PREVIEW: GT3 Field heads to Suzkua for 10 Hour

Suzuka

FOLLOWING the Liqui-Moly Bathurst 12 Hour and the 24 Hours of Spa, the Intercontinental GT Challenge moves on to Asia next weekend (August 24-26) when the inaugural Suzuka 10 Hours unites GT3 supercars, teams and drivers from around the world and across Japan for the first time.

Audi leads both the Manufacturers’ and Drivers’ standings from Mercedes-AMG at the season’s halfway mark, but that could all change at one of the world’s toughest circuits, and especially one so rarely visited by teams and drivers based in Europe. Instead, it could be the domestic and regional outfits nominated to score points who make the difference during the 47th Summer Endurance Race.

Japan’s most prestigious long-distance event has featured several formats and championships since its debut in 1966. However, this year’s race will be the longest in its history, with drivers racing into the sunset and finishing after dusk following Sunday’s mid-morning start.

What’s more, the event’s prestige has seen teams and drivers from the country’s two premier sportscar series – Super GT and Super Taikyu – join those from Asia, Europe, North America, Australia and Africa lured by the challenge of racing on Suzuka’s unique figure-of-eight layout.

As such, 15 of the 35 entries are nominated to score points by Intercontinental GT Challenge’s five full-season manufacturers – Audi, Bentley, McLaren, Mercedes-AMG and Porsche – while two more include individuals contesting the Bronze Drivers’ title.

Audi extended its Manufacturers’ advantage to seven points by winning at Spa but faces a renewed threat next weekend when its four R8 LMS GT3s go up against six from nearest rivals Mercedes-AMG. Their response has been to nominate three teams with previous experience of Suzuka: Super GT stalwarts Audi Team Hitotsuyama as well as Team WRT and Absolute Racing, both of which visited Suzuka earlier this year with Blancpain GT Series Asia.

The absence of current Drivers’ championship leader Robin Frijns has also prompted Audi to shuffle its line-ups. Christopher Haase and Markus Winkelhock, who scored full points at Spa, are joined at Absolute Racing by Kelvin van der Linde, while Frederic Vervisch moves to Team WRT alongside Dries Vanthoor and Christopher Mies.

But also keep a close eye on Alessio Picariello who joins Richard Lyons and Ryuichiro Tomita at Team Hitotsuyama. The Belgian claimed pole position in Blancpain GT Series Asia’s Pro session at Suzuka last season.

Like Audi, Mercedes-AMG’s line-ups feature plenty of previous Suzuka experience, with four nominated cars eligible to score Manufacturers’ points and a further two eligible for Bronze title points. Maxi Goetz, who lines up in one of Strakka Racing’s two AMG-supported entries, won with similar machinery at Suzuka last season, while the team he triumphed with – GruppeM Racing – already work with Raffaele Marciello in Blancpain GT Series Asia.

In the Drivers’ championship, Marciello and Tristan Vautier, who joins the Italian at GruppeM along with Maro Engel, are currently just four points behind Frijns whose DTM commitments have forced him to skip Suzuka.

However, it’s Team Good Smile’s all-Japanese crew of Nobuteru Taniguchi, Tatsuya Kataoka and ex-Formula 1 driver Kamui Kobayashi who will likely pose the biggest threat of all. Don’t let the team’s pink anime livery fool you: it also adorned the Super GT300 title-winning Mercedes-AMG last season, while the same model (albeit run by a different team) scored class victory at Suzuka’s 46th Summer Endurance Race.

Like its German rivals, Porsche will run four eligible Intercontinental GT Challenge entries at Suzuka in a bid to reduce its Manufacturers’ Championship deficit, which currently stands at 31 points.

Manthey Racing needs no introduction and neither does its driver line-up, which features the all-Platinum trio of Romain Dumas, Dirk Werner and 2013’s outright Suzuka winner Frederic Makowiecki. Porsche Asia Pacific’s official partner team, Craft-Bamboo Racing, also packs a punch with junior driver Mathieu Jaminet joining this year’s Le Mans 24 Hours GTE Pro class winners Laurens Vanthoor and Kevin Estre, while Super GT300 outfit D’Station Racing has partnered its full-season line-up of Tomonobu Fujii and Sven Müller with Porsche factory star, Earl Bamber.

Just a single 650S GT3 travels to Suzuka but its young driver line-up is a familiar one: after being split between two entries at Spa, Garage 59’s regular Blancpain GT Series Endurance Cup trio of Ben Barnicoat, Come Ledogar and Andrew Watson are reunited in Japan where McLaren boasts a rich history in GT racing. Indeed, F1 GTRs claimed back-to-back Summer Endurance Race wins in 1995 and 1996 when the 1000km event was part of the BPR Global GT Series.

After starting the season with its previous model, Bentley’s new Continental GT3 made its Intercontinental GT Challenge debut last month at Spa where late-race issues curtailed Jules Gounon, Steven Kane and Jordan Pepper’s victory bid. The trio are reunited at Suzuka next weekend in one of Bentley Team M-Sport’s two cars, the second of which is driven by the familiar crew of Andy Soucek, Max Soulet and Vincent Abril. Bentley, like Audi, are yet to win Suzuka’s Summer Endurance Race. Could that change in 2018?

SUZUKA 10 HOURS TIMETABLE (JST)

Thursday 23 August
11:30 – 13:00: Parade and public scrutineering
16:15 – 18:15: Paid Practice 1

Friday 24 August
09:40 – 11:40: Paid Practice 2
13:50 – 15:50: Free Practice 1
18:30 – 20:00: Free Practice 2

Saturday 25 August
13:00 – 13:15: Qualifying 1
13:30 – 13:45: Qualifying 2
14:00 – 14:15: Qualifying 3
14:45 – 15:00: Pole Shootout

Sunday 26 August
08:00 – 08:20: Warm-up
10:00 – 20:00: Race