In the lead up to the 45th International Suzuka 1000km on August 29th, we’re pleased to publish our first-ever interview – a brief chat with a driver making his Super GT debut in the great race – New Zealand’s Jono Lester.
Well-traveled, well-spoken, and tenaciously quick, Lester is one of a small handful of drivers making their Super GT debuts at the 1000km.
First off, your thoughts heading into your Super GT race debut – at the biggest race of the season, the Suzuka 1000km?
“I couldn’t hope for a more fitting Super GT debut than at Suzuka. Sure, the stakes are no higher for the 1000km, but it’s also the Japanese circuit where I’ve had the most success in my career, so I feel right at home there.”
Back in July, you underwent your rookie orientation test at Suzuka – what is that process like?
“As daunting as sitting my road licence test back when I was 15! I must say, I consider myself to be pretty calm and collected in a race car nowadays, but the rookie test was put so high up on a pedestal that I went into the sodden wet evaluation at Suzuka on high alert. The weather and lack of car & development tyre knowledge were big factors but we got through the experience without any issues.”
Up until this point in 2016, you’ve been busy racing elsewhere in GT Asia and Lamborghini Super Trofeo. How have those campaigns come along so far?
“They’ve both been rewarding experiences for me. The Super Trofeo started well and as expected it’s in Japan where we found victory, but we’ve had our fair share of problems also which means it’s unlikely we will win the title, which is a shame.”
“GT Asia on the other hand has been a partial programme for me (one round so far at Okayama) but I was pleased to help the team to its first podium and Porsches best result of the season at that point, on my debut in a GT3-R.”
Take us through what had looked to be a big SGT debut at Fuji Speedway – until serious mechanical issues forced your team out.
“If you blow a really huge bubble with your chewing gum, then it pops, you’ve summed up my feelings pretty accurately. Super GT has been my career ambition for so many years now so this anticlimax was a huge blow to my excitement. That said, I already knew that Suzuka was just a few weeks further down the track so it wasn’t as though my opportunity was lost altogether. I’m more hungry than ever for a strong showing at the 1000km.”
How did your first opportunity to race in Japan (in the Super Taikyu Endurance Series with Petronas Syntium Team) come about?
“My father – and later I – were responsible for training the PETRONAS junior drivers out of Formula BMW for GT racing. They would live with us in NZ and train on-and-off the track before racing in Super Taikyu or other series’ in Asia.”
“I formed a close bond with the late Dato David Wong from a young age and when he felt I had reached a certain level of ability he offered me the opportunity to join his team as a Gaijin and start my Asian racing chapter. I credit him with so much, and without his support I wouldn’t be where I am today.”
For those who aren’t familiar, what is Super Taikyu and how is it different from Super GT?
“I like to refer to Super Taikyu as what Super GT stars do on their weekends off! Or in an Australasian sense, the Pirtek Enduro Cup equivalent of V8 Supercar racing. In addition to GT3 machinery though, there are five other lower classes of car to contend with, fieds of 50-60 cars and races from 3-9hrs in duration. It’s both competitive and massive fun for all the drivers.”
With the Petronas team, you had the fortune to be in the same team as Super GT champions like Masataka Yanagida, Tatsuya Kataoka, and Nobuteru Taniguchi – what was it like to race alongside them?
“Ma (Yanagida) in particular was a massive help to the younger drivers to learn the Japanese circuits, the Japanese style of racing and the step up to GT3 machinery. And of course, all three have incredible reputations in Japan so it was an honour as a young driver to be racing with – and competing against – these great drivers.”
Your favorite memory from your time racing in Super Taikyu?
“For sure it was my first victory at Suzuka after a race long battle with NOB (Taniguchi) which I was able to win. It wasn’t without intense pressure, that’s for sure!”
And how confident are you and the team of a good result at Suzuka?
“Of course I always race to win, but in this instance I’m realistic. I know Direction have struggled thus far with the Huracan but I’ve been in situations like this before and sometimes a fresh approach (be it from a new driver, engineer or otherwise) can inject new life into an outfit. I hope I can be a part of some strong performances for the team in the remainder of 2016.”