The race that ended Button and Yamamoto's title defence

Jenson Button and Naoki Yamamoto were on course for a first SUPER GT victory of 2019 at Sugo, but things took a turn for the worse when Yamamoto took over the wheel. Rachit Thukral explains how their remaining hopes of defending their title unravelled in a topsy-turvy race.

The race that ended Button and Yamamoto's title defence

Sugo has been a happy hunting ground for Button and Yamamoto, the Kunimitsu Honda pair having scored their maiden victory at the 3.7km track last year. And the two appeared to be well-placed to repeat that result, having qualified second behind the fellow Honda of Bertrand Baguette and Koudai Tsukakoshi.

As the race began, Tsukakoshi struggled on his slick tyres on a track that was visibly damp, Button easing past into Turn 1 to take the lead.

The Englishman then saw off an early challenge from TOM’S Lexus driver Nick Cassidy amid traffic, building a five-second lead within three laps. He extended the gap to 10 seconds by lap 14 of 81, aided by his rival struggling with high tyre pressures.

Cassidy was able to halve the deficit as he approached his pitstop, but Button appeared to have things under control as he delivered one of his most impressive stints in recent memory.

#1 Team Kunimitsu Honda NSX-GT: Jenson Button, Naoki Yamamoto

#1 Team Kunimitsu Honda NSX-GT: Jenson Button, Naoki Yamamoto

Photo by: Masahide Kamio

On lap 27, Cassidy pulled into the pits, handing over the #37 Lexus to teammate Ryo Hirakawa. Crucially, TOM’S elected not to change the tyres due to lack of significant degradation, with the decision saving the team precious time in the pitstops.

Button waited until lap 36 to make his own stop and this was where the race slipped away from Kunimitsu’s hands. Not only did the team bolted on a fresh set of Bridgestone tyres, it also elected to fit the hard compound from its wet tyre range.

That meant that Yamamoto struggled to get the tyres up to temperature on his outlap, allowing Hirakawa to overcome a 10-second deficit swiftly and seize the lead.

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Worse still, the tyres lacked pace even after they came into groove and Yamamoto slipped further down to fifth after the safety car period that followed his pitstop.

Kunimitsu eventually called in Yamamoto for a softer wet compound, but the Japanese driver returned on track nearly 90 seconds down on the race-leading B-Max Nissan - and soon dropped off the lead lap.

Yamamoto's poor pace was part of a wider theme for all the Bridgestone runners, as worsening weather conditions titled the race in favour of the two Michelin-shod Nissan GT-Rs and Nakajima’s Dunlop-shod Honda NSX-GT.

Given that eight of the 15 GT500 cars run on Bridgestone tyres, it was indeed a surprise to see no representation from the Japanese tyre manufacturer on the podium - although Kunimitsu appeared to struggle far more than its fellow Bridgestone-equipped teams.

#1 Team Kunimitsu Honda NSX-GT: Jenson Button, Naoki Yamamoto

#1 Team Kunimitsu Honda NSX-GT: Jenson Button, Naoki Yamamoto

Photo by: Masahide Kamio

Explaining the strategic gamble that possibly cost Kunimitsu its first victory of 2019, Yamamoto said: “We opted for new hard wet tyre when the amount of water [on track] was high, but I was unable to warm up the tyre.

“After that, it was difficult to stay on the track due to the slow pace, so I changed to a soft wet tyre. However, there was only a new [not scrubbed] tyre available and it didn't warm up until the end.

“However, there are some drivers who used the tyres well, so I don’t think it was just a tyre problem. More than anything, I think JB [Button] did a good stint and managed first place well - something I wasn’t able to.”


Button and Yamamoto eventually finished eighth, leaving them 38 points off championship leaders Kazuya Oshima and Kenta Yamashita of the LeMans Lexus team.

With only 21 points on offer at the Motegi finale, Sugo officially marked the final blow in their bid to defend the title.

Had Yamamoto held on to win, back-to-back titles for he and Button could still have been in the offing, even though the chances of overhauling the lead Lexus crews in the season finale at Motegi would have been slim.

Kunimitsu's failure to capitalise on its early strong position at Sugo means that only three crews can mathematically win the title in November - and none of them are Hondas.

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