2016 Review: Lexus Team SARD

On the strength of a strong all-around season with a perfect points-scoring record and more podium finishes than any other team, Lexus Team SARD finally ended their 22-year championship drought in Super GT.

#39 Denso Kobelco SARD Lexus RC-F

Drivers: Heikki Kovalainen / Kohei Hirate
GT500 Drivers’ Championship: 1st Place (82 points)
GT500 Teams’ Championship: 1st Place (103 points)
Wins: 1 (Motegi II)
Podiums: 4 (Fuji 500km, Sugo, Motegi I, Motegi II)
Fastest Laps: 2 (Motegi I, Motegi II)
Pole Positions: 2 (Motegi I, Motegi II)

It would be forgiven to have overlooked Lexus Team SARD as a title favorite in 2016, even with the presence of former Formula 1 Grand Prix winner Kovalainen and former GT500 champion Hirate on the team. After all, they only finished thirteenth out of fifteen teams last year, never cracking the podium or finishing higher than fifth place.

Only three times in their twenty-two year history have SARD even finished second or third in the championship, which they’d done only once in the last ten years – and they hadn’t won a race in four years. And the less said about the SARD Morand LMP2 project, the better.

But at times, they were just plain unfortunate last year. Not so much the case in 2016. Starting off the season with a seventh-place finish, they went into the Fuji 500km race, the Golden Week holiday tradition held at Toyota’s home track, and came away with their first podium in the “Heikki Era” as they just managed to take second place in the closing laps.

Then they followed that up with another podium at Sugo, in which they finished second, but so nearly could have won it, with Kovalainen climbing from tenth to the lead in his opening stint, and Hirate trying all he could to get past the Forum Engineering Nissan GT-R for the lead of the race before it was red flagged with six laps to go.

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© Toyota

Over the next few rounds of the championship, they finished eighth at the Fuji 300km, eighth at the Suzuka 1000km, and seventh at Buriram, Thailand, just getting enough points to stay in the championship hunt, and they entered the final weekend of the season in third place in the championship.

Then came Twin Ring Motegi, and with it, Toyota Gazoo Racing brought one last engine upgrade for the RI4AG engine to give their teams the best shot at winning the title. No team benefitted from the upgrades more than Team SARD, who used them to allow their drivers a chance to shine in a critical championship situation.

Kovalainen took pole in a wet qualifying for Saturday’s Round 3, Hirate flew away from the field at the start, and Kovalainen brought the car home to a second place finish that was good enough to take the championship lead away from NISMO going into the final day of the season, Round 8, also at Motegi.

Sunday morning, Hirate set a lap record in qualifying, and once again got a perfect launch off the grid. Kovalainen took the car over for the closing stint, and even with the Wako’s RC-F of Kazuya Oshima breathing down his tailpipe, the Finnish Flash didn’t blink, and secured the championship with a win in the last race of the season.

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© Toyota

The journey that began in 1994 with the late Jeff Krosnoff serving as SARD’s very first JGTC driver, after losing the closest GT500 championship in history in 1997, and finishing second in 2004 and third in 2012, finally culminated in SARD’s first title.

Kovalainen re-established himself as one of the best drivers in the world after floundering for years in the wilderness of Formula 1’s mid-grid, with his first championship title since winning the 2004 World Series by Nissan – in the same year that his star first exploded onto the scene as the Race of Champions winner.

Hirate, well, he proved he’s every bit the equal of his Grand Prix-tenured co-driver, saving his best races for the last weekend of the season, and adding championship number two to his resumé. And he just turned 30 this year.

It was a well deserved title for one of Super GT’s oldest and most celebrated teams, and their white and red Denso car that has endured through multiple generations, and seen so many of the greatest drivers in Super GT history drive it through the years.

They’re well-positioned to do it all again in 2017.

 

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