2016 Review: Lexus Team ZENT Cerumo

After a star-crossed 2016 season, Team Cerumo finally got a lucky bounce and scored the victory in this year’s Suzuka 1000km. It was the highlight to another season where misfortune just seemed to strike out of nowhere when they needed it the least.

#38 ZENT Cerumo Lexus RC-F

Drivers: Yuji Tachikawa / Hiroaki Ishiura
GT500 Drivers’ Championship: 6th Place (52 points)
GT500 Teams’ Championship: 6th Place (72 points)
Wins: 1 (Suzuka 1000km)
Podiums: 2 (Sugo, Suzuka)
Best Qualifying: 3rd (Fuji 500km, Sugo)

For the eighteenth consecutive season, Cerumo’s challenge was led by Yuji Tachikawa, partnered with Ishiura, who entered this season of racing as the reigning Japanese Super Formula Champion, driving under the guidance of Tachikawa at Cerumo.

When the team was assembled last year, with Ishiura moving to Cerumo to replace the SARD-bound Kohei Hirate, expectations were set very high, but even though they did manage to remain eligible for the championship up to the final race of the season, they always managed to find a way to suffer a bad beat during a race in 2015.

2016 looked like it was going to be more of the same. Starting the year with a sixth-place finish at Okayama, they entered the Fuji 500km, a race and a circuit where both drivers have excelled for years, with a serious chance to win the race on Golden Week. But as they were due to come in for their next pit stop, a safety car came out.

Under the new regulations, cars are not permitted to pit for fuel and tyres under the safety car under any circumstance. The ZENT RC-F was running on fumes, and when the race went green, Ishiura could only make it out of the first corner before the car ground to a halt, unable to limp to the pits to get the fuel it needed to get home.

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© Toyota

At Sugo, they were rapidly closing in on the leaders, overtaking the Denso RC-F for second place with six laps to go and nearly swooping past the Forum Engineering GT-R in the same move. But a crash from GT300 driver Shinnosuke Yamada red-flagged the race, not only preventing the ZENT team from going for the win, but taking away second place, as scoring went back to the lap before Tachikawa’s massive move.

But at Suzuka, in a race of constantly changing conditions, the ZENT Cerumo Lexus was almost peerless. Tachikawa made several courageous moves to get the car to the front from eighth on the grid, Ishiura drove faultlessly to keep the car at the head of the field, and after some intense wheel-to-wheel battles – particuarly, Tachikawa’s tilt with rookie Nick Cassidy and the au TOM’s RC-F – the ZENT RC-F went on to take the win in Japan’s great race, and salvage their championship hopes in doing so.

But the third-place at Sugo, and their Suzuka victory, accounted for their only top-five finishes of the season. They were unlucky again, to get caught up in a late wreck with the Motul GT-R at Buriram while scrapping it out to stay in the points, and at Motegi, with Lexus receiving a substantial upgrade to their Toyota engines, the ZENT team scored just seven points over the two races. Not nearly enough to take the title in 2016.

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© Toyota Gazoo Racing

Ishiura has quietly become one of the best all-around drivers in Japanese national competition, aided by another strong season in 2016 where he was in the hunt for both Super GT and Super Formula championships. He’s been this good for a while, and the former protegé of Naoki Hattori is pounding down the door of his first GT500 title.

Meanwhile, Tachikawa has already started to make a successful transition into the directors’ chair in Super Formula, but in GT500, he still has enough speed left to tap into as a driver at age 41, and plenty of desire to capture his record-tying fourth GT500 title.

These are two of Super GT’s best drivers under the same carbon fibre roof – come 2017, they’ll be ready to compete for the title once again, and the Cerumo faithful are hoping they can finally break through with a little luck on their side.

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