The sixth round of the 2019 Autobacs Super GT Series delivered a thrilling classic, coloured by changeable conditions, wheel-to-wheel action, and unexpected results up and down the field in both GT500 and GT300 classes.
It was those changeable conditions that opened a window of opportunity for Lexus Team SARD to take their first win of the season in the Autopolis GT 300km Race at Autopolis International Racing Course, with the #39 Denso Kobelco SARD LC500 of Heikki Kovalainen and Yuichi Nakayama scoring the victory, the fifth consecutive GT500 class race win for Lexus in 2019.
Going into the weekend, it was anticipated that the rainfall from Typhoon Lingling would ravage the 4.6 kilometer Autopolis circuit and the rest of Kyushu island. That typhoon is now making its way towards Tokyo, but the threat of rain still loomed as large as the dark clouds over the circuit before the race started just after 2:30 PM local time.
On the front row, the #17 Keihin Honda NSX-GT of Koudai Tsukakoshi and the #8 ARTA NSX-GT of Takuya Izawa nailed the rolling start. Izawa fancied taking P1 out of the first corner, but running side-by-side through Turns 1 & 2 was as close as anyone would get to the tail of the blue Keihin NSX for many laps, as Tsukakoshi checked out to a massive lead.
The first Safety Car came early and it came with major championship implications when Naoki Yamamoto lost control and crashed the #1 Raybrig NSX-GT in Sector 3 on the third lap. Yamamoto was uninjured, but this was an all but a terminal wound to his and Jenson Button’s chances of repeating as GT500 champions for Team Kunimitsu. They’re now 36 points out of the lead, with two races and a maximum of 42 points, including pole position bonuses, available.
After the restart, Tsukakoshi picked right up where he left off, putting a massive gap from him to the rest of the field. While Izawa started to struggle with tyre degradation and pick-up and gave Jann Mardenborough in the #24 Realize Corporation Advan GT-R, and Kazuki Nakajima in the #36 au TOM’s LC500, the initiative to burst through into 2nd and 3rd respectively.
Soon, Heikki Kovalainen in the #39 Denso LC500 followed through in 4th, and Izawa was at the head of a four-car battle being pursued by Kohei Hirate in the #3 CraftSports Motul GT-R, Yuji Tachikawa in the #38 ZENT Cerumo LC500, and Nick Cassidy in the #37 KeePer TOM’s LC500 – who passed Hirate and Tachikawa in one sensational move at Turn 3 on Lap 22!
By this point, the rain had started to fall, but only in Sector 1 at first. At the midway point in the race, the rain fell harder, and it caught out the GT300 winners in the Fuji 500 Miles, the #87 T-Dash Lamborghini Huracan GT3 of Andre Couto. That along with a number of other cars losing control in increasing rain triggered the second Safety Car intervention, and it was at this point that the race took a massive turn. Many teams elected to pit once they spotted the stricken Lamborghini, leading to a chaotic scene in the pits – after all, this occurred during the scheduled pit window.
It was a critical decision for every team, whether to pit for wet tyres or stay on slicks. The #39 Denso LC500, and the #38 ZENT Cerumo LC500, elected to go for the former. The #17 Keihin NSX elected to go for the latter. And once the Safety Car was finally withdrawn on Lap 41, those who took wet tyres had a massive advantage. GT500 cars on slick tyres were being passed by GT300 cars on wet tyres, that’s how little grip there was as the rain came down over the entire circuit!
A third Safety Car was called on Lap 44 as multiple GT300 cars couldn’t keep it on the tarmac, including a heartbreaking spin into the gravel for Kumamoto native Hiroki Yoshida in the #52 Saitama Toyopet GreenBrave Toyota Mark X MC. And it was by this point that the rain was easing off. The heat would ensure that the track would dry quickly. Would it dry quickly enough for those who toughed it out on slicks to come back into the fight for the podium places?
Yuichi Nakayama took the final restart in the Denso LC500, and immediately bolted to a massive lead as the cars behind him couldn’t get the power down in the wet. That might have been enough to seal the win.
Or so it seemed, as Bertrand Baguette took 2nd place from Hiroaki Ishiura, and now the Keihin NSX had only the Denso LC500 in front of him, but 13 seconds up the road. But the track was quickly drying out. Baguette was now starting to take multiple seconds out of Nakayama’s lead with the conditions coming to him.
But Baguette lost out in traffic, just enough for Nakayama to hold on and secure the win for Lexus Team SARD by 3.7 seconds and take the Lexus LC500’s fifth consecutive victory in 2019, matching Lexus’ five-race win streak from the 2016 season finale at Motegi to the 2017 race at Sugo. One more would equal the record of six consecutive championship race victories set by Honda from 1998 to 1999!
“It was tough conditions out there with the race changing from rain to dry,” remarked Kovalainen. “Everything changed after my stint and all I could do was pray for luck. Things have been tough for us this season, but I am really glad we got this win.”
It was Kovalainen’s fourth career GT500 victory in as many consecutive seasons. And for Yuichi Nakayama, a seven-time race winner in GT300 from 2015 to 2018, his long-awaited GT500 debut is rewarded with a maiden race win in his first year in the premier class!
Nakayama said: “When I was ready to enter the race there was a big traffic jam in the pit area and several collisions took place. But the time our engineer [Kotaro] Tanaka chose for the pit stop was perfect. Everyone on the team did their jobs well, so I really feel it was the team’s strength that got us this far. I ran trying to save wear on the tires for when the competition caught up with us at the end. I have competed on Bridgestone tires in GT300 as well, so this time I was able to trust in the tires and hold off for the win.”
The win also puts Kovalainen and Nakayama third in the Drivers’ Championship, 25 points out of the lead.
It was a race that Tsukakoshi and Baguette had the pace to win, having led every prior session during the weekend, but by far, 2nd place was the best result of what had been a frustrating year for Keihin Real Racing.
The track didn’t dry out quick enough for the Keihin NSX to challenge the Denso LC500 for the win, but it did afford the #37 KeePer TOM’s LC500 to make one of the most sensational final-lap dashes in Super GT history. Ryo Hirakawa had taken over from Cassidy for the closing stint, and they were one of the cars that stayed on slicks during the wet conditions.
Hirakawa even locked up and spun in Turn 1 while the track was still wet, and was running as low as eighth afterwards. As the final lap approached, the track was dry, and Hirakawa passed the #64 Modulo Epson NSX-GT of Tadasuke Makino for 6th before the final corner to start the final lap, then passed championship rival Kenta Yamashita in the #6 Wako’s 4CR LC500 for 5th. At the Hairpin Turn 6, Hirakawa was past Tomoki Nojiri in the ARTA NSX for 4th, and then in the final sector, he passed Ishiura for the third and final podium position.
It was an incredible result given they were on heavy Success Ballast handicaps including the “Stage 3” fuel-flow restrictor, and that charge through the pack for Hirakawa was a godsend for their championship aspirations, as they’ve now closed the gap to Kazuya Oshima and Kenta Yamashita to just 10 points. Oshima and Yamashita finished 6th in the end, behind Tachikawa & Ishiura in 4th, and Nojiri & Izawa in 5th. That they finished that high up themselves was also a small miracle as they were carrying maximum Success Ballast this weekend!
The Modulo NSX of Makino and Narain Karthikeyan took a season-best 7th place finish, ahead of the #19 WedsSport Advan LC500 (Yuji Kunimoto/Sho Tsuboi) in 8th. The race had promise for the #24 Realize GT-R, but they ended up losing out by not pitting before the 2nd Safety Car intervention and slumped to 9th place, in the end, best of the Nissans. The #36 au LC500 of Nakajima & Sekiguchi completed the points in 10th.
Indeed, it was a disastrous result for the Nissans. The #23 Motul Autech GT-R (Tsugio Matsuda/Ronnie Quintarelli) was also caught out by not pitting before the Safety Car, finishing in 13th and a lap down. They were one spot down on the #12 Calsonic Impul GT-R – who called in Katsumasa Chiyo to replace an ill James Rossiter alongside Daiki Sasaki. That last-minute change of drivers did, however, result in a 10 second stop/go penalty from which they were never able to recover, but it was a welcome sight to see Chiyo back in a GT500 car all the same.
As eventful as it was in GT500, GT300 really came to life in the final laps, and a topsy-turvy race in the second division saw the #60 Syntium LM Corsa Lexus RC F GT3 come from behind for an emotional victory for Hiroki Yoshimoto and Ritomo Miyata, a double victory for Lexus!
In a race of two halves, the championship-leading #55 ARTA Honda NSX GT3 (Shinichi Takagi/Nirei Fukuzumi) was leading after the second Safety Car intervention, but then picked up a drive-through penalty after the third Safety Car restart for an unsafe pit release.
That put the #88 ManePa Lamborghini Huracan GT3 (Takashi Kogure/Yuya Motojima) up into the lead, as Kogure was fending off Alex Palou in the #720 McLaren Customer Racing Japan 720S, who himself had to fend off Morio Nitta in the #96 K-Tunes Racing RC F GT3!
The old veteran Kogure had his hands full with the young Spaniard Palou. Team JLOC were chasing down back-to-back wins for their team, McLaren Customer Racing Japan, aka Team Goh Motorsports, were looking for a win in their comeback season after 23 years away! And with 5 laps to go, Palou muscled his way past Kogure for the lead at Turn 10! That looked to everyone like the climax – but they were all on wet tyres.
Yoshimoto, meanwhile, at the advisement of his former co-driver and now team director Akira Iida, stayed out on slicks, and the dry-weather Dunlops were really working on the drying track. With three laps to go, Yoshimoto disposed of Kogure for second and, just a few corners later, passed Palou around the outside of Turn 6 to come from seemingly nowhere, such was Yoshimoto’s pace on slicks that he was running 10 seconds quicker than the prior leaders on wet tyres!
And on the weekend where Yoshimoto celebrated his 100th career Super GT race, he took the chequered flag in the #60 LM Corsa Lexus.
It was impossible for 39-year-old Yoshimoto to hold back the tears when considering what this number 60 LM Corsa team had been through in the last five years. From 2015 to 2016, they struggled through two difficult seasons as they developed the Lexus RC F GT3 before its homologation in 2017. Over the last three seasons, they’ve seen the sister K-Tunes Racing RC F take multiple victories as they themselves had a more gradual climb to the top, their first top-fives in 2017, their first podium in Buriram in 2018, and now, finally, a first win in their first year with Dunlop as their tyre supplier.
“LM Corsa has competed all this way with the Lexus RC F GT3 since its development period, and it was a long and difficult time,” said a reflective Yoshimoto. “It was Manager Akira Iida’s decision that we should race on with slick tires through the wet. And Ritomo [Miyata] got the car to me in a good position. It surprised me how the weather and luck all could come together like this for a win. I want to congratulate everyone on the team. Thank you all,” he said as he burst into tears.
“I never thought things would turn out like this,” said Miyata. “I have been with this team all along since last year, with everyone working to get a win, but it just never happened. Last year we finished 3rd in Thailand, but I think we could have won if I had been stronger. But it was concentrating on improving in each race that finally got us here, I believe. It turned out that the team’s strategy had been right and I was really relieved when it didn’t rain at the end.”
This is Yoshimoto and LM Corsa’s first win since the 2014 Suzuka 1000km and the seventh of Yoshimoto’s career. For 20-year-old Toyota prodigy Miyata, it’s his first, and it could very well be a feat we see repeated many times over if and when he moves up to GT300.
While they were blown away in the final three laps, 2nd place for Seiji Ara and Alex Palou in the McLaren was a monumental achievement for McLaren Customer Racing Japan. A frustrating season that has underperformed the lofty expectations of the team and marque that won the 1996 GT500 Championships, that has seen a scaling back of their initial plans to enter the Suzuka 10 Hours and posed real concerns about their long-term future from observers.
They almost broke through in the Fuji 500km in May, but the grey and pink McLaren finally broke through today, from 19th on the grid to 2nd. The first podium for Palou, the first podium for Ara since his Super GT return in 2019, and the first podium in a championship round, in either category for McLaren in Super GT since the F1 GTR, won the 2001 race at Central Park Mine Circuit!
Kogure and Motojima, the latter another one of the locals from the Kyushu region, held on to finish third from 22nd on the grid, a fantastic result that now pulls the #88 ManePa Huracan and its drivers into second place in the standings, Kogure and Motojima now trailing Takagi and Fukuzumi by just five points for the championship lead! After the penalty, the ARTA NSX GT3 of Takagi and Fukuzumi finished 6th, behind the #4 Goodsmile Hatsune Miku Mercedes-AMG GT3 (Nobuteru Taniguchi/Tatsuya Kataoka) in 4th, and the #96 K-Tunes RC F of Nitta and Sena Sakaguchi in 5th.
Completing the points finishers, were the #65 LEON Pyramid AMG of Naoya Gamou and the debuting Togo Suganami in 7th, the #56 Realize Nissan Mechanic Challenge GT-R GT3 (Kazuki Hiramine/Sacha Fenestraz) 8th, the #18 UPGarage NSX GT3 (Takashi Kobayashi/Kosuke Matsuura) 9th, and the #10 Gainer TanaX triple a GT-R GT3 (Kazuki Hoshino/Keishi Ishikawa) 10th.
The Hatsune Miku AMG was one of the cars in contention for the victory before the mid-race safety cars. So too was the #7 D’Station Aston Martin Vantage GT3 (Tomonobu Fujii/Joao Paulo de Oliveira) it was all looking amazing for them until a slow pit stop derailed their chances of a victory, and in the changeable conditions they slumped down to 18th.
Pole-winners Takamitsu Matsui and Kimiya Sato in the #25 Hoppy Toyota 86 MC slumped out of the lead early on and finished a frustrating 16th, while their Mother Chassis rivals, the GreenBrave Mark X of Yoshida and Shigekazu Wakisaka, spun out of a podium position in the wet, finishing 24th. And it was a hard day for the #61 Subaru BRZ R&D Sport (Takuto Iguchi/Hideki Yamauchi), which suffered an early gearbox issue and retired after just 7 laps completed.
The top seven in the GT300 Drivers’ Championship are now separated by just 15 points.
And now, there are just two races remaining in the 2019 Super GT season. A championship eliminator round awaits at the pound-for-pound most exciting venue on the calendar, as the series returns to Sportsland Sugo for the Sugo GT 300km Race on September 22nd.
Images courtesy of Toyota Motor Corporation and the GT Association (GTA)