From dark horses to winners: The story of Racing Project Bandoh’s maiden GT500 victory

It wasn’t quite a fairy-tale upset of the ages when Racing Project Bandoh won the Buriram Super GT Race this past weekend. In fact, with the way that the team were so comprehensively quick all weekend, one might think that they’ve been used to winning many times before.

And in a sense, that’s actually true. But until last week, Racing Project Bandoh (operating as Lexus Team WedsSport Bandoh) had never won a race in the top class of the Autobacs Super GT Series. On that day, drivers Yuhi Sekiguchi and Yuji Kunimoto drove the best stints of their Super GT careers, and it culminated in a breakthrough victory, one that was nearly six years in the making for one of the series’ most storied, beloved, and popular teams.

It was a breakthrough win on all fronts, for the team, and its drivers – and nothing punctuated the mood of this popular victory like the post-race celebrations between Sekiguchi, Kunimoto, team principal Masataka Bandoh – and his father Masaaki, the president of the GT Association and founder of Racing Project Bandoh.

Saturday foreshadowed the performance that was to come, with Sekiguchi, in his ninth Super GT season and his fourth in the GT500 category, turning the fastest lap in morning practice, then going out later that afternoon and taking pole position with a record lap time in the second qualifying session.

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It only took a few adjustments after the Sunday Free Run to get the car right for the race, and Sekiguchi, the championship leader over in Super Formula in his rookie season, took the initiative and stormed out to lead all 32 laps of his opening stint.

Number one in the Super Formula standings then handed control of the WedsSport Lexus RC-F to number two in the standings, and Yuji Kunimoto, in his first year with the Bandoh team, drove a steady, conservative final stint to secure the win by nearly three seconds.

Consider that it almost went away entirely at the very end of Sekiguchi’s opening run, as the left-rear tyre on his car burst with just a few hundred meters to go before his scheduled pit stop. They weren’t the only Yokohama Advan team to suffer with tyre failures, either – as Kondo Racing, attempting to repeat the fuel-only pit strategy that won them the race at Sportsland Sugo, suffered a burst left-rear tyre on lap 46.

Responding to their own near-miss, as well as that of the only other Yokohama-clad team in GT500, Kunimoto drove within himself over the final 20 laps – almost excessively so, but by no means enough to give away the lead at the very end.

Comparing the top twenty average lap times for each driver, Sekiguchi’s 1:26.683 average was over a full second quicker than Kunimoto’s 1:27.712 average, but that was entirely by design – compare and contrast to the Suzuka 1000km, one round before, where both drivers were consistently within a tenth of a second of each other throughout every session.

Yes, Tadasuke Makino in the pursuing #15 Drago Modulo Honda NSX was able to take out three seconds per lap out of Kunimoto’s lead margin over three consecutive laps, especially in traffic – but the lead that Sekiguchi had built in the opening stint, even with the puncture at the very end, was more than enough of a margin for Kunimoto to consolidate, with seven of his top 20 lap times coming in the final ten laps of the race.

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The way it was so masterfully executed all weekend, one might think that Racing Project Bandoh had been used to winning a lot. And in a sense, they’d be right.

In fourteen seasons from 1997 to 2010, the WedsSport Bandoh team were two-time GT300 champions, first in their debut season of ’97 (which only adds a thick coat of irony to their GT500 struggles to date) and again in ’09. They won a total of eleven races, and became one of the most popular teams in the “Sanbyaku” class.

Drivers such as Manabu Orido, Nobuteru Taniguchi, Tatsuya Kataoka, Takayuki Aoki, and even former Daytona 24 Hour Race winner Max Angelelli were among the greats who drove for Bandoh in that time, piloting cars like the mid-engined Toyota MR2, and the Lexus IS 350 – but none were more popular than their Toyota Celica, both the sixth- and seventh-generation “T200” and “T230” models, all of which were liveried in the familiar, vibrant blue and gold of the WedsSport wheel company.

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When they stepped up to GT500 competition in 2011, it seemed like they’d be able to repeat their GT300 success. But until last weekend, they’d never won a race, and they’d not scored a pole position or a podium finish of any kind since September of 2012 at Autopolis. Adding further angst to their struggles, fellow 2011 GT500 debutants, MOLA International, promptly won back-to-back GT500 titles in their first two seasons.

But over the last three seasons, Racing Project Bandoh gained additional support from Toyota Gazoo Racing, to the point that they were even able to add a second team in GT300. The build to their first victory was slow, and gradual, but there were signs earlier in 2016 that the WedsSport Bandoh team were destined to finally break through to victory.

Such as when they finished 5th in Sugo back in July, highlighted by a mad dash by Sekiguchi to go from 14th to second in the opening 25 laps, and eventually battling ex-Formula 1 Grand Prix winner Heikki Kovalainen for the race lead for several frames.

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So when the chequered flag finally fell on the #19 WedsSport Advan RC-F after sixty-six laps at the Buriram United International Circuit last Sunday, there wasn’t a single member of the team that could hold in their elation. Not that they wanted to.

As young team director Masataka Bandoh – young as in, younger than active GT500 drivers Satoshi Motoyama, Yuji Tachikawa, and Daisuke Ito at age 40, and still the youngest team boss on the GT500 side – celebrated with his ace driver Sekiguchi and several other WedsSport team mechanics, it felt not like just another race win, but a championship-crowning victory (we’ll get to that in a bit).

The way that Kunimoto climbed out of the WedsSport RC-F, to congratulate his co-driver, they had so much boundless energy that betrayed the fact that they’d just completed a race in the hottest and most punishing weather conditions of the season.

And they had every right to celebrate as such, the two best drivers in Japanese motor racing in 2016 in the midst of breakout seasons. Kunimoto has delivered as the successor to the legendary Juichi Wakisaka. And Sekiguchi, in a motorsport atmosphere ruled on merit alone, should be a candidate for Formula 1 as the ups and downs of the last decade of his career have culminated in a year of incredible success.

Speaking of the effervescent Wakisaka, he too was there to congratulate not only his Lexus Team Wako’s LeMans squad as they drove to a well-earned third-place finish of their own, but to congratulate his old team – the one for which he drove the last two out of eighteen legendary seasons in Super GT.

Nothing captured the emotion of the victory like the post-race TV interviews with J Sports’ Jiro Takahashi, with Masataka Bandoh, joined by his two drivers, shouting in celebration.

Except for one moment, immediately afterwards, where Masaaki Bandoh, with tears in his eyes, came over to congratulate his son.

Without Masaaki Bandoh, there obviously would never have been a Racing Project Bandoh – the team that he founded in 1990 in the All-Japan Touring Car Championship.

And without him, there probably would not be a Super GT series today. Bandoh was called upon to lead the GT Association in 2007, as part of a drastic shakeup to pull the series out of millions’ worth of debt, debt that could have resulted in bankruptcy and extinction. The elder Bandoh left control of the family racing team to his son Masataka, who then took the team up to the top flight of Super GT racing as his father led the series back to prosperity.

The outpouring of emotions was too much for either man to hold back. Masataka is rarely seen on the pitwall without his sunglasses, which he wore during the post-race interviews to hide his tears of joy.

But in the interviews, it was obvious that the positive emotion was welling up, and when his father came over to congratulate him, there wasn’t a dry eye to be had – not for the father, or the son, or for thousands of the team’s supporters back home in Japan, and the several new ones they’ve gained abroad.

It’s an underdog victory in a sporting year defined by underdog triumphs. A year where Alexander Rossi became the ninth rookie to win the Indianapolis 500 as a 66 to 1 longshot. A year where Jack Miller took a privateer team to victory in the prestigious MotoGP TT Assen with 1000-to-1 odds. Where Leicester City FC won the English Premier League, and the Cleveland Cavaliers won the NBA Finals to give the hard-luck city their first pro sports title in more than a half-century – and even back in Japan, where the Hiroshima Toyo Carp won the Central League pennant in baseball for the first time in 26 years.

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It’s not quite a true fairy tale, given that the WedsSport team’s progression has been steady and easy to chart out. This win in Thailand marks the sixteenth consecutive points-scoring finish for the WedsSport RC-F, dating back to the 2014 Buriram Super GT Race. It’s the longest active points finishing streak in Super GT.

But what the victory does do is set up a scenario which seemed almost impossible a few years ago – a scenario where Lexus Team WedsSport Bandoh could win the GT500 title.

With just the two races remaining in the Motegi GT Grand Final next month, Sekiguchi and Kunimoto have now climbed to fifth in the GT500 Drivers’ Championship, fifteen points back of the defending champion duo of Tsugio Matsuda and Ronnie Quintarelli. They’ll carry only 41 kilograms of ballast into the first race, almost exactly what they had last weekend in Thailand, and have none to worry about in the second race.

If either Sekiguchi or Kunimoto wins the Super Formula Drivers’ Championship in two weeks’ time at the JAF Grand Prix at Suzuka Circuit, they’ll enter the Motegi Grand Final with a chance to become the first “double champion” of Super GT and Super Formula in over a decade.

If they somehow overturned a 35-point deficit at the halfway mark of the season, to overhaul Matsuda and Quintarelli in the final weekend of the season, and stop them from taking an unprecedented third consecutive GT500 title of their own, it would be a true fairy tale story.

And if the celebrations, the tears, the energy, the emotion seen in Thailand that Sunday afternoon were awe-inspiring enough, imagine what the scenes would be like at the WedsSport garage if they actually came back and won the whole damn thing in Motegi.

Those who’ve followed the WedsSport Bandoh team through their six-year odyssey to the top know why this win was special. To put it into words for those who don’t is harder, because with so much to uncover and so many angles to the story that unfolded, where would you start? And what would you leave untold until the next potentially impossible chapter of this story?

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