It was record-breaking, it was history-making, and it was, quite simply, a perfect day for the Lexus Gazoo Racing stable, who opened the 2017 Autobacs Super GT Series season with a sweep of the top six positions at Okayama International Circuit, led by the winning #37 KeePer TOM’s Lexus LC500 of Ryo Hirakawa, and first-time winner Nick Cassidy.
The new Lexus LC500 made good on its incredible pre-season testing pace, picking up a historic victory in a bizarre first round that saw three safety cars, a delayed start, and four Honda NSX-GTs dropping out of contention within the first six laps – including three during the formation laps.
The #8 ARTA NSX-GT’s pole position on Saturday seemed like a dream. Come Sunday afternoon, the dream would turn to a nightmare from the start of the formation laps.
First, the #17 Keihin NSX-GT (Koudai Tsukakoshi/Takashi Kogure) failed to get off the dummy grid for the first Parade Lap. After one lap, they finally got going, but race officials added one more formation lap to allow the Keihin NSX to get back to its grid position. Just as they were about to do so, the polesitting ARTA NSX-GT (Tomoki Nojiri/Takashi Kobayashi) broke down at the Moss S-curves.
This resulted in a red flag to allow the two Hondas time to fix what were discovered to be electronics failures. But as the cars were coming to a stop on the front stretch, a third NSX broke down – the #64 Epson Modulo NSX-GT (Bertrand Baguette/Kosuke Matsuura), with the same issue.
The ARTA NSX-GT would officially be classified as a “DNS,” and the Keihin and Epson NSXes would lose eight and twenty-four laps respectively in the garage.
Eventually, the race was shortened by one lap to 81 laps, and would officially begin under the safety car before the race went green on lap 3, with the #6 Wako’s 4CR LC500 of Kazuya Oshima leading the field to green.
Five corners into the first green flag lap of the race, however, Cassidy made a daring pass for the lead at the Hairpin Corner, locking up, but keeping all four Bridgestone tyres on the road as he swept past Oshima into the lead.
During the second Safety Car, initially for a GT300 crash on lap 6, the #100 Raybrig NSX-GT (Naoki Yamamoto/Takuya Izawa) became the fourth Honda to suffer an ECU failure, and retired from the race – leaving only one NSX left running before the race ever really got going. (For those wondering, the new Honda NSX Safety Car ran just fine.)
After 36 laps, Cassidy pitted the KeePer TOM’s LC500 for fuel, four tyres, and a change of drivers, as Red Bull athlete Ryo Hirakawa got on board. The following lap, the Wako’s LC500 followed suit, with Oshima yielding to co-driver Andrea Caldarelli.
Caldarelli tried to stay ahead of Hirakawa after his stop, but on cold tyres, he could do nothing to keep his former KeePer TOM’s co-driver at bay. In fact, Caldarelli came under fire from the #36 au TOM’s LC500 (Kazuki Nakajima/James Rossiter), as Nakajima, in his first race back in Super GT in two years, challenged the Italian for second place. But in his haste to get ahead, Nakajima overshot his braking marker at the Hairpin on lap 42, going into the gravel trap and dropping a handful of places.
This allowed Caldarelli to give chase to Hirakawa, and the two began to battle and chase – before the third safety car came out on lap 54 after Morio Nitta’s hard crash in the GT300 class Ferrari 488 GT3.
Afterwards, the battle resumed, as both Caldarelli and Hirakawa – two young, determined, relentless and incredibly talented drivers – scythed their way through traffic, giving Caldarelli many chances to make an opportunistic pass for the lead. But Hirakawa would not give in, and went right to the limit in an incredible defensive drive over several laps.
Hirakawa took the chequered flag for Lexus Team KeePer TOM’s, taking their third victory at Okayama International Circuit in the last four years, previously winning in 2014 and 2015. For Hirakawa, it is his third career victory, his first since the 2015 Motegi GT 250km Race.
“I think today’s was an unfortunate race for our Honda rivals, for us it was a perfect race,” Hirakawa said in the post-race press conference. “The decisive point came when Cassidy was able to skillfully pass the leader soon after the start. After that, I was able to take over with us still in the lead.“
“I feel that this was a victory for everyone, for Lexus who prepared this wonderful machine for us, for the team that set it up so well and for Bridgestone who gave us such good tires.”
For 22-year-old Cassidy, it is a landmark first victory for him in Super GT, as well as for his home country, as he becomes the first driver from New Zealand to win a Super GT race.
“I still can’t believe that we won!” Cassidy exclaimed. “But Lexus prepared a great car for us and it had been in good condition from the pre-race test, so I was hopeful that we could win.
“In my stint, I got a perfect start, so I was able to run with confidence. Our driver in the second half, Hirakawa, is very fast, and I knew that this is also a good circuit for him. But I still can’t believe how this race went just as I thought it would.”
Despite an inspired effort from the Italian Caldarelli to pressure Hirakawa for the lead, the Wako’s LC500 finished a close second, just 1.503 seconds adrift of the KeePer TOM’s LC500. Oshima took the fastest lap of the race during his stint.
Finishing third, and moving up six places from their starting position of ninth, were the defending GT500 champions Lexus Team SARD, and their #1 Denso Kobelco SARD LC500 (Heikki Kovalainen/Kohei Hirate).
As Hirakawa and Caldarelli fought for the lead, they were gradually able to catch up to the first and second-placed Lexus, but they themselves would only edge the fourth-place finishing #38 ZENT Cerumo LC500 (Yuji Tachikawa/Hiroaki Ishiura) by 0.2 seconds.
With the result, Yuji Tachikawa, in his 150th career race, now sits at 999 career championship points – and just needs a top ten finish at Fuji Speedway to become only the third driver in history to reach 1,000.
Finishing fifth were Nakajima and Rossiter in the au TOM’s LC500, losing out on a potential podium after their excursion through the gravel, but having a productive day on the whole.
The Lexus Team au TOM’s crew of mechanics were presented with the ZF Award for Best Mechanics, for their efforts in repairing the car after their Q2 crash on Saturday, and recovering to have a strong race.
And finishing sixth was the #19 WedsSport Advan LC500 (Yuhi Sekiguchi/Yuji Kunimoto), which had a fairly quiet afternoon for Lexus Team WedsSport Bandoh – save for an incident on lap 27, when Sekiguchi and Kovalainen in the Denso SARD LC500 clashed under braking at the hairpin, forcing Sekiguchi to drive through the gravel trap.
Lexus LC500s finished first, second, third, fourth, fifth and sixth – to complete a historic first for Toyota and Lexus: They become the first manufacturer to ever sweep the top six places in a single race in Super GT history.
In a series built around competitive balance and parity, this is an incredible accomplishment – it’s only the twelfth time a manufacturer has swept the GT500 class podium in series history, let alone the top six.
Nissan enjoyed a rather poor weekend by their standards, failing to get any one of their cars into Q2 on Saturday. Things didn’t get much better with the #46 S Road Craftsports GT-R (Satoshi Motoyama/Katsumasa Chiyo) suffering a broken suspension after 33 laps, and being forced to retire.
The leading Nissan GT-R in GT500 was the #23 Motul Autech NISMO GT-R (Tsugio Matsuda/Ronnie Quintarelli), who very quietly, climbed all the way up from fourteenth on the grid to finish seventh.
Eighth was the #12 Calsonic Impul GT-R of Hironobu Yasuda, and the GT500 debutante Jann Mardenborough, who did a solid job in his first race in the premier class.
And in tenth was the #24 Forum Engineering Advan GT-R (Daiki Sasaki/João Paulo de Oliveira).
With both the ARTA and Raybrig Team Kunimitsu Hondas out of the race, and the Keihin Real Racing and Epson Nakajima Racing Hondas down several laps, it left only the returning Team Mugen to represent Honda during the race.
Ninth place for the #16 Motul Mugen NSX-GT (Hideki Mutoh/Daisuke Nakajima) did at least salvage some dignity from the fever dream that was Honda’s race, and give Mugen points in their GT500 return.