The undisputed breakthrough success story of 2016 was Racing Project Bandoh, who after six years, finally stepped to the forefront in GT500 as legitimate championship contenders, powered by two incredible young talents.
#19 WedsSport Advan Lexus RC-F
Drivers: Yuhi Sekiguchi / Yuji Kunimoto
GT500 Drivers’ Championship: 4th Place (58 points)
GT500 Teams’ Championship: 4th Place (79 points)
Wins: 1 (Buriram)
Podiums: 2 (Buriram, Motegi II)
Pole Positions: 1 (Buriram)
Through five seasons in GT500, the WedsSport Bandoh team had only finished in the top ten in the standings once, and hadn’t scored a podium finish of any kind in the past three years. But 2015 showed gradual signs of improvement, with a 100% scoring record and two top-fives. They were determined to improve upon that in 2016.
With the great Juichi Wakisaka retiring from driving after 2015, Sekiguchi was promoted to the role of undisputed lead driver of the #19 WedsSport RC-F, now partnered with former Team LeMans driver Kunimoto, making up one of the youngest driver combinations in Super GT – and, potentially, one of the most exciting.
The wildcard was always going to be their Yokohama Advan tyres. In 2016, Yokohama maintained their focus on long-run endurance. It turned out that they built their most well-rounded tyre ever. Through two races, Sekiguchi and Kunimoto had a couple of quiet races, ninth in Okayama, eighth in the Fuji 500km.
The breakthrough came through at Sugo, when Sekiguchi drove up as high as second from fourteenth place on the grid, and Kunimoto drove it home to a fifth-place finish in a prematurely-stopped race.
They then soldiered on to a relatively quiet fifth-place finish at the Suzuka 1000km, but at Buriram, Thailand, came the long-awaited breakthrough.
Sekiguchi qualified on pole position, the first of his GT500 career, and bolted out to the lead. The whole thing could have fallen to shambles when he picked up a puncture on the final corner of his in-lap, but the team carried on a routine pit stop, Kunimoto held on to the lead, and drove a conservative, but measured closing stint to take the WedsSport team’s maiden GT500 victory in an emotional scene.
It kept their championship hopes alive going into Motegi, and even though a fifth and a third place finish in the two races weren’t enough to give them the championship, it did seal the best championship result for the Bandoh team, and the best results in the premier class for both Sekiguchi and Kunimoto – career-bests all around for the popular semi-privateers.
Sekiguchi was one of the all-around breakout stars of the 2016 racing season, not only for his flambouyant, aggressive, and rapid driving in Super GT, but doing the same as a rookie in Super Formula. His struggle to reach the pinnacle of Japanese motorsport is well-documented, and now, finally, as he turns 29 in December, it seems like it’s come good, rounding out into an all-around superstar.
The “Bad Boy” stepped up into the lead driver role admirably, and now sits at eighteen consecutive points-scoring finishes, the longest active streak in GT500, and just fifteen away from the all-time record by Takeshi Tsuchiya.
But do not discount Kunimoto’s role in the team’s success – on many occasions, he was every bit as fast as Sekiguchi – oh, and by the way, he won the Super Formula Championship this year, beating out a field that included the likes of former Super GT champion Andre Lotterer, future McLaren F1 driver Stoffel Vandoorne, and even his own Bandoh co-driver Sekiguchi.
And give every bit of credit to Masataka Bandoh, who took over the team from his father Masaaki at a very young age, had the idea to lead them into GT500 in 2011, and after years of frustration and futility in the top category, his team was finally rewarded with the victory they so richly deserved, given their legendary track record in the GT300 class.
All this did was position them well for the future. Lexus Team WedsSport Bandoh are no longer dark horses, they’re proper contenders, and they have everything in place for another serious championship run in 2017.