It had been nearly three and a half years since the last time Toyota Motor Corporation saw one of their GT500 machines win a race at their home grounds of Fuji International Speedway.
But their drought at the foot of Mount Fuji finally came to an end last week during the 33rd running of the Golden Week classic, the Fuji GT 500km Race, as the #38 ZENT Cerumo Lexus LC500 of “Fuji-meister” Yuji Tachikawa and Hiroaki Ishiura took the chequered flag after a dominant race meeting, scoring pole position on Sunday, and leading a whopping 106 out of 110 laps en route to their first win of the 2017 season.
Capping off Lexus’ second straight clean sweep of the GT500 podium to open the 2017 season, it was a milestone victory for the legendary three-time champion Tachikawa – who won his eighth career race at Fuji Speedway, and now moves back into a tie for the all-time GT500 wins record.
Coming into this year’s Fuji 500km, Lexus were the overwhelming favourites to end their drought at Fuji after their historic top-six sweep at Okayama. Pole position for Lexus Team ZENT Cerumo on Wednesday only reinforced their status.
Tachikawa started off from the lead, and stayed there for the duration of his 34-lap opening stint, reeling off fast lap after fast lap to open up the margin over the field. Behind him, the #6 Wako’s 4CR LC500 (Kazuya Oshima/Andrea Caldarelli) moved into second place, with Oshima doing all he could to keep the ZENT car in reach.
From second on the grid, defending Fuji 500km winners Tsugio Matsuda & Ronnie Quintarelli had to fight tooth and nail to prevent losing too much ground as their #23 Motul Autech Nissan GT-R was still well down on horsepower to the Lexus fleet.
After Tachikawa drove the car out to the lead, his co-driver Ishiura set off on maintaining the lead margin with a consistent 40-lap stint of his own, and after Ishiura’s middle stint went off without a hitch, Tachikawa would take over to close out the remaining 36 laps.
Thanks to incredible work from the Lexus Team ZENT Cerumo mechanics, their two routine pit-stops went off without a hitch, helping them maintain the lead of the race for all but four laps of the race, and only during the pit stop cycles – but once the rest of the field pitted, they would be back in the lead.
Tachikawa drove the ZENT Cerumo LC500 home to the victory at the end of 500 grueling kilometers, taking Lexus Team ZENT Cerumo’s first win of 2017, and avenging a bitter defeat from last year’s race when they ran out of fuel following an ill-timed Safety Car.
It was a milestone race meeting for Tachikawa, and it fittingly came at a track where he’s enjoyed so much success over his career. On the week where he became only the fifth driver to make his 150th career Super GT start, Tachikawa won his record-extending 22nd pole position on Wednesday, then drove on to his record eighth win in total at Fuji International Speedway, four of which have now come at the 500km (2002, 2005, 2008, 2017).
Tachikawa’s eighteenth career GT500 victory now puts him back at a tie for the top spot for the most career GT500 race victories with Tsugio Matsuda, who scored his 18th win exactly one year ago at this event. Nissan ace driver Satoshi Motoyama is third with 16 career victories. Tachikawa also joins Motoyama and Morio Nitta as one of only three drivers to score 1,000 career championship points in either class.
“I am really glad that we got a win for the first time in some while here at Fuji,” Tachikawa said after the race. “It has always been said that we were strong at Fuji, but we weren’t able to win here for the past three years, and I was worried that I was beginning to feel embarrassed about losing my title as the ‘Fuji-meister.'”
“I want to say how grateful I am to the Lexus development team for making us such a great car, and to our team for tuning it so well and to my teammate Ishiura.”
“It is good that we won,” said co-driver Ishiura. “Today, I think Tachikawa’s stint after the start was the most difficult of the race, but he bore with it and turned over the car to me with a lead for my stint.”
“In my stint, I was able to run at a good pace from the first lap out of the pit, so I felt that things were going well. We worked on the car’s development with the strong feeling that we wanted to win at Fuji again. So, I’m really happy that we won today.”
This is Ishiura’s fifth career GT500 victory – and his third at the Golden Week race at Fuji. In fact, all of Ishiura’s wins have come at Super GT’s two biggest events – the Fuji 500km, or the Suzuka 1000km, where he and Tachikawa are the reigning champions.
For their work in the pits and in setting up the car for the weekend, the Lexus Team ZENT Cerumo mechanics were also presented with the ZF Award, given to the most outstanding team of mechanics in every Super GT round.
Oshima and Caldarelli drove another incredibly productive race to finish second for the second time in 2017 for Lexus Team Wako’s LeMans. In fact, going back to 2016, this is their third consecutive 2nd place finish together, and their 9th top-5 finish in the last ten races. They finished less than 5 seconds back after Tachikawa backed it down in the final laps of the race.
“I am very happy with this result,” said Caldarelli. Two seconds in two races are an excellent outcome.”
Our objective, clearly, is to take the championship lead, but having been the most competitive in the two rounds of Okayama and Fuji combined, we will have a 60-kgs success ballast to carry at the next event in Autopolis, which will make difficult to exploit to the fullest the potential of our car.”
Hirakawa and Cassidy followed up their great win at Okayama International Circuit last month with a third-place finish at the Fuji 500km on 40kg of ballast, keeping Lexus Team KeePer TOM’s in the GT500 Championship lead with 31 points – but leading by only a single point over Oshima & Caldarelli, and just two points ahead of Tachikawa & Ishiura.
Dating back to 2016, this is the third straight race that Lexus teams have swept the GT500 podium.
Despite their horsepower disadvantage, the Motul Autech GT-R of Matsuda and Quintarelli drove a clean race, utilized the long-term durability of their Michelin tyres, and picked up a respectable fourth-place finish – a great result under the circumstances.
NISMO didn’t pick up the Golden Week hat trick, but they did salvage results from a difficult race on the whole for Nissan: The #12 Calsonic Impul GT-R (Hironobu Yasuda/Jann Mardenborough) lost 9 laps in the garage with mechanical issues, and both the #46 S Road Craftsports GT-R (Satoshi Motoyama/Katsumasa Chiyo) and #24 Forum Engineering Advan GT-R (Daiki Sasaki/João Paulo de Oliviera) were knocked out of the top 10 with drive-through penalties.
Fifth was the #36 au TOM’s LC500 (Daisuke Ito/James Rossiter), which could have been a podium finisher until their battle with the #1 Denso Kobelco SARD LC500 (Heikki Kovalainen/Kohei Hirate) was marred by a collision at Panasonic Corner (Turn 16) when Ito attempted to overtake Hirate using a GT300 car as a pick, but ended up hitting Hirate in the right-rear.
Ito was given a drive-through penalty for avoidable contact, putting a bit of a damper on what could have been the 2007 GT500 champion’s very last Super GT race as a driver. Hirate and Kovalainen laboured through the rest of the race having lost more than 10 percent of their downforce, and finished seventh after slowly falling down the order late in the race.
Best of the Honda NSX-GTs was the #100 Raybrig NSX-GT (Naoki Yamamoto/Takuya Izawa) which had a very productive day and finished sixth. They were one of three Hondas to make it into the top ten: The #17 Keihin NSX-GT (Koudai Tsukakoshi/Takashi Kogure) finished eighth, and the #8 ARTA NSX-GT (Tomoki Nojiri/Takashi Kobayashi) avenged their bitter DNS at Okayama with a ninth-place finish.
A much better result for Honda, though not entirely without its share of issues, as the #16 Motul Mugen NSX-GT (Hideki Mutoh/Daisuke Nakajima) suffered engine trouble on lap 18, and would eventually retire from the race, classified 17 laps down.
Completing the GT500 points scorers in tenth was the #19 WedsSport Advan LC500 (Yuhi Sekiguchi/Kenta Yamashita), one lap behind the leader.
Sekiguchi maintains his active points-scoring streak at 20 races, 13 short of Takeshi Tsuchiya’s record of 33 straight points-paying finishes. And for 21-year-old Yamashita, who was called up to replace Yuji Kunimoto for this race, it was his first GT500 point in his first of what will, eventually, be many more to come.