear. Ultimately; the GTA, or Grand Touring Association, governs the Super GT series and decides on all rules in regards to the series. Over the last decade or so, the rules set by the GTA for the Super GT series have attracted factory entries from all of Japan’s largest auto makers. Engines are always an area of contention in any form of motor sport, and in Super GT, the rules state that a car built to compete in the series can run any engine that is in production with that car’s manufacturer. For example; the stunning, new Nissan GT-R street car is powered by a 3.7 liter bi-turbo V-6. The Nismo GT-R that was run in the 2009 Super GT Series sported a 4.5 liter naturally aspirated V-8 similar to the one found in some Infiniti models here in the States. Once an engine is selected to run, the modifications are virtually limitless as the door is open to turbo and supercharging the drive trains, as well as just about anything else the team can conceive to bring the power plant up to the 500 horsepower maximum. Intake restrictors are used in some cases to achieve a level playing field, and fuel is market grade unleaded that is strictly monitored by the sanctioning body.
The chassis of a Super GT car is a heavily modified structure, bearing little in common to the car’s showroom sibling. Tube frame “clips” are allowed, and used by most teams, ahead of the cockpit and to the rear of the car, with tube structures offering a chance for constructors to save money and still retain a great amount of safety within the construction of the race car. Brake systems are for the most part open, though the use of Formula One-style carbon brakes is not allowed.
Super GT rules also do not allow any type of driver aids like traction control or yaw control. Aerodynamics is the only aid available to the driver, though no moving aerodynamic devices are allowed; fixed wings and fences are fully open to the constructor. Teams make great use of carbon fiber and the freedom the rules that Super GT provides them to experiment in this realm.
One other interesting aspect of the Super GT is a weight penalty program. When a team wins a Super GT, they are then required to add a certain amount of weight in kilograms to their car. This aspect of the rules is performed to keep the field robust and to assist the Series in maintaining a competitive field throughout the season. With a mild understanding of the few rules that govern this wild series from the other side of the world, a look back at the first few rounds of the 2009 Super GT can offer a better understanding of the racing itself within the GT500 class.
The first Super GT race for 2009 was held in late March at the 3.7 kilometer Okayama Circuit. Weather was clear and the track dry for qualifying. The Zent Cerumo Team snatched pole position in the number 38 Lexus SC430. Second place on the grid went to the Ishiura/Oshima number 35 SC430, with third going to team His Advan Kondo in their Nissan GTR being piloted by Brazilian Joao Paulo Lima De Oliveira and Le Mans veteran Seiji Ara of Japan. Honda NSX teams dominated positions 4 through 7.
The following day’s race however saw steady rain and a crowd of some 23,000 fans on strength to witness the first showdown of 2009. Exciting first lap action saw the Nismo GTR of Benoit Treluyer come into contact with the Petronas SC430 of French driver Andre Lotterer. The pole sitting Zent Cerumo SC430 began to drop back quickly as the tire choice made by the team to run an intermediate tire in the wet conditions proved to be the tragic downfall for drivers Yuji Tachikawa and Richard Lyons of Ireland. The team would end up finishing in 6th position in a race dominated by the Team His Advan Kondo Nissan GTR. The de Oliveira/Ara GTR shod with Yokohama Advan wet weather rubber proved unstoppable over the course of the 82 lap event. Honda NSX teams would stand on the 2nd and 3rd podium positions.
Round two was held at the historic Suzuka Circuit in late April, and the weather seemed more cooperative this time, with sunny and dry conditions. Qualifying saw the mighty 4.5 liter V-8 Nismo GTR take top slot with a 1.53 in the Super Lap session around the 5.8 kilometer circuit. Super Lap is a special session held after the initial qualifying session to allow the top teams from the earlier session one lap to better their times. The Super Lap session is also a great way to break any ties in the earlier qualifying session. Round one’s pole sitter, the Zent Cerumo SC430, was able to secure P2 even with the 10 kilogram weight penalty they carried from their achievements in round one. Position three was awarded to the Hasemi Tomica Ebbro Nissan GTR of Italian Ronnie Quintarelli and Hironobu Yasuda.
When the red lights went out to start the race, the mighty GT500 cars roared into corner one with Satoshi Motoyama’s Nismo GTR in the lead to start the 52 lap main event. Despite being hotly pursued by the Zent SC430, Motoyama maintained control of the race early on. The first round of pit stops saw feverish levels of intense action in which the Zent SC430 was passed by the Petronas SC430 and the bright blue GTR of Team Impul. With Tachikawa at the wheel, he raised the level of race intensity a bit by rifling his Zent SC430 past the Impul GTR of Sebastien Philippe at Suzuka’s famous Spoon Curve. Nearing the end of the event, the Nismo/Motul GTR appeared to have things wrapped up, when suddenly the red car began to slow on track and was immediately overtaken by the Petronas SC430. Tachikawa then overtakes the slowing Nismo GTR in an exciting pass at the 130R Curve, the wheels of his V-8 Lexus SC430 half off the track throughout the maneuver, finally completing the pass on Nismo’s Treluyer in the following chicane. Tachikawa then began to fight for first place, trying, and finally completing the pass for P1 on the Petronas SC430 piloted by Wakisaka. With four laps to go, the Arta NSX and Hasemi Nissan GTR collide; neutralizing the race and resulting in a safety car finish that handed the race win to Team Zent Cerumo and the Lexus SC430 piloted by Richard Lyons and Yuji Tachikawa.
With today’s global economic crisis causing problems for many race series the world over, it is with little wonder that sanctioning bodies in other countries are turning towards Japan’s Super GT Series to examine and explore the potential of such a series in their own homeland. As recently as late 2009, the ITR organization which oversees the running of Germany’s DTM Series, has sent a delegation to Japan to meet with members of the GTA and explore the possibility of uniting the two series in some way or form.
With the GTA having already having laid out new rules to carry Super GT into the next decade and to welcome Honda’s new Super GT contender to the scene, it is unlikely that the Japanese-based series will be willing to compromise having already received commitments from the teams that run in the Super GT to build cars to the latest specifications. However, the possibility that the ITR may adopt the rules of the GTA is a promising one indeed, as the DTM Series has seen a decline in spectators in recent years and the pull out of Opel, which left only Audi and Mercedes to contend for the DTM crown in recent seasons.
Super GT may become the savior to not just GT racing, but road racing the world over; much the way North America’s Can-Am series once did by sparking the Interseries in Europe and the special late season races held in Japan in the late 1960s. We potentially could be standing on the brink of a new “golden era” in road racing, one that just may rival those glorious days of the late 1960s.
2010 Super GT
As Japan’s Super GT series prepares for the 2010 season opener in late March at the historic Suzuka Circuit, much has transpired in the off season to build up to what may see the greatest GT series on the planet enjoy its best season yet. With driver line ups pretty much secured, the GT500 class will see the return of teams fielding veteran Super GT machines like the Lexus SC430 and the awesome Nissan GT-R. Honda, however, has unveiled a new beast; dubbed the HSV-010 GT and powered by a screaming 3.4 liter V-8 engine. The action and the drama is set to unfold for what looks to be the most fierce Super GT season in recent years, with this new gun in town being wielded by some of the best GT500 aces like Firman and Michigami.
For more information, visit the official Super GT website.
[Source: Will Silk]