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Jamie Klein

The tactical moves that have injected new life into Asia's GT scene

Big grids of GT3 machinery may be nothing out of the ordinary in Europe, but the sight of 36 cars assembling for the GT World Challenge Asia round at Fuji in June marked an important achievement for a championship that was forced into hibernation for two seasons during the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic.

With cross-border travel in Asia made impossible, GT Asia ground to a halt in 2020-21 before relaunching last year with a new ‘Japan Cup’ element. The idea was simple: four of that year’s initially-planned six races were held in Japan, and teams could opt to enter those races and have their own classification.

The decision to anchor the SRO-run series’ relaunch in Japan was made in late 2021, when countries like China and Thailand were still in the grip of lockdown. Sepang would hold the 2022 season opener before the first of four events in Japan and a season finale in Mandalika in Indonesia, which was ultimately cancelled. And, while only eight GT3 cars took to the track for the curtain-raiser, it was an important first step to prove to wavering teams that the series was back in business.

“We had to go somewhere where there are clients, cars and race tracks, and Japan was that place,” explains GT Asia general manager Benjamin Franassovici. “When we came to Fuji in 2017, ‘18 and ‘19, we always had a few extra cars there, so we knew there was interest.

“We gambled on Malaysia opening up in time, and it opened up three, four weeks before. We knew Sepang wouldn’t look good with eight cars. But I knew I had 20 cars committed for Fuji [the first of the four planned Japan Cup races], and you have to put cars on track to convince people that it’s really happening.”

Eight GT3s at Sepang became 16 at Suzuka, with each of the remaining rounds attracting 16-17 cars. That exponential growth continued into this year, with a bumper field of 36 cars at Fuji, 33 at Suzuka and 31 at Motegi last month, with a small contingent of GT4 cars boosting overall grid numbers further.

This year’s entry list features names that would be immediately recognisable to followers of European GT racing, with Dennis Olsen, Alessio Picariello, Matteo Cairoli, Alvaro Parente, Maximilian Gotz and Luca Stolz all in action last time out at Motegi. Rising Australian star Broc Feeney was also present in a Triple Eight-run Mercedes.

Top international GT names including Dennis Olsen, pictured with Lu Wei on the Motegi podium, bring a new dimension to the series (Photo by: SRO)

“We showed people we could deliver, that the language barrier wouldn’t be an issue for the Japanese teams,” says Franassovici. “We have the race director radio in Japanese and English, as well as the drivers’ briefing. This year we created a separate radio feed in Japanese, and we’ve hired more assistants and translators. We try to make things as friendly as possible, and it seems to be working.”

Franassovici cites two reasons for the boom in grid numbers this year: “First, China reopened overnight last year, and within a week I had Chinese teams calling me about coming back. Secondly, we have more Japan Cup cars. It was important that [Takeshi] Kimura and CarGuy won the title last year, and D’station won races, to see that they could challenge the international teams.”

While anchoring the series’ relaunch in Japan has undoubtedly been a success, it has also provided a quandary. The series has already had to turn down cars this year, capping the full-season entry at 37 (including GT4 machines) due to space limitations at certain tracks. And with more teams showing interest for 2024, the series could soon find itself with far more cars than it has available grid spots.

"The alternative is to keep the grid capped at 36 or 37 cars and turn more people away. But I’m optimistic that there is enough interest [for two grids]" Benjamin Franassovici

That’s why the SRO is now considering whether the Japan Cup could be split off from GT Asia to become its own pukka series. A standalone race will be held next season at Sugo and, depending on feedback from the teams, the option of completely splitting GT Asia and Japan Cup is on the table.

“We are working out if that’s feasible, whether we will have the numbers for both championships,” says Franassovici. “We want to look good; the numbers have to be right. We also have to buy extra track time, which costs a fortune at Fuji and Suzuka.

“The alternative is to keep the grid capped at 36 or 37 cars and turn more people away. But I’m optimistic that there is enough interest [for two grids]. We have interest from other teams from China and Australia.”

Space limitations could be eased somewhat by plans to spin off the GT4 class into its own series, with a trial race planned for this month’s Japan Cup finale at Okayama.

“It’s a chance to give GT4s a boost and give small teams a taste of the series in a simpler environment, without GT3s,” says Franassovici. “It’s about proving there’s a place for GT4 cars in Japan. Even if we only have eight cars, I wouldn’t be surprised if we get 15 or 16 cars next year.”

Franassovici says the success of Japanese squads such as D'station at Okayama last year against international teams was important for the series' growth (Photo by: SRO)

The other consideration is GT Asia’s desire to get back to a more ‘normal’ schedule with more races in other Asian countries. For example, Shanghai will hold the season finale in 2024 now that China has reopened to the world. As Franassovici is keen to underline: “We’re not a Japanese championship, we are just guests here.”

For 2024, half of the six GT Asia rounds (excluding the standalone Sugo event) will be held in Japan, and the plan is to go back to just two trips for the 2025 season, as was the case pre-COVID. But two rounds would not be enough to sustain the Japan Cup as a viable competition without adding standalone races.

Franassovici is adamant that GT Asia has no interest in stealing attention from Japan’s established Super GT and Super Taikyu series. There is no all-Pro class in GT Asia, and there are no plans for one: “I am sure Stephane [Ratel] would love to have a Pro class here, but it would not be sustainable. But we have some great Pros here, factory drivers, and some good Ams. The new wave of Chinese drivers are really serious and many of them are quick.

“We also have a format that doesn't exist anywhere else in Japan. We don’t want to challenge Super GT, and we wouldn’t be able to. Likewise Super Taikyu, they are multi-class endurance racing, we are sprint racing. We fit in very nicely.”

That said, there are clearly some Pro-Am teams using GT3 cars that are perennially stuck at the back of the field in Super GT’s lower GT300 class that would fit more naturally in the SRO environment. The new partnership with the Automobile Club de l’Ouest to co-run the Asian Le Mans Series could also offer a pathway to the Le Mans 24 Hours, which would only increase GT Asia’s attractiveness.

There are some early signs that the fans are taking notice of Japanese motorsport’s new kid on the block. The Suzuka round attracted 15,000 spectators across two days, which is more than Super Taikyu welcomed at the same venue this year. “We have a greater number of international drivers compared to Super GT, which has gone down very well with the fans,” points out Franassovici.

Whether or not it remains part of GT Asia, the Japan Cup has certainly added a much-needed splash of international colour to the country’s motorsport landscape, and has gained enough momentum to suggest it will be a fixture for many seasons to come. Let’s just hope that there isn’t another pandemic any time soon…

The 2023 campaign started in Buriram, and plans are for the championship to be less reliant on Japanese venues in future (Photo by: SRO)
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