This is “Silly Season” for the Autobacs Super GT Series, with just a few short months before the start of the 2018 championship, there are only bits and pieces of speculation floating about the Japanese press over the winter months in what they call the “hot stove league” – a term borrowed from the world of baseball to describe their off-season period of transactions.
Even in a series where there is an enormous deal of mutual loyalty between teams, drivers, and manufacturers, with a number of young drivers ready to make the step up to the GT500 class, and unprecedented international interest in Super GT, there could be some pretty massive changes in the landscape of the premier GT500 category.
Based on several reports, primarily originating from the most recent volumes of auto sport Magazine of Japan, DSC and Super GT World bring to you an overview of what we could expect to see when the big three Japanese manufacturers reveal their driver lineups in the next two months, for the 15 cars and teams in the fastest GT category in the world.
For the reigning champion manufacturer Lexus, there seems to be no reason to change an outstanding cast of drivers and teams – and yet, they may be the manufacturer who has the most turnover of the three.
We start with what we do know – that none of Lexus’ driver changes will be the result of any layoffs at the Toyota Gazoo Racing LMP1 team, as DSC editor Graham Goodwin can confirm that the entire Toyota LMP1 driver roster for 2017 will be retained for 2018-19, regardless of whether or not Fernando Alonso drives for them next season.
Then we move on to what seem to be the absolute certainties, there are two teams which will retain their drivers for 2018.
Those are Lexus Team KeePer TOM’s, now set to carry the champion’s number 1, but who will all but certainly keep Ryo Hirakawa and Nick Cassidy in the car to defend their titles. The other team is Lexus Team ZENT Cerumo, with Yuji Tachikawa driving for his record 20th consecutive season with the team, alongside the reigning two-time Super Formula champion Hiroaki Ishiura.
Beyond that, Lexus Gazoo Racing could take on as many as three new drivers for the 2018 season in their outstanding, Car of the Year nominated Lexus LC500.
Of the names coming in, Kamui Kobayashi is the most certain and most established arrival, and the current lap record holder at Le Mans will likely have a busy, busy schedule between Super GT, WEC, and Super Formula – much like Kazuki Nakajima, who is also expected to run all three championships in 2018. Both would miss the Fuji 500km with their WEC commitments, but it’s not a deal-breaker.
There is also the outstanding 22-year-old prospect Kenta Yamashita, the former Japanese F3 champion and Toyota Young Driver Programme (TDP) protegé looking to step up to his first full season of GT500 competition next year.
And just after the close of the Toyota Gazoo Racing Festival a few weeks ago, a third name was reported to be in talks with Lexus: Felix Rosenqvist, the brilliantly versatile Swede who made his Japanese racing debut in Super Formula this past season.
With just those three drivers in play, and with the drivers already in the fold at Lexus Gazoo Racing, they will have to make some very difficult choices indeed to make room for any combination of Kobayashi, Yamashita, and/or Rosenqvist – choices that translate to leaving a very talented driver off the 2018 grid. Some will be voluntary as they pursue opportunities elsewhere, others will be involuntarily moved out of a GT500 seat.
We know now that Formula 1 World Champion Jenson Button will be racing full-time in Super GT with Honda. What we don’t know, just yet at least, is where the popular Brit will be driving within the five-car fleet of Honda NSX-GTs.
And it’s a safe bet that these three drivers will stay with their existing teams: Tomoki Nojiri with Autobacs Racing Team Aguri (ARTA), Koudai Tsukakoshi with Real Racing, and Naoki Yamamoto with Team Kunimitsu. Ironically, it’s those three teams that are being reported as most likely to take on the services of Jenson Button as a new driver. That means someone like former champion Takashi Kogure or Takuya Izawa could be moved to a new team to counter.
Team Mugen are likely keeping Hideki Mutoh and Daisuke Nakajima, while Suzuka 1000km winners Nakajima Racing are also likely to keep Bertrand Baguette and Kosuke Matsuura, based on their appearances at a recent tyre test at Sepang International Circuit.
But auto sport is also reporting that a second non-Japanese driver could also make the switch to GT500. That move would displace yet another driver that isn’t Button, Nojiri, Tsukakoshi, or Yamamoto.
Honda will likely be the first to announce their driver lineups this year as they did last year, and that announcement is expected to come on Friday, January 12 at the Tokyo Auto Salon.
Start with what needs no alteration: Tsugio Matsuda, the winningest GT500 driver in history, and Ronnie Quintarelli, the most titled GT500 driver in history, are a near-certainty to return to the #23 NISMO team after a close runner-up finish in last year’s standings.
Nissan will keep on with just four GT-R NISMO GT500s next season. But over this month, there is increasing speculation that the identity of one of their four top-level teams will change in 2018.
MOLA International, who won back-to-back GT500 championships in their first two years in the category (2011 and 2012), are rumoured to be turning over operations of their team to the B-Max Racing Team.
B-Max aren’t an unknown commodity in the least, with championships in All-Japan F3, race victories in FIA Formula 4, and a successful step up to Super Formula. They’ve also been the title sponsor of Nissan’s factory-backed GT300 team, NDDP Racing.
There’s also a new driver in the mix: Mitsunori Takaboshi, newly-crowned F3 champion of Japan, is firmly in play for his first full-time GT500 deal – and it may likely go hand-in-hand with the GT500 debut of the B-Max team who powered him to his F3 title last year. The 24-year-old has been mega fast in GT3 Nissans in recent years, and he’s ready to take his talents to the top flight.
Takaboshi was mentored by three-time GT500 champion Satoshi Motoyama, who is also a central figure in this year’s hot stove league – as the questions begin to form over whether or not the legendary Nissan stalwart has already driven his final race in Super GT.
Over in GT300, things are a bit less clear-cut, and not much will be settled with the driver and team selections until the pre-season tests begin in March.
CarGuy Racing will make their series debut in 2018 with the new-to-market Honda NSX GT3, but as many as four other customer teams may join them – including an existing team previously aligned with Mercedes-Benz switching to Honda. It’s looking like the NSX GT3 might be an instant hit with GT300 teams back home.
Less certain, though, is who will take on the revamped 2018 Nissan GT-R GT3. With the chance that B-Max Racing will go to GT500, NDDP Racing could be shuttered with the loss of their title sponsor – meaning additional support for their remaining customer teams, such as Gainer.
BMW could be down one customer team, with Team Studie set to make a decision on whether or not to continue on racing in 2018. Their emotive team director Yasuaki Suzuki has hinted at retirement for several months now.
The second-generation Bentley Continental GT3 won’t be racing in Super GT – at least not until 2019, per the word of EIcars Bentley TTO driver Yuji Ide.
VivaC Team Tsuchiya aren’t stepping up to GT500 – at least not this coming year, but the mighty privateers have expressed interest in going back to the top flight in the near future with Takamitsu Matsui staying on as their lead man.
And following up on Panther Team Thailand, another non-Japanese team is reportedly interested in competing in Super GT on a full-time basis, as early as next year.
Even after the arrival of Jenson Button, the prospect of adding in young talents like Kenta Yamashita and Mitsunori Takaboshi, and world-proven stars like Kamui Kobayashi and Felix Rosenqvist, serves to only reinforce GT500’s status as one of sports car racing’s most competitive categories.
GT300 is as populous and as professional as it’s ever been, and there may not be much room for all the new teams who want to take part. Keep an eye on the provisional seed rankings for 2018, which determine which teams are automatically qualified for each round of the championship.
And of course, with there being just 1 to 2 months before the first manufacturer reveals their drivers for the 2018 season, expect a surprising new face to pop up as the season draws closer.
Images courtesy of Toyota, Mugen Power, Nissan, Honda, and the GT Association