Having dominated the first two rounds of the 2017 AUTOBACS SUPER GT500 series in Okayama and Fuji Speedway, the new Lexus LC 500 displayed its prowess once again at the Autopolis racing circuit to make it three wins in a row. This time, it was the turn of the #36 au TOM’S LC 500 driven by Kazuki Nakajima and James Rossiter to keep the Lexus flag flying as they raced to victory in the third round of the championship.
In a race held under clear bright skies and fought over a challenging 300-km distance, the au TOM’S LC 500 battled its way from seventh on the grid to the top step of the podium to continue Lexus’ scintillating start to the season and consolidate the team’s position on top of the manufacturer’s standings.
“This has been another excellent performance from the team, and I congratulate au TOM’S LC 500 for maintaining Lexus’ dominance in the 2017 season,” said Takayuki Yoshitsugu, Chief Representative, Middle East and North Africa Representative Office, Toyota Motor Corporation. “Participating in motorsports events allows us to gather a variety of data which in turn help us while developing production vehicles. The level of support we received from our fans has been one of the highlights of our 2017 activities so far, and I express my gratitude to them for their constant encouragement of our motorsports initiatives.”
The SUPER GT qualifying employs a unique two-stage knockout format, meaning both drivers of each team must be quick enough to get into higher position. Everyone makes a desperate attempt to clock the fastest lap in qualifying within the given time limit to get a better position at the actual race, making it a breathtaking battle well worth watching.
Besides, since races tend to get boring if a single car dominates the season, weight handicaps (success ballast), which are calculated according to accumulated points the drivers have acquired in all previous races, are assigned to the cars in the next race. Heavier cars have poorer acceleration and braking, meaning the championship battle is expected to go down to the wire. That looked to be a real disadvantage initially, since Lexus teams dominated the previous two rounds and this meant the LC 500 cars had to carry extra weight into the race. Despite the weight handicap, five of the six Lexus LC 500s made it through to the second stage of qualifying.
As the race started, the pole-starting competitor car secured the fastest lap of the entire race on lap two and generated a runaway lead of over six seconds by lap four. However, a major incident on lap five took two cars out of contention and immediately deleted any advantages during the safety car’s deployment.
Following the restart on lap 14, the frontrunners found themselves caught up with back markers in the GT300 class (SUPER GT is a mixed-class racing competition combining GT500 and GT300 classes, with the two classes of different levels of performance racing together to make the event all the more exciting for fans). This momentary hold-up allowed Heikki Kovalainen to join the chase in the #1 LC 500, eventually pushing into second place by the halfway point.
By lap 30 the teams began to make routine driver changes. In a calculated move, the #1 LC 500 entered the pits at the same time as the lead car, but managed to emerge in front as the DENSO KOBELCO SARD team pulled off a lightning fast pit stop. During this period, the #36 LC 500 of James Rossiter pushed incredibly hard and took the lead until lap 35, creating valuable headway that allowed fellow driver Kazuki Nakajima to leapfrog into the overall lead after their own super-speedy pit stop, ahead of the #1 LC 500.
With the #36 and #1 LC 500s now in first and second position and gaining distance on the rest of the pack, a six-car scrap ensued for third place. However, the two lead cars had their own battle, an intense rivalry that ended in an unavoidable collision on lap 51. The #1 car spun off and was unfortunately hit from behind by a GT300 car as it tried to return to the track, forcing both cars out of contention.
Now unchallenged, Nakajima led his #36 car to the chequered flag with an outstanding lead of 26 seconds – team au TOM’S first win of the 2017 season and the third consecutive victory for the Lexus LC 500.
“After the qualifying, I was starting to lose my confidence, so I decided to race calmly,” Kazuki Nakajima said. “But, James did a magnificent job at the wheel and got us to where we could take the lead. That was more than I ever expected. I had a bad time getting through the traffic (of back markers) and it allowed the No. 1 car to catch up with me. There was nothing I could do about the ensuing collision and that was unfortunate. There was some damage to my machine, but fortunately I was somehow able to get to the finish first.”
James Rossiter said, “It was truly a day full of action. At first, I was running behind the two lead cars and that was the toughest part. But after the safety car came out, I thought that the real race would be from that point on, so I pushed hard. I kept running in full-attack mode, and I really enjoyed it. We got the win, so I am satisfied.”
No. 36 LEXUS LC 500 au TOM’S (Kazuki Nakajima and James Rossiter)
Race: 1st, 65 laps
Best Lap: 1'37.005