Toyota Gazoo Racing drivers and Super GT superstars Kazuki Nakajima and Yuji Kunimoto may have missed the Autobacs Super GT Series Fuji 500km this past Thursday, but they didn’t disappoint in the FIA World Endurance Championship 6 Hours of Spa-Francorchamps in Belgium.
Nakajima joined co-drivers Sébastien Buemi and Anthony Davidson in their #8 Toyota TS050 Hybrid to pick up the overall victory – and a Toyota 1-2 finish – in the final WEC round before the 85th running of the 24 Hours of Le Mans.
Kunimoto, the reigning Japanese Super Formula Champion, scored a fifth-place overall finish on debut in the #9 Toyota TS050 with veteran co-drivers Nicolas Lapierre and Stéphane Sarrazin.
On pace, the strongest car of the Toyota Gazoo Racing stable was the #7 TS050 of Mike Conway and Kamui Kobayashi, who were without the services of José Maria López due to an injury sustained at a crash in Silverstone.
Conway and Kobayashi dominated the first half of the race, leading a race-high 81 laps, and were the two fastest drivers on track throughout. But two Full Course Yellows in the second half caught them out both times, having to take their pit stops under green flag conditions, while the rest of the field could pit while the race was neutralized at 80 km/h.
That opened the door for Buemi, Davidson, and Nakajima to lead the Toyota 1-2 charge. Kobayashi, on his final stint, was able to close the gap dramatically to Buemi – but the #8 Toyota was able to hold off the #7 and take their second win of the 2017 WEC season.
Nakajima, who drove 44 laps during the middle stage of the race, said, “It was a difficult race on our car and I have mixed feelings to be honest. I’m happy to be on the middle step of the podium but car #7 was really unlucky.”
“In the end it was a great result for the team and it’s good to know that our car is getting a bit of luck this year after having none at all in 2016. Now we head to Le Mans with a good feeling.”
Nakajima, Buemi, and Davidson lead the World Endurance Drivers’ Championship standings with a perfect 50 points in two rounds.
Kunimoto, in the #9 Toyota with Sarrazin and Lapierre, finished a solid fifth place in his WEC debut. Though Kunimoto didn’t quite have the outright pace of his more experienced teammates, the reigning Super Formula champion did enjoy a trouble-free 46-lap stint, and furthermore, helped gather valuable data for Toyota’s low-downforce package that they’ll use at Le Mans next month.
“I enjoyed my first race weekend in WEC, and my first race here at Spa,” said Kunimoto. “There is a lot to learn and it was good to do a lot of laps today to experience things like traffic and tyre management.”
“The result was not the main target today; it was an important step for us all to prepare for Le Mans so I am pretty happy with it.”
Toyota now enter the 2017 Le Mans 24 Hours as the odds-on favourite to finally capture their painfully elusive first overall victory at the Grand Prix of Endurance.
While Nakajima and Kunimoto missed the Fuji 500km the Thursday before the 6 Hours of Spa, one driver did manage to make the 10,000 kilometer trek from Japan to Belgium, and helped carry LMP1’s sole remaining privateer to a much-needed result.
James Rossiter flew from Fuji Speedway to Spa-Francorchamps after the 500km, then drove the opening and closing legs of the race for ByKolles Racing and their Nissan-powered #4 ENSO CLM P1/01 to take a sixth-place overall finish – more importantly, the ByKolles team, beleaguered throughout most of their LMP1 Privateer run, saw the chequered flag for the first time in 2017.
The new “Mighty 38” of Jackie Chan DC Racing finished third in the LMP2 class with drivers Ho-Pin Tung, Thomas Laurent, and Super GT alumni Oliver Jarvis – finishing a minute behind class winners G-Drive Racing (Roman Rusinov/Pierre Thiriet/Alex Lynn) in their own Oreca 07 prototype.
Jarvis, Laurent, Tung, and the #38 JC/DC squad lead the LMP2 Endurance Trophy standings after two rounds.
Fellow former Toyota Team SARD driver, and reigning 24 Hours of Le Mans champion Romain Dumas, joined the #36 Signatech Alpine Matmut squad for the 6 Hours of Spa – and together with Gustavo Menezes and Matthew Rao, they scored a fifth-place finish in the LMP2 category.
In the GTE categories, Frédéric Makowiecki finished fifth in GTE-Pro in the #911 Porsche GT Team 911 RSR (with Richard Lietz), and former GT300 race winner Keita Sawa (with Weng Sun Mok & Matt Griffin) finished third in GTE-Am in their #61 Clearwater Racing Ferrari 488 GTE.
Makowiecki is now joint-fifth in the GT World Endurance Drivers’ Championship after two rounds, while Sawa is joint-tenth.