The 2020 Autobacs Super GT Series is finally set to commence after an off-season that seemed as if it would never end. Nearly eight months since the last time the series was in action, Super GT will finally kick off from Fuji Speedway this weekend on 19 July.
Which means it’s time for DSC to take a closer look at the grid in Super GT’s top category, the GT500 class, which is rejuvenated and refreshed for the 2020 season. Japan’s big three automakers are introducing new cars that are fully adherent to the unified Class One technical regulations. GT500 cars have long been the fastest super silhouette GT cars in competition, faster than all but the mighty LMP1s from WEC and DPis from IMSA.
The GT500 grid remains steady at 15 cars as it has for the last decade – 6 Toyotas, 5 Hondas, and 4 Nissans. The dynamic of the tyre battle in GT500 hasn’t changed either – Bridgestone still supplies 10 teams, with 3 on Yokohamas, 2 on Michelins, and just 1 on Dunlops. Those 15 cars are piloted by 30 elite-level drivers – most hail from Japan, with drivers also representing Great Britain, France, Italy, Belgium, Finland, and New Zealand.
Within those 15 entries, though, there is a new team. And there are 10 new driver combinations to
start the season, with 6 drivers making their full-time GT500 debuts.
Put succinctly, it’s another stacked lineup in the fastest GT category on earth – and the 2020 season promises close competition over the next four months, ‘til the season wraps up in late November.
#14 – TGR Team Wako’s Rookie – Wako’s 4CR GR Supra (Bridgestone) – Kazuya Oshima / Sho Tsuboi
#19 – TGR Team WedsSport Bandoh – WedsSport Advan GR Supra (Yokohama) – Yuji Kunimoto / Ritomo Miyata
#36 – TGR Team au TOM’s – au TOM’s GR Supra (Bridgestone) – Yuhi Sekiguchi / Sacha Fenestraz
#37 – TGR Team KeePer TOM’s – KeePer TOM’s GR Supra (Bridgestone) – Ryo Hirakawa / Nick Cassidy
#38 – TGR Team ZENT Cerumo – ZENT GR Supra (Bridgestone) – Yuji Tachikawa / Hiroaki Ishiura
#39 – TGR Team SARD – Denso Kobelco SARD GR Supra (Bridgestone) – Heikki Kovalainen / Yuichi Nakayama / Kenta Yamashita
2020 marks the much-anticipated return of the Toyota Supra to Super GT. Under the surface, the all-new fifth-generation GR Supra GT500 is an orthodox evolution of its successful predecessor, the Lexus LC500 – a car that won the GT500 Drivers’ and Teams’ Championships with six victories out of eight races in 2019.
With the GR Supra competing against the Nissan GT-R and Honda NSX, the great Japanese supercar battle of the ‘90s is renewed once again.
In amongst Toyota’s six-car lineup, two new faces have stepped up from the GT300 category to replenish an already deep pool of talent. But the most intriguing change is the debut of a brand new team, TGR Team Wako’s Rookie.
The newly-formed Rookie Racing team is a second entry for established Toyota factory racing team Cerumo, run in conjunction with longtime GT300 entrants KTR Co. Ltd.
Reigning GT500 Drivers’ Champion Kazuya Oshima, who won the title in a similar blue and pink Wako’s-sponsored Toyota last season, will lead the team alongside young Sho Tsuboi – the top prospect of the TGR Driver Challenge (TGR-DC) academy – who comes over from the WedsSport Bandoh team. Oshima stands as good a chance as any to retain his GT500 title in the new #14 Wako’s 4CR GR Supra, and his veteran experience and setup knowledge should undoubtedly benefit Tsuboi – just as it did for Kenta Yamashita, who broke through to become the top man in the series in 2019.
In the more familiar number 38 ZENT Cerumo Supra, three-time GT500 Champion Yuji Tachikawa returns for his record 22nd consecutive season at the team, his 6th alongside co-driver Hiroaki Ishiura, and his 2nd as lead driver and team manager. Tachikawa was the last driver to win a GT500 title in the fourth-generation Supra, fifteen years ago – and he’d love to bring home the new Supra’s first title. So too would Ishiura, still chasing his first GT500 title to go along with his two Super Formula titles and a GT300 crown from 2007. And with four of the seasons’ eight races taking place at Fuji Speedway, Tachikawa and Ishiura, who’ve won a combined 13 times at Fuji, should be at least a top challenger on paper.
A somewhat restructured two-car effort from TOM’s Racing looks as formidable as always, with the flagship number 36 au TOM’s GR Supra setting Toyota’s fastest time in the pre-season test at Fuji.
The fiery and tenacious Yuhi Sekiguchi becomes the senior driver of the orange number 36 car, with two-time Le Mans 24 Hours champion Kazuki Nakajima departing the series. Nakajima’s replacement is young Franco-Argentine phenom Sacha Fenestraz, stepping up from GT300 as a newly-minted Toyota factory driver. This is going to be a very intriguing team to watch – and there will be many interested observers from Argentina in particular thanks to Fenestraz’s surging popularity.
But they’ll need to get through the number 37 TGR Team KeePer TOM’s squad of Ryo Hirakawa and reigning Super Formula Champion Nick Cassidy, the most successful team over the last three seasons. We now know this is likely to be Cassidy’s last season in Super GT, having signed a new multi-year deal to race in Formula E in 2021 – a justly deserved opportunity for the young Kiwi. Together with the incredibly talented Hirakawa, they were undisputed GT500 Champions in 2017, and agonizingly close runners-up in the drivers’ table in 2018, and in 2019, where they settled for just the Teams’ Championship. Both drivers are young, blazing fast, with unwavering resolve and determination. In their final season together, they’ll be among the favourites to take back the crown.
Over at TGR Team SARD, last year’s championship-winning team director Juichi Wakisaka has taken over as team director. The plan for 2020 was to restructure the management and engineering staff around the returning driver lineup of 2016 champion Heikki Kovalainen and second-year GT500 driver Yuichi Nakayama, who were race winners in 2019. But with Kovalainen absent from the opening race due to travel restrictions, the other half of the 2019 championship-winning tandem, Kenta Yamashita, has been called on for an unexpected GT500 return. “Yamaken” now has a half-season of WEC LMP2 experience under his belt, and it took him no time at all to get a handle on the new Denso SARD Supra. This is definitely a car to watch at Fuji!
TGR Team WedsSport Bandoh, the only Toyota team on Yokohama rubber, are likely to be the dark horse in the Toyota camp again in 2020. 20-year-old TGR-DC prodigy Ritomo Miyata steps up from GT300 to make his full-time GT500 debut, alongside former Super Formula champion and one-time Le Mans starter Yuji Kunimoto. Kunimoto’s experience will surely benefit Miyata as it did for Yamashita and Tsuboi before him. And if the conditions are right, the blue and gold WedsSport Supra can easily manage podium finishes and even a race victory.
#8 – Autobacs Racing Team Aguri – ARTA NSX-GT (Bridgestone) – Tomoki Nojiri / Takuya Izawa
#16 – Team Red Bull Mugen – Red Bull Motul Mugen NSX-GT (Yokohama) – Hideki Mutoh / Ukyo Sasahara
#17 – Keihin Real Racing – Keihin NSX-GT (Bridgestone) – Koudai Tsukakoshi / Bertrand Baguette
#64 – Modulo Nakajima Racing – Modulo NSX-GT (Dunlop) – Takuya Izawa / Hiroki Otsu
#100 – Team Kunimitsu – Raybrig NSX-GT (Bridgestone) – Naoki Yamamoto / Tadasuke Makino
Under the body, the 2020 Honda NSX-GT is a fundamentally different car from its predecessor. The mandated change to a front-engined layout may not please the purist crowd, but it can’t be denied that this car was fast in the pre-season tests – especially after introducing a new low-drag front aero package at the Fuji test.
Feedback from the drivers and teams has been overwhelmingly positive, as Honda are ready to get back on song after taking just a single rain-shortened victory in 2019. They’ll do so with a five-car lineup that also features three drivers making their GT500 debuts.
The world-famous royal blue Raybrig NSX of Team Kunimitsu set the fastest time in the two-day test at Fuji after a breakthrough in setting up their new front-engined Honda. While they’ve lost the talents of F1 legend Jenson Button, they’ve brought the electric talent of Tadasuke Makino over from Nakajima Racing to partner Honda’s ace driver, Naoki Yamamoto, in a lineup that may be even better than the ultra-popular Naoki & JB tandem that won the title just two short years ago. Makino recorded the Raybrig NSX’s top time in the test, he looks more than up to the task he’s been given – and Yamamoto’s talents, recently showcased in F1, need little exposition by now as he looks to bounce back from a subpar 2019 by his lofty standards.
Keihin Real Racing retains the cohesive & experienced duo of Koudai Tsukakoshi, and Bertrand Baguette – which wasn’t a guarantee in the case of Baguette, but the Belgian has made it to Japan in time to start the 2020 season! This was the top Honda team in last year’s championship rankings, Tsukakoshi and Baguette proved to be an effective and cohesive pairing right from the get-go – and now the Keihin NSX-GT looks to build on a solid 2019 season and pick up a victory or two that may have eluded them last year. But for Tsukakoshi, now in his 12th season at Real Racing, he’d especially love to capture an even more elusive first GT500 championship for the only team he’s ever driven for.
Autobacs Racing Team Aguri (ARTA) may have assembled the one lineup with the most pure pace in all of GT500 by pairing the ultra-quick and underrated Tomoki Nojiri with reigning GT300 Champion, Nirei Fukuzumi, who makes his premier class debut. The orange and black ARTA NSX set the fastest time on the final day of pre-season testing at Fuji, certainly fuelling the hype further. ARTA spent the last three years on an upward trajectory after a tough start to the last decade. If this exciting new duo can realize their potential as a team, 2020 may be the best chance this team has had to capture the GT500 Championship for the first time since 2007.
In fact, the three Bridgestone-clad Hondas are all equally capable of taking the title – but there’s another team, Team Red Bull Mugen, whose expectations for the year are set just as high.
New marquee title sponsor aside, Mugen are a historic and respected team looking to turn their fortunes around in GT500 after finishing last in the standings in two of the last three years. Veteran Hideki Mutoh – a GT300 Champion with Mugen in 2013 – will now be joined by true rookie Ukyo Sasahara, a surprising but clever choice to replace the retired Daisuke Nakajima. Sasahara could be the difference-maker that Mugen have needed all along, coming off championships in the Formula 3 Asian Championship and Porsche Carrera Cup Japan. Will the combination of the front-engined NSX-GT and Mugen’s Yokohama tyres be a competitive fit?
Modulo Nakajima Racing continue on as the sole GT500 team on Dunlop tyres for yet another season. With Narain Karthikeyan departing the series and Tadasuke Makino moving teams, the #64 Modulo NSX-GT has a whole new lineup anchored by veteran Takuya Izawa – whose setup knowledge and technical feedback will be a blessing in this completely reworked squad – and GT500 newcomer Hiroki Otsu, a protegé of Ryo Michigami in GT300. In a wet race, this team can’t be counted out for a good result.
#3 – NDDP Racing with B-Max – CraftSports Motul GT-R (Michelin) – Kohei Hirate / Katsumasa Chiyo
#12 – Team Impul – Calsonic Impul GT-R (Bridgestone) – Daiki Sasaki / Kazuki Hiramine
#23 – NISMO – Motul Autech GT-R (Michelin) – Tsugio Matsuda / Ronnie Quintarelli
#24 – Kondo Racing – Realize Corporation Advan GT-R (Yokohama) – Mitsunori Takaboshi / Jann Mardenborough
Nissan plans to make 2020 the starting point of their next great comeback as an automaker. They’re also hoping to spark a turnaround for a GT500 programme that’s struggled in recent years. A glance at the times from pre-season testing would suggest that the new Nissan GT-R NISMO GT500 is a full step behind Toyota and Honda.
But the Nissan camp had a conservative programme in the final test, and they’re confident that they’re actually on the pace of their rivals. One big reason why is the introduction of the new NR20B engine – which finally gives Nissan the benefit of turbulent jet ignition (TJI) to boost efficiency and horsepower. There’s more of a “home-grown” feel to this driver lineup in the four GT-Rs, with one Japanese driver returning to GT500 and another making their debut.
Both of the Michelin-supplied teams in GT500 are from the Nissan camp – entered by NISMO, and sister team NDDP Racing with B-Max.
The most successful GT500 drivers of all time, Tsugio Matsuda (the series’ all-time GT500 wins leader) and Ronnie Quintarelli (the series’ only four-time GT500 Champion), return for their seventh season piloting the red #23 Motul Autech GT-R for NISMO. Even though they went winless for the first time in six seasons together, Matsuda & “RQ” still put together a solid season in 2019, taking their championship challenge to at least the final weekend. And they show no signs of dropping off in pace, despite passing their 40th birthdays last year, and rumours of splitting this tandem up for 2020 that never came to pass. NISMO enters this year with as good a chance as they’ve ever had to get back to their winning ways, if there’s one GT-R that can bring Nissan back in to championship form, this is definitely the one to watch.
The white CraftSports Motul GT-R salvaged a winning season for Nissan last year, and also demonstrated the strength of Michelin’s wet-weather compound. Though Frédéric Makowiecki has departed to IMSA with Porsche, his departure opens the door for a much-welcome full-time GT500 return for Katsumasa Chiyo – who spent last season focusing on TV duties and the Intercontinental GT Challenge. Chiyo partners two-time GT500 Champion, Kohei Hirate, who returned to his best form and asserted himself a star of the Nissan fleet upon his arrival last year. It’s a solid lineup and a strong team all-around.
Team Impul and the iconic blue #12 Calsonic GT-R are back for 2020, running on Bridgestone tyres and carrying the name and colours of one of the most recognizable sponsors in all of Japanese motorsport for over 30 years. The last few years have been a struggle for this historic squad – it’s now been 25 years since Impul’s last GT500 title, and going on four years since the last time they won a race. Kazuyoshi Hoshino’s team will turn to a young all-Japanese lineup to revive their fortunes in 2020: The savvy, swift Daiki Sasaki stays for his third season as the senior driver, and GT300 graduate Kazuki Hiramine is the bold, underrated choice to replace the outbound James Rossiter.
Kondo Racing also have a great young lineup of their own. NDDP graduate Mitsunori Takaboshi and GT Academy legend Jann Mardenborough return for their second season together in the Yokohama-clad Realize Corporation GT-R. An underrated duo in the eyes of the GT500 fraternity, theirs was actually the fastest of the four Nissans in the Fuji test. Granted, all of them focused on gathering tyre data and running race simulations – but one would be wise not underestimate this squad in their 20th anniversary season!