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Super GT Offseason Notebook: Nissan Leads At Sepang Tyre Test

Plus the latest team announcements in GT300!

13 teams gather for tyre test at Sepang Circuit, new-look Kondo Racing stands out among the pack

With the 15 GT500 teams and their drivers all confirmed for the upcoming season, it was off to Malaysia and Sepang International Circuit for four days of tyre testing on 13-17 February.

Honda brought the Bridgestone-clad #99 Honda NSX-GT R&D car (Naoki Yamamoto/Jenson Button/Koudai Tsukakoshi/Bertrand Baguette), and also representing the reigning champion manufacturer were the Yokohama-clad #16 Mugen NSX-GT (Hideki Mutoh/Daisuke Nakajima), and the Dunlop-clad #64 NSX of Modulo Nakajima Racing (Narain Karthikeyan/Tadasuke Makino) – in its 2018 Epson colours. Best of the bunch was the #8 ARTA NSX-GT (Takuya Izawa/Tomoki Nojiri), which recorded the best time of 1’49.792, per reports from the staff of auto sport Japan.

Lexus brought the #093 TRD LC500 (Yuji Tachikawa/Hiroaki Ishiura/Heikki Kovalainen/Yuichi Nakayama) and the #094 TOM’s LC500 (Kazuki Nakajima/Yuhi Sekiguchi/Ryo Hirakawa/Nick Cassidy), both carrying Bridgestone tyres, joined by the Yokohama-clad #19 WedsSport Advan LC500 (Yuji Kunimoto/Sho Tsuboi). The #19 WedsSport LC500 recorded a best time of 1’50.075.

But it was the Nissans who led the way, in particular, the #24 Kondo Racing GT-R (in its 2018 livery) driven by Mitsunori Takaboshi and Jann Mardenborough. Their best reported time came in day two of the test, a 1’49.328.

Also representing Nissan were the Michelin-clad #230 GT-R R&D car (Tsugio Matsuda/Ronnie Quintarelli/Kohei Hirate/Frédéric Makowiecki), and the #12 Calsonic Impul GT-R (Daiki Sasaki/James Rossiter).

With the ten GT500 cars, there were also three GT300 cars testing: The new #30 Toyota GR Sport Prius PHV apr GT (Hiroaki Nagai/Manabu Orido), and the new #34 Modulo Kenwood Honda NSX GT3 EVO (Ryo Michigami/Hiroki Otsu) – as well as the #35 arto Lexus RC F GT3 for Panther arto Team Thailand, who brought in two new drivers for the test…

Walkinshaw and Ma test for Panther arto Team Thailand

Of the Toyota-backed customer teams in GT300, only Panther arto Team Thailand had not confirmed their 2019 driver lineup in time for Toyota’s motorsport activities announcement on 7 February.

It was a bit of a surprise to see the biggest names in Thai motorsport, Nattavude Charoensukhawatana and Nattapong Horthongkum, not immediately locked in for a third season with the team – as it turns out, they were both at the test, but joined by two new potential drivers in Sean Walkinshaw and Qing Hua Ma.

25-year-old Walkinshaw (pictured above-right, with Nattapong) drove the last two seasons for Autobacs Racing Team Aguri (ARTA) in the GT300 class, finishing runner-up in last year’s championship with co-driver Shinichi Takagi and sweeping both races at Fuji Speedway. He was replaced at ARTA this season by Honda junior Nirei Fukuzumi, but stated shortly after the announcements at Tokyo Auto Salon that he would be seeking new opportunities in the series.

The addition of Walkinshaw, and/or 30-year-old Ma – the first Chinese race winner in the World Touring Car Championship and now the official reserve driver of the NIO Formula E Team – would add serious credibility to a third-year team that finished all eight races in 2018, their first year with the Lexus RC F GT3 and TGR support.

Subaru re-signs race winning duo of Iguchi and Yamauchi

Last week, Subaru announced their 2019 motorsports activities, including their GT300 programme with R&D Sport.

For the fifth consecutive season, Takuto Iguchi and Hideki Yamauchi will pilot the #61 Subaru BRZ R&D Sport, and the team will continue their partnership with Dunlop tyres. Iguchi and Yamauchi finished 8th in the Drivers’ Championship last season, highlighted by a dominant win from pole at Sportsland Sugo.

Continued improvements to reliability and efficiency will be made to the BRZ’s 2-litre turbocharged Flat-4 engine, in an attempt to curtail the rash of mechanical failures – the BRZ suffered three terminal failures in 2018 alone.

Iguchi and Yamauchi will also drive for Subaru Technica International (STI) in this year’s Nürburgring 24 Hour Race, driving the WRX STI NBR alongside Tim Schrick and former GT500 driver Carlo van Dam – the same quartet that won the SP3T class last year.

Kimiya Sato joins Matsui at Tsuchiya Engineering

Tsuchiya Engineering held a launch party this Wednesday at the morph concert venue in Tokyo, to announce their 2019 Super GT participation, including a new-look driver lineup anchored by Takamitsu Matsui (above, right) and Kimiya Sato (left).

Matsui has been with the team since their return to Super GT competition in 2015, and the 31-year-old lead driver will have a new co-driver for the third time in as many seasons, as Sato leaves Team JLOC after four seasons to drive the #25 Hoppy Toyota 86 MC.

Sato, who achieved success in Europe as the 2014 Auto GP World Series champion, worked for team director and chief engineer Takeshi Tsuchiya (above, centre) last year when the two were teammates at Max Racing in the Pirelli Super Taikyu Series.

Now Tsuchiya has given 29-year-old Sato an opportunity with the team that won the GT300 Championship in 2016. Sato has two GT300 class podiums to his name, with a career-best finish of 2nd last October at Autopolis circuit.

Audi Team Hitotsuyama confirms R8 EVO and switches to Yokohama tyres

Audi Team Hitotsuyama confirmed their 2019 plans on Wednesday, with no change to the full-time driver lineup of 2004 GT500 Champion Richard Lyons, and 2015 Suzuka 1000km class winner Ryuichiro Tomita. Belgian Alessio Picariello, who drove with the team at the Suzuka 10 Hours last year, will return as the team’s third driver for 2019, competing in the Fuji 500km on May 4 and the Fuji 500 Miles on 4 August.

The big changes for Audi Team Hitotsuyama come in the form of the new 2019 Audi R8 LMS “Evo” which received a successful shakedown test at Fuji Speedway this past Friday. Massive aero enhancements and a new gearbox are among the improvements to the 5.2-litre V10 powered R8 LMS.

A second key change comes with Team Hitotsuyama switching from Dunlop tyres to Yokohama. In the last three years with Dunlop, Audi Team Hitotsuyama scored a breakthrough win in the first leg of the 2016 season finale at Twin Ring Motegi, but in the two seasons since, have failed to finish better than 8th in any race.

Audi Team Hitotsuyama will once again enter the Suzuka 10 Hours on 25 August with the trio of Lyons, Tomita, and Picariello that finished 8th overall last August.

The missing pieces of the GT300 grid – thus far…

Alongside the lineup at Panther arto Team Thailand and the expected new faces there, there are a few other teams that are still yet to announce their 2019 lineups.

A Mercedes-AMG GT3 for independent teams R’Qs Motor Sports and Arnage Racing, who are entering into a technical alliance this year. Two Lamborghini Huracán GT3s for Team JLOC, who are expected to have at least one Lamborghini factory driver as part of their four-driver roster.

Pacific Racing Team looks as if they’ll have the only Porsche 911 GT3-R (991) on the grid next year with D’station Racing joining forces with Aston Martin. Fukuoka-based Team Mach is expected to be back with their Toyota 86 MC.

Tomei Sports have yet to announce the other driver(s) of their new MY2018 #360 RunUp Rivaux GT-R, but it’s expected that Takayuki Aoki and Yusaku Shibata will remain in the fold alongside Atsushi Tanaka.

Another 2018 Nissan GT-R NISMO GT3 will be fielded by Hong Kong’s new X Works team, is this a new identity for a more familiar challenger from Hong Kong?

One team of interest might be Saitama Toyopet GreenBrave: According to the staff at auto sport Magazine of Japan, they will continue to field their Toyota Mark X MC, but are expected to announce two big changes for 2019: A switch to Bridgestone tyres, and the acquisition of free agent driver Hiroki Yoshida, formerly of Gainer, to partner Shigekazu Wakisaka. That, of course, is still pending official confirmation from the team.

We should know the answers to the final remaining questions in GT300 within the next two weeks.

Images courtesy of Ryuji Hirano, Subaru, Audi Team Hitotsuyama, Saitama Toyopet GreenBrave, and the GT Association