They got a considerable amount of attention with a new title sponsor and the addition of a true rookie to the driver pairing, but the flagship number 36 TOM’s team were very quietly a top-five team in the 2016 GT500 Championship off of sheer consistency.
#36 au TOM’s Lexus RC-F
Drivers: Daisuke Ito / Nick Cassidy
GT500 Drivers’ Championship: 5th Place (54 points)
GT500 Teams’ Championship: 5th Place (78 points)
Podiums: 2 (Suzuka 1000km, Motegi I)
Best Finish: 2nd (Suzuka)
Best Qualifying: 3rd (Motegi I)
Big changes were abound at the #36 TOM’s side for 2016. On the final pre-season test at Fuji Speedway, the car once sponsored by the likes of Castrol, and most recently the aquamarine of Petronas, now carried the orange of Japanese telecom giant au KDDI, their new title sponsor.
Their second big change was made in February at the Toyota Gazoo Racing press conference, when 22-year-old Nick Cassidy of New Zealand was nominated to partner the eighteenth-year veteran and former champion Ito. Cassidy, in addition to being the first Kiwi to race in GT500, was also the youngest top class rookie since 2012.
They didn’t quite manage to win a race, but they were fairly consistent all year long, which helped them reach fifth in the GT500 championship standings.
Throughout the first half of the season, the au TOM’s team had a productive, if understated start to their championship campaign – a far cry from their slow starts in 2014 and 2015. They finished eighth in Okayama, fourth at the Fuji 500km, and fifth in the 300km race at Fuji – in the latter of those races at Fuji, they were Lexus’ best-finishing car at the home track for Toyota Gazoo Racing.
Through those first four races, their only poor showing was a non-points finish at Sugo, in which the team were forced to serve an early stop/go penalty for a monocoque change, battled their way back to a provisional seventh place finish, only to pick up a 37 second time penalty after the race for dangerous driving on Cassidy’s part and fall to eleventh.
Suzuka was where the team really turned their season around, however, taking the ZENT Cerumo team to the limit in a classic 1-2 finish for Lexus. And there’s a case to be made that they probably should have won that race, due to a controversial pass from Cerumo driver Yuji Tachikawa on Cassidy during their final stints of the race.
After an anonymous race in Buriram, the au TOM’s RC-F ended the season on a high with two top-five finishes at Twin Ring Motegi, including a third place at “Round 3” on Saturday.
If there was any area where the au TOM’s RC-F was lacking in, it was qualifying pace, making Q2 only once in the first six races of the season. Having said that, their racecraft was superb in 2016 to make up for it, finishing above their starting position in the other five races.
Cassidy was entertaining in his battles with Tachikawa at Suzuka, and Heikki Kovalainen at Motegi, proving that he has the right stuff to be a major player in Super GT. He’s found a home in Japan after years of struggling to find a place in the European ladder to Formula 1, and his success could be a catalyst for other Kiwi racers to make the jump.
While not as fast as he was ten years ago in his halcyon days with Honda, Ito was still a key component in the team’s success this season, even if initial reports from the “hot stove” period suggest that his future in GT500 after 2016 is not entirely secure.
With SARD taking the championship, Team LeMans’ resurgent form and Bandoh’s incredible breakthrough season, the number 36 TOM’s car, the longtime flagship entry of Toyota and Lexus’ GT500 programme, was out of the spotlight this season – but showed they’re still one of Super GT’s premier teams regardless.