The #36 au TOM’s Lexus LC500 of Kazuki Nakajima and Yuhi Sekiguchi put together the perfect race weekend, taking pole position, fastest lap of the race, and most importantly, a near wire-to-wire victory in the Suzuka GT 300km Race, the third round of the 2019 Autobacs Super GT Series.
Only conceding the lead during the mid-race pit cycles, Nakajima and Sekiguchi otherwise commanded Sunday afternoon’s race, the headlining performance in a 1-2 finish for TOM’s Racing, a clean sweep of the GT500 podium for Lexus, and a double victory for Lexus – as the #96 K-Tunes Racing RC F GT3 of Morio Nitta and Sena Sakaguchi took the GT300 class victory.
For the first time this season, a Super GT race began under dry and sunny conditions. The hottest race of the season, with the air temperature at 29°C and the track temps well above 40°C for the 52-lap race at Suzuka.
Kazuki Nakajima, who missed the previous Fuji 500km as he was taking part in a victorious effort in the 6 Hours of Spa-Francorchamps for Toyota Gazoo Racing, took the start in the orange and white #36 au TOM’s LC500, and made a clean break from the field behind him, including the #37 KeePer TOM’s LC500 of Ryo Hirakawa which started 2nd, and the #6 Wako’s 4CR LC500 of Kenta Yamashita – who started 5th, but quickly made up ground capitalizing on small errors from the #12 Calsonic Impul Nissan GT-R of James Rossiter, and the #8 ARTA Honda NSX-GT of Takuya Izawa, to move into 3rd.
Just as Nakajima had opened up a comfortable lead, and as Yamashita was catching Hirakawa for 2nd, the Safety Car was deployed on Lap 18 as the GT500 championship-leading #23 Motul Autech GT-R of Ronnie Quintarelli suffered a left front puncture and went straight off into the sponge barriers at the high-speed 130R corner. Quintarelli was uninjured, but he and Tsugio Matsuda would go scoreless at Suzuka and ultimately exit the weekend 2nd in the championship standings.
The Safety Car intervention came just as the pit window was opening up for teams to refuel, change tyres, and exchange drivers. On Lap 24, the #36 au LC500, #6 Wako’s LC500, and #8 ARTA NSX came into the pits. Yuhi Sekiguchi, Kazuya Oshima, and Tomoki Nojiri, respectively, strapped in for their closing stints. One lap later, the #37 KeePer LC500 pitted, changing drivers to Nick Cassidy. While Cassidy initially came out ahead of the #36 and #6 Lexus, driving out on stone-cold tyres through the S-Curves at Suzuka meant he’d eventually settle into net third position.
Once those Bridgestone tyres were up to temperature, we had a cracking three-way tail-to-nose battle for the net lead of the race, between Sekiguchi, Oshima, and Cassidy – who made a brave overtake on Lap 31 at the Triangle chicane to pass Oshima for 2nd.
At that time, the #3 CraftSports Motul GT-R of Kohei Hirate had yet to stop, and was still circulating in 1st in the only remaining Michelin-clad car. But any speculation of their strategy was rendered a moot point, when they were hit with a 10-second penalty stop for overtaking under the Safety Car.
Just after Cassidy had taken second place, a mistake opened the door for Oshima and the #6 Wako’s LC500 to move back into the position, and Oshima followed Sekiguchi closely, pursuing his and Lexus Team LeMans’ first GT500 victory since November 2013 at Twin Ring Motegi. As they fought it out, Nojiri in the #8 ARTA NSX caught the Lexus trio and made it a four-car lead battle momentarily!
There was more drama to come as the #1 Raybrig NSX-GT of Naoki Yamamoto and Jenson Button made contact with slower GT300 traffic with 10 laps remaining, suffering a puncture and dropping them out of the points completely – their second non-points finish in three races to open the season, an early setback for defending champions Team Kunimitsu. This after the #16 Motul Mugen NSX-GT (Hideki Mutoh / Daisuke Nakajima) picked up a puncture on Lap 36.
Despite the challenges early in his stint, Sekiguchi steadily began to pull away from his Lexus stablemates over the closing laps. Oshima and Cassidy continued their fight for second, and with 4 laps to go, Cassidy made a brave move through traffic in the S-Curves to put the KeePer LC500 back into 2nd place for good.
But nobody was catching the orange and white blur in front. Sekiguchi was perfect in his closing stint, securing the victory for Lexus Team au TOM’s and his co-driver Nakajima, and kickstarting their 2019 championship challenge with a perfect 21-point performance with a win from pole position.
Because the #36 au LC500 failed to finish when Nakajima was absent from the Fuji 500km, he is still mathematically eligible to win the GT500 Drivers’ Championship. His seventh career GT500 victory gives him an extra shot of positive momentum going into the 24 Hours of Le Mans on June 15-16 – as he also looks to become the first Japanese driver to win the World Endurance Drivers’ Championship.
As for Sekiguchi, it’s his second win in as many weeks and as many different series, coming off his remarkable victory in the last Super Formula round at Autopolis. It’s his third career GT500 class victory, tying him with, among others, TOM’s Racing Executive Advisor Masanori Sekiya.
Cassidy’s aggressive moves through traffic secured the second half of a TOM’s 1-2 finish, and his and Hirakawa’s first podium of the 2019 season, moving them to fifth in the standings after a scrappy 7th place finish at the Fuji 500km.
And the #6 Wako’s 4CR LC500 completed a Lexus GT500 podium sweep, with Yamashita taking his first podium at Team LeMans, and Oshima returning to the rostrum for the first time since Buriram last July with newly-minted IndyCar rookie sensation Felix Rosenqvist.
The #8 ARTA NSX of Nojiri and Izawa finished fourth, and it looked as if the #12 Calsonic GT-R of Rossiter and Daiki Sasaki would finish fifth – before the car suddenly lost power on the final lap of the race! That promoted the #39 Denso Kobelco SARD LC500 (Heikki Kovalainen/Yuichi Nakayama) into fifth, up four places from starting 9th.
Yuji Tachikawa and Hiroaki Ishiura improved eight places, from 14th on the grid, to 6th in the #38 ZENT Cerumo LC500. Their 6th-place finish moves them into the lead in the GT500 Drivers’ Championship by just two points over NISMO drivers Matsuda and Quintarelli. The #19 WedsSport Advan LC500 (Yuji Kunimoto/Sho Tsuboi) had a quiet but productive 7th-place finish.
Best of the Nissans was the #24 Realize Corporation Advan GT-R (Mitsunori Takaboshi/Jann Mardenborough), overcoming a drive-through penalty to finish 8th, ahead of the #3 CraftSports GT-R of Hirate & Makowiecki who recovered to finish 9th, and the #12 Calsonic GT-R of Sasaki & Rossiter was ultimately classified 10th.
GT300 saw some great racing, and a come-from-behind victory for K-Tunes Racing and drivers Morio Nitta and Sena Sakaguchi.
From pole position, the #25 Hoppy Toyota 86 MC of Kimiya Sato started well, and drove out to the lead of the race. Morio Nitta took the start in the #96 K-Tunes RC F GT3, and was starting to reel in the Hoppy 86 ahead of him. But Sato held the lead through the Safety Car, before Tsuchiya Engineering elected to pit once the Safety Car withdrew after 21 laps completed.
As they’d been known to do, Tsuchiya Engineering – who’d just emerged from a public financial strife thanks to a boost in sponsorship – elected to change drivers to Takamitsu Matsui, and take fuel only without changing tyres. The Hoppy 86 MC is gentle on its tyres, but would the Yokohama Advan tyres themselves have enough to last for 49 laps in this heat and under the duress of Suzuka’s fast sweeping curves?
Nitta stayed out until the end of Lap 24, jumping out to hand the wheel of the K-Tunes RC F over to rookie Sena Sakaguchi. They took fuel, and crucially, changed all four Bridgestone tyres. They would of course come out with a massive deficit in track position.
But over the next several laps, Sakaguchi kept clicking off fast laps on his new tyres as Matsui began to struggle for grip. At a time, Sakaguchi was consistently lapping 2 seconds per lap faster, and it wouldn’t be long before the K-Tunes RC F made a move for the lead.
With eight laps to go, the lead gave way. Matsui could no longer hold onto the Hoppy 86 MC on worn tyres, and the 19-year-old Sakaguchi was already through by the first Degner Curve, and driving away to a lead that kept growing and growing until the chequered flag fell, and K-Tunes Racing took their second victory in 2019, after winning the rain-shortened Okayama race in April.
Back-to-back victories, in fact, for K-Tunes Racing at Suzuka – and under similar circumstances to last year, when they overtook another car that gambled on not changing tyres to take the race victory.
Nitta, who drove a brilliant start, continues to rewrite the record books in GT300 as he extends his own record for the most victories in the category with his 22nd career win – he’s now two clear of his old co-driver Shinichi Takagi at the top. 19-year-old Sakaguchi didn’t get to drive at all when he took his first career Super GT win at Okayama, but his closing stint secured his second career win in just his third start – and now both drivers exit Suzuka with the lead in the GT300 Drivers’ Championship.
It was a near-perfect weekend for Lexus at Suzuka: A double victory and a GT500 podium sweep!
But an even better weekend will be celebrated by Team Mach, the Fukuoka-based privateers whose best finish in GT300 had been a third-place finish at Sepang Circuit in 2004. The #5 Advics Mach Syaken MC86 started third, though Yuya Hiraki had a difficult start, dropping to as low as sixth before getting back up to fifth.
Like Tsuchiya Engineering, they also pitted on Lap 21 just as the Safety Car withdrew, and like Tsuchiya Engineering, they also pitted for fuel only, and a change to Natsu Sakaguchi. That strategy put Natsu Sakaguchi ahead of Sena Sakaguchi, though it was Sena who won the battle of the Sakaguchis. Still, Team Mach were in for a shot at their first podium in 15 years, locking horns with the #61 Subaru BRZ R&D Sport (Takuto Iguchi/Hideki Yamauchi), and the #88 ManePa Lamborghini Huracán GT3 (Yuya Motojima/Takashi Kogure) before the latter suffered a puncture and dropped out of the points.
And on the final lap in the Triangle chicane, the Hoppy 86 MC slowed up in the Triangle chicane, and Natsu Sakaguchi went past into second place to secure Team Mach’s best-ever Super GT result – a remarkable triumph for the underdog team led by former owner/driver and now team principal, Tetsuji Tamanaka!
The #61 Subaru BRZ of Iguchi and Yamauchi held on to finish third and complete the GT300 podium, another great result for a car that has traditionally excelled at Suzuka. The #4 Goodsmile Hatsune Miku Mercedes-AMG GT3 (Nobuteru Taniguchi/Tatsuya Kataoka) made a late surge to finish fourth, while after seizing up in the final corners, the Hoppy 86 MC of Matsui and Sato limped to a fifth place finish, having led most of the race without even a podium to show for it.
The #55 ARTA Honda NSX GT3 (Shinichi Takagi/Nirei Fukuzumi) finished 6th after muscling past the #34 Modulo Kenwood NSX GT3 (Ryo Michigami/Hiroki Otsu) late in the race. The #21 Hitotsuyama Audi R8 LMS (Richard Lyons/Ryuichiro Tomita) improved from 15th on the grid to finish 8th, the #11 Gainer TanaX Nissan GT-R GT3 (Katsuyuki Hiranaka/Hironobu Yasuda) finished 9th, and coming home with the final points scoring position in 10th was the #60 Syntium LM Corsa RC F GT3 (Hiroki Yoshimoto/Ritomo Miyata), denying the second-generation #31 Toyota GR Sport Prius PHV apr GT (Koki Saga/Yuhki Nakayama) its first point by just 0.7 seconds.
There was yet another upset in the works from the #360 RunUp Rivaux GT-R (Takayuki Aoki/Yusaku Shibata). They’d run in the top ten most of the race, and Tomei Sports seemed set for their first top-ten finish in Super GT since returning in 2007, and their first top-ten in GT300 since 1994. But an emergency stop on Lap 41 ultimately ended that dream, and they’d finish 20th, one spot behind the ManePa Huracán that ran as high as 4th.
The official attendance for Sunday was 36,000 spectators, contributing to a two-day total of 57,000 for the weekend at Suzuka Circuit.
24 Hour races at Fuji, Le Mans, and the Nürburgring await most of the drivers in the field, so the next time Super GT returns to action will be on June 30, at Chang International Circuit for the series’ lone international round in Buriram, Thailand.