2016 was the twentieth anniversary of Honda’s Super GT debut with Team Kunimitsu. It should have been a year to celebrate in continued success, but there were only a scant handful of moments worth celebrating from a generally sub-par commemorative season.
#100 Raybrig Honda NSX Concept-GT
Drivers: Naoki Yamamoto / Takuya Izawa
GT500 Drivers’ Championship: 14th Place (20 points)
GT500 Teams’ Championship: 12th Place (39 points)
Podiums: 1 (Fuji 300km)
Best Finish: 3rd (Fuji 300km)
Fastest Laps: 1 (Buriram)
Best Qualifying: 4th (Motegi I)
In 1996, Kunimitsu Takahashi and Keiichi Tsuchiya, a year after winning their class in the 24 Hours of Le Mans, embarked on a hard journey as the first team to field a Honda NSX in the GT500 class of the All-Japan Grand Touring Car Championship (JGTC). Twenty years later, with a title sponsor that has been with the team for every season but that first one, Team Kunimitsu remain as Honda’s oldest team.
After finishing 2015 third in the GT500 championship, and with the added motivation of their 20th anniversary season with Honda, Team Kunimitsu had to be a pre-season favourite to win the title in 2016. Especially after Honda dumped the most problematic part of the car – the cumbersome hybrid powertrain of the NSX Concept-GT.
Yamamoto and Izawa, in their fifth season together as co-drivers of the Raybrig NSX, and the leadership of the ageless Kunimitsu were all the elements the team needed, in theory, to go out there and win their first Super GT titles.
Sadly, as we came to find out in 2016, the changes made to the NSX in the off-season did nothing to improve the car, instead, only served to expose other crucial flaws that kept Honda from challenging Lexus and Nissan properly.
It didn’t stop the Raybrig NSX from trying to leave an impression. Izawa had a spirited duel with Koudai Tsukakoshi for second place at the Fuji 300km in August, ultimately, Izawa had to bring the Raybrig car home in third place for their only podium of the season. In three out of eight races, the Raybrig NSX was the highest-finishing Honda in the field, and in two of those races, first at Okayama and then at Motegi, they were the only Honda team to score points.
But some obstacles were just insurmountable, such as their spectacular left-rear tyre blowout that put them out of the Fuji 500km, or a drive-through penalty for a pre-race engine change at Buriram that, taking into account their race pace that day and Yamamoto’s late surge to steal the fastest lap of the race, likely cost them a chance at finishing on the podium one more time.
They finished with 20 points in 2016 – exactly one-third of their output from 2015 – but through it all, the synergy between popular teammates Yamamoto and Izawa remained intact. Yamamoto in particular had a stellar 2016 independent of his car’s struggles in GT500: He won again at Suzuka in Super Formula, he got married to longtime girlfriend Eri Kano, and he had a great run in a wet qualifying session at Motegi for “Round 3”. He has all the ingredients of a future GT500 champion.
And Izawa, two years removed from his star-crossed one-off into the GP2 Series, once again showed that GT racing is his strongest suit, having some fun battles up and down the field.
Given the expectations set before them for 2016, this year was a bit of a disappointment for the Raybrig team to say the least. And now that Lexus Team SARD finally won the GT500 championship in 2016, Team Kunimitsu remain as the oldest team in GT500 that have yet to win Super GT’s top prize.
Team Kunimitsu may make at least one major change in 2017, perhaps taking on a new tyre supplier, or maybe even splitting up their most popular driver combination since Kunimitsu himself retired from driving. But like their four Honda stablemates, most of their hopes of future competitiveness hinge on if Honda got it right with the 2017 NSX-GT. If they do, Team Kunimitsu should absolutely be right back in the hunt for the GT500 championship.