On Oliver Turvey’s time in Super GT

Where one door opens, another must close. Oliver Turvey will not take part in the remaining three races of the 2016 Autobacs Super GT Series for Drago Modulo Honda Racing.

Turvey will instead be racing in the FIA Formula E Championship, while 19-year-old Tadasuke Makino takes his place in the #15 Drago Modulo Honda NSX, a car that Turvey has driven since the team’s inception last year.

For Turvey, the young man from the Cumbrian town of Penrith, who has a justified reputation as one of the best all-around drivers in international motorsport – this may very well have been his final appearance in Super GT.

Honda have only five GT500 cars and ten seats to fill for 2017, and of those ten roster slots, the other nine seem very secure – those for their eight Japanese drivers, and for Bertrand Baguette, the only other gaijin driver in Honda’s GT500 roster.

Makino looks to be the next “phenom” in Japanese motor racing, whose Super GT future could only be put on hold if Honda decides to pull the trigger on a move to the European ladder to F1.

Then there’s the rumour of 2009 Formula 1 World Champion, Jenson Button, coming to the series via his role at McLaren Honda – the same set of circumstances that initially got Turvey the drive with Drago Modulo in 2015. There’s also the possibility that GP2 driver Nobuharu Matsushita may be called back home, or that Honda may give Takashi Kobayashi another chance in GT500.

Toyota and Nissan seem very content with their roster of drivers and the young talent in their developmental systems, so a switch to one of the other “big three” seems unlikely. Honda have no plans to re-enter GT300 with a car such as the NSX GT3 as of yet, but a step down to the “sanbyaku” seems a step too far for Turvey at this stage in his career.

All of these circumstances leave Turvey, the only Honda GT500 driver who has full-time commitments outside of Japan, as the odd man out.

Ironically, Turvey is also the odd man, in that he’s the one Honda driver who needs the least introduction to the average fan outside of Japan.

He’s been a McLaren F1 test driver since 2012. He’s a race winner in GP2, Formula Renault 3.5, and British F3 – and he beat many a future Formula 1 and/or WEC LMP1 driver in his climb up the racing ladder.

Last season in Formula E was a struggle, as NEXTEV TCR slogged through a season with underwhelming pace and worse reliability. But Turvey did outscore the inaugural series champion from the previous season, Nelsiñho Piquet, 11 points to 8 – and looked a bit more upbeat than Piquet throughout his first full Formula E season.

And perhaps Turvey’s greatest accomplishment, winning the LMP2 category at the 2014 24 Hours of Le Mans, aboard the “Mighty ’38” – the Gibson/Zytek of JOTA Sport, joining co-drivers Simon Dolan and Harry Tincknell just 48 hours before the race as a late substitute. This victory became the feature plotline of the documentary, Journey to Le Mans.

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With all of that going for him, how did Turvey not enjoy better success over his time in Super GT so far? At a glance, a record of one pole position, with no wins, podiums, or even a top-five finish over thirteen races seems underwhelming, but to judge based on those stats alone, without context, would be grossly unfair.

The struggles that Honda have had with the second-generation NSX Concept-GT are well-documented, especially in comparison to Nissan and Lexus.

There is also the fact that despite being officially supported by Honda and being positioned as the new “flagship” team in their stable, Drago Modulo Honda Racing are still very new, and still trying to find their footing in the series – which is much harder with a less competitive car.

The Suzuka 1000km in August represented Turvey’s best chance for a win so far. After going fastest in testing in July, he and co-driver Hideki Mutoh led every session leading up to the race, with Mutoh setting the track record in Q2.

And then of course, the engine let go in the back of the Drago NSX after 80 laps.

If Turvey has driven his last race with Honda, he would be one of a growing number of international drivers that have left them after less than two full seasons – Carlo van Dam, Frederic Makowiecki, Jean-Karl Vernay, and Vitantonio Liuzzi being the others.

The Brit has very publicly enjoyed his time in Super GT. From an interview with DailySportsCar editor-in-chief Graham Goodwin, in May 2015: “I’m loving [Super GT]. It’s really competitive, great teams, very impressive, very good, fast capable cars and a lot of fast and experienced drivers.”

“The downforce, the engines, in fact the whole tech package is hugely impressive and a big part of the appeal for me is that there is very real chassis, engine and tyre development opportunity for the drivers. The racing is very close and I feel it is definitely helping my development as a driver.

The last part bolded for emphasis, because the reality is, Super GT, and especially GT500, is incredibly difficult and competitive class to compete in. Even the grand champion of the 24 Hours of Le Mans, Tom Kristensen, never won a race in the series before he went on to win the great race a record nine times. But Kristensen still learned a lot from his time in Japan, as will Turvey from here on out.

That Mutoh was occasionally the quicker of the two drivers this season is absolutely not a condemnation of Turvey’s speed or ability. It only reinforces the strength of the driving field in GT500, and demonstrates that Mutoh is still a damn good driver, even after most in the West have forgotten all about him since he left IndyCar several years ago.

Turvey turns 30 years old in April, he’s reached or is about to reach the peak of his abilities. And should he depart Super GT but wish to continue to race in sports cars to supplement his Formula E gig, he deserves, and will surely land, a top-level drive with a competitive team in WEC, IMSA, or either of the regional Le Mans Series. He will be a much more complete driver in that role thanks to what he’s learned in his tenure in Super GT.

If this is it, then some of us will rue that Oliver Turvey never enjoyed the success in Super GT that his talents deserved.

But in time, if Turvey goes on to win championships take overall victories at Le Mans, or become a top star just like Kristensen, and Andre Lotterer, Benoit Treluyer, Loic Duval, Kazuki Nakajima, Romain Dumas, etc. – then Super GT fans will soon be proud that they got to see another future legend race in the series.

It’s been a pleasure, Oliver. Good luck in Hong Kong, and know that Super GT’s doors are always open to you in the future.

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