While they weren’t consistent enough to mount a serious championship challenge, Kondo Racing were another very pleasant surprise in 2016, as they enjoyed their most successful Super GT campaign in several years, perhaps their best ever.
#24 Forum Engineering Nissan GT-R
Drivers: Daiki Sasaki / Masataka Yanagida
GT500 Drivers’ Championship: 7th Place (43 points)
GT500 Teams’ Championship: 7th Place (57 points)
Wins: 2 (Sugo, Motegi I)
Podiums: 2 (Sugo, Motegi I)
Fastest Laps: 2 (Fuji 500km, Suzuka)
Best Qualifying: 2nd (Motegi I)
Kondo Racing underwent a few big changes going into the 2016 season: New title sponsor Forum Engineering came on board, returning to the series for the first time in a decade. Yanagida, a two-time champion in both GT500 and GT300 categories, was switched over to partner young Sasaki and replace the retiring(?) Michael Krumm, who himself replaced Lucas Ordoñez, who never got a fair shake in the Kondo GT-R last season.
But the team maintained their partnership with Yokohama Advan tyres, their supplier since the beginning of their days in Super GT, and this proved to be a crucial component to their success.
After two races, they had but one ninth-place finish to their name, but Sugo was where the season began to turn around – though it almost ended right off the bat when Yanagida got tangled with the ARTA NSX of Nojiri, and nearly ended up beached in the gravel trap.
But Yanagida helped drive them back into position where they could execute a fuel-only strategy on their stop, double-stinting their Yokohama tyres to the end with Sasaki holding off all comers until the closing laps of the race.
There was some feeling of discontent over Kondo Racing’s victory, the third in a row to open the 2016 season, setting a new single-season record for consecutive victories to start a season. After all, a school of hungry Lexus RC-Fs were closing in until the race was red flagged with just a handful of laps to go, and declared official before anyone could get around Sasaki on old tyres.
Their second win of the season at Motegi on Saturday, however, was never in dispute. As they did at Sugo, they executed the same strategy, taking on fuel only, allowing them to jump ahead of the Denso SARD RC-F on the track – just as they did at Sugo – and hold them off for the victory once again, the first time in Kondo Racing’s eleven years in Super GT that the team have ever won multiple races in a season, and being one of only two teams to win two races in the GT500 season, the other being NISMO.
In between their two victories, however, Sasaki and Yanagida would go scoreless over rounds five through seven. They suffered an electrical system failure at the Fuji 300km, ending their race. Early on at the Suzuka 1000km, Yanagida got stranded in the gravel at the S-Curves, and they never dug out of a four-lap deficit. At Buriram, they were one of a few teams that were hampered by a left-rear tyre puncture in the sweltering heat at the fast circuit, and dropped out of the points.
But give full credit to Masahiko “Matchy” Kondo and Chief Engineer Yuji Hamano for being brave enough to run their aggressive strategies to success in two races, and give full credit also to Yokohama for gradually improving the long-run race durability of their tyres.
And give credit, as well, to 25-year-old rookie Sasaki, who in his third season of GT500 competition, is seeming poised to be a major fixture of the Nissan Super GT family for years to come. Sasaki was the only GT500 driver to record two fastest race laps in GT500, scored the Forum Engineering GT-R’s only front-row start at Motegi, and his racecraft is superb beyond his years, especially in the closing stages of a heated race like Sugo.
Yanagida was also solid in his own way through sheer consistency and force of will, proving why he is a two-time GT500 champion, which is why it seems somewhat cruel to think that he may likely get pushed out of a seat in the premier class next season.
Between a dominant championship campaign in Super Taikyu, and this great if inconsistent season in GT500, Kondo Racing have really turned a corner as an organization. If they can ever figure out how to be regular points-scorers, they should be able to be serious title contenders.