It was a busy weekend for Super GT stars in other cars around the world, from Super Formula, to the European Le Mans Series, and even the grueling Hokkaido Rally.
That slate was capped off by one of the all-time great drives in Japanese top formula history, as rookie driver Yuhi Sekiguchi won his second race of the 2016 Super Formula Championship, became the first repeat winner of the season, and most importantly, took the championship lead into the JAF Grand Prix of Suzuka.
After a dominant start, a safety car for his IMPUL teammate Joao Paulo de Oliveira’s spin at the SP-Out curve erased all of Sekiguchi’s lead. Worse yet, he caught the safety car before he could come into the pits, leaving him as the only car yet to make a stop when the race restarted on lap 23.
Thus followed a warp-speed stint for the next 32 laps, as Sekiguchi covered the 32-second pitstop delta and then some, rattling off three consecutive fastest laps at one point in the race.
It was a performance reminiscent of the great Michael Schumacher, who ironically made his one and only Japanese top formula appearance at Sugo, twenty-five years ago.
It was more than enough to come out with the lead of the race ahead of Daisuke Nakajima, and Sekiguchi would not be denied as he took the win at Sugo – already the site of his first GT300 race win, his first GT500 pole position, and his best finish of the 2016 Super GT Series.
Team principal Kazuyoshi Hoshino could not contain his emotion after the race. “Send him to F1! This is not a racing level for Japan. I have no words!” Hoshino also added that he would send Sekiguchi to McLaren Honda over Stoffel Vandoorne next season.
The younger Nakajima brother finished second, to claim his first Super Formula podium since 2013 and the second of his career, in the Greentec Nakajima Racing Honda. Tomoki Nojiri finished third, to claim his third Sugo podium in as many career races at the circuit for DoCoMo Dandelion Racing.
Kazuki Nakajima finished fourth despite a gearbox glitch that dropped him back from second, ahead of his Vantelin TOM’s Toyota teammate Andre Lotterer in fifth, and the aforementioned Vandoorne in sixth. Takashi Kogure in the sole Drago Corse Honda, and James Rossiter’s Kondo Racing Toyota, completed the top eight points scorers.
Sekiguchi’s victory gives him a 4.5 point championship lead over Yuji Kunimoto, who along with teammate Hiroaki Ishiura failed to score points for p.Mu/Cerumo-INGING Toyota in a difficult weekend. It was also a pointless weekend for Sunoco Team LeMans, who welcomed Juichi Wakisaka to the team as their “Head Coach”.
The JAF Grand Prix is a double-header weekend with a maximum eighteen championship points available. That event will take place on October 29-30 at Suzuka Circuit.
Podium return for Hirakawa at ELMS Spa-Francorchamps round
Ryo Hirakawa’s maiden campaign in Europe re-fired with a third-place overall finish in the 4 Hours of Spa-Francorchamps in Belgium, aboard the #46 Thiriet by TDS Racing Oreca 05/Nissan with co-drivers Pierre Thiriet and Mathias Beche.
Disappointingly, most of Hirakawa’s mid-race stint was spent under a lengthy safety car period after two separate incidents at the Rivage corner forced extensive repairs to the armco barriers, keeping the Lexus Team KeePer TOM’s driver from turning a wheel in anger.
Hard racing from Beche kept them in contention for a podium, and their place was consolidated when Andrea Pizzitola in the Algarve Pro Racing Ligier/Nissan tried a brave overtake at Stavelot and ended up in the gravel, forcing a Full Course Yellow that ended the race.
The #21 DragonSpeed Racing Oreca/Nissan of Nicolas Lapierre, Henrik Hedman, and Ben Hanley went on to win the race, ahead of the debuting #47 Team WRT Ligier/Judd (Laurens Vanthoor/Will Stevens/Dries Vanthoor).
Thiriet by TDS Racing now lead the LMP2 class by 14 points over the “Mighty 38” of G-Drive Racing, going into the final round of the ELMS season at Estoril, Portugal on October 23.
Heikki’s highs and lows at Hokkaido
Lexus Team SARD driver Heikki Kovalainen took part in Rally Hokkaido this weekend, driving a Toyota GT86 in the JN-5 class in this joint event of the FIA Asia-Pacific Rally Championship and the JAF Japanese Rally Championship.
Unfortunately, what Kovalainen described as a rookie mistake ended his first leg of the rally and effectively took him out of contention after just one stage.
But he did come back to contest the second leg of the rally, and fared much better on Special Stage 15:
India’s Gaurav Gill won the rally outright in a Skoda Fabia. Kovalainen will be back in action along with the rest of Super GT’s stars in two weeks at Thailand.