A six-year journey to the top of the Autobacs Super GT Series culminated in an emotional and popular victory for Lexus Team WedsSport Bandoh, whose #19 WedsSport Lexus RC-F of Yuhi Sekiguchi and Yuji Kunimoto drove a near-flawless race from pole position to score the team’s very first GT500 class victory.
The WedsSport RC-F picked up the win at the Buriram Super GT Race at Buriram United International Circuit in Thailand. The scenes after the race were something special, with Sekiguchi, Kunimoto, and team director Masataka Bandoh not holding back their elation as they reveled in a long-awaited first victory in the premier class of Super GT racing.
The scenes after the race were something to behold, with Masaaki Bandoh, the founder of Racing Project Bandoh and now president of the GT-Association that runs Super GT, joining his son in celebration of a hard-earned victory.
From pole position, Sekiguchi drove away from the field and built up a considerable margin over his 32-lap opening stint, while behind them, Hideki Mutoh in the #15 Drago Modulo Honda NSX was fighting off the likes of the #12 Calsonic Impul Nissan GT-R (Hironobu Yasuda/Joao Paulo de Oliveira) for second. Eventually, Oliveira made the move into second place before his pit stop.
The end of Sekiguchi’s stint could have spelled disaster, as without warning, the left-rear Yokohama tyre came apart on the final corner of their in-lap. Sekiguchi was just a few hundred meters from the pit entrance, and miraculously, the car suffered no damage as it came into the pits for new tyres, fuel, and a change of drivers to Yuji Kunimoto.
Some laps later, Mutoh pitted the Drago NSX to give way to 19-year-old rookie sensation, Tadasuke Makino. Then, Oliveira pitted the Calsonic GT-R, but as the mechanics struggled to remove a windscreen tear-off during routine service, the Brazilian opened his door and reached in to help remove the sheet – resulting in a pitwork infraction and a drive-through penalty to be served by co-driver Yasuda.
Over the second stint of the race, Kunimoto drove a steady, conservative pace to hold onto the lead, but young Makino was given the green light to push in the final laps of his stint, closing in by as much as 3 seconds per lap over three consecutive laps. Suddenly, there was a real race for the top position, and the WedsSport team’s victory was not guaranteed!
Meanwhile, further back in the GT500 points, the championship-leading #1 Motul Autech NISMO GT-R (Tsugio Matsuda/Ronnie Quintarelli), and the #38 ZENT Cerumo RC-F (Yuji Tachikawa/Hiroaki Ishiura) were caught up in a multi-car accident with ten laps to go, both suffering terminal damage and failing to score points – the first non-scoring race of the year for Matsuda and Quintarelli, who have led the GT500 championship from the start of the season.
Makino continued to press on towards the lead, and was within sight of the leaders on the final lap, but in the end, Kunimoto was able to stabilize the lead margin and drive on to take the WedsSport RC-F’s first victory in GT500.
Sekiguchi credits their victory in part due to some pre-race adjustments on Sunday morning: “In this morning’s free practice the feeling of the machine was a bit different from yesterday and it made me a bit nervous. But, when I talked with the team and had them make some setting adjustments, I was able to set the fastest time in the 8-minute warm-up, so I was able to go into the race with confidence.”
“By about the fifth lap after the start, I had pulled away from the car in 2nd place and sure that I was running at the fastest pace of anyone,” Sekiguchi said after the race. “I had the burst tire at the end of my stint, but since it happened on the second half of the course, the loss was minimalized. This is the first podium finish we have gotten since I have teamed with Kunimoto, so it was great to get it.”
This was the first career GT500 class victory for Sekiguchi, who also leads the Super Formula Championship with two races remaining at the JAF Grand Prix in Suzuka. Ironically, Sekiguchi also won his first GT300 class race with Racing Project Bandoh, back in 2007 – when he set a record as the youngest GT300 winner in history at 19 years, 7 months of age.
“I kept concentrated on maintaining good tire management,” said Kunimoto, “and although I used up all of my lead in doing that, I was able to help give the team its first win, so I am really happy with that.” This is Kunimoto’s second career GT500 victory, his first since the 2013 Motegi GT 300km Race.
This was Racing Project Bandoh’s first victory in either category of Super GT since winning the GT300 class in the 2009 Okayama GT 300km Race. And for the WedsSport RC-F and lead driver Sekiguchi, it’s their sixteenth consecutive points-scoring race, dating back to the 2014 race at Buriram.
In second place, Makino and Mutoh missed out on taking victory in his GT500 debut by 2.917 seconds, but second place still marks a best-ever finish for the Drago Modulo Honda Racing team, and matches the best result for Honda this season.
At 19 years, 3 months, Makino is now the youngest GT500 podium finisher in history, taking the mantle from Ralf Schumacher, who won on his debut race in 1996 at 20 years, 9 months of age.
Completing the podium finishers is the #6 Wako’s RC-F (Kazuya Oshima/Andrea Caldarelli), who thanks to the late-race incident with the championship leaders, move into second place in the GT500 championship, just 10 points back of Matsuda/Quintarelli. This is also Lexus Team LeMans’ second straight podium finish in Buriram, finishing 2nd in 2015 with the Eneos colours.
Yasuda did a phenomenal job of climbing through the field after the Calsonic GT-R’s drive-thru penalty to finish in fourth place, helping he and Oliveira stay in touch with the championship leaders.
Taking fifth place, their best finish in two years, was the #64 Epson Nakajima Racing NSX (Daisuke Nakajima/Bertrand Baguette) who had a steady, productive race and avoided mistakes all day long. The Dunlop tyres held up well this time out, to power Satoru Nakajima’s squad to their best finish since the rain-plastered 2014 Fuji GT 300km Race.
Sixth was the #17 Keihin NSX (Koudai Tsukakoshi/Takashi Kogure), in seventh was the #39 Denso SARD RC-F (Heikki Kovalainen/Kohei Hirate) – which was running up as high as fourth until they fell victim to tyre wear late in Kovalainen’s closing stint – and eighth was the #8 ARTA NSX (Kosuke Matsuura/Tomoki Nojiri).
What looked to be a promising race for the #37 KeePer TOM’s RC-F (James Rossiter/Ryo Hirakawa) ended with a disappointing ninth-place result, after they were assessed a drive-through penalty for avoidable contact with the Keihin NSX on the opening lap of the race. Before the penalty, Rossiter and Hirakawa were challenging for a podium place.
Rounding off the points-scorers was the #100 Raybrig NSX (Naoki Yamamoto/Takuya Izawa), which rebounded from an early penalty stop for a pre-race engine change to finish tenth, and even took the fastest lap of the race on lap 54.
With just the double-header Motegi GT Grand Final to go, the top seven teams in the GT500 championship are within 21 points. Matsuda/Quintarelli still lead with 56 points, Oshima/Caldarelli are 10 points back (46 pts), while both the ZENT RC-F of Tachikawa/Ishiura and the Denso RC-F of Kovalainen/Hirate are 11 points back (45 pts each).
The victory for Sekiguchi/Kunimoto puts their WedsSport RC-F all the way up into fifth place, 15 points out of the lead (41 pts), with the Calsonic GT-R of Yasuda/Oliveira in sixth and trailing by 20 points (36 pts), and the #36 au TOM’s RC-F (Daisuke Ito/Nick Cassidy) down in seventh, 21 points back (35 pts).