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Super GT Offseason Journal: A Changing GT500 Landscape

RJ O’Connell looks at potential changes for 2019 that could reshape Super GT’s top category

Just like baseball has its winter of off-season transfers and signings, its so-called “Hot Stove” period, so too does any major racing series, such as the Autobacs Super GT Series.

2018 is nearly over, and the change to 2019 draws ever closer. The 2019 Super GT season doesn’t start until 14 April at Okayama International Circuit, but between now and then, before the first race meeting and before the two official pre-season tests at Okayama and Fuji Speedway, there’s still the matter of who will represent Honda, Lexus, and Nissan in the fastest GT category in sports car racing.

While defending champion manufacturer Honda and their rivals at Lexus are making key changes of their own, it’s a potentially volatile offseason at Nissan that’s the major story of the 2018-19 Super GT off-season.

Nissan explores massive GT500 roster overhaul

First, it’s important to know where Nissan, the auto maker, stands going into 2019. The arrest of fallen company CEO Carlos Ghosn has folks more than a little nervous about where Nissan is heading in the future. The impact that Ghosn’s may have on the entire Renault-Nissan-Mitsubishi Alliance could be devastating, if this already volatile situation takes a turn for the worst.

Motorsports will almost always be the first thing to be slashed or eliminated when, in times of turmoil, a carmaker needs to make a decision to ensure its survival. Two recent releases would have sent alarm bells ringing, when Nissan and NISMO parted ways with both Lucas Ordoñez and Alex Buncombe after 10 years. Nissan left the Australian Supercars Series after this season.

That said, Nissan are still committed to racing. A new factory Formula E team in conjunction with e.Dams. A new partner for their IMSA DPi project in CORE Autosport. A world of customer GT3 racing programmes – several of them in Super GT’s second division, GT300. And for the purposes of this entry, their four factory-run Nissan GT-R NISMO GT500s.

NISMO Festival at Fuji Speedway was a celebration of Nissan’s racing heritage, its racing future in Formula E, and of a domestic racing season gone by. Their GT500 quartet only managed one win in 2018 compared to four from Honda and three from Lexus. At the end of the festival, NISMO CEO Takao Katagiri vowed to take back the GT500 Championships in 2019 for the 30,000 spectators in attendance, and the thousands more supporters of Nissan Motorsport around the world.

Two days later, Nissan ran an open test at a Fuji Speedway track day that has ramped up weeks of speculation in the Japanese press, pointing towards a massive overhaul to their eight-driver GT500 roster.

Immediately after the 2018 season, there were reports that Nissan were going to shake up the driver lineup at their four teams – NISMO, NDDP Racing with B-Max, Team Impul, and Kondo Racing. Mostly, those reports centred around two GT500 veterans potentially transferring from Toyota to Nissan: Kohei Hirate, and James Rossiter.

Hirate won two GT500 Drivers’ Championships with Toyota, who’s supported his racing career since he graduated from karting at the age of 16. Now 32, Hirate was demoted from GT500 to GT300 in 2018, and had a stellar campaign with apr Racing and their #31 Toyota Prius GT, finishing 2nd in the championship. But Hirate’s talents still warrant a place in the GT500 ranks, and it’s understood that he’s very close to securing a transfer to Nissan.

These days, it’s so very rare that a Japanese factory racer will switch allegiances within the premier class, the last one to do so was Yuhi Sekiguchi, originally a Toyota young driver, who joined Nissan in 2012, then switched back to Toyota/Lexus in 2014.

Two-time Suzuka 1000km winner James Rossiter also has ties to Toyota/Lexus going back to his first year in Japan in 2013. After stepping away from full-time Super GT competition in 2018, and a dreadful Super Formula return campaign with TOM’s, the 35-year-old Oxfordshire native is also close to changing manufacturers. Rossiter does have some pre-existing ties with Nissan already: They power the ByKolles ENSO CLM P1/01 that Rossiter has driven in the FIA World Endurance Championship in recent years. Rossiter’s appearance at the 4 December test at Fuji Speedway only further stoked the fires, the Brit could be on his way to driving for Nissan in 2019.

Between the many names that have been rumoured, Rossiter and Hirate are the most likely to complete the move to Nissan and race for them in GT500.

Of course, it’s never that straightforward. The Japanese press, in particular, the staff of auto sport Magazine, have reported that Nissan are interested in many other names. Longtime Nissan factory driver Hironobu Yasuda may move back up from GT300. 26-year-old Kazuki Hiramine and 23-year-old Jersey native Struan Moore were also suggested as potential GT500 candidates.
Then the post-NISMO Festival test happened, and brought in no less than three more big names into the mix. One of them is a known commodity in Super GT, the other two, known commodities in the DTM, Super GT’s allies under the new Class One technical regulations.

Frédéric Makowiecki raced for Honda from 2013-14 alongside the current champion Naoki Yamamoto. The current Porsche factory racer was a surprise guest of that Fuji test for Nissan, driving the Michelin-clad #3 CraftSports Motul GT-R. That said, clashes with the Blancpain GT Endurance Cup will mean that the Mako Shark likely won’t be patrolling the waters in Japan full-time.

The second big name at the test was Daniel Juncadella, who after six seasons racing for Mercedes-Benz in DTM, now finds himself a free agent after the Silver Arrows withdrew from the German series after 2018. The Spaniard may be looking to Super GT with options of staying in DTM closed off. Another young DTM expatriate in the mix is Lucas Auer, the nephew of F1 legend and DTM chairman Gerhard Berger. Auer is reportedly on his way to Super Formula already with the backing of Honda and Red Bull – he’s also been linked to Super GT, curiously, with Nissan – which seems a reach too far.

How does all this impact the Nissan GT500 programme going into 2019?

Well, let’s start with the sure-fire constant: Tsugio Matsuda and Ronnie Quintarelli, the winningest driver pairing in Super GT history, will stay with NISMO to drive the #23 Motul Autech GT-R (the “Red Car”). They scored Nissan’s only win at the Fuji 500km in May. Matsuda has a record 20 career victories. Quintarelli has a record four GT500 Drivers’ Championships. Those numbers alone speak volumes.

Where it becomes unclear is when it comes to NDDP Racing, Team Impul, and Kondo Racing. If you’re able to purchase auto sport Magazine Volume 1497, you’ll find a section devoted to the latest Super GT silly season rumours. You’ll find a predicted list of GT500 teams and driver lineups for 2019. But in the Nissan section, you will not find three very recognizable names attached to any of the four GT500 rides: Katsumasa Chiyo, Jann Mardenborough, and João Paulo de Oliveira.

Does that absolutely, positively mean that Nissan and NISMO, desperate to turn around a programme that’s only won two of the last sixteen races, are going to displace their most prolific international factory racing driver (Mardenborough), their most marketable home-grown Japanese talent (Chiyo), and a dependable veteran of over 100 starts and multiple GT500 race winner (Oliveira) from their most important factory racing initiative? Of course it doesn’t. And, as a brief commentary aside: I honestly don’t think they will, at least not all of them at once.

When Honda went winless in 2016, their plan to improve involved a brand-new car, a change of leadership, and relentless investment in improving the car for the talented drivers they already had – not gutting most of their driver lineup. I can’t imagine Takao Katagiri and the rest of the NISMO Japan trust doing that. Nor should they. Nissan have struggled for consistent success, and drivers of the caliber of Hirate, Rossiter, Juncadella, and Makowiecki can make a good sports car racing programme great and a great programme outstanding. But the problem isn’t a lack of pace from the drivers they already have.

Dropping any combination of Chiyo or Mardenborough (seen above, conversing with Sam Collins and Rob Barff for NISMO TV), or 13-year GT500 veteran Oliveira, to achieve a turnaround would be like fixing a broken window in one’s living room by taking a wrecking ball to level the entire living room and other adjacent parts of the house.

The only trouble after that, is that there are still only eight chairs on the party floor. Multiple GT500 race winner Daiki Sasaki looks like he’s staying after a solid first year with Team Impul in the “Blue Car”. Nissan young ace Mitsunori Takaboshi may be staying at Kondo Racing, even with his commitments as Nissan e.Dams’ reserve driver. And three-time GT500 champion and Super GT legend Satoshi Motoyama is keen on staying around for his 23rd consecutive season as a full-time GT500 driver, that’ll likely be with NDDP Racing/B-Max.

Crucially, Nissan isn’t looking like they’re going to add a fifth car to their GT500 lineup any time soon. Not when there’s talk that Nissan is already tackling Super GT with a lower available budget than Toyota or Honda can provide (which would also explain why Nissan’s own driver development programme has stagnated after Takaboshi’s ascension).

There are going to be some difficult decisions to be made, and likely, one new, very good driver will be there that wasn’t racing for Nissan in 2019. And conversely, one familiar, very good driver that was racing for Nissan in 2018 won’t be there any more. The only way we’ll know for sure is in early February when Nissan announces their driver lineups from headquarters in Yokohama.

I would think, and I would certainly hope, that Nissan doesn’t blow it all up under duress.

Let’s talk about something far more stable and calm: Honda!

We’ll actually hear Honda’s announcement of their GT500 driver lineups first. That’ll happen in two weeks’ time, at the Tokyo Auto Salon on 11-13 January. After winning four races and taking the GT500 Championship for the first time since 2010, there won’t be much need for change, but there will be some reshuffling of the decks for 2019.

That won’t, in all likelihood, include the introduction of a front-engined Honda GT500 car with an NSX silhouette. You’re likely to see that in 2020 with the next set of technical revisions that will be completely compliant with Class One.

Per the reports from auto sport of Japan, this is what we can expect Honda to announce at TAS 2019.

Defending champions Team Kunimitsu look as if their only major decision they’ve yet to make will be to keep their signature number 100 on the Raybrig NSX-GT, or take the champions’ number 1 that they’re finally entitled to. GT500 and Super Formula “Double Champion” Naoki Yamamoto will stay, and so too will Jenson Button, who’s cutting back on his WEC commitments to fit Super GT and Sky F1 commentary into his schedule.

Autobacs Racing Team Aguri (ARTA) will have both a GT500 and a GT300 programme to announce at TAS, but for the purpose of this journal, let’s stick to just the GT500 lineup with Honda. No changes here: Tomoki Nojiri alongside Takuya Izawa, the duo who won two races, three pole positions, and recorded ARTA’s best season in almost a decade.

Team Mugen are still yet to get back to the heights they once achieved in their Super GT heyday, but continuity is expected for 2019 as they should retain veteran drivers Hideki Mutoh and second-generation driver Daisuke Nakajima, while keeping their partnership with Yokohama Tyre.

Meanwhile, Keihin Real Racing will retain Koudai Tsukakoshi next year. But there may be a change in who partners Real Racing’s veteran stalwart for the 2019 season. After five seasons with Nakajima Racing, Bertrand Baguette is near a transfer to the Bridgestone-clad Keihin NSX-GT, which won the season-opening race in Okayama and finished 6th in the GT500 Championships with Tsukakoshi and Takashi Kogure.

That transfer would set up an entirely new driver lineup for Nakajima Racing, GT500’s only team running Dunlop tyres. Veteran racer Narain Karthikeyan was close to landing this drive last year after a successful test at Sepang International Circuit last winter. Karthikeyan, who turns 42 in January, still desires to race at a high level as it seems his Super Formula tenure is coming to an end. Along with Karthikeyan, it seems as if 24-year-old Honda protegé Hiroki Otsu, who won last year’s Super Taikyu ST-TCR Championship for Honda, and raced in GT300 for Modulo Drago Corse, is the other, most likely candidate for the seat.

But alongside Otsu, another Honda young driver is back in the frame: Tadasuke Makino, on his way back to Japan after two years racing in the European ladder to Formula 1, is a known GT500 commodity, he scored a podium in his first premier class outing in 2016 at Chang International Circuit. If his pursuit of an F1 drive is over for now, Makino has the potential to be Honda’s ace of the future in GT500 and Super Formula.

Lexus’ 2019 roster is settling in, but a vision of 2020 is also intriguing

Toyota Motor Corporation, represented in GT500 by the Lexus LC 500, won three races last year and nearly retained the title in 2018. Where there was potential for chaos, the six-car, twelve-driver lineup looks to have settled for 2019, with the announcement of Toyota/Lexus’ GT500 lineup slated for the first week of February.

That includes three driver pairings remaining intact for the upcoming season. At TOM’s, young lions Ryo Hirakawa and Nick Cassidy, will remain in the #37 KeePer TOM’s LC500. A change in dates for the Motegi GT 250km Race was most likely the catalyst for Kazuki Nakajima returning, to drive the #36 au TOM’s LC500 alongside Yuhi Sekiguchi. And at Cerumo, the #38 ZENT LC500 will have Yuji Tachikawa as their ace driver for the 21st consecutive season, joined by Hiroaki Ishiura.

Kazuya Oshima will stay in the #6 car at Lexus Team LeMans Wako’s, Yuji Kunimoto will remain at Lexus Team WedsSport Bandoh in the Yokohama-clad #19 car, and Heikki Kovalainen will remain aboard the #39 Denso SARD LC500. All three of them, however, will have new running mates for 2019.

Kenta Yamashita is a young man on the move, after two podiums in his debut GT500 campaign in the WedsSport LC500, he’s the leading man to move to the Wako’s LC500 to partner Oshima and replace the IndyCar-bound Felix Rosenqvist.

With Yamashita moving from Team Bandoh to Team LeMans, it opens the door for 23-year-old Toyota Young Driver Programme (TDP) top prospect, and reigning All-Japan Formula 3 Champion, Sho Tsuboi. Tsuboi is already a race winner in GT300, and nearly won in his first GT500 outing with Lexus Team SARD at the Fuji 500km. Showing no ill effects from the Macau horror crash with Sophia Flörsch, Tsuboi has been earmarked for a GT500 promotion for a while now – and he’s expected to be racing with Kunimoto in the WedsSport LC500.

While a change of dates to avoid a clash with the WEC will free up Nakajima to continue his WEC/Super Formula/Super GT triple campaign, Kamui Kobayashi is less and less likely to return to Super GT for 2019. That will open up another door once thought closed for good, for 27-year-old Toyota factory driver Yuichi Nakayama. Nakayama is a seven-time GT300 race winner, TDP graduate, and previous Japanese F3 champion like Tsuboi. Nakayama tested for Lexus at a recent GT500 tyre test in Sepang. He’s very, very close to a long-awaited promotion to the top flight.

And Toyota will have building blocks for the far future as well. TDP prospects Ritomo Miyata and Kazuto Kotaka are two names to watch closely over the next three years, two names you’ll surely see in GT300 this coming year. But there’s a great deal of excitement over what Toyota is unveiling at the Tokyo Auto Salon.

The GR Supra Super GT Concept will make its public debut at Tokyo Auto Salon, a Class One specification rendition of the new Mk. V Toyota Supra. Unlike the previous GR Supra Racing Concept, this one looks like it’ll go racing soon – likely in 2020, in a form very close to the one seen at TAS 2019.

As 2019 approaches, we see another outstanding grid coming together in the Autobacs Super GT Series. We’ll soon know if these visions of the year to come prove true or false. But the off-season is never uneventful and that’s before we even get to the GT300 class! And there is one more thing from the author as well.

Thank you to everyone who’s read, shared, or engaged with anything and everything I’ve contributed to DSC in 2018. Thank you to GG & SK for all the wonderful feedback and encouragement. Thank you to folks like Jens and Sam who’ve helped me pick up where I’ve dropped the ball at times. This is a true labour of love for me.

Here’s hoping I can do this again in 2019. I hope I won’t let you down!
-R.J.

Images courtesy of Nissan, Toyota, Honda, and the GT Association