Takeshi Tsuchiya, chief engineer and part-time driver at defending GT300 Champion team VivaC Team Tsuchiya, gave a very candid interview with Ryuji Hirano of AUTOSPORTweb on Friday.
The reigning GT300 Drivers’ Champion detailed what was a turbulent off-season behind the scenes at VivaC Team Tsuchiya, with the revelation of team founder and director, Haruo Tsuchiya, being hospitalized for three months due to a bout with oral cancer – leaving his son Takeshi to prepare the team for their 2017 title defense.
2016 was a fantastic year for VivaC Team Tsuchiya, who returned to Super GT after a lengthy hiatus in 2015 with the new Toyota 86 MC (Mother Chassis).
Through a combination of a terrific vehicle, a superb team of mechanics, aggressive tyre strategies, the emergence of young Takamitsu Matsui as a top-flight driver during the summer, VivaC Team Tsuchiya – often regarded as one of the greatest independent garages in Super GT history – won the GT300 championship with a victory at Twin Ring Motegi.
It was an emotional moment for the whole team, especially for Takeshi Tsuchiya, who in his final full season, won his first Super GT Drivers’ Championship driving for his father’s team, while also serving as chief engineer.
However, the joy suddenly turned to melancholy on November 22, when Haruo Tsuchiya was taken to hospital for what doctors learned was cancer at the bottom of the mouth.
Haruo Tsuchiya was released in February, we can fortunately say. But in the winter months, with his father not around at the Tsuchiya Engineering shop that he’d founded in 1996, Takeshi Tsuchiya would have to step into his father’s role and prepare the team for 2017.
“I had to become Haruo Tsuchiya,” Takeshi remarked of his off-season as a deputy team manager.
Takeshi would take responsibility for upgrading the VivaC 86 MC, and in particular, the younger Tsuchiya was able to improve quite a few components of last year’s championship-winning machine through improving the accuracy of assembly.
The developments paid off well: In the second day of pre-season testing at Okayama International Circuit, newly-recruited Kenta Yamashita set the fastest lap of the two-day test at Okayama, with an unofficial class lap record of 1:25.523 – quicker than Takeshi Tsuchiya’s own pole position-winning record from a year ago.
However, there would be more chaos to come for the second leg of testing at Fuji – and that’s before snowfall and heavy fog cancelled the second and final day of the test.
With Takamitsu Matsui in Germany racing for Toyota Gazoo Racing in the VLN Endurance Series, and Kenta Yamashita testing for Lexus Team WedsSport Bandoh in place of Yuji Kunimoto, Tsuchiya himself would test the car for the second time in as many weeks.
So too would Tsubasa Kondo, the reigning Porsche Carrera Cup champion of Japan, who was officially announced as VivaC Team Tsuchiya’s third driver for the 2017 season. Kondo drove for Team Taisan SARD at the two-race Motegi GT Grand Final at the end of last season, making his Super GT debut with two finishes of sixth and seventh.
At Okayama, the regular lineup of Matsui and reigning All-Japan F3 champion Yamashita will drive the #25 VivaC 86 MC.
However, at the Fuji 500km on May 4, Yamashita will be called upon to replace Yuji Kunimoto in the GT500 #19 WedsSport Advan LC500 – so VivaC Team Tsuchiya will nominate Kondo to drive with Matsui at Fuji.
Takeshi Tsuchiya ruled himself out of driving as a third driver for the Golden Week classic, electing instead to give his young drivers an opportunity to race instead.
VivaC Team Tsuchiya were already considered one of the favourites to win the 2017 GT300 Championship and thus take back-to-back titles. But with the revelation of what this team endured through the off-season, especially with Haruo Tsuchiya’s bout with cancer, they will certainly resonate as a sentimental favourite to win the championship this year as well.