It was the perfect qualifying lap, the perfect race, and the perfect way for Lexus Team SARD to win Super GT’s ultimate prize in the final round of the 2016 Autobacs Super GT Series.
Kohei Hirate shattered the lap record at Twin Ring Motegi, and he and Heikki Kovalainen drove a flawless 53 laps to win the second and final race of the Motegi GT Grand Final, and with it, clinched the 2016 GT500 Drivers’ Championship – the first title for SARD in their twenty-two year history in Super GT.
They led a dominant Sunday afternoon for Lexus and their RC-Fs, who stand down from GT500 competition in their final race with a lockout of the top five in the standings.
Entering Sunday’s action, the #39 Denso SARD RC-F of Kovalainen/Hirate had a three point lead over the defending champions’ #1 Motul Autech NISMO GT-R (Tsugio Matsuda/Ronnie Quintarelli), the result of a second place finish for the Denso team.
On Sunday morning, Hirate added another point to their tally by taking a stunning pole position, with a record lap of 1:36.491. For reference, Hirate’s pole-winning lap was 1.9 seconds faster than the pole-winning lap for the 2011 IndyCar Series race at the Motegi road course, set by Scott Dixon.
Hirate took the start, and immediately put a gap on the #37 KeePer TOM’s RC-F (James Rossiter/Ryo Hirakawa) and the #6 Wako’s RC-F (Kazuya Oshima/Andrea Caldarelli). Caldarelli made quick work to get past Hirakawa on the opening lap, knowing that he had a chance to win the championship for Lexus Team Wako’s LeMans – if they could get the upper hand of the Denso RC-F.
Meanwhile, the Motul GT-R of Matsuda/Quintarelli made up very little ground from ninth on the grid, needing to charge through the field to have any hope of winning their third consecutive GT500 championship.
Unlike Saturday’s race, most of the teams opted for conservative pit strategies, including all six Lexus RC-Fs, who took on four tyres during their stops. Meanwhile, the winners from Saturday’s Round 3, the #24 Forum Engineering GT-R (Daiki Sasaki/Masataka Yanagida), followed through on their vow to try a fuel-only stop for the second straight race.
Hirate completed 20 laps aboard the Denso RC-F before handing the wheel over to the ex-Formula 1 driver Kovalainen to close out the stint. The Wako’s RC-F stayed out another lap, with Caldarelli yielding to Oshima.
Meanwhile, desperate to claw back lost track position, Quintarelli stayed out in the Motul GT-R before pitting after 30 laps. NISMO serviced the car for fuel only, and a change to Tsugio Matsuda.
By the end of the race, Oshima had found a bit more speed than the leader Kovalainen, and was desperate to get past in the closing laps of the race. Kovalainen could have clinched the championship if they had switched places, but with the team’s pride – and a chance at their first race victory since the 2012 Fuji 500km – on the line, the Finn was determined to hold on to the top position.
And finally, after 53 laps, two days of racing, eight rounds and over 3,200 kilometers of racing in 2016, Kovalainen took the chequered flag to wrap up Lexus Team SARD’s very first GT500 championship.
After their debut in the 1994 season, finishing second in 1997 to Toyota Team TOM’s in the only GT500 championship to be decided on a tiebreaker, and after another second place in 2004 and third place in the 2012 championship, Lexus Team SARD, the oldest team of the Toyota Gazoo Racing GT500 fleet, now finally join the ranks of Super GT’s champion teams. This is the Toyota Motor Company’s eighth GT500 championship (’97, ’01, ’02, ’05, ’06, ’09, ’13).
“For the team, this was an outstanding result, and above all I wanted to get this first win. It was an amazing weekend,” said Kovalainen.
“In the final stages of the race I was struggling a bit as the tire wore down, but I worked to keep them from deteriorating seriously in hopes of being able to pull away again at the very end. In the end, everything went according to our race strategy. I am very happy to have gotten this first win and the championship title at the same time.”
Kovalainen, winner of his first race and first Super GT championship in one blow, also becomes the first driver from Finland to win a Super GT race and championship. The race win is his first in any series since winning the 2008 Formula 1 Hungarian Grand Prix for McLaren, and the championship is his first since winning the 2004 World Series by Nissan.
Kovalainen is also the sixth different Formula 1 alumni to win the GT500 championship, joining David Brabham (1996), Pedro de la Rosa (1997), Erik Comas (1998-99), Toranosuke Takagi (2005), and Ralph Firman (2007).
“I wanted to see us end the season with a win, and I also wanted Team SARD to get its first championship title,” Hirate remarked after the race. “So, I can’t express what a great feeling it is.”
“I am grateful for the support we received from Lexus, TOYOTA GAZOO Racing, Bridgestone and, of course, our team. Today, I pushed hard from the morning qualifying. So, I was able to follow up on Heikki’s pole win yesterday with my own today and help us keep the good momentum. It is really great to have been able to end the season with a big win.”
Hirate picks up his second GT500 championship, having won the 2013 title with Lexus Team ZENT Cerumo and Yuji Tachikawa. It is his seventh career GT500 race win, and his first since the 2014 race at Sportsland SUGO.
Team director Hideki Noda, himself a former Super GT race winner and F1 alumni, and chief engineer Kotaro Tanaka, win their first GT500 championships as well.
Oshima and Caldarelli hung on to take second place, and with their result, moved past the NISMO team in the championship into second in the standings. This was their seventh top-five finish of the season in eight races, and their best finish of the 2016 season. All in all, a terrific first season under the leadership of first-year team director Juichi Wakisaka.
Completing the all-Lexus podium was the #19 WedsSport Advan RC-F (Yuhi Sekiguchi/Yuji Kunimoto) in third place, picking up their second podium of the year after their popular victory in Buriram, their fifth top-five finish of the season, and going back to the end of the 2014 season, their eighteenth consecutive points-paying finish – all of it enough to propel Sekiguchi and Kunimoto to fourth in the final championship standings.
All three of the teams on the podium – the #39 Denso RC-F, the #6 Wako’s RC-F, and the #19 WedsSport RC-F – completed their 2016 seasons with a 100 percent points-scoring record.
Lexus extended their podium lockout into a historic sweep of the top five positions, headed up by the two Lexus Team TOM’s entries, with the #36 au TOM’s RC-F (Daisuke Ito/Nick Cassidy), and the #37 KeePer TOM’s RC-F (James Rossiter/Ryo Hirakawa) finishing fourth and fifth respectively.
Leading the Nissan contingent was the #46 S Road Craftsports MOLA GT-R (Satoshi Motoyama/Katsumasa Chiyo), which also went for a fuel-only stop en route to a sixth-place finish. The Motul GT-R of Matsuda/Quintarelli finished seventh, unable to defend their championship, and falling to third in the final standings after starting the season off with wins in the first two races of 2016 – the first time ever that a team and driver pairing had failed to win the championship after opening the season with consecutive victories.
“To put it succinctly, the fact that we let a third consecutive title slip out of our grasp was due to lacking competitiveness with our rivals in the last race,” said Nissan Team Executive Director, Toshikazu Tanaka.
Finishing eighth was the #12 Calsonic Impul GT-R (Hironobu Yasuda/João Paulo de Oliveira), in ninth was the #38 ZENT Cerumo RC-F (Yuji Tachikawa/Hiroaki Ishiura), and the final points-paying position went to the Forum Engineering GT-R of Sasaki/Yanagida.
With all five Honda NSX Concept-GTs finishing the final race of the season outside the points, in the bottom five positions in GT500, they unfortunately went on to their first winless season in Super GT’s premier category since 1997. The #17 Keihin NSX (Koudai Tsukakoshi/Takashi Kogure) was the best of the field, finishing a distant eleventh place.
The bitter final chapter in Honda’s 2016 season was penned as the #15 Drago Modulo NSX (Hideki Mutoh/Tadasuke Makino) retired with eight laps remaining, failing to take the chequered flag in the team’s final race after two seasons.
But the day belonged to Kovalainen, the Grand Prix winner who has now re-established his place as one of the world’s greatest racing drivers. To Hirate, who with an emphatic demonstration of speed, reinforced the strength of the Super GT field at large. And to the entire SARD team, who after twenty-two seasons, are finally the champions of the fastest sports car racing division on earth.