Off to the races: The Super GT at Oita's Autopolis course

by Oscar Boyd

Special To The Japan Times

Drive an hour south of Fukuoka and take a right at the city of Hita and you’ll find yourself skirting the edge of Lake Bairin.

Mountains rise up from the water’s edge, the slopes crowded with cedars, and the road alternates between dense forest and sweeping panoramas of the lake. If you know where to look, you may notice a moss-stained sign that reads “Autopolis International Racing Course.”

The sign seems to be a relic, and for that matter, entirely out of place. Here, buried in the mountains on the rural border of Kumamoto and Oita prefectures, it would be madness to build such a grand racing circuit. Mad ideas, however, are sometimes entertained.

Located on the outskirts of the tiny village of Nakatsue (famed for once hosting the Cameroon national football team) lies Autopolis, a coil of hairpin turns and straights that runs nearly 5 kilometers in length.

At an expense of ¥47 billion, the course was the vision of Tomonori Tsurumaki, and first opened in 1990. Aside from his love of racing, Tsurumaki achieved international notoriety in 1989 for placing a winning, $51.3 million bid on a Picasso painting from his Tokyo hotel room, and later, for going spectacularly bankrupt in 1993.

Autopolis wasn’t just a vanity project however. The track was designed by former Honda F1 project leader Yoshitoshi Sakurai to full Formula One (F1) specifications. The circuit’s real aim: to compete with the Suzuka Circuit in Mie Prefecture for the rights to host Japan’s edition of the Grand Prix. Autopolis has changed hands numerous times since the financial demise of Tsurumaki, but since 2005 it has been under the ownership of Kawasaki Heavy Industries which, between races, uses the circuit as a test track for their superbikes.

The track has also seen racing royalty: A young Michael Schumacher won the FIA World Sportscar Championships there in 1991 and, while the facility has not yet succeeded in its original ambition to host the F1 (and likely never will), Autopolis remains one of Japan’s premier race circuits, annually hosting stages of the Super GT, Super Formula and the MFJ Superbike competitions.

The Super GT weekend is held annually and, for the two days of the competition, Autopolis thrives. Huge trucks carrying cars, tires and personnel wend their way through impossibly narrow mountain roads while fans from across Kyushu and beyond flock to the track to fill its 20,000 seats to capacity. With 45 teams preparing for the races, the paddock fills with the noise of engines, drills and pumps. Burnt out tires lie stacked beside the garages, the rubber melted and scarred from the heat of the test laps.

The line-up of cars in the paddock is almost pornographic. The Super GT is a race between the fastest production cars, kitted-out and tuned to perfection. Ferrari, Lamborghini, Porsche, Mercedes, Nissan, Honda, Lexus — name a sports car manufacturer and chances are it’s represented. The cars are split into two groups that race simultaneously: the powerful GT500 class and the less powerful GT300 class. The racing is geared toward the spectators, and every five to six laps there is spectacular chaos as the two groups of cars meet and overtake one another in a melee of metal and speed.

Masaaki Bandoh, Super GT’s chairman, watches the weekend’s proceedings from the Autopolis Control Tower, which offers sweeping panoramas of the circuit. Through interpreter Kent Tanaka, Bandoh expresses his delight at being back at Autopolis after the 2016 races were cancelled in the wake of the Kumamoto earthquakes. “Immediately after the earthquakes, I visited Autopolis to see if it would be possible to race, but it was clear the track was too damaged,” Bandoh explains. “Of course, the Super GT are supporting the recovery, and I’m very pleased the races can take place this year for the entertainment of all those affected.”

The Super GT is the first major series of races to be held at Autopolis since the earthquakes hit, but even though the races have the green light, not everything at the track is back to normal. The hospitality building, usually reserved for VIPs and guests of the race, is vacated and undergoing renovations to restore its pre-earthquake state. For now, guests wine and dine under marquees at the edge of the circuit while the cars roar past. The track itself has also changed: The new tarmac has been shaped by the contours in the earth wrought by the quake, and the cars bounce visibly as they thunder down the straight.

Autopolis is notorious for its poor weather — fog is a persistent problem — but on a clear day it is quite a sight. Nested in a bowl ringed by mountains, it has one of the greatest elevation changes of any circuit in Japan, and the strain it inflicts on tires over the 300-km-long race has earned it a Japanese nickname that translates to “crying tire course.” According to driver Jann Mardenborough (Team Impul), this makes it one of the most fun courses on the GT circuit.

Mardenborough came to the Super GT after winning GT Academy, a PlayStation-based virtual competition that provides gamers with a route into professional racing. “The track here is good fun: The elevation change and the lack of gravel traps means there’s no room for error, it’s just track and then grass and then wall. One of the drivers spun out in qualifiers. Anywhere else, the car would have been fine, but here he hit the grass and went straight into the barriers. You’ve got to pay attention, especially during circuit safari,” Mardenborough says.

“Circuit safari” is a concept unique to the Super GT, where fans are loaded into coaches and driven around the circuit while the drivers continue their test laps, affording a close-up experience of the track and the cars. Mardenborough describes the experience: “You’re entering the corner flat out from a 300-kilometer-per-hour straight and you’ve got a bus on your outside doing his thing. It’s mayhem for the drivers but unbelievable for the spectators.”

There are eight Super GT races each year — seven in Japan and, since 2014, one in Thailand. Plans to take the races further afield are ongoing and, in 2014, Super GT made arrangements with the German Touring Car Masters (DTM) to share tech regulations that will allow the cars to compete against one another. For Chairman Bandoh, expanding the races internationally is the next logical step for the Super GT. “I hope to see exhibition races in Europe and Asia in 2019 so we can open up the sport for our international fans. In the U.S., we are in discussion with the International Motor Sports Association (IMSA) about unifying tech regulations, as we have with the DTM.”

Super GT drivers operate in pairs, or for the two endurance races (Suzuka: 1,000 km; Fuji Speedway: 500 km) in teams of three, splitting the distance between them. For James Rossiter (Team TOM’S and winner of the the 2017 Autopolis Super GT), this is part of what makes the sport so enjoyable. “Super GT puts such an emphasis on teamwork because you share the load with other drivers. It’s a very pure form of racing and, as well as a constant battle between the different car manufacturers, there’s an ongoing tire war, which keeps things exciting.”

This “tire war” is a recurring theme in Super GT and, aside from the cars, it is probably the biggest factor in differentiating the sport from F1. Tire choice determines the amount of grip a car has on the track and therefore its handling. Get the tire choice wrong, and the race is over before it has begun. In F1, there are dry and wet tires, slick or treaded, soft or hard. However, all these are supplied by one company, Pirelli, meaning one car’s hard tires are the same as another’s. In Super GT, however, there are four tire manufactures: Dunlop, Yokohama, Bridgestone and Michelin, adding an extra layer of tactical complexity to the event.

As the races are about to begin, the pit teams run through their pre-race drills, practicing tire swaps at unbelievable speeds. Engines roar to life as the drivers trigger their ignitions, and the sound is echoed by the packed stands. Under the early-summer sun, the track swelters. The surrounding forests thrum with the noise of the races but, out of the valley, quiet reigns supreme. Any sign of Autopolis, the Super GT, and its legion of fans, disappears. If it wasn’t for that sign, you wouldn’t know it existed.

For large events such as the Super GT, buses run from Hita Station (round trip ¥3,000, One night’s lodging at the course: ¥11,000 (sleeps 1-6); race day tickets from ¥6,500. The next Super GT will be held on July 22-23 at Sports Land SUGO in Miyagi Prefecture.