It had been 5 years, 7 months, and 27 days since the final race of the 2013 Autobacs Super GT Series at Twin Ring Motegi, the day that the number 6 Eneos Lexus SC 430 of Lexus Team LeMans took their last victory in the GT500 category.
That was, until today, on a hot and humid Sunday afternoon at Chang International Circuit in Buriram, Thailand, where a much different-looking number 6 Lexus from Team LeMans, the Wako’s 4CR LC500 of Kazuya Oshima and Kenta Yamashita drove from pole position to victory – the fifth GT500 win in six years for Lexus at Buriram, and a win that’s been a long time in the making for Lexus Team Wako’s LeMans.
Temperatures peaked to as high as 35°C during Sunday’s 66-lap race around the 4.554 kilometer circuit, with track temperatures approaching 50°C. At the start, it was Oshima who took the lead straight away in the #6 Wako’s 4CR LC500, followed closely by his former co-driver, Yuji Kunimoto, starting 2nd in the #19 WedsSport Advan LC500.
This was also the first Super GT race after the 87th running of the 24 Hours of Le Mans, and the spotlight was on the two-time winner of the race and newly crowned FIA World Endurance Drivers’ Champion Kazuki Nakajima. Nakajima made a great start in the #36 au TOM’s LC500, quickly getting past Frédéric Makowiecki in the #3 CraftSports Motul Nissan GT-R for 3rd, then by lap 6, Nakajima was past Kunimoto for 2nd, thanks to an opportunistic pass through traffic, and pursuing Oshima for the lead.
As the battle of Team LeMans vs Winner Of Le Mans waged on, Oshima and Nakajima broke away from Kunimoto in 3rd, who himself broke away from a three-car pack led by the #24 Realize Corporation Advan GT-R of Jann Mardenborough, the #37 KeePer TOM’s LC500 of Ryo Hirakawa, and the #3 CraftSports GT-R of Makowiecki.
On Lap 29, Nakajima’s persistence paid off, as the orange and white #36 au LC500 passed Oshima for the lead of the race, just as the two cars were meant to take their routine pit stops with the pit window already open. The Wako’s crew changed four tyres, refuelled, and gave the car to Kenta Yamashita for the closing stint. The au TOM’s crew did the same with Yuhi Sekiguchi taking over, but a slow getaway from the au LC500 combined with rapid pit work from the Team LeMans mechanics meant the positions changed back again, with Yamashita in the net lead.
In the second leg of the race, a new challenger appeared. The #37 KeePer TOM’s LC500 pitted on Lap 28, and Hirakawa gave way to Nick Cassidy for the final laps. Cassidy made his way through the traffic, within two laps he was past the #19 WedsSport LC500, now driven by Sho Tsuboi, and he cleared both the #17 Keihin Honda NSX-GT of Koudai Tsukakoshi and the #39 Denso Kobelco SARD LC500 of Yuichi Nakayama with ease, now running 3rd – before the Safety Car came out on Lap 38.
Honda had a nightmare of a race at Buriram, culminating with three of their cars being involved in a clumsy accident in traffic. Daisuke Nakajima in the #16 Motul Mugen NSX-GT collided with Jenson Button in the #1 Raybrig NSX-GT, and as the two lost control, the #8 ARTA NSX-GT of Tomoki Nojiri clipped Button, and broke the left rear suspension. The ARTA NSX and Motul Mugen NSX retired with damage, and the Raybrig NSX went to the garage for 15 laps – in yet another catastrophic race for the defending champions Button and Naoki Yamamoto, their third non-scoring outing in four races.
A puncture for the #17 Keihin NSX – who gambled on a fuel-only stop to gain track position – further broke the spirits of the Honda camp, with only the #64 Modulo Epson NSX-GT (Narain Karthikeyan/Tadasuke Makino) preventing a scoreless outing in 10th.
The race restarted on Lap 43, and Cassidy asserted himself from the drop of the green flag by diving down the inside of Sekiguchi for P2. The two cars clashed wheels on the exit of Turn 3, and as the au LC500 drifted wide on corner exit, the car launched over a bump stop – inflicting damage that would ultimately cost them a podium position, as Sekiguchi plummeted down the order and the au TOM’s LC500 finished 9th.
Now it was a battle of the two former All-Japan Formula 3 teammates, Yamashita and Cassidy, for the victory in GT500. On Lap 45, Cassidy saw his chance to seize the lead, getting a run out of Turn 3 down the straightaway into the flat-out Turn 4. He held the outside line as well as he could have, but ultimately, Yamashita was able to get more grip through Turns 5 & 6 and keep the position.
Cassidy maintained the pressure for a few more laps, but over time, Yamashita was able to pull away and shake the Kiwi from the rear of the Wako’s LC500.
A margin of 1.2 seconds was all Yamashita needed to close the deal on a long-awaited victory for Lexus Team LeMans, their first since the 2013 season finale at Motegi, the last race under the previous 3.4-litre V8 engine formula. A victory that also gives Oshima and Yamashita the lead in the GT500 Drivers’ Championship by just a single point at the halfway point of the season!
Oshima, who wept tears of elation when Team LeMans when they snapped a nine-year winless drought at Sportsland Sugo in 2012, and who’s been with the team through the duration of their most recent run of 43 races without a victory, reflected after the race: “The last time we won a race was back in 2013 and since then we went through some hard times, and even though we were having some good races recently we were still not able to get a win. So, I am just very happy that were able to get this first win in six years.”
The win was Oshima’s fifth in his career, and for 23-year-old Yamashita, who scored his first GT500 podium here one year ago, it was his first.
“Watching Oshima-san race, I realized that it would be difficult for us to run at a winning pace,” said Yamashita. “But since some fast pit work got us back in the lead, I was under pressure to defend that lead no matter what. So, I am really happy that we were able to win. I am just very grateful to the whole team.”
The face of Lexus Team Wako’s LeMans had changed greatly in the years between victories – a new title sponsor, a new engine formula, and four different co-drivers for Oshima in the years since. So too has the leadership: For Juichi Wakisaka, the legendary and charismatic three-time GT500 champion as a driver, it was his first win since taking over as Team Director immediately after his retirement from driving in 2016.
And it was the first victory for the team since the sudden passing of long time Chief Engineer Kenji Yamada on April 22, 2018, a bittersweet milestone not lost upon Team LeMans’ supporters, nor on their new Chief Engineer, Kazuya Abe, who joined the team this winter and scored his first win since he was with Team Kunimitsu in 2015.
Cassidy had no regrets after a thrilling chase against his good friend and former teammate Yamashita, what he described as “25 qualifying laps to the finish” on Twitter after the race, as he and Hirakawa scored their second consecutive podium finish in GT500, and jump to 2nd in the Drivers’ Championship in the process.
If this is indeed the last venture to Chang International Circuit for the short-term future, Lexus’ dominance over the circuit was sealed with a clean sweep of the podium, as Kunimoto and Tsuboi finished 3rd in the WedsSport LC500. It’d been a busy fortnight for Lexus Team WedsSport Bandoh, after their first venture to the Nürburgring 24 Hours, but they delivered on the expectations set for them and the other Yokohama runners this weekend, with back to back Buriram podiums for the team.
They held off the #24 Realize GT-R of Mardenborough and Mitsunori Takaboshi for the final podium position: The Nissan young stars were just a half-second back of the WedsSport LC500, and Takaboshi, who himself just came in from a 10th overall finish at the Nürburgring, took the fastest lap of the race in his closing stint.
The #39 Denso LC500 of Heikki Kovalainen and Yuichi Nakayama finished fifth, the #3 CraftSports GT-R of Makowiecki and Kohei Hirate finished sixth, and in seventh, a magnificent recovery drive for the #38 ZENT Cerumo LC500 of Yuji Tachikawa and Hiroaki Ishiura – who came from last on the grid, carrying 36 kilos of physical Success Ballast plus a “Stage 1” fuel flow limiter. They keep their 100% scoring record intact and sit just 4.5 points back of Oshima/Yamashita for the lead in the standings.
The #12 Calsonic Impul GT-R (Daiki Sasaki/James Rossiter) finished 8th, ahead of the #36 au LC500 of Nakajima/Sekiguchi and the #64 Modulo NSX of Karthikeyan/Makino to round off the points finishers. The #23 Motul Autech NISMO GT-R (Tsugio Matsuda/Ronnie Quintarelli) missed the points in 11th, and the two drivers dropped to fourth in the standings, just a half-point ahead of Nakajima & Sekiguchi.
But the greatest drama came in the final lap of the race for the GT300 class victory, as Keishi Ishikawa in the #10 Gainer TanaX triple a GT-R passed Kazuki Hiramine in the #56 Realize Corporation/Nissan Gakuen GT-R on the last lap of a dominant 1-2 finish for the Nissan GT-R NISMO GT3s!
In the opening stanza of the race, it looked as if nobody would have an answer for the #56 Realize GT-R GT3. Rookie Sacha Fenestraz powered past pole-sitter Kimiya Sato in the #25 Hoppy Toyota 86 MC before the GT300 cars made it to Turn 3 on the opening lap, and the French-Argentine driver steadily drove away to a comfortable lead of nearly 10 seconds.
Sato soon found his hands full with the #7 D’station Aston Martin Vantage GT3 of João Paulo de Oliveira, and the #10 Gainer GT-R, driven by Kazuki Hoshino at the start. Sato drove cleverly to hold off the more powerful GT3 cars behind him, but on Lap 16, both drivers soon found their way past, and Sato dropped back behind the order to preserve his tyres.
Hoshino pitted on Lap 25 to give way to his young co-driver Ishikawa, and after 29 blistering laps, Fenestraz pitted the #56 GT-R, giving way to Hiramine – setting two young drivers up for a battle for their first career victories.
When the Safety Car came out, the #7 D’station Vantage was among three cars that had yet to stop for fuel and a change of drivers, and with the pit lane closed, their chances of victory were finished. With 6 laps to go, during Tomonobu Fujii’s closing stint, a left-rear puncture ended what should have been a breakthrough race for D’station Racing and Aston Martin, as they dropped out of the top 10.
Hiramine drove out to a lead after the Safety Car restart, ahead of the two Gainer GT-Rs, the #10 of Ishikawa, and the #11 of Katsuyuki Hiranaka. It looked as if the job was done for Kondo Racing, and their first GT300 victory was in the books. But Ishikawa had other ideas, gradually taking several tenths of a second out of Hiramine’s lead, lap after lap until the two GT-Rs were tail-to-nose with 3 to go.
On the final lap, Ishikawa lunged past Hiramine into Turn 5, as Hiramine was making way, ironically, for the GT500 class Kondo Racing GT-R to go through, but in doing so, he left the door open just enough for Ishikawa to take a dramatic final-lap victory for the number 10 Gainer team, Nissan’s fourth GT300 victory at Buriram in six years, and back-to-back wins for the current-gen GT-R GT3 at the circuit!
“I am simply happy to have gotten this win,” said Ishikawa, a first-time GT300 class winner in his third full season. “Since we had chosen the harder tires, we only finished 7th in the qualifying yesterday, but I was sure that if we worked hard, we had a chance to win today.”
“The appearance of the Safety Car at that point in the race was a lucky break for us. On the final lap, I was determined to try to pass the leader, and I was glad that I was able to make that pass in a clean battle. I thank Hiramine-san for that.”
For Hoshino, it’s his third victory in Buriram, and the 12th of his career – putting him in a tie for fourth all-time with Takayuki Aoki, and now behind only Morio Nitta (22), Shinichi Takagi (20), and Nobuteru Taniguchi (17).
“We had a chance to win in the last round at Suzuka, but in the end, we weren’t able to make it happen. So I was really determined to get the win here today,” said Hoshino. “I ran with the belief that our pace would be the fastest in the race today. All I can say is that I am very happy that we won.”
The last podium position also changed hands on the final lap. The #65 LEON Pyramid AMG GT3 of Haruki Kurosawa and Naoya Gamou made a bold strategy call, changing only front-side tyres on their pit stop on Lap 19. Kurosawa did his part to preserve the tyres on his opening stint, and through sheer pace, Naoya Gamou was able to run down the #11 Gainer TanaX GT-R of Hiranaka on the last lap to snatch third place, while Hiranaka was spun in the middle of a GT500 battle, and he and Hironobu Yasuda dropped to eighth place.
Speaking of strategic gambles, the #25 Hoppy 86 of Sato and Takamitsu Matsui took fuel only on their pit stop, and held on to finish a strong fourth place for the second race in a row.
Under the radar, the #88 ManePa Lamborghini Huracán GT3 (Yuya Motojima/Takashi Kogure) pulled off an incredible comeback from 21st on the grid to finish 5th, it was a great day for Team JLOC with the #87 T-Dash Huracán (André Couto/Tsubasa Takahashi) finishing 7th.
The #33 EVA Racing X Works GT-R (Shawn Thong/Marchy Lee) backed up their incredible seventh-place finish at the Fuji 500km with a sixth-place finish in Buriram, a fantastic race for the Hong Kong-based team.
Two Hondas completed the points scorers in 9th and 10th: The #55 ARTA NSX GT3 (Shinichi Takagi/Nirei Fukuzumi), and the #34 Modulo Kenwood NSX GT3 (Ryo Michigami/Hiroki Otsu), who held off the #61 Subaru BRZ R&D Sport (Takuto Iguchi/Hideki Yamauchi) for the final points-paying position by four-tenths of a second.
Despite losing out on the timing of the Safety Car intervention and finishing 14th, Morio Nitta and Sena Sakaguchi in the #96 K-Tunes Racing Lexus RC F GT3 are still within a half-point of championship leaders Takagi and Fukuzumi. Hiramine & Fenestraz move up to 3rd in the standings, ahead of Hiranaka & Yasuda in 4th, and Hoshino & Ishikawa in 5th.
Home favourites Panther arto Team Thailand and the #35 arto RC F GT3 (Nattapong Horthongkum/Sean Walkinshaw) finished one lap off the leader in 17th.
As Super GT departs the Kingdom of Thailand, the next race of the season, the crown jewel of the calendar approaches, the Fuji GT 500 Mile Race, on August 4, at Fuji International Speedway.
We’re halfway through the season already, and even still, there may be many more surprises in the four races yet to come.
Images courtesy of Toyota Motor Corporation and the GT Association (GTA)