The season finale to the 2018 Autobacs Super GT Series promised an incredible battle for the championship, and it delivered on all fronts, with the victory going to the #100 Raybrig Honda NSX-GT of Naoki Yamamoto and Jenson Button taking home a third-place finish to secure Team Kunimitsu’s very first championship in Super GT.
To end team manager Kunimitsu Takahashi’s 25-year wait to win the GT500 title as a team owner for the first time, the race came down to a heads-up battle between his car, and the #1 KeePer TOM’s Lexus LC500 of defending champions Ryo Hirakawa and Nick Cassidy.
Yamamoto spent the first leg of the race behind race leader Takuya Izawa in the pole-winning #8 ARTA NSX-GT, another of the four championship-contending teams going into this final 53-lap race around the 4.8 kilometer Motegi circuit. Once Izawa pitted on Lap 19 to yield to co-driver Tomoki Nojiri, Yamamoto cycled to the lead, and eventually, Cassidy, the young Kiwi, moved up to in 2nd in the KeePer LC500.
Yamamoto and Cassidy ran in that order at the very last race of the Japanese Super Formula Championship, three weeks ago at Suzuka Circuit, with Yamamoto winning the race – and the title – by less than a second. The gap was much larger this time round, Yamamoto had 9 seconds in hand over Cassidy.
Then on Lap 30, both the Raybrig NSX and KeePer LC500 pitted. Team Kunimitsu serviced the Raybrig NSX in 37.5 seconds, and TOM’s serviced the KeePer LC500 in 36.7 seconds. The Honda came out ahead with a distinct advantage in track position, and Jenson Button, the 2009 Formula 1 World Champion, was set to go to the end of the race in a position to win the championship in his very first season as a Super GT driver.
Button saw an opportunity to go on the offensive and leave nothing to chance, as he chased down Hiroaki Ishiura in the #38 ZENT Cerumo LC500 for 2nd place. Ishiura was not about to yield his position, and to his credit, the veteran Ishiura put on an absolute defensive driving masterclass to prevent Button and the Raybrig NSX from moving up any further than 3rd place.
While that was going on, Ryo Hirakawa, the 24-year-old phenom of Japanese motor racing, was on a charge in his closing stint aboard the #1 KeePer LC500, looking to defend the title and make himself and Cassidy the youngest duo of back-to-back champions in series history. Hirakawa made quick, though not quick as he’d have liked, work of the #19 WedsSport Advan LC500 (Yuji Kunimoto/Kenta Yamashita) and the #6 Wako’s 4CR LC500 (Kazuya Oshima/Felix Rosenqvist) ahead of him.
That left just the #64 Epson Modulo NSX-GT of Kosuke Matsuura (with Bertrand Baguette) between Hirakawa and Button.
Hirakawa made what may be the single boldest pass of the season at Turn 5 on Lap 37 when he slashed his way through Matsuura, using every inch of the road he was left with and even making contact with the Honda on exit, but ultimately making the pass to put only the open road, and the occasional GT300 backmarker, between himself and the Raybrig NSX of Button. The battle was now on.
Within a span of five laps, Hirakawa cut down the margin to Button from 5.8 seconds down to just 1.7 seconds with 10 laps to go. In another two laps, that gap was now down to less than a second. Button had to play defence, Hirakawa had to go on an all-out attack, and in doing so they each had to fight off waves of slower traffic, the one aspect where Hirakawa, 14 years the junior of Button, had the experience advantage over the man in his first full year of endurance sports car racing.
When they hit the top 3 runners in the GT300 class, that closed the gap even closer, down to less than half a second. Button could see his title adversary in the mirror, knowing that if he gave Hirakawa an opening to overtake, the championship would be lost.
Button had been battle-tested in seventeen-plus seasons of F1 experience, and against a truly F1-caliber pursuant in Hirakawa, he had just enough left in reserve to maintain a steady margin, as the Bridgestone tyres on the white and blue KeePer LC500 had lost enough of their maximum grip to drop off the bumper of the blue and black Honda ahead.
Very quietly, the #8 ARTA NSX-GT of Nojiri and Izawa won their second race of the 2018 season, picking up the hat trick of winning from pole with the fastest lap, and having done so by holding off the #38 ZENT Cerumo LC500 of Ishiura and Yuji Tachikawa by 1.806 seconds at the line.
But the eyes of the crowd at Twin Ring Motegi were transfixed not upon the battle for the race, but for the championship lap of Button, Yamamoto, and Team Kunimitsu’s #100 Raybrig NSX, which finished 3rd, to claim the first titles for the team and their two drivers. The gap between Button and Hirakawa was 1.576 seconds in the end.
In parc ferme on the main straightaway, the emotions overcame 30-year-old Yamamoto in his post-race interview with Jiro Takahashi as the weight of his accomplishments in 2018 sank in. Yamamoto became the first driver since 2004, and only the fourth driver ever, to win both the GT500 Championship in Super GT, and the Japanese Top Formula Championship (Super Formula), in the same calendar year. Yamamoto’s first Super GT title in nine seasons, winning with the team who first signed him as a 21-year-old Formula 3 champion in 2010.
Button was the first to congratulate his teammate and everyone else before himself in his incredible accomplishment, becoming the first driver since Toranosuke Takagi in 2005, and only the fourth driver ever including ‘96 champions John Nielsen and David Brabham, to win the GT500 Drivers’ Championship in their first season.
And after finishing 2nd in 2006, 3rd in 2007, and 3rd in 2015, after 25 years of trying, Kunimitsu Takahashi, the invincible iron man of Japanese motorsport, finally guided his team, and his famous number 100 Raybrig Honda, to the ultimate prize in Super GT: A series championship a quarter-century in the making. This was also the fourth GT500 crown for Honda, their first since 2010, and one emblematic of their rise from their winless 2016 campaign that saw all five Honda teams occupy the bottom of the championship tables.
Hirakawa and Cassidy in fourth gave everything that they could to win the title, despite falling 3 points short. A valiant effort that someone like three-time Le Mans champion André Lotterer – himself a Super GT champion with TOM’s, and a guest of the team today at Motegi, would be proud of. Good health and fortune willing, the futures are bright, and many championships await Hirakawa and Cassidy in the years to come.
TOM’s made an effort across both sides of the garage to win the title. The #36 au TOM’s LC500 of Kazuki Nakajima and Yuhi Sekiguchi had to come all the way back from 15th on the grid to have any hope of winning the title. Nakajima, just five months removed from winning the 24 Hours of Le Mans with Toyota, showed his class as he gained nine spots by the time he pitted on Lap 22 to yield to Sekiguchi.
But with 6 laps to go, Sekiguchi came to blows with the Epson NSX of Matsuura, and unlike Hirakawa’s forceful yet clean pass for position, Matsuura ended up being spun out of 6th place, and Sekiguchi received a final drive-through penalty for his efforts to demote the au LC500 to 13th in the race, and 5th in the standings, behind race winners Nojiri & Izawa, and runners-up Tachikawa & Ishiura.
In GT300, the right combination of strategies, setup, track position, and savvy driving helped the #65 LEON Cvstos Mercedes-AMG GT3 of Haruki Kurosawa & Naoya Gamou win the race for the second year in a row at Motegi, and with it, win the championship by overhauling a 12-point deficit on the final race of the season.
It’s a reversal even bigger than Masataka Yanagida & Kazuki Hoshino coming from 11 points back to win the GT300 title in 2010, or the 9 points that Kyosuke Mineo & Naoki Yokomizo overturned in 2012 – both times at Motegi. And it seemed quite far-fetched until the end of Lap 19, when the #88 ManePa Lamborghini Huracán GT3 (Kazuki Hiramine/Marco Mapelli), which had cruised away to a comfortable lead in the class, blew a left rear tyre.
As they came in, so too did the black LEON AMG, which spent most of the opening stint fending off a strong challenge from the #31 Toyota Prius apr GT of Kohei Hirate. And when switching drivers from Kurosawa to Gamou, the team made the call to take fuel only, and not change tyres. The #0 Goodsmile Hatsune Miku AMG of Nobuteru Taniguchi and Tatsuya Kataoka were also in the championship hunt, and they pitted the following lap, changing only left-side tyres instead of all four. Taniguchi was good to go til the end.
Meanwhile, the #31 Toyota Prius of Hirate, in the car’s swansong race, stayed out several more laps, before finally pitting on Lap 32. Following the trend of the two Silver Arrows customer teams, the Prius took fuel only and switched drivers to Koki Saga.
Also running long was the #55 ARTA BMW M6 GT3 of Shinichi Takagi and Sean Walkinshaw, the odds-on title favourites who needed only to finish on the podium from 10th on the grid to wrap up the title no matter what any of the other contenders were able to do. Takagi, pursuing his first GT300 Drivers’ Championship since 2002, put in 33 laps before handing the baton to Walkinshaw. And they too also went ahead and took fuel only, without changing tyres.
But Walkinshaw gained no track position out of the team’s bold gamble. They were already set to see the title slip away as they ran in 7th, and when the #7 D’station Porsche 911 GT3-R (Tomonobu Fujii/Sven Müller) overtook them and demoted the orange BMW to 8th, that all but sealed their fate.
Up front, however, Gamou was comfortably pacing the LEON AMG at the head of the pack, with a comfortable lead margin to work with. Despite a late surge from the Prius of Saga and the Miku AMG of Taniguchi, the black Mercedes held onto the win, securing K2 R&D LEON Racing’s first GT300 Championship after seven seasons, and back-to-back GT300 titles for Mercedes as a manufacturer.
No one would have felt prouder than Haruki Kurosawa, who helped start the team up in 2012, and whose father Motoharu won the very first Japanese Top Formula Championship in 1973 – after 15 seasons and two runner-up finishes in 2005 and 2017, Kurosawa finally wins his first GT300 Drivers’ Championship. It is also the first for Gamou, the perfect way for him to celebrate his 29th birthday, and solidify his place as one of the best young homegrown talents racing in GT300.
Saga and Hirate took the mid-engined Prius GT to second in its last race, with a front-engined successor reportedly waiting in the wings for 2019. And though Taniguchi & Kataoka fell short of winning a fourth GT300 title for Goodsmile Racing & Team UKYO, another podium finish in third continues to solidify their place as, arguably, the best GT300 team of all-time. The #55 ARTA M6 of Takagi and Walkinshaw ultimately finished 9th in class, missing the championship by 6 points.
These gladiators of the racing arena gave us everything over seven months, eight rounds, and over 3,000 kilometers of racing across Japan and even once in Thailand. The Autobacs Super GT Series signed off 2018 with two of the best teams and four of the best drivers in all of the world competing for the championship, right to the very end of the very last race.