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2019 Super GT GT500 Preview: Part 2, Lexus

After a solid showing in pre-season tests, will the Lexus LC500 write a storybook ending for Toyota’s luxury marque in Super GT’s top class?

Toyota Gazoo Racing have been one of the pillars of the Japanese motorsport world for many, many years. After 33 years of trying and frustration, Toyota finally won the Le Mans 24 Hours this past June. Their World Rally Championship programme is in championship form in just their second year back. They’ve won the Dakar Rally, they continue to be a force in NASCAR, and in the Autobacs Super GT Series, their six factory GT500 teams lead a perennial powerhouse in the premier class.

Since the fourth-generation Toyota Supra was retired as the company’s GT500 car in 2006, Toyota have been represented in GT500 by the cars of their luxury performance brand, Lexus. First it was the SC430 in 2006, then the RC F with the introduction of the Nippon Race Engine (NRE) formula in 2014, and in 2017, the current LC500 – which took a historic top-six sweep in its debut race, and won four consecutive races en route to a championship to begin its run at the top of GT500.

2019 saw the much-anticipated return of the Toyota Supra to production worldwide, and in 2020, the fifth-generation Supra will be the new GT500 car for Toyota Gazoo Racing. So this third season for the Lexus LC500 will be not only the last season for this model, but the last season for Lexus as the badge representing Toyota Motor Corporation in GT500 – the winningest manufacturer of all-time between both the Toyota and Lexus nameplates.

Lexus Gazoo Racing embark on the 2019 season having made very few changes to the team and driver lineups, as well as the LC500 itself and the RI4AG engine under the bonnet. Of their twelve GT500 drivers, nine of them – including two GT500 newcomers for 2019 – are home-grown Japanese stars developed in the Toyota Young Driver Program (TDP) from 2002 to the present.

Toyota would love to see the Lexus LC500 recapture the magic of its debut season by winning in its final year on tour – and if you’re a believer in patterns and history, then you’d have to like their chances: The fourth-generation Supra won the championship in its last season as Toyota’s flagship GT500 car in 2005, the SC430 won its farewell championship in 2013, and the previous RC F also won in its last season in 2016.

And after a positive pre-season testing period, many inside the paddock believe that Toyota and Lexus are in pole position as the early favourites for the 2019 GT500 Championships. Here’s a look at how Lexus will roll out this season.

#36 | Lexus Team au TOM’s | au TOM’s LC500 | Bridgestone | Kazuki Nakajima & Yuhi Sekiguchi

No team is more synonymous with Toyota racing in Japan than TOM’s, and the flagship number 36 is one of two cars entered by founder and owner Nobuhide Tachi. TOM’s have undergone a bit of a restructuring this season. Champion driver Daisuke Ito is still the Team Director of the #36 au TOM’s LC500, but legendary TOM’s driver Masanori Sekiya has taken a new role as Executive Director of both the 36 and 37 car in the garage next door.

Last season, the orange and white au TOM’s LC500 had a solid year as exciting sixth-year GT500 driver Yuhi Sekiguchi joined forces with Toyota’s Japanese ace Kazuki Nakajima. They took a big victory in the inaugural Super GT Fuji 500 Mile Race last August, and Sekiguchi was a championship contender all the way to the end of the season.

As for Nakajima, his defining moment of 2018 came when he took the chequered flag, and won the 24 Hours of Le Mans alongside Sébastien Buemi and Fernando Alonso. The first Japanese driver to win the race in a Japanese car, vanquishing Toyota’s 33-year Le Mans curse. Nakajima will run run a grueling total of 21 races across the World Endurance Championship, Super Formula, and Super GT this calendar year. And as it stands, Nakajima is on pace to become the first Japanese driver to become a World Champion of automobile racing in the WEC.

Because Nakajima will miss the Fuji 500km in May to honour his commitments with Toyota in the WEC, it’s most likely going to be a solo bid for the GT500 Drivers’ Championship from Sekiguchi, the fiery 31-year-old driver who took the long, winding road from Japan, to Europe and back to get to where he is today.

Sekiguchi is a brutally fast and fearless driver, one of the most aggressive wheelmen in GT500 – sometimes to a fault, as was the case when he came into needless contact with another car in the championship-deciding race in Motegi. But Sekiguchi will give every ounce of effort that he can when driving: We saw it as he wept bitter tears after running out of fuel in Buriram on the final lap, and when he fought off the sister TOM’s LC500 in the Fuji 500 Miles en route to his first victory with his new team.

Watch out as well for 19-year-old TDP prospect Ritomo Miyata to make his GT500 debut in place of Nakajima at the Fuji 500km. Miyata, a two-time FIA F4 Japanese Champion and expected front-runner for this year’s All-Japan Formula 3 Championship, made his GT300 debut last year with the LM Corsa team.

With two charismatic and experienced drivers and a team with the resources and experience to mount a championship challenge, the number 36 TOM’s car is expected to be one of the title favourites – just like the second of the two TOM’s cars…

#37 | Lexus Team KeePer TOM’s | KeePer TOM’s LC500 | Bridgestone | Ryo Hirakawa & Nick Cassidy

While the number 36 car is the one most commonly associated with TOM’s Racing and its great legacy, the number 37 Lexus Team KeePer TOM’s crew is making a genuine case to be the lead car of the only two-car operation in GT500. That case is certainly bolstered by the fact that the #37 KeePer TOM’s LC500 won the GT500 Championship in 2017, and finished a very close runner-up in 2018.

With Sekiya’s promotion to Executive Director of TOM’s, the role of Team Director has now been filled by Jun Yamada, a long-time TOM’s racing engineer taking on his first managerial role in GT500.

But almost all of the team around Director-elect Yamada remains intact from the past two seasons, including Chief Engineer Masaki Saeda, and of course, the star driver lineup of 25-year-old Ryo Hirakawa of Japan, and 24-year-old Nick Cassidy of New Zealand. Two of the best young drivers in any form of motor racing, driving together in the same car.

In 2017, Hirakawa and Cassidy became the youngest drivers to ever win the coveted GT500 Drivers’ Championship. And in 2018, they nearly became champions, with another fine season – a win at Autopolis, and a total of four podiums on the season – only to lose out in the very bitter end at the final race in Twin Ring Motegi by just a single position.

Hirakawa has been on a steady upward trajectory from the time he won both the Japanese Formula 3 and Porsche Carrera Cup titles at the age of 18. He won from pole position in just his third career GT500 start in the 2015 opener at Okayama. He is already the youngest Japanese-born GT500 Champion, and the first Japanese driver to be sponsored by Red Bull. He has multiple European Le Mans Series victories to his name.

And, still just 25 years old, Hirakawa still has the potential for many more successes in Japan – and on the international stage. That said, 2018 saw Cassidy emerge from Hirakawa’s shadow with a fantastic season of his own right. The tenacious Kiwi set the tempo for his team early on with some heated opening stints aboard the KeePer LC500, improving leaps and bounds over the past three seasons.

Cassidy is a man marching to his own tune in Japan, and he’ll benefit from having his championship-winning Formula 3 engineer Yamada with him as Team Director. Last season, Cassidy narrowly missed out on both legs of the “Double Championship” in GT500, and in Super Formula. 2019 could be an even bigger year for Cassidy as he and Ryo Hirakawa look to re-write the record books again and win back the GT500 Championship that they so narrowly relinquished last November.

#38 | Lexus Team ZENT Cerumo | ZENT Cerumo LC500 | Bridgestone | Yuji Tachikawa & Hiroaki Ishiura

The second-most successful GT500 team representing Toyota and Lexus are Team Cerumo. Last year, the #38 ZENT Cerumo LC500 of Yuji Tachikawa and Hiroaki Ishiura scored two podiums and top-ten finishes in every race, leapfrogging the #36 au TOM’s LC500 in the standings for fourth on the final day of the season.

As the greats like Juichi Wakisaka and Satoshi Motoyama have stood down, Yuji Tachikawa, at 43 years of age, is the last of his generation still racing in GT500. Tachikawa is preparing for his twenty-first consecutive season as the lead driver of Lexus Team ZENT Cerumo. It is an impressive feat of longevity and a testament to the loyalty that Tachikawa and Cerumo have invested in one another, after three GT500 Championships in two decades together.

But this season, with the retirement of previous team principal Hirohide Hamashima, Tachikawa is about to embark on a new challenge. He will be both the lead driver, and the Team Manager, for Lexus Team ZENT Cerumo. The only “player-coach” in the GT500 field, the first since 2002. Not only has Tachikawa enjoyed success as a three-time GT500 Champion driver, but as Team Director for Cerumo in Super Formula, he’s already led them to three consecutive Team and Drivers’ Championships from 2015 to 2017.

Still every bit as quick over a single qualifying lap or a long race stint as he was in his younger days, Tachikawa is on a mission for 2019 to become a record-equalling four-time GT500 Drivers’ Champion, and to do so as both a driver and manager would be very special indeed. It would also be the fourth different co-driver with which he has won a GT500 title with: Hiroaki Ishiura rejoins the team for a fifth season.

Ishiura has also made a massive long-term commitment to Cerumo away from the track, as he took a place on the company’s board of directors in January. At age 37, a time where some drivers at his level would start to decline, Ishiura is seemingly getting better with age and experience. He’s a two-time Super Formula Drivers’ Champion, and he already won the GT300 title in his debut year in 2007.

But after eleven seasons in GT500 with Lexus, and 100 career Super GT races to his name, Ishiura is still chasing his elusive first title in the premier category: Ishiura finished 3rd in 2012 with SARD, 4th in three of his first four seasons with Cerumo. Will this be the year that the late-blooming Ishiura finally wins his first GT500 title?

You’d be hard pressed to count out Lexus Team ZENT Cerumo, with the two most experienced drivers in Toyota’s fleet on board, as a title contender this season.

#39 | Lexus Team SARD | Denso Kobelco SARD LC500 | Bridgestone | Heikki Kovalainen & Yuichi Nakayama

Lexus Team SARD are another Toyota factory team with a rich racing history dating back to 1985. They are, in fact, the only Toyota team that’s competed in all 25 seasons of Super GT to date, beginning in 1994.

It was just three years ago that Lexus Team SARD finally won the GT500 Championships, ending a 22-year title drought. In the two seasons since then, the famous white and red Denso SARD LC500 has continued to win races, but in 2017 and 2018, they’ve been missing the consistency that helped power them to the titles in 2016.

A win at Buriram for the “F1 Dream Team” of Heikki Kovalainen and Kamui Kobayashi, and a stunning second place at the Fuji 500km featuring the GT500 debut of Sho Tsuboi, were offset by a non-scoring result and a DNF in the first four races, and only a best finish of 8th in the last four. The team has been reorganised in the offseason: Their 2016 championship-winning Chief Engineer, Kotaro Tanaka, is back, and Yuji Saiki is the new Team Director.

Heikki Kovalainen is already preparing for his fifth GT500 campaign with SARD – he’s already become part of the regular fabric of Super GT! The Finnish Flash shot down mild suggestions of leaving the series, and has actually made a deeper commitment to spending more time with the braintrust at Toyota and Lexus in Japan. Heikki-san helped lead SARD to their first GT500 titles in 2016, now he wants to help them back to the top of the mountain.

The question to be answered after Kobayashi departed the series after just one season: How do you replace an LMP1 superstar, an F1 cult hero, a Le Mans lap record holder, and the newest winner of the 24 Hours of Daytona?

Enter 27-year-old TDP graduate Yuichi Nakayama. After winning the 2013 All-Japan Formula 3 Championship, and racking seven victories in the last four seasons racing in GT300, it looked as if Nakayama would never get a chance to race for Lexus in GT500 as younger TDP prospects jumped the queue in front of him. Now the departure of Kobayashi has finally opened a door for Nakayama to seize his first chance in the premier class of Super GT.

A re-focused veteran in Kovalainen, a determined newcomer in Nakayama – can they come together and turn around the recent fortunes of the Denso LC500 of Team SARD?

#6 | Lexus Team LeMans Wako’s | Wako’s 4CR LC500 | Bridgestone | Kazuya Oshima & Kenta Yamashita

Lexus Team LeMans Wako’s have traditionally been strong starters out of the gates in GT500. In the four days of official testing between Okayama and Fuji, the blue and pink number 6 Wako’s 4CR LC500 set the fastest time on two of those test days.

The 2018 season started with similar promise for Team Director Juichi Wakisaka, Team LeMans’ ace driver Kazuya Oshima, and new recruit Felix Rosenqvist – they tested well and finished fourth in the opening race at Okayama. But just two weeks later, Team LeMans were rocked by the sudden and tragic death of their beloved Chief Engineer, Kenji Yamada. Though they stood on the podium at Buriram, the Wako’s team failed to notch a top-five finish in the last four races, and faded out of the title chase.

Team LeMans are ready to turn the page on a fraught 2018 and look to 2019 with renewed confidence. The charismatic three-time GT500 Champion driver Wakisaka will once again lead his team, hoping to end a winless drought of over five seasons dating back to November 2013.

Their professional void in the Chief Engineer role has been filled by former Team Mugen engineer Kazuya Abe – a massive coup for Team LeMans to bring in the man who oversaw defending GT500 Champion Naoki Yamamoto’s concurrent Super Formula championship run.

Entering his ninth season with Team LeMans, it’s hard to believe that Kazuya Oshima is already 100 races into his Super GT career, just before his 32nd birthday! Shortly after debuting in 2006 as an 18-year-old, Oshima won the GT300 title in 2007. And while he’s had success in GT500 in the past ten seasons, Oshima is still missing a premier class title of his own – his best championship results to date are second in 2016, third in 2017.

With Rosenqvist departing to an already stellar rookie campaign in the IndyCar Series, 23-year-old Kenta Yamashita now joins the Wako’s team for his second full season in GT500. Yamashita might be one of the most exciting young Japanese drivers to emerge within the last five years: A Japanese Formula 3 Champion, a star performer at the Macau Grand Prix, a race winner in GT300, and in his rookie GT500 season last year with WedsSport Team Bandoh, two podium finishes.

Yamashita is ready to make a massive step forward this season, Oshima and Wakisaka are ready to get Team LeMans back to their winning ways. There’s a lot to look forward to out of this squad in 2019.

#19 | Lexus Team WedsSport Bandoh | WedsSport Advan LC500 | Yokohama | Yuji Kunimoto & Sho Tsuboi

The only Lexus GT500 team running on Yokohama Advan tyres are Lexus Team WedsSport Bandoh, the dark horses of the Lexus fleet. Success has been fleeting over their first eight seasons in GT500, having enjoyed multiple championship successes as Racing Project Bandoh in GT300.

Recently, however, that’s starting to change. They won their first GT500 race in 2016, and after a tough 2017 season, they rebounded nicely in 2018 with two podium finishes at Buriram and at Autopolis. Masataka Bandoh, son of team founder and GTA chairman Masaaki, will once again lead the famous blue and gold WedsSport LC500 into battle this season with two excellent young drivers.

2019 will be Yuji Kunimoto’s eighth GT500 campaign, his fourth with the WedsSport team. Kunimoto has already enjoyed success at the highest levels of Japanese auto racing. In 2016, the same year he drove Team Bandoh to their first GT500 win, Kunimoto won the Super Formula Championship seemingly from nowhere.

He hasn’t quite had the success over the last two seasons that he’d have wished for. Kunimoto is still young, however, at just 28 years of age. And he’s one of a number of young drivers that have driven for Lexus Team WedsSport Bandoh in recent years, just like his former co-drivers Yuhi Sekiguchi, Kenta Yamashita – and now his newest co-driver, 23-year-old Sho Tsuboi.

The arrival of “Sho-time” means the arrival of yet another exciting, can’t miss, future champion from the TDP system. Four years ago, Tsuboi won the inaugural FIA F4 Japanese Championship. In 2018, Tsuboi won a record 17 out of 19 races en route to a dominant All-Japan Formula 3 Championship victory. He’s already won races in GT300, and nearly won in a one-off GT500 debut last May at the Fuji 500km.

Kunimoto’s experience will only help Tsuboi’s rapid progression in his first full-time GT500 campaign – how well the Yokohama Advan tyres are suited to the rigours of racing versus the rest of the Lexus fleet on Bridgestone will go a long way in determining how they’ll progress in 2019.

Testing pictures by Pierre-Laurent Ribault (Twitter/Instagram: @plribault)

Feature image courtesy of Toyota Motor Corporation