Lexus again proved themselves to be the Mercedes AMG Petronas of the Super GT championship on Sunday. The brand won its fifth race on the trot and secured a double podium finish after a long, wet race at Autopolis International Circuit in regional Japan.

Two Hondas locked out the front of the grid for the 2019 season’s sixth round of the season, with Koudai Tsukakoshi and Bertrand Baguette claiming their first pole position of the year in their Real Racing Honda NS-X.

By contrast, championship leaders Kazuya Oshima and Kenta Yamashita struggled to make any impression in Saturday’s qualifying session thanks to their TOM’s Lexus being saddled with a 120 kilogram weight handicap for winning the previous two races – the pair started the race from the back row of the grid.

Defending champions Naoki Yamamoto and Jenson Button fared little better in their Raybrig Honda NS-X, qualifying 12th-fastest in the 15-car GT500 class field.

The start of the race saw Tsukakoshi fail to convert pole position into the race lead, slotting into second place behind the #8 Aguri Racing Honda of Tomoki Nojiri and Takuya Izawa before reclaiming the lead and quickly streaking away to a 10-second lead.

Yamamoto and Button’s race ended on the first lap after dropping a wheel onto the grass trying to overtake the sister Motul Honda piloted by Hideki Mutoh at Turn 14. They would be the sole GT500 Class retirees of the 65-lap race.

At one-third distance, rain started to fall across the circuit. At this point the KeePer TOM’s Lexus of Nick Cassidy and Ryo Hirakawa, along with teammates Kazuki Nakajima and Yuhi Sekiguchi both headed for the pits but kept slick tyres. It was a strange strategic call.

The rain triggered a second Safety Car interruption as several cars spun off the circuit, but quick thinking from a number of the GT500 Class frontrunners – including the leaders Tsukakoshi / Baguette and the eventual race-winners, Yuichi Nakayama and Heikki Kovalainen in the Lexus Team Denso entry – saw them complete their mandatory pit stops on Lap 34.

The influx of cars into the pits triggered a traffic jam and amidst the confusion the #19 WedsSport ADVAN Lexus of Yuji Kunimoto and Sho Tsuboi collided with a GT300 Class car that was emerging from the pits.

When the Safety Car retreated on Lap 41, Tsukakoshi and Baguette were back in the lead but had gambled on slick tyres in anticipation the track would dry. Struggling to maintain traction, they were quickly overwhelmed by Kovalainen, with two other chasing Lexus entries of Yuji Tachikawa / Hiroaki Ishiura (Zent Cerumo) and Kunimoto / Tsuboi in hot pursuit.

A third Safety Car incident was triggered by an incident in the GT300 Class field, with the race being restarted with 15 laps to go.

It was after this that Kovalainen swept by into the lead en route to victory. Behind him, the Tsukakoshi / Baguette entry made another visit to the pits to switch to wet weather tyres, with the added grip allowing them to chase down Kovalainen, who later admitted to being too cautious on the greasy track as his lead was rapidly slashed with each passing lap.

In the end, Kovalainen held on to claim the race win by 3.7 seconds, the entry’s first since the fourth round of the 2018 season.

The battle for third place was intense in the final laps, as on a drying track the KeePer TOM’s Lexus of Ryo Hirakawa and co-driver Nick Cassidy used their slick tyres to full effect. Having run in seventh place for much of the race, incredibly Hirakawa managed to pass three rivals on the last lap of the race to claim the final spot on the podium.

Drivers Team / Entry Result Pts
1. Heikki Kovalainen
Yuichi Nakayama

Lexus Team Denso Kobelco SARD
Lexus LC500 / R14AG
2:19:15.779 20
2. Koudai Tsukakoshi
Bertrand Baguette

Keihin Real Racing
Honda NSX-GT / HR-417E
+ 3.774 16
3. Ryō Hirakawa
Nick Cassidy

Lexus Team KeePer TOM’S
Lexus LC500 / R14AG
+ 24.137 11
4. Yuji Tachikawa
Hiroaki Ishiura

Lexus Team ZENT Cerumo
Lexus LC500 / R14AG
+ 27.931 8
5. Tomoki Nojiri
Takuya Izawa

Autobacs Racing Team Aguri
Honda NSX-GT / HR-417E
+ 32.440 6
6. Kazuya Oshima
Kenta Yamashita

Lexus Team LeMans Wako’s
Lexus LC500 / R14AG
+ 32.676 5
7. Narain Karthikeyan
Tadasuke Makino

Modulo Epson Nakajima Racing
Honda NSX-GT / HR-417E
+ 34.575 4
8. Yuji Kunimoto
Sho Tsuboi

Lexus Team WedsSport Bandoh
Lexus LC500 / R14AG
+ 1:04.754 3
9. Mitsunori Takaboshi
Jann Mardenborough

Kondo Racing Advan
Nissan GT-R GT500 / NR20A
+ 1:09.629 2
10. Kazuki Nakajima
Yuhi Sekiguchi

Lexus Team au TOM’S
Lexus LC500 / R14AG
+ 1:47.470 1
11. Kohei Hirate
Frederic Makowiecki

NDDP Racing Craftsports Motul
Nissan GT-R GT500 / NR20A
1 lap behind
12. Daiki Sasaki
Katsumasa Chiyo

Team Calsonic Impul
Nissan GT-R GT500 / NR20A
1 lap behind
13. Tsugio Matsuda
Ronnie Quintarelli

NISMO Motul Autech
Nissan GT-R GT500 / NR20A
1 lap behind
14. Hideki Mutoh
Daisuke Nakajima

Team Mugen Motul
Honda NSX-GT / HR-417E
2 laps behind
Not Classified Team / Entry Reason Pts
DNF. Naoki Yamamoto
Jenson Button

Raybrig Team Kunimitsu
Honda NSX-GT / HR-417E

Championship Points:

  • Points are awarded to the top 10 classified finishers on a 20-15-11-8-6-5-4-3-2-1 scale.
  • The Koudai Tsukakoshi / Bertrand Baguette entry is awarded an additional 1 championship point for claiming pole position.

Image via Masahide Kamio

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Keegan Bennett

Journalist - Japanese Motorsport at MotorsportM8

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