Long SUPER GT races are great – so let’s have more of them

A pulsating final stint in the Fuji 500km earlier this month has left Jamie Klein wondering how SUPER GT might be able to find ways to recreate that drama more regularly throughout the season.

Long SUPER GT races are great – so let’s have more of them

With the cancellation of this weekend’s Suzuka 300km, SUPER GT fans have a long wait ahead until the next round of the series at Motegi in July. But at least it gives us more time to reflect on and fully digest what was a thrilling second round of the season at Fuji Speedway.

Looking back on the race, one thing is worth bearing in mind: had it been a normal 300km, 65-lap affair around Fuji Speedway, it wouldn’t have been anywhere near as exciting. Because the tendency is for teams to pit as early as possible to avoid being caught out by a caution, the first-ever Full Course Yellow on lap 31 probably wouldn't have had the effect that it did.

But, because the Golden Week fan favourite race was 500km long, we were treated to so much extra drama. As Bertrand Baguette admitted post-race, watching teammate Koudai Tsukakoshi from the touchlines during the final stint, he had no idea where the winning #17 Real Racing Honda NSX-GT would finish; at one point it looked like the pair may not have even made the podium.

#17 Astemo NSX-GT

#17 Astemo NSX-GT

Photo by: Masahide Kamio

Most of what made the race so memorable – Sho Tsuboi’s TOM’S Toyota failing to get back up to speed after the final FCY; Nirei Fukuzumi’s late drive-through penalty in the ARTA Honda; the battles between those two cars and the Real Honda, as well as Ryo Hirakawa’s late charge in the other TOM’S GR Supra – occurred in the final stint.

And perhaps that shouldn’t be a surprise. Longer races mean more pitstops and therefore strategy options, changing track conditions (the ambient temperature decreased by 12 degrees across the course of the three hours), and drivers getting tired and inevitably making errors. Teams starting lower down the order have more chance to recover (exemplified by the Kunimitsu Honda squad recovering from 15th and last on the grid to a strong fourth).

So, it’s a crying shame that the Fuji 500km was the only race planned this season longer than the standard 300km race distance.

Admittedly, there have usually been two longer races on a typical SUPER GT schedule in recent years, with the Suzuka 1000km traditionally filling the role of the ‘other’ enduro before making way for a second, 500-mile Fuji event in 2018. Both this and the Golden Week fixture were scrapped for 2020 because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

#1 STANLEY NSX-GT

#1 STANLEY NSX-GT

Photo by: Masahide Kamio

But I am not merely suggesting reinstating the Fuji 500 miles or Suzuka 1000km on the calendar as soon as is practicable. SUPER GT should go a step further and aim to have more variation in terms of race distance in the future, with as many as four longer races.

During the pre-race press conference at Fuji, GTA chairman Masaaki Bandoh suggested that the standard race distance would be increased from 300km to 350km next season, supposedly in the name of promoting fuel efficiency as part of a move towards a greener future for SUPER GT. But, while that aim is to be lauded, it’s hard to see how 350km races are going to help.

Modern GT500 cars are capable of 200km with a single tank of fuel without any need for aggressive fuel-saving, with the GT300 cars able to go even further. Even around Fuji Speedway, with its massive start/finish straight, we saw cars complete stints as long as 44 laps (200.7km) in this month’s 500km, admittedly with a little help from FCY periods.

In a standard 300km race, that means only a tank-and-a-half of fuel is needed to complete the race, and the current rule that dictates the pitlane is closed during a safety car or FCY period means that teams almost universally aim to do a short a first stint as possible in order to avoid being caught out by a caution. The fuel window is now pretty much in line with the de facto one-third race distance minimum drive-time rule.

#19 WedsSport ADVAN GR Supra

#19 WedsSport ADVAN GR Supra

Photo by: Masahide Kamio

Increasing that to 350km will not change a great deal, and certainly will do nothing to promote fuel efficiency unless the fuel tank size is decreased (something which Bandoh indicated will not be the case). Teams will simply use more fuel, increasing the length of the first stint from somewhere around the one-third mark to a little over 40 percent.

If the aim is to promote fuel efficiency, then the only solutions are either to go down the Super Formula path and make races just about short enough to be completed on a single tank, and scrap refuelling entirely, or, more feasibly, increase standard race distances to around 420km.

A 420km race would mean either two 210km stints, which is on the limit for the current GT500 engines, or a splash-and-dash towards the end of the race, but the time loss of doing the latter would be so prohibitive as to force manufacturers to increase their fuel mileage. But, if you’re going to have a 420km race, why not make it a nice round 500km and lock in two-stop strategies, with all the attendant drama the increased race distance brings?

Doing 500km races across the season would likely be intolerable from a cost perspective, and the novelty value of longer events would also be lost. So, my suggestion would be to offset the costs with some 200km races.

#60 SYNTIUM LMcorsa GR Supra GT

#60 SYNTIUM LMcorsa GR Supra GT

Photo by: Masahide Kamio

Yes, cars could easily complete these 'Super Sprints' on a single tank, but it doesn’t matter: the maximum drive-time rule disallows a ‘no-stop’ strategy. You would also see teams complete these races on a single set of tyres, which has extra cost and environmental benefits.

A season with two 500km races, two 420km races and four 200km races gives a total mileage of 2640km, only slightly higher than the 2600km planned for 2021. And if teams are willing to go back to the kind of mileage they were doing in 2017 (3250km), then discussions could be had about bringing back the Suzuka 1000km or another similarly long race.

But there’s no reason the SUPER GT couldn’t get even more creative. Why not mandate third drivers for one of the 500km races, or put one of the ‘Super Sprints’ on Suzuka’s short East Course? To take a leaf out of the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship book, GT300 teams could also be given a separate ‘Sprint Cup’ comprising just the four short races to fight for, a move that would considerably lower the bar to entry for new teams.

SUPER GT is fortunate to have such a loyal fanbase in Japan, but their continued support should never be taken for granted. Anything to promote variety and keep things fresh should be encouraged, but race distances would be a good place as any to start.

Motorsport.tv will show the entire 2021 SUPER GT season live. Available worldwide except Japan. Click here for more information.

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