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TOM’s Racing Triumphs With 1-2 Finish In Fuji 500 Miles

ARTA-BMW continue their reign over Fuji with season sweep in GT300

In a popular victory after 4 hours, 40 minutes and 807 kilometers of racing, the #36 au TOM’s Lexus LC500 of Kazuki Nakajima and Yuhi Sekiguchi emerged victorious in the dramatic 2018 revival of the Fuji GT 500 Mile Race, the fifth round of the Autobacs Super GT Series. Nakajima and Sekiguchi led a 1-2 finish for the famous TOM’s Racing (Lexus Team TOM’s) garage, with defending GT500 champions Ryo Hirakawa and Nick Cassidy finishing second in the #1 KeePer TOM’s LC500.

In a race filled with ups and downs over 500 grueling miles of racing, Super GT’s new summer endurance tradition at Fuji turned dramatically in the second half of the race.

From the start, the pole-winning #23 Motul Autech NISMO GT-R, started by Ronnie Quintarelli, moved out to an early advantage as the Michelin-clad GT-R showed great pace in the opening stint of the race, before pitting on Lap 31 for fuel, tyres, and to change drivers to Tsugio Matsuda.

After a great qualifying run, Matsuda, Quintarelli, and the NISMO team were determined to sweep the season at Fuji, having won the Fuji 500km in May. Tyre evolution, however, would favour the Bridgestone Potenza runners on a hot, humid summer day at Fuji – one of those being Sekiguchi in the au TOM’s LC500, who’d worked his way up into 2nd by the time he pitted on Lap 36 to switch over to teammate Nakajima.

But a problem with the left-rear tyre change proved costly, a cross-threaded wheel nut cost them time not only on their first stop, but on their second stop on Lap 73 as well. After a slow first stop, the au TOM’s LC500 fell behind what became a Nissan GT-R 1-2-3, with the Motul GT-R of Matsuda leading the #12 Calsonic Impul GT-R and the #24 Forum Engineering Advan GT-R.

Daiki Sasaki had a solid opening stint in the Calsonic GT-R, driving 33 laps before handing the wheel over to Jann Mardenborough for the second stint. It was during Mardenborough’s first stint that the Bridgestone-clad Calsonic GT-R began to roar into life, especially as the Michelin-clad Motul GT-R and the Yokohama-clad Forum Engineering GT-R began to drop in pace.

On lap 55, Mardenborough had caught Matsuda for the lead of the race, attempting a pass on the outside at TGR Corner (Turn 1). Matsuda had the preferred line coming out of the hairpin right-hand corner, and they were side-by-side coming through the fast left-hand Coca-Cola Corner – but with Mardenborough on the inside, the Calsonic GT-R took the lead of the race, and from there, the Welshman began pulling away rapidly.

By the end of the second leg, Kazuki Nakajima in the au TOM’s LC500 had also caught and passed the Motul GT-R and Forum Engineering GT-R, but a second slow stop undid all the work on Lap 73, and Sekiguchi re-emerged behind the GT-Rs, and behind the other TOM’s entry, the KeePer LC500 of Hirakawa and Cassidy, which started 7th and was now up into the top 5.

It didn’t take long for the fearless Sekiguchi to make up some of that ground lost, particularly as he slashed his way through with some brave overtakes at the Dunlop Corner, first on the Forum Engineering GT-R of Mitsunori Takaboshi on Lap 78, and then his TOM’s stablemate Cassidy on Lap 79.

At the halfway point of the race, the #12 Calsonic GT-R had built up a healthy lead of nearly 15 seconds over the rest of the field, Sasaki driving away comfortably at the head of the field before pitting on Lap 107 to give the car back to Mardenborough.

The other GT-Rs were clearly struggling for pace by this point, in particular the Motul GT-R of Matsuda & Quintarelli, which had to pit earlier than expected for its fourth stop on Lap 125, setting them up to have to stop a fifth time on Lap 149 and taking them out of podium contention. And with the time lost for the au TOM’s LC500 in the pits earlier in the race, Mardenborough was now out to a very comfortable lead of as much as 25 seconds over the field by the time he came in for the final time on Lap 142.

Mardenborough had done everything in his ability to clinch his first GT500 class victory, and Sasaki was ready to take the famous “Blue Car” home to a victory in the Fuji 500 Miles, Team Impul’s first win since the Fuji 300km in August 2016.

But on Lap 148, everything fell apart for the Calsonic team.

A broken intercooler pipe was the cause of the Calsonic GT-R suddenly slowing dramatically through the final sector of the lap and crawling agonizingly slowly around the next. They would go to the garage, and the Calsonic Team Impul mechanics would work to repair the pipe, but they had now lost two laps, and the victory for Sasaki and Mardenborough was gone, the latter inconsolable on the pit wall as the car slowed down along the front stretch. They would finish in 12th place, an unjust result for the effort the team had put in all day.

With the Calsonic GT-R now out of contention, all of a sudden the two TOM’s Lexus LC500s were now running 1st and 2nd, and after all their earlier drama in the pits, two clean stops on Laps 110 and 148 combined with the strong pace with only 30kg of Success Ballast and their more durable Bridgestone tyres had the au LC500 of Nakajima and Sekiguchi in the lead, ahead of the KeePer LC500 of Hirakawa and Cassidy.

Cassidy made one last push to try and get the gap to Sekiguchi down to under a second, but Sekiguchi drove a flawless final stint to redeem himself and his team from the final-lap heartbreak of the previous round in Buriram, Thailand, and to take the victory in the Fuji GT 500 Mile Race for Lexus Team au TOM’s.

25 championship points for the victory, and the honour of winning the first Fuji 500 Mile Race since 1992, in a brilliant combined drive for Nakajima and Sekiguchi. It’s TOM’s first Fuji 500 Mile win since 1991, with the Toyota 91C-V of Masanori Sekiya and the late Hitoshi Ogawa. It is Nakajima’s sixth career GT500 victory, his first since May 2017 at Autopolis, and for Sekiguchi, his second career GT500 win – first since Buriram in October 2016.

“I was relieved to win this race at Fuji because I thought a loss would mean the end of our season,” said Nakajima after the race. “It’s the first win for this team, and the first one-two finish for TOM’s means a happy weekend for us!”

Understandably, given his successes for Toyota in the FIA World Endurance Championship, Kazuki Nakajima has emerged as Super GT’s endurance racing standout performer in recent years – he’s now won the Fuji 500km, the Suzuka 1000km, and now the Fuji 500 Mile Race during his time in the series. This to go along with his breakthrough triumph at the 24 Hours of Le Mans in June.

“I’m very happy with this first win since moving to TOM’S this year,” said Sekiguchi. “During my stints in the beginning, middle, and then at the end of the race, I was told ‘The brakes will not be working so well,’ and particularly during my last stint I was braking much earlier than usual, letting up on the gas, stepping on the brake, really paying a lot of attention to it. This first one-two finish is really a great thing for us and the entire team.”

The 25 points for victory rocket Sekiguchi into 2nd in the GT500 Drivers’ Championship, making up more than what he potentially lost in July when he ran out of fuel on the final lap at Chang International Circuit in Thailand.

And it was a bit of a special occasion for team director Daisuke Ito, who never won a race at Fuji as a driver, but has now won the Fuji 500 Miles for the first time as a team boss.

From 7th on the grid to 2nd, despite being hampered with the “Stage 1” fuel-flow restrictor all weekend, Hirakawa and Cassidy drove brilliantly to finish second in the KeePer TOM’s LC500, picking up their third podium finish of the 2018 season. Without having won a race, Hirakawa and Cassidy now have a seven-point lead in the GT500 Championship going into the next round at Sportsland SUGO.

And, as Lexus surged to the front and Nissan’s challenge began to falter, Honda persevered to a solid day in Fuji!

The #17 Keihin NSX-GT (Koudai Tsukakoshi/Takashi Kogure) did not even get a chance to take a qualifying run due to an engine issue on Saturday, and started 14th on the grid – but that didn’t discourage Tsukakoshi and Kogure, who quietly picked their way through the field and came on strong towards the end to take the final podium position and finish 3rd, their first podium since winning at Okayama – and a critical result that puts them 9 points back of Hirakawa & Cassidy for 4th in the championship.

The #8 ARTA NSX-GT (Tomoki Nojiri/Takuya Izawa) had a quiet yet productive day, finishing fourth. And in 5th, the #100 Raybrig NSX-GT had a very eventful day – Naoki Yamamoto did a half-spin through Turn 1 that dropped him down to 14th, and Jenson Button was called in for a penalty stop for overtaking in a yellow-flag zone.

But despite that, Yamamoto and Button clawed their way back over the course of the 2nd half of the race to finish 5th, and remain 3rd in the points standings heading into Sugo.

Takaboshi and João Paulo de Oliveira salvaged sixth for the Forum Engineering Advan GT-R, best of the Nissans after a promising start to the day that crumbled over the second half of the race. The #6 Wako’s 4CR LC500 (Kazuya Oshima/Felix Rosenqvist) took home a seventh place finish just a few seconds behind them.

Just over 24 hours after their #38 ZENT Cerumo LC500 was nearly totalled in a frightening Saturday morning practice crash, Yuji Tachikawa and Hiroaki Ishiura drove valiantly to an eighth-place finish – Tachikawa driving with considerable pain in his left leg due to Saturday’s crash, and just holding off the #23 Motul GT-R of Matsuda and Quintarelli in ninth, with the #19 WedsSport Advan LC500 (Yuji Kunimoto/Kenta Yamashita) rounding off the points finishers in tenth.

In GT300, the #55 Autobacs Racing Team Aguri BMW M6 GT3 of Shinichi Takagi and Sean Walkinshaw made history with a thoroughly dominant class victory.

The pole-winning #25 Hoppy Toyota 86 MC of Takamitsu Matsui, Sho Tsuboi & Tsubasa Kondo led the first 7 laps with pole-winner Tsuboi at the wheel, but the veteran Takagi in the ARTA BMW quickly used all of the M6’s turbo-V8 horsepower to power past on Lap 8.

From there, Takagi and Walkinshaw didn’t look back, amassing a lead of nearly 50 seconds over the rest of the field, and taking the GT300 class win with 164 laps completed, giving the #55 ARTA crew multiple milestones to celebrate.

It was the first season sweep in GT300 at Fuji since 2001, with Takagi and Walkinshaw winning the Fuji 500km earlier in the year. Takagi and Walkinshaw also won the final Fuji 300km last August, giving them three consecutive victories at one track for the same team and drivers, a new GT300 class record. It’s their fourth straight victory at the summer round at Fuji, having previously won from pole in 2015 (with the Honda CR-Z GT300), 2016, and 2017.

And, for Takagi, he re-takes the all-time GT300 career wins lead with his 20th victory, becoming the first driver to reach the milestone, and his 9th career win at Fuji Speedway.

Reflecting on the victory, Takagi said: “Last race in Thailand we were running in 2nd place but a slow puncture dashed our hopes. But this time at Fuji, where I have always run well, I was able to get a new view on things and was looking forward to a good race. I thought at the very least we’d be on the podium today, but the team and Bridgestone put together a great car, making it the best possible race week.”

“I was tasked with the 2nd and 4th stints, and with the great job Takagi-san did at the start, I was able to widen the gap he made,” said Walkinshaw. “The race in Thailand left a bitter taste in my mouth, but the win in this race gets us back in the groove. I feel great now!”

Walkinshaw picks up his fourth career GT300 race victory, which have all come at Fuji Speedway since joining the series in 2016, just a week removed from a top-ten overall finish in the Spa 24 Hours.

Most importantly for their championship aspirations, the maximum 25 points for victory put Takagi and Walkinshaw into the lead of the GT300 Championship by six points, as the previous leaders, the #11 Gainer TanaX Nissan GT-R NISMO GT3 (Katsuyuki Hiranaka/Hironobu Yasuda) retired with 15 laps to go, and slumped to 4th in the standings with a 22nd place classification.

After a somewhat frustrating first half of the season, the defending GT300 champions Nobuteru Taniguchi and Tatsuya Kataoka finally came away with their first podium finish of 2018, finishing 2nd in the #0 Goodsmile Hatsune Miku Mercedes-AMG GT3. Through no fault of their own, they weren’t able to close the gap to the ARTA BMW, but this result puts the Miku AMG back into title contention.

In third, for their second podium of the season, was the #31 Toyota Prius apr GT (Koki Saga/Kohei Hirate), which made the most of double-stinting a set of Bridgestone tyres on their third stop, and were able to hold the track position gained by taking fuel only in that crucial middle stage. They were the best of the JAF-GT/Mother Chassis cars on the day.

Saga and Hirate are now second in the championship, six points behind Takagi & Walkinshaw.

The Hoppy 86 MC took multiple gambles on tyre strategy throughout the race, but their pace diminished a little bit through the race – and wasn’t helped when Tsuboi spun the car coming out of the 100R corner in his 2nd stint. With 10 laps to go, the #65 LEON Cvstos AMG (Haruki Kurosawa/Naoya Gamou) put itself behind the pink and white 86, and reminiscent of last year’s heroic overtake at the end of the Suzuka 1000km for the lead of the race, Gamou overtook Matsui for 4th place for he and Kurosawa, while the trio of Matsui, Tsuboi, and Kondo finished 5th.

The LEON AMG was one of a handful of cars that took their first pit stop very, very early in the race – but some even pitted on the end of the opening lap to effectively run a three-stop strategy. One car that had nothing to lose out of that was the #88 ManePa Lamborghini Huracán GT3 of Kazuki Hiramine & Marco Mapelli, who were sent to the back after a track limits violation during their Q1 hot lap, and started 28th. Hiramine and Mapelli made up 22 places to finish 6th, making the most of their bold strategy for Team JLOC.

The #7 D’station Porsche 911 GT3-R (Tomonobu Fujii/Sven Müller) finished seventh, the #10 Gainer TanaX triple a GT-R (Kazuki Hoshino/Hiroki Yoshida) recovered from an awkward incident with the #2 Syntium Apple Lotus Evora MC to finish 8th, the #18 UPGarage 86 MC (Yuhki Nakayama/Takashi Kobayashi) finished 9th, and the #96 K-Tunes Lexus RC F GT3 (Morio Nitta/Yuichi Nakayama) rounded off the top ten in GT300.

Among the other notables who hit trouble during the race were the #61 Subaru BRZ R&D Sport (Takuto Iguchi/Hideki Yamauchi), which retired after 20 laps with an electrical failure, and the #21 Hitotsuyama Audi R8 LMS (Richard Lyons/Ryuichiro Tomita/Takuro Shinohara), which dropped to 14th place after a puncture late in the race following a brazen pass by Lyons on Mapelli along the pit wall.

Just outside the points, the #360 RunUp Rivaux GT-R (Yusaku Shibata/Takayuki Aoki/Masataka Yanagida) came home 12th, in Shibata’s return from injury and Yanagida’s first Super GT action of 2018, and Bentley factory racer Jules Gounon helped the #117 EIcars Bentley Continental GT3 (with Yuji Ide/Ryohei Sakaguchi) to their best-ever finish in 13th.

In total, 60,400 spectators attended over two days for the Fuji 500 Mile Race – down from the Fuji 500km during the Golden Week holidays in May, but still a very healthy crowd for a mid-summer race that had plenty of drama and intrigue throughout, and an event that is now firmly entrenched as Super GT’s new endurance tradition.

The next round is 16 September at the challenging Sportsland SUGO circuit, for the 300km race that will wrap up Super GT’s “Summer Series” – at a venue that’s seen countless memorable moments throughout its 25-year history on the calendar.

GT500 FINAL RESULTS >>>

GT300 FINAL RESULTS >>>

Images courtesy of Toyota, Nissan, Honda, ARTA Project, and the GT Association (GTA)