2016 Review: Nakajima Racing

Perennial backmarkers for a number of years in the GT500 class, Nakajima Racing have made very little forward progress in the current decade. Their form in 2016 did nothing to change this current run of perplexing futility, finishing last in the standings for the fourth consecutive season.

#64 EPSON Honda NSX Concept-GT

Drivers: Daisuke Nakajima / Bertrand Baguette
GT500 Drivers’ Championship: 18th Place (7 points)
GT300 Teams’ Championship: 15th Place (22 points)
Best Finish: 5th (Buriram)
Best Qualifying: 5th (Motegi I)

Anyone who has just started watching the Autobacs Super GT Series in the last handful of years has never seen a successful Nakajima Racing team. This decade, they’ve come as close to winning a race as a pitstop blunder in the 2010 Suzuka 1000km, and crashing out of a heated duel in the rain in Autopolis in 2012.

Nakajima Racing have been Dunlop’s sole tyre carrier in GT500 for six years, and the lack of support is starting from other teams has stuck out like a bloody thumb. But most disheartening of all: After this season, their current run since their last GT500 race win is now stretched to nine full seasons since their last victory, the 2007 Fuji 300km GT Race.

For context, this team could be counted on for multiple wins in a season in the late ’90s and early-aughts with the first-generation NSX. The likes of Tsugio Matsuda, Andre Lotterer, and Loic Duval once drove for and won races with Nakajima. They could be compared to another fallen giant of yesteryear in another racing series: Roush Fenway Racing, the former juggernaut of NASCAR who have now become glorified mid-gridders.

epson-02
© Nakajima Racing

Take all that recent futility for the team, then stack it on top of Honda’s all-around futility in 2016 in what was their worst season in two decades, and you have a recipe for something that isn’t very fun at all.

There were a few positives in 2016: The first, that they finished all eight races, something they haven’t done since 2011. The second, something else Nakajima Racing hadn’t done since 2011: Finish in the top five in a dry-weather race, which they did in a genuinely impressive effort at Buriram, Thailand in October.

If anything is ailing Epson Nakajima Racing over the last few years, be it the troublesome NSX Concept-GT, be it the Dunlop tyres, or a lack of top-notch engineers – it can be safely said that it’s not the fault of the drivers. Yes, Belgium’s Bertrand Baguette is an internationally-proven driver in his own right, but he and Daisuke Nakajima have a very healthy synergy between Super GT and Super Formula in the same team.

And it can be genuinely argued that Nakajima, who’s a few years younger, has also become a half-step quicker than his Belgian running mate in 2016.

epson-drivers-06
© Nakajima Racing

The wet-weather conditions that the EPSON NSX has thrived in, scoring their last three podiums over the last five years, never really turned up in any of the races – but Baguette tamed a wet qualifying on Saturday in Motegi to get the team’s best grid position of 2016.

All that said, they were still last of the full-time driver pairings in terms of points, Nakajima Racing were last in the teams’ championship, and their current run of futility just seems like it won’t end with things as they have been for the last six or seven years.

Nakajima Racing will keep Baguette for 2017, while the youngest of the Nakajima brothers moves on to Team Mugen, to be replaced by former ARTA driver Kosuke Matsuura. They might also get a fellow Dunlop team to run with next season, for the first time since 2010.

Take into account Satoru Nakajima’s legendary status in the Japanese motor racing world, the stature of Epson as one of the few universally recognized title sponsors in Super GT, and their superb driver lineup and so many other factors that should indicate success, Nakajima Racing’s never-ending run of futility, of just making up the numbers at the back of the order in the premier class of GT500, is mostly perplexing, and in some respects, inexcusable.

Surely, surely it can’t, it won’t get worse in 2017…will it?

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