Juichi Wakisaka enjoyed so many great moments in his eighteen seasons as a Super GT driver. This weekend, the three-time GT500 champion returns to Sportsland Sugo, the site of two of his most memorable moments as a GT500 driver – only this time, as the director of the Lexus Team Wako’s LeMans squad.Wakisaka was a two-time winner at Sugo in 2001 and 2003, and a three-time pole sitter (2000, 2003, 2004). But the win from pole position in 2003 was arguably one of his most daring in the series.
With three laps to go, Wakisaka’s Esso Ultraflo Toyota Supra had caught the leading WoodOne TOM’s Supra of Erik Comas, and continued to close in to within less than a second as the laps continued to tick down.
They were nose to tail entering the final corner on the last lap, when Wakisaka touched the rear bumper of Comas’ Supra, pushing him off the racing line just enough to allow the reigning GT500 champions’ Esso Supra to barge its way past into the lead on the final dash to the start/finish line.
It was the closest finish to a Super GT race ever to that point, with Wakisaka and co-driver Akira Iida winning by just 0.082 seconds at the line, even as huge bits of bodywork began to explode off the back of the Esso Supra.
As entertaining and colourful a personality Wakisaka is off-track, he was also a ruthlessly determined competitor whenever he climbed aboard the wheel of a race car.
That determination was demonstrated again at Sugo just four years later, in the 2007 race, with Wakisaka now driving the Houzan TOM’s Lexus SC – and just like in 2003, Wakisaka was the defending series champion.
After the round of pitstops, Wakisaka took over the Houzan SC and led from the Takata Dome Honda NSX of Ryo Michigami, with the third-placed ARTA NSX of Daisuke Ito close behind.
As the lead duo rounded the same 110R corner where the race was decided four years prior, Wakisaka was held up by one of the ArkTech Porsche Boxsters just enough to allow Michigami to close right up on him.
Wakisaka defended hard, and in doing so, Ito closed up several carlengths and swung to the inside as the top three cars ascended the crest on the front straightaway, crossing the line three-abreast with a crowd of over 29,000 on their feet.
Three into one going into the first corner would never work, and when Ito and Michigami made slight contact under braking, Wakisaka held his nerve and went back into the lead with a tremendous display of late braking.
He would win the battle, but a pit lane infraction for Andre Lotterer crossing the white line on entry would force the Houzan SC to serve a drivethrough penalty – costing the TOM’s squad any chance of a victory. Ito and co-driver Ralph Firman eventually took the victory in the ARTA NSX – the first of three in a historic championship season for Aguri Suzuki’s team.
As a first-year team director, Juichi Wakisaka has enjoyed decent success, with the Wako’s 4CR RC-F of Kazuya Oshima and Andrea Caldarelli finishing fourth in Okayama, and fifth at the Fuji 500km – the latter from fifteenth and last on the grid. They occupy fifth in the Drivers’ Championship going into the race, with only 28 kilograms of ballast on board, and have had solid results over the two official tests at Sugo and Suzuka.
This race could be the best chance that Team LeMans have had to snap a winless streak dating back to the 2013 Motegi GT Race. Will Juichi Wakisaka’s direction and guidance prove as great at Sugo for his team as his driving did for so many years?