The culmination of a furious opening stint, commanding drives at the front, a dramatic and somewhat controversial pass for the lead, and a perfectly executed final pit stop, Lexus Team ZENT Cerumo and drivers Yuji Tachikawa and Hiroaki Ishiura scored a memorable overall victory in the 45th International Suzuka 1000km endurance race, the crown jewel of the Autobacs Super GT Series calendar.
The #38 ZENT Cerumo RC-F battled the #36 au TOM’s RC-F of Daisuke Ito and Nick Cassidy throughout most of the race, swapping the lead several times including a hotly debated pass by Tachikawa on lap 129, but in the end it was the ZENT team and their red Lexus who led home a 1-2 finish for the manufacturer and scored their first win of 2016.
The critical moment of the race came on lap 90 when a Safety Car for a crashed GT300 front-runner neutralized a healthy lead for the ZENT RC-F, which it had built after charging from eighth on the grid to the lead in just the first 22 laps of Tachikawa’s opening stint.
That brought the au TOM’s RC-F into contention, and on lap 117, the young Kiwi Cassidy made the pass for the lead.
The high point of controversy came twelve laps later, when Tachikawa passed Cassidy at Spoon Curve where the #17 Keihin NSX had spun off into the gravel trap in what was a very obvious yellow flag situation.
However, Tachikawa was cleared of any wrongdoing when the race stewards, led by Chief Steward Yasuhiro Yodono and Driving Standard Observer Naoki Hattori, determined that Tachikawa was only shown the white, but not the yellow flag as he and Cassidy approached the stricken NSX – and by the time the yellow was displayed, it was too late for Tachikawa to see.
They traded the lead twice again before the final round of pit stops, and in the end, a quicker final pit stop for the ZENT team got them out ahead of the au team – giving the reigning Super Formula champion Ishiura the chance to cruise home to victory.
Except for a final flurry of rain showers – one of a few showers that hit the track at opportune times during the race – that saw Ishiura nearly bin it in the Casio Triangle on the final lap, the ZENT RC-F of Ishiura was much quicker than the au RC-F of Ito in the final laps as the conditions worsened, and came home to take the victory for the ZENT Cerumo team by 1.242 seconds at the line.
This year’s victory is the second Suzuka 1000km crown for Team Cerumo and Tachikawa, who won previously in the non-championship 2001 race, and Ishiura, who won the 700km Summer Special in 2009 – but to all three parties, and to team director Toranosuke Takagi, it felt like their first proper Suzuka 1000km victory.
The legend of Yuji Tachikawa continues to grow, as he moves into second place on the all-time Super GT 500 class wins list with his seventeenth career win, and first since 2014 at Sportsland SUGO.
After the race, a battle-worn Tachikawa expressed his feelings on winning the race.
“I have never felt so exhausted after a Suzuka 1000km. It was tough, but it was worth the effort. In yesterday’s qualifying, it was my mistake that caused us to end up way back in the field, so I wanted to do something to somehow make up for that. I am really relieved now that I was able to do that.”
Ishiura snaps a winless run dating back to the 2012 Fuji 500km, it is his fourth career Super GT win, and his first as a ZENT Cerumo driver.
“I was really baffled when the rain started falling again at the end of the race,” said Ishiura. “In the last chicane I wasn’t able to stop. But, I am glad that I was able to get to the checkered flag first.”
“Until now, this has been a difficult season for us, but I kept telling myself that with Tachikawa-san as my teammate there is no way that we can’t win, and I kept trying my best. I am really glad that we were able to get this win.”
The win is the fifth for Lexus at the Suzuka 1000km (2007, 2009, 2014, 2015, 2016), and combined with the eight previous victories for their parent company Toyota (’66, ’68, ’72, ’87, ’91, ’01, ’02, ’05), the Toyota Motor Company have now won a combined thirteen Suzuka 1000km overall trophies – extending their current record.
Ito and Cassidy helped secure a Lexus 1-2 finish at Suzuka, falling just short of the victory in the end – but they do move all the way up to fourth in the championship standings with their second-place finish. And for the 22-year-old GT500 rookie Cassidy, who put on a sensational performance, he achieves a very important milestone as the first driver from New Zealand to record a podium finish in Super GT history.
For Ito, who just fell short of matching the great Kunimitsu Takahashi’s record four Suzuka 1000km victories, this is his seventh career Suzuka 1000km podium finish across both the non-championship and Super GT eras.
Nissan’s run of season-opening victories has been halted at four, with the best of the GT-Rs finishing in third, the #46 S Road Craftsports MOLA GT-R of Satoshi Motoyama and “super sub” Mitsunori Takaboshi, the latter replacing the injured Katsumasa Chiyo and doing a commendable job throughout his very first GT500 race, showing no signs of intimidation as he battled hard all race long..
Their chances at victory effectively ended when Motoyama was assessed a 10 second stop-go penalty for overtaking under yellows, and he and Takaboshi had to maximize their last five stints after pitting very early the first time and going out of sequence. They did just that, taking the final step on the podium – with Chiyo able to stand on the podium with his teammates in celebration of a good result.
It looked to be an unbelievable fourth-place finish for the defending GT500 champions, the #1 Motul Autech NISMO GT-R of Tsugio Matsuda and Ronnie Quintarelli, who fought all the way back from starting in twelfth and, most importantly, carrying the maximum 100 kilograms of success ballast.
But on the final lap of the race, just after taking fourth place away from the #6 Wako’s LeMans RC-F (Kazuya Oshima/Andrea Caldarelli), Matsuda’s car crawled to a stop at the entry to the 130R corner. They only managed to fall to sixth place in the final results, and picked up six more valuable points to maintain an eleven-point lead over Tachikawa and Ishiura. An important race in their quest for an unprecedented three consecutive GT500 championships.
The last-lap drama for NISMO promoted Oshima and Caldarelli back into fourth place at the end, the Wako’s RC-F scoring its fourth top-five finish of the season in a steady race highlighted by team director Juichi Wakisaka doing Juichi Wakisaka things:
A race that could have seen the #19 WedsSport Advan RC-F written off on the opening lap of the race on the start ended with a very solid fifth place result for Yuhi Sekiguchi and Yuji Kunimoto, who were both very consistent all weekend long in giving the top Yokohama team a chance to compete for a podium. It is the fifteenth consecutive points-paying finish for the WedsSport RC-F, giving Lexus four of the top five positions in the final order.
What looked to be a promising day for the Honda NSX Concept-GTs on their home circuit at Suzuka quickly soured, with the pole-winning #15 Drago Modulo NSX retiring mid-way through the race. In the end, it was the #100 Raybrig NSX (Naoki Yamamoto/Takuya Izawa) who survived a tough race to finish as the best of the Hondas, way down in seventh place and a lap off the leaders.
From last on the GT500 starting grid, the #39 Denso SARD RC-F (Heikki Kovalainen/Kohei Hirate) came home to finish eighth, gaining more championship points and holding onto third in the standings. For Kovalainen, this is his first-ever points finish in a race at Suzuka Circuit, between four Formula 1 Japanese Grands Prix and two Suzuka 1000kms.
Rounding off the top ten finishers were two more Honda NSXes that had a tough day: The #8 ARTA NSX (Kosuke Matsuura/Tomoki Nojiri) in ninth, and the #17 Keihin NSX (Koudai Tsukakoshi/Takashi Kogure) in tenth, both two laps down. This despite the Keihin NSX’s critical spin into the gravel, another heartbreaker for Real Racing at the 1000km.
James Rossiter’s bid to win his third consecutive Suzuka 1000km ended with a DNF on lap 92 for the #37 KeePer TOM’s RC-F shared with Ryo Hirakawa. With their first non-points finish of the season, Rossiter & Hirakawa fall all the way down to sixth in the championship standings.
The most recent race winners, the #12 Calsonic Impul GT-R (Hironobu Yasuda/Joao Paulo de Oliveira), also dropped to seventh in the standings after an oil leak caused them to catch fire and drop out on lap 60.