Lexus stormed to its fourth consecutive victory in the 2017 AUTOBACS SUPER GT 500 series as the reigning champions Heikki Kovalainen and Kohei Hirate, in their No. 1 DENSO KOBELCO SARD LC 500, came from seventh position on the starting grid to take their maiden win of the season at the Sportsland SUGO circuit in Miyagi Prefecture, Japan. The No. 6 WAKO’S 4CR LC 500, driven by Kazuya Oshima and Andrea Caldarelli, finished third in the race to consolidate Lexus’ runaway lead in the manufacturer’s standings.
Following intermittent drizzles during the qualifying sessions, the race day dawned with rain and occasional cloudiness as predicted. Four of the cars in the field – including the No. 19 WedsSport ADVAN LC 500 and No. 38 ZENT CERUMO LC 500 – chose to start the race on slick tires, but the rain only grew heavier during the Formation Lap. Shortly thereafter, the No. 19 WedsSport ADVAN LC 500, running in the fourth position, ran off the track at the first turn. The continued rainfall meant the cars on slick tires could no longer wait for their routine pit stops to change tires and had to hurry back to the pit prematurely, and take a time loss.
After just two laps, one of the competitor cars was forced to drop out of the race after its engine cover flew off on the pit straight. This incident was soon followed by the first of the safety cars, which shook up the grid. Then, at the end of the 46th lap, the No. 6 WAKO’S 4CR LC 500 and No. 37 KeePer TOM’S LC 500 headed in for their pit stops, followed by the No. 1 DENSO SARD KOBELCO LC 500 on the next lap. At around the same time, two GT300 cars collided and ran off the track, bringing out the safety car once again. This meant the No. 1 DENSO SARD KOBELCO LC 500, having already finished its pit stop, was now on the same lap as the top four cars. As the race restarted at the end of the 52nd lap, the four cars in the lead all made their way into the pits; and taking advantage of the situation, the No. 1 DENSO SARD KOBELCO LC 500 raced ahead into the lead.
With ten laps to go in the race, rain began to fall again on the track. The gap between the No. 1 DENSO SARD KOBELCO LC 500 in the first position and the competitor car in second position began to grow smaller as the race entered its final stages, and before long, the two machines were running nose-to-tail. The heavy rain, however, caused the two machines to both run off the track as they were reaching a corner, and then, just as the No. 1 DENSO SARD KOBELCO LC 500 was getting back on the track, it was hit by the second-placed car.
Both drivers barely managed to keep their machines from spinning out as they clung to the track, and, of the two cars, it was the No. 1 DENSO SARD KOBELCO LC 500 that was able to recover more quickly, enabling Hirate to pull ahead into the lead and race on to the checkered flag and victory.
“The tough weather conditions added an extra challenge to the race, and I applaud the drivers for holding firm till the end to give Lexus a fourth consecutive victory,” said Takayuki Yoshitsugu, Chief Representative, Middle East and North Africa Representative Office, Toyota Motor Corporation. “This triumph adds to our proven record in motorsports and we remain dedicated to continuously building on the experience gained on the racetrack to not only engineer amazing vehicles,but alsocapture our customers’ hearts and minds by igniting their emotions. The fans have been fantastic all season, and we owe a big thank-you to all our fans around the world for their constant support of our racing initiatives.”
“At the start, it was neither completely dry nor completely wet, which made for tough conditions. I chose to start with a harder wet tire, and that turned out to be the best choice,” said Heikki Kovalainen. “This season, our car had been delivering high performance from the beginning; and today, the tire choice and the timing of the safety car interventions turned out best for us. I was only hoping for a podium finish, so getting the win is a great result.”
Kohei Hirate said, “After the start, we didn’t know what the weather would do. So, I wasn’t sure what tires to choose, and when I think about it, SUGO tends to have more than its share of difficult races like this. Today, we chose to start with harder wet tires, and that turned out to be a great choice. And because of the timing of the safety car breaks, we managed to finish our pit stop at the best possible time. I’m glad that I was able to win here at SUGO because this is a place that I consider my second home.”
Besides, since races tend to get boring if a single car dominates the season, weight handicaps are applied to successful cars, meaning the WAKO’S LC 500 – with two-second places so far this year – carried 60 kg at SUGO, while previous series leaders Ryo Hirakawa and Nick Cassidy (KeePer TOM’S LC 500) carried 72 kg.
The next round sees the Super GT series return to Fuji, the spiritual home of the high-performance Lexus F Line, on August 5-6, 2017. The last time they raced at Fuji in May, Lexus filled the GT 500 podium, sweeping the top three spots as the #38 ZENT CERUMO LC 500 raced to a pole-to-flag victory.