Under the guidance of first-year team principal Juichi Wakisaka, the new-look Team LeMans enjoyed one of the best seasons in many years in Super GT’s premier class, powered by remarkable consistency and a rejuvenated driver lineup.
#6 WAKO’s 4CR Lexus RC-F
Drivers: Kazuya Oshima / Andrea Caldarelli
GT500 Drivers’ Championship: 2nd Place (69 points)
GT500 Teams’ Championship: 2nd Place (92 points)
Podiums: 2 (Buriram, Motegi II)
Best Finish: 2nd (Motegi II)
Pole Positions: 1 (Sugo)
At Toyota’s global motorsports press conference in February 2016, Juichi Wakisaka announced his retirement from the Autobacs Super GT Series as a driver, after eighteen seasons. But he wasn’t gone for long. In fact, he immediately took on a new role – that of the new team director at Lexus Team LeMans, with whom he drove for five seasons and won the first of his three GT500 championships in 2002.
Lots of things were different for Team LeMans in 2016. After eight years carrying the orange of Eneos Oil, they were now clad in the blue and pink of Wako’s Chemical. They had also acquired former TOM’s driver Caldarelli, now entering his fifth season, to partner long-time LeMans driver Oshima.
The new-look Wako’s Team LeMans opened the pre-season by recording the fastest time in the first official test at Okayama. Then they qualified on the front row for the season-opener at the same circuit, before slipping off the podium in the final laps of the race and finishing fourth.
The Wako’s team went on to record five top-five finishes over the first six rounds of the 2016 season, displaying tremendous, metronomic consistency throughout the bulk of the year, that kept them right in the hunt for the championship – especially as the season progressed.
The Fuji 500km and the Sugo rounds each displayed their incredible resiliency. At Fuji, they steadily rose through the field from last on the GT500 grid to finish fifth. At Sugo, they scored pole position, only to be punted out of the lead by a GT300 backmarker just six laps into the race. They went on to drive all the way back to fourth place, and if that race had run to completion, they might have had a shot to come back and win the whole thing.
Suzuka showed their tenacity, even as they conceded a podium finish, with Oshima – now able to call himself a tested veteran at just 29 years old – holding off the GT500 debutant Mitsunori Takaboshi over several laps in an intense battle for third place.
They broke through with the first podium finish of the year with third place at Buriram, then in the final weekend of the season, added a fourth place at Round 3 in Motegi, and then a second place, their best finish of the season, at Round 8 in the final round. And it could have easily been a victory in that last race, ultimately, it was good enough for second in the championship – the best result for Lexus Team LeMans since Wakisaka and Akira Iida finished 2nd in the 2003 standings.
Wakisaka reinforced his reputation as an entertainer on camera – the man who can seemingly never take a normal looking photo of himself – but one of the most cunning and determined competitors when the green flag drops, now as a team director with the right approach to push the team towards success.
Both Oshima and Caldarelli were superb in 2016, never putting a wheel wrong all season long, and to think that Oshima won’t be 30 years old until April, and Caldarelli turns just 27 in February – these two will be battling for championships for many years to come.
In total, the Wako’s RC-F finished the season with a total of seven top-five finishes out of eight races, leading the series in that category by a wide margin.
That sort of consistency was frightening enough. If they flip one of those fourth or fifth place finishes into a victory at some point in 2016, they’d be champions. And with the team as it is, under the leadership of Juichi-san, they must be considered a legitimate championship contender for 2017.