They started 2016 with consecutive podiums, but a cold finish to the season over the remaining six races left the KeePer TOM’s RC-F in the middle of the tables when all was said and done.
#37 KeePer TOM’s Lexus RC F
Drivers: James Rossiter / Ryo Hirakawa
GT500 Drivers’ Championship: 9th Place (38 points)
GT500 Teams’ Championship: 10th Place (53 points)
Podiums: 2 (Okayama, Fuji 500km)
Best Finish: 2nd (Okayama)
Fastest Laps: 1 (Okayama)
Pole Positions: 1 (Okayama)
With Nick Cassidy now in the #36 TOM’s entry, Rossiter was moved over to the #37 to partner Hirakawa. It was to be a big year for the latter, with 22-year-old Hirakawa also making his first trip to Le Mans, and racing his first full slate in Europe in the European Le Mans Series.
This was after a season in which Hirakawa bookended 2015 with wins at Okayama and Motegi, highlighted by superb race driving from the impeccably smooth and fearless youngster. Add Rossiter to the equation and things were looking good.
And indeed they were looking good after starting the season off with back-to-back podiums, a second place at Okayama with Hirakawa having a fun battle with Katsumasa Chiyo, and third place at the Fuji 500km. Yes, the Okayama race fell out of their hands because the Bridgestone Potenza tyres simply didn’t have the same long-run pace as the Michelins at the time, but the big picture was that they had 27 points after two races, and were second in the standings going into the Summer Series.
But after an eighth place finish at Sugo, the season slowly began to unravel through sheer rotten luck. The next race at Fuji, they suffered a bizarre rear wing structural failure down the front stretch, costing them over seven laps in repairs.
Midway through the Suzuka 1000km, the KeePer RC-F lost drive, costing Rossiter any chance at an unprecedented third straight victory in Super GT’s crown jewel event.
They got a great launch off the line in Buriram, but when Rossiter tangled with the Keihin NSX on the opening lap, they incurred a drive-through penalty, and Hirakawa had to drive a monstrous closing stint just to scrape together a ninth place finish.
To clinch their finish as the lowest-ranked of the six Lexus Gazoo Racing teams, the front brakes erupted in flames right as Hirakawa was about to drive the closing stint at “Round 3” in Motegi. And by the time they finally ended the season the next day with a fifth place finish, they were already out of championship contention, relegated only to holding up the tail end of a historic sweep of the top five for Lexus at Motegi.
For Rossiter, Motegi has been a house of anguish in the last three years, losing out on three potential championships in a row at the final race meeting of the season. And none of it was his fault, like most of the bad luck that hit the entire KeePer TOM’s side in 2016.
Hirakawa, once again, demonstrated his mettle by resetting the lap record at Okayama, and when he got a chance to drive a proper race stint, he showed that he is one of Super GT’s premier talents. Those who’d never heard of him over on the other side of the Eurasian continent now know that he is one fast customer after his ELMS and Le Mans performances, where, just as it was in Super GT, bad luck with no direct input cost Hirakawa a debut class victory at Le Mans, and his TDS Racing squad in Europe the ELMS title.
The only thing that will stop Hirakawa from being a GT500 champion, apart from more bad luck, will be his seemingly inevitable appointment to a full-time WEC drive at Toyota.
Rossiter and Hirakawa are an effective combination that seems in no danger of being split up, though next season, they could really, really benefit from being more consistent, if not just luckier than they were in 2016.