Powering through a marathon that started in a pouring rainstorm and ended three and a half hours later after 110 laps, it was Yuji Tachikawa and Hiroaki Ishiura who took the victory in the 37th running of the Fuji GT 500km Race for the #38 ZENT Cerumo Lexus LC500. A landmark achievement for the 44-year-old lead driver and general manager of Lexus Team ZENT Cerumo, Tachikawa, who took his record-shattering ninth career victory at Fuji Speedway, and his fifth in the Fuji 500km, a new record for the Golden Week classic. In addition, the victory was the fourth in this event for his 38-year-old co-driver Ishiura.
But it was never a sure thing, from 7th on the grid in rapidly changing conditions.
On the morning of the race, a crowd of over 50,000 race fans entered the gates at Fuji Speedway expecting clear, sunny skies to blanket them when the race got underway just after 2:30 PM in the afternoon. Instead, dark clouds rolled over the circuit just before the morning warm-up, and rain began to fall on the circuit with a half-hour to go before the start of the race.
The rain intensified, and for the second time in as many races to open the 2019 Autobacs Super GT Series, the Honda NSX Safety Car was called upon to lead the first two out of 110 laps. Eventually, the racing did begin on the third lap, with the #23 Motul Autech NISMO GT-R of Ronnie Quintarelli leading the field of 44 cars to the green flag. He was followed closely by Nick Cassidy in the #37 KeePer TOM’s LC500, and as the leaders approached Dunlop Corner for the first time, all it took was Quintarelli to overshoot the corner just a touch to let Cassidy through for the lead before the end of the first green flag lap.
By this point, Tachikawa in the #38 ZENT LC500 was already up to third place, having passed the #12 Calsonic Impul GT-R of Daiki Sasaki. On Lap 7, the trio of Cassidy, Quintarelli, and Tachikawa were tail-to-nose. Quintarelli re-passed Cassidy out of the 100R corner for the lead, and two laps later, Tachikawa made his move for 2nd past Cassidy at TGR Corner (Turn 1), setting out on running down Quintarelli for the lead. Coming out of the final corner with the slipstream on Quintarelli, Tachikawa took the lead from 7th on the grid into Turn 1 with a well-timed inside lunge on the Italian.
But this furious and frantic three-way scramble for the lead came to an end when the Safety Car came out on Lap 13, as not only did the rain worsen, but lightning was striking down the nearby town of Oyama. For the second race in a row in 2019, the race was red-flagged due to inclement weather. But unlike the opening race at Okayama International Circuit, the rain clouds eventually left, and after a half-hour under a red flag, the race resumed from Lap 16 and went green again on the start of Lap 19.
The restart order of the Top 3 was Tachikawa, ahead of Quintarelli, ahead of Cassidy in 3rd. The Michelin tyres on the #23 Motul GT-R weren’t able to get up to temperature as quickly as the Bridgestones on the Lexus around him, and the Kiwi Cassidy made quick work by passing Quintarelli right out of Turn 1 on Lap 19. Now it was a Lexus 1-2, to the delight of the Toyota brass that runs the circuit, and Cassidy only needed Tachikawa to run wide at GR Supra Corner (Turn 15) to dive into the lead.
After falling into the clutches of the rival Calsonic GT-R of Sasaki, and the #17 Keihin Honda NSX-GT of Koudai Tsukakoshi, Quintarelli eventually found the sweet spot in his wet-weather Michelins.
Quintarelli got past Tsukakoshi on Lap 27, then got a run through the outside of the Panasonic Corner (Turn 16) to overtake Tachikawa for 2nd, with leader Cassidy in his sights and a decided straight-line speed advantage for the Nissan. Quintarelli took a tighter line through the Supra Corner the next lap than Cassidy, and that put the Motul GT-R back in the lead, the fifth lead change in less than a third of the race distance!
The first pit window opened on Lap 37, and the track was now sufficiently dry enough for teams to switch to slicks. The leading #37 and #38 LC500 pitted on Lap 40, with Ryo Hirakawa getting in the KeePer LC500, and Hiroaki Ishiura getting in the ZENT LC500. The #23 Motul GT-R pitted a lap later, with Tsugio Matsuda climbing aboard the red Nissan.
On Lap 44, misfortune hit a number of aspiring podium finishers. First, Hirakawa ran too deep into Turn 1 and collided with the #12 Calsonic GT-R now driven by James Rossiter. The KeePer LC500 picked up aero damage and a slow left front puncture which forced an unexpected pit stop on Lap 47. The Calsonic GT-R drove on and looked to salvage points, but on Lap 92 during Sasaki’s closing stint, contact with a GT300 backmarker forced another spin and dropped them to 12th in the end. Bertrand Baguette was starting his first the #17 Keihin NSX when he ran wide out of Coca-Cola Corner (Turn 3) and spun out of 100R in front of a pack of GT300 cars.
At the halfway point of the race, it was a two-car battle for the win between the #23 Motul GT-R of Matsuda and Quintarelli, trying for their fourth Fuji 500km victory in five years, and the #38 ZENT LC500 of Tachikawa and Ishiura, trying for their second Golden Week race victory at Fuji in three years. Matsuda held the lead ahead of Ishiura, who never let up on the Michelin-clad Nissan, and on Lap 59, Ishiura passed the 20-time race winner Matsuda for the lead.
Before the second pit window opened, two GT500 runners fell by the wayside: The #36 au TOM’s LC500 started well from 11th in the hands of Yuhi Sekiguchi. But as 19-year-old Ritomo Miyata was taking his first competitive GT500 laps, an oil leak ended their race on Lap 64, heartbreak for the teenager on his premier class debut, substituting for Kazuki Nakajima. Three laps later, the #24 Realize Corporation Advan GT-R (Mitsunori Takaboshi/Jann Mardenborough) went to the garage with an intercooler issue, losing seven laps and any hope of a top ten finish.
On Lap 75, the second pit window opened, and Ishiura pitted the ZENT LC500 from the lead on Lap 78, with Matsuda pitting the Motul GT-R on Lap 79. A mega in-lap from Matsuda helped get his co-driver Quintarelli out ahead of Tachikawa in the ZENT LC500 once the pit cycle ended. Quintarelli held a lead of 2-4 seconds at first, but as the two leaders started to encounter traffic, Tachikawa was able to close right in, and the two legends ran tail-to-nose for several laps, with the difference as little as half a second with 20 to go.
The key moment of the race came with 12 laps to go: On Lap 99, Tachikawa tucked up in the slipstream of Quintarelli, and with a brave display of late braking, swooped his way past at TGR Corner, and switched over to take the preferred line into Coca-Cola Corner and take the lead back!
While all this was going on, there was another battle brewing for the final podium position. The #1 Raybrig NSX of Naoki Yamamoto & Jenson Button started 12th and dropped all the way back to last during the earlier rain storms. But after the red flag, they clawed their way back into contention. Quick pit work on their first stop brought Button into 4th, and Yamamoto held off a charge from the Keihin NSX of Tsukakoshi, which thankfully ended incident-free.
Yamamoto was now running down the #39 Denso Kobelco SARD LC500 of Heikki Kovalainen (with Yuichi Nakayama), and with 6 to go, Yamamoto completed Team Kunimitsu’s comeback from the back of the GT500 field to the final place on the podium, an excellent bounceback after the disappointment at Okayama.
Quintarelli tried to fight back against Tachikawa over the final 10 laps, but a combination of traffic and tyre degradation gave the red ZENT Cerumo LC500 all the initiative to pull away, and the Nissan was nowhere in sight when Tachikawa took the chequered flag to score the victory in an incredible Fuji GT 500km Race.
In his first season as driver and manager of Lexus Team ZENT Cerumo, Tachikawa admitted he was under pressure to deliver this season: “This season we have had a change in team management that has put more pressure on me than before, and since we had a disappointing result in the opening round, I really wanted to win today,” said Tachikawa. “From beginning to end, it was a tense race the whole way and a fantastic one to be part of. What’s more, we were able to end it with the best possible result. I just want to thank everyone for their support.”
It’s the 19th career victory in total for Yuji Tachikawa, now one away from becoming only the second GT500 driver to get to 20 wins. For his co-driver Ishiura, it’s his sixth career win, and all of which have come in crown jewel events: His fourth Fuji 500km win today, going with his two Suzuka 1000km overall victories.
“Two years ago, we won this race at Fuji in May, and today we were able to win again after missing out last year,” said Ishiura. “Tachikawa-san and I were able to celebrate that victory two years ago, but as he just said, we are in a different position now and there is more pressure on us. That is why we were so determined to win here today at our home course of Fuji. I can’t express how happy I am that we have won.”
At the end of this extraordinary race, it was a welcome sight to have all three manufacturers on the GT500 podium. After battling for the win all afternoon, Matsuda and Quintarelli came home in second place, which was still more than sufficient for the #23 Motul Autech GT-R crew to leave Fuji Speedway with a 3-point lead in the championship over Tachikawa & Ishiura. The #1 Raybrig NSX-GT made up nine places from 12th on the grid to finish 3rd, a championship-calibre drive from the reigning champions Yamamoto & Button, who showed every ounce of their class all day long.
The #39 Denso LC500 of Kovalainen & Nakayama finished fourth, a second ahead of the #17 Keihin NSX of Tsukakoshi & Baguette, who recovered from their spin to finish fifth. The #3 CraftSports Motul GT-R (Kohei Hirate/Frédéric Makowiecki) threatened a podium finish in the middle stages of the race, but a slow second stop and time lost in traffic dropped them back to sixth. Recovering from the unscheduled stop on Lap 47, the #37 KeePer LC500 of Hirakawa & Cassidy took home a solid seventh-place finish.
The #6 Wako’s 4CR LC500 (Kazuya Oshima/Kenta Yamashita) recovered from a drive-through penalty for a pit work violation to finish 8th, ahead of the #8 ARTA NSX-GT (Tomoki Nojiri/Takuya Izawa), which also recovered from a drive-through assessed after spinning under the Safety Car, in 9th. The #64 Modulo Epson NSX-GT (Narain Karthikeyan/Tadasuke Makino) completed the points finishers in 10th.
All of that action in GT500, and we’ve still yet to cover the GT300 class action, which saw the #11 Gainer TanaX Nissan GT-R GT3 (Katsuyuki Hiranaka/Hironobu Yasuda) hold off the #55 ARTA Honda NSX GT3 (Shinichi Takagi/Nirei Fukuzumi) on the final lap by just 0.259 seconds to take their first win of the season!
A great start from 4th allowed Yasuda to charge up to the pole-winning #56 Realize Nissan Gakuen GT-R GT3 of Kazuki Hiramine, the Dunlop-clad Gainer GT-R excelling as the rains came down. Yasuda took the lead on Lap 6 out of Panasonic Corner, holding it to the Red Flag that followed shortly after.
When the race restarted, however, the man on the charge was Naoya Gamou in the #65 LEON Pyramid Mercedes-AMG GT3, with the wet-weather Bridgestone tyres working well in the drying conditions. Gamou was running as much as 4 seconds per lap quicker than the leaders by the time he passed Hiramine on Lap 28, then Yasuda for the lead on Lap 31. However, after the first cycle of pit stops, a fantastic out-lap from Hiranaka put the Gainer GT-R up front, and Franco-Argentine rookie Sacha Fenestraz in the #56 Realize GT-R GT3 passed the LEON AMG, now driven by Haruki Kurosawa, for 2nd.
The #720 McLaren 720S GT3 of Álex Palou was on a mega charge early in the race. Having started 18th, he was up in podium contention as high as 4th place. But on Lap 53, co-driver Seiji Ara was spun at Supra Corner, and the time lost kept the McLaren Customer Racing Japan team from picking up points in a much-improved outing, they’d settle for 14th in the end.
Misfortunes hit a number of GT300 teams, like the #25 Hoppy Toyota 86 MC (Takamitsu Matsui/Kimiya Sato/Takeshi Tsuchiya), which slumped from 2nd on the grid to finish 18th, and the #5 Advics Mach Syaken MC86 (Natsu Sakaguchi/Yuya Hiraki/Tetsuji Tamanaka), which qualified 3rd but spun off on Lap 37 and retired. The #7 D’station Aston Martin Vantage GT3 (Tomonobu Fujii/João Paulo de Oliveira) lost 18 laps in the garage after multiple punctures, the #34 Modulo Kenwood NSX GT3 (Ryo Michigami/Hiroki Otsu) retired after 86 laps with a gearbox failure, and a brake failure on the #61 Subaru BRZ R&D Sport (Takuto Iguchi/Hideki Yamauchi) ended their day in heartbreaking fashion after 77 laps.
Hiranaka was leading in the #11 Gainer GT-R, ahead of Fenestraz in the #56 Realize GT-R in 2nd. In 3rd, the #55 ARTA NSX GT3, the team going for their fourth consecutive Super GT victory at Fuji, was in contention after Nirei Fukuzumi took the baton from Shinichi Takagi for his first Super GT race stint. The second pit window saw a big gamble from the Bridgestone-clad teams like the ARTA NSX GT3 and the LEON AMG: They opted to take fuel only, no tyres, on their second and last stops!
That allowed the ARTA NSX GT3 of Takagi to jump the Realize GT-R GT3 of Hiramine for 2nd on track. It looked as if the Gainer GT-R had the win in the bag, but then, something astonishing happened over the final laps: Takagi was actually gaining on race leader Yasuda, with Bridgestone tyres that were now over 60 laps old by the closing laps of the race!
As the pace of the Dunlop-clad Gainer GT-R fell, the Bridgestone-clad ARTA NSX GT3 closed right on the back bumper on the final lap – and Takagi threw everything he could at Yasuda to try and win at Fuji for the tenth time in his career!
But despite fancying a look past the grey and red GT-R in front, Takagi just couldn’t make the move on the last lap, and all it took was a little wobble through Panasonic Corner from the pursuing NSX to allow Yasuda to take the chequered flag by just a quarter of a second for him and co-driver Hiranaka and the #11 Gainer TanaX GT-R!
“I thought today’s race was going to be a duel between us and the 56 car, but things turned out differently,” said Yasuda, who took his third career GT300 race win. “At the end, it was a really tough battle, but at the very end I was able to take advantage of being passed by a GT500 car and it was just enough to get me home for the win.”
“I’m sure it was really tough for Yasuda-san in the closing stages of the race,” said Hiranaka, who notched his 8th career victory. “I have had experience in a situation like he was in today, so I know how tough it is both physically and mentally to be chased like that. That’s why I am so grateful to him right now. The two of us won in Thailand last year as a team, and this is our first win since then, and I know I am never going to forget today’s victory. It has been a very rewarding and happy experience for me.”
It’s Gainer’s second Fuji 500km victory with Nissan, having previously won in 2015 with André Couto and Katsumasa Chiyo. Yasuda also becomes one of the few drivers to win the race in both GT500 and GT300 classes, having won GT500 in 2014 with Calsonic Team Impul.
The three-race win streak for Autobacs Racing Team Aguri may have ended, but back-to-back 2nd place finishes for the #55 ARTA NSX GT3 of Takagi and Fukuzumi give them a 3.5 point lead in the GT300 Drivers’ Championship and they gave everything they could in the closing laps to try and steal the victory.
The #88 ManePa Lamborghini Huracán GT3 of Takashi Kogure and Yuya Motojima started tenth, drove into the top five, and with 6 laps to go, Motojima passed the #56 Realize GT-R for third place, and the final podium position in GT300. Kogure’s first GT300 podium in his second race with Team JLOC, and the third career podium for Motojima. The #56 Realize GT-R GT3 of Hiramine and Fenestraz finished 4th, ahead of the #65 LEON AMG of Kurosawa and Gamou in 5th.
The #4 Goodsmile Hatsune Miku AMG (Nobuteru Taniguchi/Tatsuya Kataoka) finished 6th, surviving the near-miss with the Keihin NSX spinning out in front of them at the 100R corner. Then, in 7th, a terrific triumph for the brand new X Works Racing team out of Hong Kong: The #33 EVA Racing Test-01 GT-R GT3 of Marchy Lee, Shawn Thong, and Shinya Sean Michimi gaining eight places from where they started, and taking their first points finish, bouncing back from heavy damage sustained in a multi-car crash at Okayama.
The #21 Hitotsuyama Audi R8 LMS may have had the comeback of the race, from 21st on the grid to as high as 6th, before a left rear puncture forced them to pit on Lap 56. Amazingly, the trio of Richard Lyons, Ryuichiro Tomita, and rookie Alessio Picariello battled back from 18th after the puncture to finish 8th!
Completing GT300’s top ten were the #60 Syntium LM Corsa Lexus RC F GT3 (Hiroki Yoshimoto/Dominik Farnbacher) that came from 22nd on the grid to finish 9th, and the #10 Gainer TanaX triple a GT-R (Kazuki Hoshino/Keishi Ishikawa), badly damaged in that crash at Okayama, but bouncing back to finish 10th with the final championship point.
The 2019 Fuji GT 500km drew a two-day attendance of 91,800 spectators, just a few hundred short of the all-time attendance record set in 2017.
And what a race they were treated to, the first race of the Reiwa era, extraordinary battles in variable weather, several lead changes, incredible strategy, and in the end, a GT300 battle that came down to the final corners, and another slice of living history for the GT500 winners at Lexus Team ZENT Cerumo. Truly, an instant classic.