It had been a difficult first two years for the Lexus RC F GT3 in the Autobacs Super GT Series, with only two best finishes of tenth place in its first two seasons, and no points scored at all in 2016.
But with the unveiling of the new 2017 model RC F GT3, LM Corsa, Lexus, and Toyota were confident that their GT3 challenger could break through in Super GT this season. That moment came at Lexus’ home track, Fuji International Speedway, and the Golden Week tradition, the 2017 Fuji GT 500km Race – as the #51 JMS P.MU LM Corsa RC F GT3 of Yuichi Nakayama and Sho Tsuboi took the chequered flag for the first time ever in GT300.
A win achieved thanks in large part to great speed, incredible long first and second stints on their Bridgestone tyres, and some cruel misfortunes for the pole-winning #4 Goodsmile Hatsune Miku Mercedes-AMG GT3 of Nobuteru Taniguchi & Tatsuya Kataoka.
The first half of the race was largely dominated by the Goodsmile Hatsune Miku AMG started by Kataoka, and the #11 Gainer Tanax AMG (Katsuyuki Hiranaka/Björn Wirdheim) up front, and there was only one non-classified retirement – when the #35 Arto 86 MC 101 (Nattavude Charoensukhawatana/Nattapong Horthongkum) broke down just 11 laps into the race due to an electrical system failure.
The Miku AMG pitted on lap 30, and Taniguchi, a six-time Fuji Speedway winner, set out to hold onto the lead. Two laps later, Wirdheim pitted the Gainer Tanax AMG, and gave the controls to Hiranaka – it seemed as if the two Silver Arrows were primed to be the favourites to win.
But the JMS RC F, which started fourth, continued to stay out for several more laps – as Yuichi Nakayama had the car in contention for a podium finish, if the strategy executed by team director Masahiko Kageyama and chief engineer Shinji Matsuoka paid off.
Nakayama pitted after 41 laps, yielding control to rookie Tsuboi, who would have to do another 40 lap stint. Up front, however, Taniguchi had pulled out to a comfortable lead in the Goodsmile Hatsune Miku AMG – and with a margin of 10 seconds in hand and no major problems in traffic, Goodsmile Racing with Team UKYO were confident of scoring back-to-back GT300 victories to open the season.
But the fortunes took a drastic turn for the worst when on lap 60, the Miku AMG suffered a left front puncture and was forced to take an emergency stop. During the stop, the team also switched drivers, and Kataoka would now have to salvage a podium finish as Hiranaka drove to the lead in the Gainer Tanax AMG.
At the end of lap 70, Wirdheim took the wheel for the final stint as the Gainer Tanax AMG made its final stop. Once again, however, Tsuboi in the Bridgestone-clad JMS RC F was driving a long middle leg of his own – and as the track was warming up in the afternoon, the Bridgestone tyres were coming into their own. Ten laps later, Tsuboi pitted for the last time, giving Nakayama the wheel and a chance to win the race for Lexus.
Thanks to a lightning-fast stop from the LM Corsa mechanics for four tyres and a splash of fuel, the JMS RC F came out of the pits with a lead over the Gainer Tanax AMG. Wirdheim had a chance to close the gap while Nakayama was on cold tyres, but eventually, the JMS RC F was able to pull out a gap – and never looked back as, for the first time ever, the Lexus RC F GT3 became a race winner in Super GT, just a week after its maiden International GT Open victory in Europe.
It was LM Corsa’s first win as a Super GT team since the 2014 Suzuka 1000km, and the first GT300 victory for the Lexus badge since the 2011 Sugo GT Race – won by the SG Changi Lexus IS350.
“I am very happy that we were able to win here at Lexus’ home track,” said Nakayama. “In the opening round we lacked speed, so we thought that we would have a difficult time here at Fuji if something didn’t change.”
“But, Bridgestone developed some outstanding tires for us. The result in yesterday’s qualifying was disappointing, but today we had the performance we needed and we were able to run a good race.”
It is Nakayama’s fourth career GT300 class victory, and his first since switching to LM Corsa in the off-season.
For his co-driver Sho Tsuboi, it’s his first career Super GT victory in just his second career start – and one that the 21-year-old former FIA F4 Japanese Champion will cherish for a long time.
“I drove the second stint and my job was to get the car back in good position for Nakayama-san for the last stint,” said Tsuboi. “That was all I was thinking about. So, I pushed hard from the beginning of my stint and the tires and the machine kept performing well without fail.”
“That enabled me to run at a good pace and turn the car over to Nakayama-san again with more of a lead. It was really great.”
Finishing second was the Gainer Tanax AMG of Hiranaka and Wirdheim, which scored its first podium finish, and the best result for the Japanese/Swedish duo since 2015.
“For a moment I thought we would win but the #51 Lexus was too strong,” said Wirdheim. “It was such a hard race for tyre management, we had to drive on eggshells in order to get to the first pit window.”
Completing the podium in third, and pulling off one of the early contenders for the comeback drive of the year, was the #33 D’station Porsche 911 GT3-R of Tomonobu Fujii and Sven Müller. After starting 14th due to having their fastest lap in Q2 stripped for a track limits violation, things didn’t get better as Fujii was punted off track on lap 11 at Lexus Corner (Turn 15), putting them down to 21st.
But Fujii drove rapidly, as did super rookie Müller, over the next few laps. Fujii set the fastest GT300 lap on lap 74, then two laps later, overhauled Kataoka in the Miku AMG for third place. With four laps to go, the Miku AMG picked up yet another left-front puncture, knocking them out of the top ten – a cruel result for what could have been an exceptional performance at a race-high 40kg of ballast.
That clinched third place for the D’station Racing team – who scored their first podium since the rebranding of the team in the off-season.
For reigning Porsche Supercup champion Müller, in his last race before a three-race hiatus due to commitments in Germany, it was his very first Super GT podium. For Fujii, the reigning Super Taikyu ST-X champion, it was his first podium since switching from Audi to Porsche this off-season.
Finishing a very impressive fourth was the #87 Shop Channel Lamborghini Huracán GT3 (Shinya Hosokawa/Kimiya Sato/Yuya Motojima), which scored the best finish for the “second” JLOC car since 2014. Fifth was the #65 LEON Cvstos AMG (Haruki Kurosawa/Naoya Gamou), which just managed to hold off the #3 B-Max NDDP GT-R (Kazuki Hoshino/Mitsunori Takaboshi) by 1.5 seconds after just shy of 500 kilometers of racing.
The #7 Studie BMW M6 GT3 (Jörg Müller/Seiji Ara) finished seventh, first of the non-lead lap cars in GT300, and in eighth, the second of the two Lexus RC F GT3s – the #60 Syntium LM Corsa RC F GT3 of Akira Iida and Hiroki Yoshimoto, which came all the way back from 21st on the grid to score their first top-ten finish since 2015 at Autopolis, and their best result since switching from BMW to Lexus in 2015.
More importantly, Yoshimoto confirmed that the result will guarantee the #60 Syntium RC F a place on the grid at Sportsland SUGO in July, which wasn’t guaranteed to the team when the 2017 Seed Rights allocations were published.
The best of the JAF-GT300/Mother Chassis cars, and the only one to finish in the top ten, was the #18 Upgarage Bandoh 86 (Yuhki Nakayama/Shintaro Kawabata) which started eighteenth and finished in ninth, and then completing the top ten was the #9 Gulf NAC Porsche 911 (Jono Lester/Kyosuke Mineo), which struggled all day with tyre selection in the warmer conditions.
“We still managed to salvage a point at the finish, which over the course of a full season, is very important,” Lester told Simon Chapman of VelocityNews.co.nz after the race.
“It certainly didnt go the way I thought it would go. You have days like this where the cars isn’t where it needs to be. We’re driving smart and driving the best as we can.”
Among those who failed to finish in the points were the reigning GT300 champions VivaC Team Tsuchiya, who labored to a 15th place finish for the #25 VivaC 86 MC of Takamitsu Matsui and substitute driver Tsubasa Kondo.
The #88 ManePa Lamborghini Huracán GT3 (Manabu Orido/Kazuki Hiramine, Tsubasa Takahashi – DNR) was on pace for points until their left rear wheel fell off on lap 92 – similar to their retirement from this race one year ago. That resulted in a ¥100,000 JPY fine for Team JLOC after the race.
With their victory, Yuichi Nakayama and Sho Tsuboi now move into the lead of the GT300 Drivers’ Championship with 23 points. They lead the LEON AMG duo of Kurosawa & Gamou, at 22 points, with Taniguchi & Kataoka at 21 points for Goodsmile Racing, and Hiranaka & Wirdheim fourth at 15 points for Gainer/Mercedes-AMG.
Fujii & Müller rank 5th with 13 points, but with Müller missing the next 3 races, Fujii will be D’station Racing’s sole contender for the GT300 Drivers’ Championship going forward.