Though they were leading the GT500 Championships going into the second half of the 2019 season, Kazuya Oshima, Kenta Yamashita, and the rest of the crew at Lexus Team Wako’s LeMans never anticipated to be a factor for the victory in Sunday’s Fuji GT 500 Mile Race.
But, thanks to a brave strategy call by Team LeMans’ team director Juichi Wakisaka and chief engineer Kazuya Abe, the #6 Wako’s 4CR Lexus LC500 have come away with back-to-back victories in the Autobacs Super GT Series, winning the biggest race of the Super GT season – and the biggest points prize of the season with it!
The decisive moment of Sunday’s race, scheduled for 177 laps around Fuji Speedway, came on Lap 104, when the engine on the #24 Realize Corporation Advan Nissan GT-R of Jann Mardenborough (with Mitsunori Takaboshi) suffered a catastrophic failure on the front stretch. Stuck between marshall posts at either end of Fuji’s 1.5 kilometer front stretch, Mardenborough pulled the car to the side at the entrance of pit lane.
By this point, the Wako’s LC500 had worked its way back into contention for a podium position, after starting way down in 11th place. They were also suffering under the burden of heavy Success Ballast – in the form of a “Stage 2” fuel flow limiter that cut their horsepower, plus an extra 36 kilos of weight. But Yamashita and Oshima drove brilliantly, with Yamashita battling the #36 au TOM’s LC500 of reigning two-time Le Mans 24 Hours winner Kazuki Nakajima for 3rd.
Team director Wakisaka predicted that this would trigger a Safety Car, just as the third sequence of compulsory pit stops was about to end. So he called Yamashita in for service on Lap 106, and the team changed all four tyres, refuelled the blue and pink Wako’s LC500, and changed drivers to Oshima just before the introduction of the Safety Car on the same lap, which closed pit lane for routine service.
When the safety car was withdrawn, cars like the pole-sitting #23 Motul Autech GT-R of Tsugio Matsuda and Ronnie Quintarelli, the #1 Raybrig Honda NSX-GT of Naoki Yamamoto and Jenson Button, and the #3 CraftSports Motul GT-R of Kohei Hirate and Frédéric Makowiecki were all still yet to make their third pit stops. They all came in straight away, giving the Wako’s LC500 a lead of over a minute by the time the cycle completed.
Only a catastrophe could have denied Lexus Team Wako’s LeMans the victory over the final laps, in a race that was shortened to 175 laps after hitting the maximum 5 hour time limit. Oshima and Yamashita never took any risks in their final stints, and crossed the line after 175 laps with a margin of victory of 31.214 seconds.
This is the first time that a team and their drivers have won back-to-back races since Matsuda and Quintarelli won the first two races of the 2016 season for NISMO, and the first multiple-win season since 2003 for Team LeMans, when Wakisaka was their ace driver and reigning GT500 Champion.
It was good fortune, yes, but such is the nature of endurance racing, where cunning and quick decision-making can often defeat sheer speed. The cunning decision by Wakisaka rewarded his team with the maximum 25 points for winning Super GT’s mid-summer endurance race, and it extended Oshima and Yamashita’s joint championship lead to 16 points with three races left.
What a summer it’s been for Yamashita: His first GT500 win in Buriram, his appointment by Toyota to the LMP2 class of the FIA World Endurance Championship for 2019-20 and first test in Paul Ricard, and now, his second career top flight victory in the biggest race of the year.
“The key point in this race was the pit stop that enabled us to get a big lead over the cars behind us, and in the end all I had to think about was just keeping the car running safely to the finish,” said Yamashita.
“I had not been thinking about the possibility of a win here,” said Oshima. “I had just been hoping that we could get even score points, so I am just very surprised at this unexpected result. The engine was fast and the tires lasted. The car that engineer Abe set up for us was extremely good, and I am full of gratitude.” This is Oshima’s sixth career victory and his fourth since joining Team LeMans in 2011.
Just as the winners had to claw their way back from deep in the GT500 field to win, so did the reigning champions JB and Naoki in the Raybrig NSX – and they did so in a race where they desperately needed a podium finish at minimum to keep their championship aspirations alive.
On a hot summer day such as this, with air temperatures peaking at 33°C and track temperatures bursting 50°C, things didn’t look so promising for them, nor for any of the heat-sensitive Hondas.
But as the track cooled down, the Raybrig NSX came back to the forefront. New father Button did more than his part, and the reigning double champion Yamamoto fended off a hard challenge from the Motul GT-R of Quintarelli in the final laps to take a much-needed second place finish and move back to fifth place in the GT500 Drivers’ Championship – their second podium finish of the year, after two straight incident-marred races in Suzuka and Buriram.
It was also a much-needed podium to bounce back after a crash at Suzuka and a non-scoring result in Buriram, but the red #23 Motul Autech GT-R of Matsuda and Quintarelli will have felt shortchanged by the timing of the second safety car after dominating the first half of the race, leading 81 laps on the day, the most of any team.
Nissan will feel encouraged by their pace, however, especially as they hadn’t introduced their mid-season engine upgrade for this race, saving it for the next round in Autopolis. And with their third podium of 2019, Matsuda and Quintarelli put themselves squarely back in title contention, now 3rd in the points.
While the podium finishers prospered, other contenders had their podium aspirations dashed.
The first safety car came out when the #38 ZENT Cerumo LC500 of Yuji Tachikawa crashed at 100R corner following a pit stop on Lap 68. A wheel nut came off at one of the fastest corners of the circuit, sending Tachikawa into the sponge barriers head-on. Tachikawa was able to get out under his own power, but his and Hiroaki Ishiura’s hopes of sweeping the Fuji rounds after winning the Fuji 500km in May were over.
On Lap 82, the CraftSports GT-R collided with the #39 Denso Kobelco SARD LC500 (Heikki Kovalainen/Yuichi Nakayama), sending Makowiecki spinning and Kovalainen in the Denso LC500 out with suspension damage. And while fending off Yamashita for second, the #36 au TOM’s LC500 of Nakajima made contact with the GT300 class #7 D’station Aston Martin Vantage GT3 in Sector 3, forcing them to retire on Lap 102.
Then on Lap 116, the white CraftSports GT-R, which briefly led the race and recovered from the spin on Lap 79, went to the garage with mechanical issues. They would fix the issues and finish the race, 37 laps down.
The #37 KeePer TOM’s LC500 (Ryo Hirakawa/Nick Cassidy) had a quiet but outstanding day, recovering from 14th on the grid, a lap down towards the middle stages of the race, to finish 4th – their third straight top-5 finish, one that puts them 2nd in the standings. The #12 Calsonic Impul GT-R (Daiki Sasaki/James Rossiter) recovered from an early spin to finish 5th, ahead of the #16 Motul Mugen NSX-GT (Hideki Mutoh/Daisuke Nakajima) who scored their best result of the season in 6th.
After a drive-through penalty for a pit work violation, the #8 ARTA NSX-GT (Tomoki Nojiri/Takuya Izawa) came back to finish 7th, while, the #17 Keihin NSX-GT (Koudai Tsukakoshi/Bertrand Baguette) – after starting from the pit lane due to their qualifying accident on Saturday – scratched and clawed their way back to finish 8th, ahead of the #19 WedsSport Advan LC500 (Yuji Kunimoto/Sho Tsuboi) in 9th and the #64 Modulo Epson NSX-GT (Narain Karthikeyan/Tadasuke Makino) in 10th.
As brilliant as the strategy was from the pit wall of Lexus Team Wako’s LeMans, GT300 saw an even more unexpected strategic triumph as Team JLOC – Super GT mainstays since the inaugural 1994 season – picked up an unexpected victory of their own, via their #87 T-Dash Lamborghini Huracán GT3 of André Couto, Tsubasa Takahashi, and Kiyoto Fujinami!
While the race calls for four compulsory pit stops with driver exchanges, teams in GT300 have gambled with pitting on the opening lap for a virtual three-stop strategy.
Leave it to JLOC boss Isao Noritake to try something radically different, pitting for the first time on Lap 39, and changing drivers from Couto to Fujinami. Then they came in again on Lap 40, changing from Fujinami to Takahashi. This satisfied two of their compulsory pit stops. Lamborghini vehicles on the road are absolutely not synonymous with fuel economy, but the Huracán GT3 was especially fuel-thrifty, and the strategy was conceived to take advantage of that.
Then they made their third stop on Lap 84, with two-time Fuji 24 Hours winner Fujinami taking over for a blistering stint. By the end of his run, everyone was now aware of what Team JLOC had done strategically – and they were now leading the pole-winning #52 Saitama Toyopet GreenBrave Toyota Mark X MC (Shigekazu Wakisaka/Hiroki Yoshida) by a margin of over 40 seconds!
Couto brought the car home for the final stint, having only exchanged rear tyres on their final stop, and having gone under the radar all season long, the “B-car” of Team JLOC came home the winners from 13th on the grid – in one of the biggest upsets in recent Super GT memory!
It was redemption for the 2015 GT300 Champion Couto, who hadn’t raced full-time in Super GT since 2016, and had now fully recovered from back injuries sustained in a China GT Championship race in 2017. In his 114th career race, Couto came away with his 3rd career victory in GT300 – his first since he, Katsumasa Chiyo, and Ryuichiro Tomita won the Suzuka 1000km in 2015.
“JLOC was able to get its first win this year. I am very happy that we could get this historical moment in such a special race as the 500 miler,” said Couto.
“For this debut year, our goal was to get one win, and today we achieved that,” said Takahashi, the former Honda single-seater prospect and a first-time GT300 winner in just his 8th career race. “Couto-san and Fujinami-san drove hard for us, and we had the best strategy fall in place for us, so I am just so happy right now.”
“All I can say is this was fantastic,” said Fujinami, one-time Nissan Driver Development Programme (NDDP) top prospect. “I was fortunate to be signed as the third driver this season, and Couto-san and Takahashi-san have been teaching me a lot, so I am really lucky to be to drive with such a great team. Part way through the race we got in a position where we had the chance to win, and from there I just wanted to make the most of that chance.”
This is Team JLOC’s first Super GT victory since the rainy Sugo GT 300km Race in July 2014 – and one that will be cherished in their 25th anniversary season!
On the other hand, Saitama Toyopet GreenBrave made a massive gamble on tyre-strategy, triple-stinting a single set of Bridgestone Potenza tyres all the way to the finish for 95 laps! The Mother Chassis Mark X was agile, and gentle enough on the tyres to make this brave call work.
Wakisaka and Yoshida drove on to finish 2nd in class, their second podium of the season, following their third-place finish in the rain-shortened season opener in Okayama. The best-ever result for Saitama Toyopet GreenBrave in Super GT, for the team supported by service mechanics from automotive dealerships.
Two Honda NSX GT3s slugged it out for the final podium place, and just a year after their car was written off in Saturday practice for the 2018 Fuji 500 Miles, the #34 Modulo Kenwood NSX GT3 of Ryo Michigami and Hiroki Otsu finished 3rd, taking their first podium of the season after Otsu passed the #18 UPGarage NSX GT3 of Takashi Kobayashi (with Kosuke Matsuura) for fourth on Lap 146.
Team JLOC brought both cars home in the top 5 as the #88 ManePa Huracán GT3 (Takashi Kogure/Yuya Motojima) came home 5th. A string of four consecutive summer race wins at Fuji came to an end for Autobacs Racing Team Aguri (ARTA), but the #55 ARTA NSX GT3 (Shinichi Takagi/Nirei Fukuzumi) extended their points lead with a 6th-place finish, ahead of the #56 Realize Nissan Gakuen GT-R GT3 (Kazuki Hiramine/Sacha Fenestraz) in 7th despite a late spin.
The #4 Goodsmile Hatsune Miku Mercedes-AMG GT3 (Nobuteru Taniguchi/Tatsuya Kataoka) put the misfortunes of Spa behind them in 8th, Fuji 500km winners Katsuyuki Hiranaka and Hironobu Yasuda finished 9th in the #11 Gainer TanaX GT-R, and rounding out the points-scorers was the #61 Subaru BRZ R&D Sport (Takuto Iguchi/Hideki Yamauchi) in 10th.
Three-time Le Mans GT champion Darren Turner missed out on a points finish in his Super GT debut, with the #7 D’station Vantage (with Tomonobu Fujii/João Paulo de Oliveira) coming home 11th in a scrappy race.
Among the contenders that failed to take the chequered flag – the #65 LEON Pyramid AMG (Haruki Kurosawa/Naoya Gamou) suffered an oil cooler failure on Lap 74, and the #25 Hoppy Toyota 86 MC (Takamitsu Matsui/Kimiya Sato) suffered suspension damage after contact with a lapped car on Lap 140. The #360 RunUp Rivaux GT-R (Takayuki Aoki/Yusaku Shibata) was robbed of a potential podium when it went to the garage on Lap 126, prolonging Tomei Sports’ run without a Top 10 finish since returning to Super GT in 2007.
In total, 60,600 spectators came to watch both days of action at the Fuji 500 Mile Race on a warm, beautiful August day, one that delivered surprising, feel-good results across both categories – and has solidified the championship battles with 3 rounds remaining.
With the drama of today’s race, it feels somewhat melancholy that the sound of engines will be silent at Fuji Speedway next August, replaced by the buzz of bicycles around the circuit for the 2020 Tokyo Summer Olympic and Paralympic Games. The Fuji 500 Mile Race will return for 2021.
The Autobacs Super GT Series returns on September 8 for the Autopolis GT 300km Race in the southern island of Kyushu at the Autopolis International Racing Course.
Images courtesy of Toyota Motor Corporation, Nissan, and the GT Association