How TOM’S' ‘number two’ car stole the title for Toyota

The #36 TOM'S Toyota of Yuhi Sekiguchi and Sho Tsuboi winning this year's SUPER GT title is an outcome virtually nobody would have expected before last weekend - and even at the start of the year. So how did the pair defy the odds?

In recent seasons, it has been the #37 side of the TOM’S garage that has been at the forefront of the team’s, and usually Toyota’s, SUPER GT title challenges, while the sister #36 machine has often languished further down the order.

Since Nick Cassidy and Ryo Hirakawa won the 2017 title in the #37 car, the KeePer-branded machine was runner-up in 2018, ’19 and ’20, establishing consistency matched by no other crew in the field. The #36 meanwhile was fifth in the standings in 2017 and ’18, a distant seventh in ’19 and then fourth last year.

So how did the au-branded #36 car driven by Yuhi Sekiguchi and Sho Tsuboi go from being the perennial underperformer of the TOM’S stable to defying impossibly long odds to snatch the title for Toyota in Sunday's season finale at Fuji Speedway? Here are five key factors:

Tsuboi’s arrival in the team

It’s been clear for a while now that Tsuboi was a GT500 champion-in-waiting. He made the move to TOM’S after a single season spent with Rookie Racing (then run by Cerumo) as the teammate to Kazuya Oshima, and rapidly establishing himself as one of the most bankable prospects in the whole Toyota stable with his raw pace and overtaking ability, and in his first year on Bridgestone tyres.

Oshima was not only wowed by Tsuboi’s pace, but also the quality of his technical feedback, which he rated higher than that of his previous (and current) teammate Kenta Yamashita. That will have no doubt helped the #36 crew, especially as Tsuboi took over from Sacha Fenestraz, who couldn’t communicate fluently with Sekiguchi, who speaks little, if any, English.

 

Another key point to note is that, with the exception of the Fuji 500km, Sekiguchi took the start in every race this year – whereas, when paired with Fenestraz and before that Kazuki Nakajima, he usually did the long slog of the second stint. Switching to being the driver that mostly did the start of the race seemed to suit Sekiguchi better, with Tsuboi taking charge of the arduous second stints.

Stability on the engineering side

The most successful GT500 teams tend to not change chief engineers too often – there’s a reason why teams like NISMO (Takeshi Nakajima) and the #37 TOM’S squad (Masaki Saeda) have stuck with the same engineers for years. Changing one is like changing a driver, creating a new dynamic within the squad that can take time to bed in, often a full season or more.

Last year, Satoshi Yoshitake took over the reins of the #36 car as his predecessor Tsutomo Tojo stepped into a more general technical director role, and Sekiguchi told Motorsport.com earlier this year that this change hindered the team’s progress somewhat last year. But with a season under his belt, Yoshitake was in a much better position to give his drivers what they needed in 2021.

 

Sekiguchi remarked that the set-up philosophy of the #36 machine was to focus on rear-end stability, which appeared to pay off as Hirakawa frequently complained of oversteer in the #37 TOM’S car, one of the factors that prevented him from accruing as many points as expected in the middle of the season.

Disruption for other Toyota teams

Certainly, the #36 crew’s case was helped by disruption in the other side of the TOM’S garage. Fenestraz was supposed to succeed Cassidy as Hirakawa’s teammate in the #37 machine but ended up missing all but the final three races due to visa issues, which meant that Sena Sakaguchi ended up doing most of the season – doing a fine job, but not operating at the level of a Sekiguchi or a Tsuboi and lacking the experience to give much in the way of useful feedback.

Once Fenestraz returned, it took him a couple of races to get back into the groove, as you would expect, but by then the damage to Hirakawa’s title hopes had already been done.

 

Elsewhere, Rookie Racing was starting afresh as an independent outfit after breaking away from Cerumo, which didn’t seem to show at the start of the season but perhaps did once the success ballast arrived and the team went four races without scoring points. Cerumo itself was also experiencing a transition year with Kotaro Tanaka taking over as lead engineer-cum-team manager, while the SARD squad was into its fourth chief engineer in as many seasons in 2021.

No engine woes or incidents

When Toyota introduced its second engine of the season at Sugo and had four of its six cars fail to finish the race, it looked like Honda well and truly had the upper hand in the GT500 battle. But in hindsight, Toyota can count itself lucky that the #36 machine somehow avoided the issues that forced its fellow GR Supras out of action and led to three engine penalties being handed down at Autopolis.

Besides that, Sekiguchi and Tsuboi generally kept themselves out of the wars, with their unfortunate breakdown from a very strong position in the Fuji 500km their only real mishap of the whole season.

 

Tsuboi’s error at Okayama aside, where he skated through the gravel trap in a vain bid to outbrake and pass Yamashita’s Rookie Racing Supra around the outside (which didn’t end up costing him any positions), it’s hard to think of much that either driver did wrong. And that was despite having a worse qualifying record than the #37 machine, which started ahead six times out of eight.

Sekiguchi’s return to form

Perhaps is the most important factor of all, as Sekiguchi can be devastatingly effective when he’s in the mood. Last year was definitely an ‘off’ year for the 33-year-old, who struggled in Super Formula against Impul teammate Hirakawa and made his fair share of errors at the wheel of the #36 GR Supra in SUPER GT as well, especially in comparison to rookie teammate Fenestraz.

For whatever reason, in both categories this season we saw a new Sekiguchi. In Super Formula, from June’s Sugo round onwards (possibly boosted by the temporary absence of Hirakawa) he seemed to rediscover some of his old speed, and this also appeared to carry over into SUPER GT.

He put in a strong opening stint at Motegi in July to tee up a podium finish that would prove exceptionally valuable in the final analysis, and was equally strong in the next two rounds at Suzuka and Sugo when another pair of critical top-five finishes were registered with heavy ballast.

Sekiguchi saved the best for last as he fought his way up from fourth on the grid on Sunday at Fuji to run second early doors before pouncing on Kazuya Oshima’s Rookie Racing machine to take a lead that he and Tsuboi wouldn’t relinquish, capping off an accomplished campaign.

 

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