Reigning Super GT champion Jenson Button says he wasn’t expecting to even finish inside the points at Fuji after qualifying down in 12th position for the season’s second-longest race.
Button and Kunimitsu Honda stablemate Naoki Yamamoto failed to progress to Q2 for the first time since last August’s Fuji 500-mile event, and 12th place marked their worst qualifying result since they first teamed up at the start of 2018 season.
When the race got underway, Yamamoto struggled early on in damp conditions, dropping to 14th place, before carving his way back up front after a red flag bunched up the field.
The 30-year-old claimed the final spot on the podium just six laps from the finish, overtaking the Sard Lexus shared by Heikki Kovalainen and Yuichi Nakayama with a textbook move at Turn 1.
Button said he and Yamamoto were braced for a second non-score in succession, having been taken out of the Okayama season opener by the sister Honda of Real Racing team.
“Yeah, first race was obviously looking really good until the accident,” Button said. “So this race qualifying 12th, we were disappointed. We were worried that we will leave here with no points. So that’s tough. So to get 12 points is very good.”
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Button took over from Yamamoto for the crucial middle stint, where he had to drive on slick tyres on a track that still had visible damp patches.
The Englishman said his previous experience of driving in the wet in Formula 1 helped his cause, although lapping GT300 cars in such conditions represented a new challenge.
“The first two laps I had [GT]300 overtaking [me] because they had wet tyres. And then I got overtaken by the #64 [Nakajima Honda] car [which was yet to stop] on wet tyres.
“So then when my tyres were warm I could start overtaking and obviously people were making mistakes. So staying out of trouble was good.
“We got passed [by] the #39 [Sard] car at Turn 1. And then the #12 [Impul Nissan] car and the #37 [TOM’S Lexus] crashed. It was crazy, there were cars everywhere.
“It was really good fun. And my experience from Formula 1 in those conditions was perfect, it helped. It helped a lot. So very happy."
He added: “I really enjoyed that because you’re really feeling every time, every corner, you are feeling the grip. It’s not memory because normally with racing it’s a bit of memory, but this is feeling everything, the grip, trying to find the grip.
“So I always loved that in Formula 1 and I really enjoyed it today.
Asked to pinpoint why his team struggled in qualifying but finished as the top Honda in the race, Button revealed that he faced trouble keeping the NSX-GT glued to the ground.
“We really struggled with bouncing with the car,” he explained. “In the straight but also in the corners, the car is jumping a lot. We need to understand why because even in the race still a problem. Better in the race but we still need to improve.
“So Naoki-san and myself need to discuss and make improvements because this was a tough circuit for us and other Hondas were faster in qualifying.”
Button and Yamamoto now sit fourth in the drivers' standings, 13.5 points behind championship leaders Ronnie Quintarelli and Tsugio Matsuda of the NISMO team.
Additional reporting by Tomohiro Yoshita
#1 Team Kunimitsu Honda NSX-GT: Jenson Button, Naoki Yamamoto