Japan’s premier sportscar series was originally meant to visit eight different venues this year, but instead it will now hold a full calendar of events across just three tracks: Fuji Speedway, Suzuka and Twin Ring Motegi.
What’s more, Fuji will be playing host to no fewer than four of the eight races. And with so many points up for grabs at the Toyota-owned venue, beginning with next weekend’s opening race, whoever comes out on top this year will surely have excelled there.
The headline laptimes from the two-day pre-season test at Fuji last month suggest that Honda has a small edge over Toyota, with Nissan trailing some way behind. Tadasuke Makino set the fastest time over the two days in the #100 Team Kunimitsu Honda NSX-GT during the 10 minutes of GT500-only track time on Day 1, fractionally ahead of Sacha Fenestraz in the best of the all-new Toyota GR Supras, the #36 TOM’S car.
#23 MOTUL AUTECH GT-R
Starting with NISMO, Quintarelli and Tsugio Matsuda have an exceptional record at Fuji since being paired together in the flagship Motul-sponsored GT-R in 2014. In 12 attempts, they’ve been on pole four times (including the last three runnings) and won three times, with a total of seven podiums. They’ve never failed to qualify in the top three there since 2017, so it’s small wonder Quintarelli describes Fuji as “like a home track”.
#36 au TOM'S GR Supra
Kazuki Nakajima and Yuhi Sekiguchi won the 2018 Fuji 500-miler in the #36 car, although only after the leading Impul Nissan of Jann Mardenborough and Daiki Sasaki suffered a loss of power. The pair lost a likely podium in the same race last year thanks to an ill-advised move in traffic from Nakajima, who this year is replaced by GT500 rookie Fenestraz.
In the #37 side of the TOM’S garage, Nick Cassidy and Ryo Hirakawa have been on the podium twice at Fuji since being paired up in 2017. They could have taken a further two rostrums last year, but they got tangled up in an accident with the Impul Nissan in the first race, before being shuffled back to fourth in the 500-miler thanks to the lucky safety car pitstop that gifted LeMans pair Kenta Yamashita and Kazuya Oshima the win.
#100 RAYBRIG NSX-GT
But, despite having a lousy qualifying average of 10.3 in their four Fuji races together, Yamamoto and Jenson Button tended to perform well in the races aboard the #100 Team Kunimitsu Honda. They lost a podium, perhaps even a win, in the 2018 500-mile race because of a stop-and-go penalty, before taking third in the first Fuji race last year and second in the 500-miler behind the very fortunate LeMans Lexus.
That said, Honda would definitely have to be regarded as the main 'loser' of the changes to the schedule. While honours have been shared relatively evenly at Suzuka and Motegi in recent years, several of the tracks that SUPER GT will not be visiting this year are Honda strongholds - most notably Okayama, where NSX-GTs have won the last two years (including a one-two in 2018) and also scored taken two of the last three poles.
In addition, Hondas have taken the last three pole positions at both Sugo and Autopolis, although on only one of those six occasions did the Sakura-based marque translate that into victory. That was the occasion of Button's one and only SUPER GT win at Sugo in 2018, when the #100 car led home a Honda one-two.
Of course, given all three manufacturers have new cars this year to coincide with the new rules, past form could end up counting for little. But, a look at the history books would indicate that, despite their low-key Fuji testing showing, you would be wise not to dismiss the prospects of either NISMO or Cerumo (both cars #38 and #14) this season.