Many had wondered, after three races in the 2018 Autobacs Super GT Series, when the Lexus LC500s that so thoroughly dominated GT500 in their debut year of 2017 would return to form and get back to winning races. They did so in Thailand on Sunday, and with plenty of fireworks involved.
Heikki Kovalainen and Kamui Kobayashi took the victory at the Chang Super GT Race at Chang International Circuit in Buriram, driving the #39 Denso Kobelco SARD LC500 to its first win of 2018 – in a thrilling race that saw Kobayashi fend off three of the other rival Lexus throughout the closing laps.
Compared to the sudden downpour that delayed qualifying on Saturday, Sunday’s 66-lap race was held with little a threat of rain. Temperatures reached a balmy 32°C, with track temperatures as high as 47°C at the start of the race, and high humidity. From pole position, the #16 Motul Mugen NSX-GT of Hideki Mutoh got a fantastic start, breaking out to a comfortable lead at first. Kovalainen, taking the start in the Denso LC500, swooped past the #17 Keihin NSX-GT of Takashi Kogure, to jump into second and start pursuing Mutoh.
As Mutoh and Kovalainen chased each other for the lead in and out of GT300 traffic ahead, the Lexus which had largely struggled in qualifying suddenly sprung to life. From seventh on the grid, Kenta Yamashita in the #19 WedsSport Advan LC500 had moved up to third. And from eleventh on the grid, the returning Felix Rosenqvist had moved all the way up from eleventh to fourth in the #6 Wako’s 4CR LC500!
A decisive moment in the race came on Lap 19. Kovalainen had been trying to pass Mutoh for several laps, but he saw an opportunity to pass at Turn 3 – and using two lapped GT300 cars as a pick, Kovalainen was able to put his Denso LC500 on the inside heading into Turn 4, and took the lead of the race. It was at this point that Mutoh’s pace started to diminish just a little bit, and soon he fell back in the clutches of the pursuing Rosenqvist and Yamashita, with the super Swede passing the young Japanese on Lap 21.
Soon it came time for pit stops. Mutoh pitted on lap 28 to give the reigns of the Mugen NSX to Daisuke Nakajima, but they had trouble closing the cockpit door which lost them several seconds in the pits – and effectively took them out of the lead of the race. A loose wheel felt after a pit stop on Lap 26 forced the #100 Raybrig NSX of Jenson Button & Naoki Yamamoto to pit a second time to refasten it. Even two of the Lexus teams, the #1 KeePer TOM’s LC500 (Ryo Hirakawa/Nick Cassidy) and the #38 ZENT Cerumo LC500 (Yuji Tachikawa/Hiroaki Ishiura), suffered from wheel nut problems in the pits.
The WedsSport LC500 pitted on Lap 31, the Wako’s LC500 pitted on Lap 35, and the Denso LC500 pitted on lap 36 to end the pit stop cycle. When it ended, Kamui Kobayashi led in the Denso LC500, Kazuya Oshima was in hot pursuit behind him in the Wako’s LC500, and Yuji Kunimoto was just a few seconds back in the WedsSport LC500.
But then a new challenger had entered the fray. It was the #36 au TOM’s LC500, started by the newly-crowned 24 Hours of Le Mans winner Kazuki Nakajima. Nakajima had a steady opening stint, making up ground from 10th on the grid. On Lap 28 he pitted, and Yuhi Sekiguchi took over. Within his first lap in the car he was pounding out fast lap after fast lap – the fastest lap of the race exchanging eight times over the course of the race. Sekiguchi was now closing in on Kunimoto, his old co-driver, with whom he’d won this race in 2016, then passed him on Lap 49.
Kobayashi and Oshima slugged it out over several laps, with the bright blue and pink Wako’s LC500 unable to get past the white and red Denso LC500. Kobayashi was on a mission to atone from two tough races at Okayama and Suzuka, defending with all his valour. As the two went wheel-to-wheel for the lead. Sekiguchi then saw an opportunity to close in, ultimately setting the fastest lap of the race, a 1’24.977, on Lap 55 – and by then, the two leaders were already in his sights.
The ultra-aggressive Sekiguchi passed Oshima on Lap 56, and then went to work on trying to pass the equally-aggressive Kobayashi for the lead of the race. With 8 laps to go, the au TOM’s LC500 and Denso LC500 were side-by-side going into Turn 4, but Kobayashi had the inside line over Sekiguchi, and held the position.
Sekiguchi still remained in sight of the lead, and everything seemed like it would build to a dramatic crescendo on the final lap. But coming out of the first corner, Sekiguchi slowed significantly – the #36 au LC500 had run out of fuel! The agonizing crawl around the final 4.5 kilometer lap would not even make it to the chequered flag. Nakajima and Sekiguchi were classified 10th, and an inconsolable Sekiguchi could only sit and reflect on a victory, a podium finish, that had escaped him and his team.
And that relieved the pressure from Kobayashi, who just had to pace himself around the 66th and final lap to claim his first Super GT victory – and the first of the season for Lexus and Team SARD, at a track that the F1 cult hero, turned WEC and now Super GT race winner, had never visited before.
“This was my first time racing on this track, and because I wasn’t able to run in the race at Suzuka and was not entered at Fuji, this is my first time racing in this car since the opening round at Okayama,” said Kobayashi. “This having been the case, before we got here I honestly didn’t think we were going to win. So, I’m happy that we have won and very grateful to the team that worked so hard and to Heikki-san.”
For Kovalainen, the 2016 GT500 champion and the other part of this “dream team” of ex-F1 stars that was assembled this February, it is his third victory in the series.
“By winning here at this circuit and by winning teamed with Kamui-san has made this a very good weekend,” said the Finn. “Coming into this season was like being on a roller coaster ride, and we had the worst possible race at the season opener at Okayama. After having an OK race at Fuji, I made a mistake in the last round at Suzuka that spoiled the race for us. So, I am very happy that we were able to win today.”
The victory is big for Kovalainen, who ascends to the lead in the GT500 Drivers’ Championship by three points over Yamamoto and Button in the Raybrig NSX, which languished to an 11th place finish and did not score points.
Oshima would be content to finish 2nd with Rosenqvist, giving Lexus Team LeMans Wako’s their first podium finish of the season, a bounce back from a non-scoring finish at Suzuka. The duo now move back to 4th in the championship, 6 points back of Kovalainen.
It is the fourth consecutive race at Buriram that Lexus Team LeMans have finished on the podium, but the first time since the untimely passing of chief engineer Kenji Yamada in April.
And Kunimoto and Yamashita ended up finishing 3rd, giving Lexus Team WedsSport Bandoh their first GT500 podium since November 2016 at Twin Ring Motegi. 22-year-old Yamashita picks up his first GT500 podium finish, having already won at the GT300 level, a milestone for the Toyota young driver who’s been tabbed for stardom for years.
It’s the fourth Lexus clean sweep of a podium in 13 races, their first since the 2017 Fuji GT 500km Race. Completing a top-four sweep was the ZENT Cerumo LC500 of Yuji Tachikawa and Hiroaki Ishiura, who recovered from starting 13th, and having trouble during their pit stop, to finish a remarkable 4th place. Mutoh and Daisuke Nakajima would finish 5th, the best finish for Team Mugen since their return to GT500 competition.
The best of the Nissan GT-Rs was the #12 Calsonic GT-R (Jann Mardenborough/Daiki Sasaki) in 6th, which had a heated moment with the #24 Forum Engineering Advan GT-R (João Paulo de Oliveira/Mitsunori Takaboshi) on Lap 23. The two GT-Rs clashed wheels heading into Turn 1, and Oliveira spun off and out of the race, while Mardenborough continued on. Kogure and Koudai Tsukakoshi were 7th in the #17 Keihin NSX-GT.
Finishing 8th, after starting 12th, having wheel trouble on their stop and having to carry a fuel flow restrictor, were Hirakawa and Cassidy in the KeePer TOM’s LC500. The effort was enough to get them 3 points to their name and remain within 6 points of the lead of the standings. Completing the top ten was the #64 Epson Modulo NSX-GT (Bertrand Baguette/Kosuke Matsuura) in 9th, and of course, Kaz Nakajima and Sekiguchi in 10th, one lap shy of the goal.
Also finishing out of the points was the #23 Motul Autech GT-R of Tsugio Matsuda and Ronnie Quintarelli. Their bad luck at Buriram continues after a gamble to change only rear tyres on their stop to gain track position, only to lose pace and finish 12th. They are still 3rd in the championship, 4 points back of Kovalainen.
In GT300, the #11 Gainer TanaX Nissan GT-R GT3 of Katsuyuki Hiranaka and Hironobu Yasuda prevailed to take the first victory for the 2018 Nissan GT-R NISMO GT3 in Super GT competition.
Richard Lyons controlled the early portion of the race in the #21 Hitotsuyama Audi R8 LMS, which swooped past the languishing #65 LEON Cvstos Mercedes-AMG GT3 of Haruki Kurosawa right from the start of the race. But on Lap 27, as Lyons pitted to hand the Audi over to Ryuichiro Tomita, the car spun its wheels in the pits. A transmission failure brought them back into the garage to retire.
Having pitted on Lap 23 after Yasuda was running third behind the #55 ARTA BMW M6 GT3 of Shinichi Takagi, the Gainer GT-R was eventually able to jump the ARTA BMW, with Hiranaka in the Nissan now leading Sean Walkinshaw in the BMW, who took on two rear tyres only on their stop. The #60 Syntium LM Corsa Lexus RC F GT3 of Hiroki Yoshimoto & Ritomo Miyata was also in contention, with Yoshimoto having moved up from 16th to 4th in his opening stint.
As Hiranaka paced the field behind him, Walkinshaw had to fend off the 18-year-old rookie Miyata. The two collided through Turns 5 & 6, and Walkinshaw would continue on. But the damage inflicted in that clash contributed to a left rear puncture, that would drop him and Takagi out of the points in 11th.
The #11 Gainer GT-R went on to take the victory by 3.5 seconds, Gainer’s first win with the new-generation GT-R, and one that propels both Hiranaka and Yasuda to the lead of the GT300 Drivers’ Championship following the struggles of the ARTA BMW, as well as the #25 Hoppy 86 MC (Takamitsu Matsui/Sho Tsuboi) that lost 12 laps in the garage with mechanical trouble, and the #18 UPGarage 86 MC (Yuhki Nakayama/Takashi Kobayashi) which crashed out with 9 laps to go.
“This time, the condition of the car was very good from the moment we started running, and the match between the car and the tires was especially good, so I felt confident right from the practice sessions,” said Hiranaka, who scores his 7th career GT300 win. “And that good feeling was verified with this good result. The 2018 model GT-R was said to be fast from the beginning, but until now we hadn’t had any easy races. Still, despite that, the team had all worked hard together, and I believe today’s win is the result of those efforts. I am very happy that we won.”
Hiranaka’s wins have all come with the Gainer team, and he’s won in a Ferrari, an Audi, two different generations of Mercedes-Benz, and now a Nissan in that time!
“It feels great to get this win on such a momentous occasion,” said Yasuda, who scores victory in his 100th career Super GT race. “With the FIA GT3 cars there are some that do well on certain tracks and others that don’t. It had been said that the GT-R was well suited to this track, and when I started running here the car’s condition did seem to be good.”
“I ran the first stint this time and I was able to stay calm as I worked to the front. On the second stint, Hiranaka-san worked hard and we were able to get the first win for the GT-R this season.” This is Yasuda’s first GT300 class win since the 2008 Suzuka 1000km, in his first year back in the class after being displaced from GT500 in the offseason.
A brilliant late charge from Kohei Hirate over the closing stint helped him and Koki Saga take the #31 Toyota Prius apr GT to second place after starting a paltry 14th place. It’s the #31 Prius’ second podium in the last three races. Hirate slashed his way past the likes of Walkinshaw and Miyata on the way to taking the position – and now they move into second in the GT300 championships with that result, 5 points back of Hiranaka and Yasuda.
And in third place, the #60 Syntium RC F held off Naoya Gamou in the #65 LEON AMG by just 0.366 seconds to take the last step on the podium.
Having been the team to spearhead the Lexus RC F GT3 project in 2015, the #60 crew are finally able to claim a podium finish of their own – for team director Akira Iida, and for Hiroki Yoshimoto, who’s driven for the team ever since the start of the LM Corsa/Lexus collaboration. This is also the first podium for 18-year-old rookie Miyata, in just his fourth career race.
Kurosawa and Gamou finished fourth in the LEON AMG, and now move into third in the GT300 standings. They finished ahead of the two Team JLOC Lamborghini Huracán GT3s, led by the #87 Legal Frontier Lamborghini GT3 (Kimiya Sato/Yuya Motojima) in fifth, and the #88 ManePa Lamborghini GT3 (Kazuki Hiramine/Andrea Caldarelli) in sixth.
The #0 Goodsmile Hatsune Miku AMG (Nobuteru Taniguchi/Tatsuya Kataoka) ran very long on Kataoka’s first stint, pitted for fuel only, and were able to salvage a seventh-place finish for their efforts. Also taking a fuel-only stop was the #7 D’station Porsche 911 GT3-R (Tomonobu Fujii/Sven Müller) in 8th. Completing the GT300 top ten was the #34 Modulo Kenwood NSX GT3 (Ryo Michigami/Hiroki Otsu) in 9th, and the #96 K-Tunes RC F GT3 (Morio Nitta/Yuichi Nakayama) in 10th.
The two Thai-flagged entries did take the chequered flag, but the #32 est Cola Bentley Continental GT3 (Maxime Jousse/Kantadhee Kusiri) were slapped with a drive-through penalty for jumping the start, taking them out of a potential points-scoring result early on. They finished 14th, ahead of the #35 arto RC F (Nattavude Charoensukhawatana/Nattapong Horthongkum) in 15th – the best-ever finish for Panther Team Thailand in Super GT to date.
The race was filled with thrilling moments, but there was some clouds overhead for the weekend, as the 2018 Chang Super GT Race drew only 29,636 spectators for the two days of the meeting. That’s down nearly 30 percent from the 2017 race, over 45 percent from 2015 and 2016. That may dampen the future of Super GT at Chang International Circuit after its current deal runs out in 2019 – a great shame, given the races at this new circuit have been genuinely entertaining.
The series returns to action on 4-5 August, as the Autobacs Super GT Series begins a new summer endurance racing tradition with the running of the Fuji GT 500 Mile Race.