One of the most incredible things about Bertrand Baguette’s 2020 Autobacs Super GT Series campaign, a season that has seen him and his number 17 Keihin Honda NSX-GT take two victories, a season that has seen him and his co-driver Koudai Tsukakoshi leading by the smallest of margins going into a historic championship finale at Fuji Speedway – was how close it was to never materializing for the 34-year-old Belgian driver.
“At one point, I thought, okay, I’m gonna miss one, two, three races. I don’t know, it was a disaster. You know, like, when I left Japan at the beginning of April, I never thought that I would be stuck in Europe, being forbidden to go back to Japan.” With the country being under a state of emergency due to the novel coronavirus pandemic, Baguette, one of a handful of foreign drivers in the series who do not reside full-time in Japan, was asked to return home to Belgium, over 9,000 kilometres away.
Honda made contingency plans with Japanese driver Yu Kanamaru, having him test with the intention of racing, if Baguette wasn’t able to attend the first race of the delayed 2020 Super GT season on 19 July. But two weeks prior to the start of the season, it was confirmed that Baguette had already arrived in Japan, given his clearance to enter on humanitarian grounds, and after passing a COVID test and fourteen days in quarantine, he was ready to start the season as if it were anything close to a normal year on the circuit.
“I’ve been very lucky to be able to come back for the first race of the season,” Baguette explains, in a conversation Friday morning from his home away from home in Japan. It was really a last-minute green light from the Japanese government. So it was super tough. It was maybe my first win of the season. And then finally, I made it back and I thought, okay, maybe I will stay in Japan for two or three months, and the coronavirus situation will calm down, and I will be able to go back to Europe for a few days to see my family. But in the end, it was not the case, Coronavirus is still in… everywhere, in the news… today, I saw where the cases are going up again in Japan.”
But the hardest thing for Baguette has been the time away from his family. “I’ve been here for four and a half months, and I haven’t seen my son, haven’t seen my wife since then. So it’s a very tough year in that regard. But, I have no choice. That’s how it is.”
Given how close it all came to going completely off-script, for Bertrand Baguette and everyone at Keihin Real Racing, it has been a terrific season. “Everybody’s highly motivated, and looking forward to the last race. Obviously, we are in a very good position right now as we are leading the championship – however, the gap is not huge, and as you see, a lot of cars are still in a position to be able win the championship as well, so it’s gonna be a really, really tough battle. But yeah, everybody’s in a good mood, and really motivated to do a good job in Fuji and fight hard to try to get that championship.”
Why is it that this season has produced the greatest setup to a championship finale in GT500 history, where five teams, including the duo of Baguette and Tsukakoshi, can all win the championship if they just win the race?
“This year’s championship, it’s very tight, I think mainly because it’s kind of a special year, because of the Coronavirus and the fact that we only race at three tracks and only have short races. So that means that this year the Success Ballast was really penalising for all the cars that perform well at the beginning of the season. Usually, if you have a lot of Success Ballast, and qualify at the back end, you can recover during the race if the race is really long. At Fuji, we normally should have done five hundred kilometres [in the first race], and the second one should have been five hundred miles. But this year, just having short races and Success Ballast was always really penalising, especially for us at Honda, but yes, we’re still in the fight!”
Baguette and Tsukakoshi lead the championship on a tiebreaker with second-place Ryo Hirakawa of TGR Team KeePer TOM’s, with both crews level on points. The top five in the standings are covered by just three points, unprecedented in any previous final round of a season in Super GT. A win for any of those five teams clinches the championship for them.
“It would mean a lot for me to win the championship. First of all, I’m really happy to be back to where I am fighting for a championship. It has been a long time.” Baguette has been a champion before. He won the once-prestigious Formula Renault 3.5 Series in 2009. In 2013, he won the LMP2 class at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, then ended the year with an FIA World Endurance Championship title. Those in America still remember the brief brush with glory Baguette had in IndyCar, coming just a few laps and a gallon of petrol short of an upset victory of an Indianapolis 500 victory, one that was eventually seized by the late Dan Wheldon in 2011.
Baguette came to Super GT in 2014, catching his first ride with the great Satoru Nakajima’s team – which had been struggling to achieve results when he arrived, and was still struggling by the time he transferred at the end of 2018. “I was driving for five years with [Nakajima Racing and] Dunlop. So we know that with the tyres, it’s nearly impossible to fight to the championship. We are just trying to, to win one race during the season.” His only win in that time was still memorable, an upset victory in the final 1000km running of the Suzuka Summer Endurance Race in 2017.
“And last year, I went to [Real Racing and] Bridgestone and we were really quick, but we made a lot of mistakes, and we had a few problems. So we couldn’t really fight for the championship then. Finally this year, we’ve put everything together and we are right there in the fight. So after driving seven years in Super GT, it would be fantastic to win the championship – especially in the first year for Honda with the front engine [NSX-GT]. It would be great.”
The prospect of a front-engined Honda NSX race car defied tradition, but when the car was unveiled last autumn and finally made its race debut in July, it had potential. “It’s a fantastic car, to be honest,” Baguette says of the 2020 NSX-GT.
“The big difference for us was our race pace. It has always been one of the issues of Hondas [in the past], especially compared to Toyota, who are always super strong on race pace. We have always been super quick in qualifying, and then once the race arrived, we tended to have a pickup issue or high deg on the tire. So to go to the front engine [layout] really helps on that matter. Especially our car. We are really, really strong in the race. Struggling a bit more in qualifying for some reason. We still don’t really understand why, but we are super strong in race pace and that’s one of the main differences for me with the new NSX.”
“It was not easy at the beginning because I still remember our first tyre test at Sepang. The car was not that quick, the balance was not that good, and we were struggling a lot especially on tyre deg. So actually, it was the opposite feeling at the very beginning, but I have to say that the engineers did a fantastic job, in the end, we have a very good car and a good setup that’s behaving really well. There are still some issues like mid-corner understeer that is quite big, and we still need to find some solution for that. But to be honest, being able to win three races in the first year of this car, against Nissan and Toyota who have six years of experience with a front-engined car… we can be happy about that!”
Part of the key to Honda’s success has been finding a healthy balance of having their fleet of five teams pulling together towards a common goal, while at the same time, still being allowed to enjoy full competition and compete against one another for the championship.
When describing the competition versus cooperation factor at Honda, Baguette explains, “Well, of course, there is a competition between the teams you always want to be the best. But to be honest with you, the setup is completely open. For example, the number eight car [ARTA NSX] was struggling a lot at the beginning of the year. And then from round five at Fuji, they nearly or completely copied our set up. So basically, everything is open, if the other teams want to know what we are doing, they can know – and vice versa, if we want to know what the number eight or number 100 [Raybrig NSX] is doing, then we can know as well.”
“It was a wish for Honda, from the beginning of the year, because we were going with a new car into the season. So they said, okay, we have a new car, and it’s important for us to share information between the teams. And I have to say that the relationship between the teams is going quite well. We drive on the simulator at the factory all together. We completely share everything. So basically, everything is open, and we help each other out, but on track, you know, there is still a competition between each other. At Motegi [last week] we were the best car in the championship, and we finished last out of the five Hondas. I mean, I think if you have the same situation in DTM, maybe we would have won the race, because they would all have been told to let us past! But I mean, it’s just a true competition between all the other teams, but at the end, we give each other a lot of information as well.”
The potential was always there for this new Honda NSX-GT this season. It was always there for this Keihin Real Racing team, the minute that Baguette was moved to the number 17 team last year. But that first victory for Tsukakoshi and Baguette never materialized in the first year.
“A lot of stuff happened in 2019. A few mistakes happened on track. Of course, you can remember the first race of the season at Okayama, where the two Hondas collided together.” That collision, between Tsukakoshi and the Raybrig NSX of defending champion Naoki Yamamoto, eventually cost both drivers the win in a rain-shortened race. Yet the misfortune didn’t end there. “In Suzuka, my teammate crashed on track. At Fuji, we had a brake failure, because we were running a bit too aggressive on the brakes. We had some strategy mistakes as well, and we got a bit unlucky with the weather, we were on pole in Autopolis, and it started to rain in the middle of the race and we chose the wrong tire. Same in Sugo, we qualified on pole, we started the race on slicks and it started to rain like crazy. So we had to do one pit stop more than the other.”
When asked if these misfortunes cost Keihin Real Racing a shot at winning the GT500 Championship in 2019, Baguette replied, “I don’t know if we would have won the championship, but for sure we would have been in the top three, No doubt about that.”
“We took what we learned from those mistakes and all those experiences into the new season. And obviously, everything went much better. I still think we could have done better this year with the Success Ballast, especially the two races we had at Suzuka. We were not competitive enough, we made some wrong tyre choices, I think. “So still a lot of stuff to improve on. But we are still in the fight for the championship and we’re going to give it a go.”
Once Baguette returned to Japan and the season got underway at Fuji, a mechanical issue in Round 1 brought back difficult memories of the missed opportunities of the past season. They won the second round at Fuji, then had a pedestrian eighth-place finish at Suzuka. But it was the second win, in the fourth round at Motegi on 13 September, that sticks with Baguette as the true turning point of the season.
“We were quite heavy on Success Ballast, but that weekend we were just flying,” says Baguette. “The car was so fast. We qualified P2 mostly because of the wet conditions, but in the race, I mean the car was just so fast. I remember my overtake on Yuji Tachikawa at the hairpin through traffic. I was really struggling to find a way to overtake him. I was much quicker, but his car was just so fast on the straights, and he was braking so late. I was a bit frustrated,” Baguette laughs, “you could see that I was flashing [the lights] all the time, just to try to cool myself down and relax. I was just waiting for an opportunity. And when I saw one coming, I just jumped into it and went outside. It was a tricky move. Not easy, but it happened.
“And then it was just a matter of bringing the car to the line. That weekend, we were just so strong. And that’s really when we realized we are back into the fight for the championship – we were leading the championship. And from that point we proved to everybody that we were one to look out for towards the end of the season. So that was really the turning point of the season.”
Baguette’s accomplishments and skill need little exposition to European and American fans. His teammate, Koudai Tsukakoshi, maybe less so. Tsukakoshi is a driver whose surname eludes some of the English commentators without stumbling – but he is, first and foremost, a respected veteran driver who has established himself as one of the pillars of Honda’s factory racing efforts in Japan, in a career that has spanned over 100 Super GT races since 2008, and all of them with Real Racing.
“Koudai’s main strength is his speed in qualifying. Over one lap, he is really on it. I know that in Q2, Koudai would always take everything that is possible to take out of the car to do the best lap time. I think that has been one of his strengths – last year, winning two pole positions, and this year again. That’s something he is really strong at,” Baguette says of his co-driver.
“This year, he has been a very consistent, and very reliable driver in the race. I know that when I give him the car, I know he’s gonna bring the car back to the finish line. He’s not taking too much risk into traffic and overtaking. I know he is going to bring the car back in one piece. I have to say that I believe we are a really, really strong combination. And I’m really happy to be driving the car with him.”
Both Baguette and Tsukakoshi possess not only the sheer pace, but also the patience and discretion to be consistent with their results. Any mistakes that plagued Tsukakoshi in early 2019 are long gone. The on-track chemistry between the two Keihin NSX drivers is impeccable, and it’s shown true in their two victories – the first time that Real Racing have ever won two races in a season in GT500, where once before, they went nearly eight years between wins.
Tsukakoshi has spent his entire career at Real Racing in search of a championship. Katsutomo Kaneishi, who has been in racing for over thirty years starting as a driver, and then as a team manager for the last decade and a half, hasn’t seen his Real Racing team this close to a championship in seven years. He may never have raced in Formula 1 the way that Honda’s other four team managers have, but Kaneishi still earns the respect of his drivers and his team.
“I have a lot of respect for Katsutomo-san for what he did in the past as a driver, as well as a team manager,” Baguette says of Kaneishi. “I’m already very happy to give him two wins this year with the team. Hopefully, a third one coming in two weeks, even if it’s not gonna be easy. But if we want to win the title, we have no choice. We have to win big. And I hope we can win the first title for Real Racing together.
He is pushing hard, working every day on the next race, and how we can make the team better. I’m very happy to be working with him.”
The game plan for the final race at Fuji will involve a combination of Honda and Real Racing drawing from their past experiences in the prior races at Fuji Speedway this year, but also trying to adjust to the conditions that a race in late November will bring. “Setup wise, we know more or less where we have to be. The only difference is that we start to go into quite cold temperatures. Because the season started in July due to the coronavirus, we don’t have much data and much experience with the new car and in this cold temperature. So that’s the only tricky point for us. But I guess it’s the same for everybody. Toyota and Nissan are in the same situation. The fact that we have only short races this year as well makes the strategy quite straightforward.”
“I think the key for Fuji will be to qualify at the front. That’s something we failed to do last week at Motegi. We had a really fast car in the race and we qualified tenth. So starting from P10, especially with a safety car, what can you do? So fifth was already quite a good result. But in Fuji, if we want to win the race, we have to qualify….top five, minimum. Top three would be the best. And then I know in the race we’ll have a fast car.”
If there’s one thing Baguette does not wish to see impact this championship-deciding race, it’s a Safety Car in the pit window that would basically turn the running order on its head. This has been a pain point for a few Super GT drivers since the series made the controversial decision to close pit lane at every Safety Car intervention in 2016. “I’ve been complaining a lot about this,” says Baguette, “but I mean, the safety car rule this year in Super GT has been kind of a joke. I mean, the two last races, the safety car just came out in the pit window and just killed half of the field’s race. If you get lucky, you win the race, if you’re not lucky, then you have no chance to win.”
“It’s something that’s really Super GT has to change, because it has been a disaster in the last two races and, and it cannot continue like that.” Asked if the planned introduction of Full Course Yellow (FCY) in 2021, or perhaps a different way to mitigate pit lane congestion and still allow teams to pit under Safety Car would be viable, Baguette said, “I don’t know what is the solution to be honest, but the situation right now is not good. Also, the fact that they call the Safety Car so late. [At Motegi] the car was stopped for more than a lap before they called the Safety Car. So, you call the Safety Car right away because the car cannot move, or you don’t do it. The same in Suzuka, a car and they waited more than one lap before calling the Safety Car.”
“I know it’s tough. I know it’s not easy when you are a Race Director like to make the right call. And it’s always easier to talk about it afterwards. And as a driver, it’s always frustrating to see some of these calls. I know it’s not easy, but I think we should try to find another solution. And I don’t know if Full Course Yellow will be the solution. But it cannot be less fair than what is happening right now.”
Bertrand Baguette still has his focus set on a potential championship-winning victory at Fuji Speedway this Sunday. But there will be little time to celebrate. There’s something more important awaiting Baguette at the other side of the race, no matter the outcome.
“To be honest with you, I’ll be going straight back to Belgium after the race,” says Baguette. “Five months without seeing the family is too long for me. I already agreed with Honda and the team that whatever happens, on Monday I will be going back to Belgium.”
“But I have Sunday night to celebrate, so definitely if I win the championship, I don’t think I will sleep a lot.”