First 2017 GT500 driver lineup rumours appear in auto sport Magazine (UPDATED)

The December 2nd issue of auto sport Magazine features an in-depth breakdown of the prospective 2017 GT500 driver lineups in the Autobacs Super GT Series. It’s the first true breakdown of Super GT’s “silly season” to emerge this off-season.

Remember that these rumours are just that, rumours, and the official confirmation of the lineups for Lexus, Nissan, and Honda will be made in February at each manufacturers’ respective global motorsport press conferences. Between now and then, many things can change that can drastically alter the complexion of the series.

Still, there possibilities laid out are intriguing, and will create a lot of discussion in the months to come.

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LEXUS

#1 Denso LC: Heikki Kovalainen / Kohei Hirate
#6 Wako’s LC: Kazuya Oshima / Andrea Caldarelli / Yuhi Sekiguchi (?)
#19 WedsSport LC: Yuhi Sekiguchi / Yuji Kunimoto / Andrea Caldarelli (?)
#36 au LC: Daisuke Ito / Nick Cassidy / Kazuki Nakajima (?)
#37 KeePer LC: James Rossiter / Ryo Hirakawa
#38 ZENT LC: Yuji Tachikawa / Hiroaki Ishiura

Toyota Gazoo Racing representative Keizo Takahashi promised changes to Lexus’ GT500 driver fleet, though according to auto sport‘s predictions, they may be the manufacturer that has the most continuity from 2016 to 2017.

Team SARD is expected to retain the championship-winning combination of Kovalainen and Hirate, with the Denso LC now carrying the traditional champion’s number 1 in 2017.

Team LeMans and Team Bandoh are likely to keep their driver lineups intact, Oshima/Caldarelli in the Wako’s LC, Sekiguchi/Kunimoto in the WedsSport LC.

But the possibility exists that Caldarelli and Sekiguchi can be swapped out, reuniting Sekiguchi with his former co-driver Juichi Wakisaka, now the team director at Team LeMans, and Caldarelli with Kunimoto, co-drivers together at Lexus Team Kraft in 2012.

In an unexpected surprise, Kazuki Nakajima could return to Super GT in the au TOM’s LC after spending the last two years in the WEC and Super Formula. There is only one clash of dates between Super GT and WEC in 2017, with the Fuji 500km (May 4th) being held on the week of the 6 Hours of Spa-Francorchamps (May 6th). In that event, WEC would continue to be Nakajima’s primary focus.

If the elder of the Nakajima brothers does return to the series, it would likely be alongside the youngster Cassidy, and in place of the 41-year-old veteran Ito.

One half of Lexus Team TOM’s will likely stay the same in 2017, though – the #37 KeePer TOM’s LC of Rossiter/Hirakawa.

And there should be no change for the Suzuka 1000km winners Team Cerumo, Tachikawa staying for his record nineteenth consecutive season with the team, partnered in the ZENT LC by Ishiura for a third season.

Finally, Kamui Kobayashi could serve as a third driver for any of Lexus’ GT500 teams at an event such as the Suzuka 1000km, supplementing his activities in the WEC and Super Formula.

Sports car racing has proven much kinder to Kobayashi’s fortunes than single-seater racing in recent years, and his reputation from F1 as a flambouyant hard-charger would translate well to the GT500 arena.

 

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NISSAN

#12 Impul GT-R: Hironobu Yasuda / João Paulo de Oliveira / Jann Mardenborough (?)
#23 Motul GT-R: Tsugio Matsuda / Ronnie Quintarelli
#24 Forum Eng. GT-R: Daiki Sasaki / Masataka Yanagida / Jann Mardenborough (?) / João Paulo de Oliveira (?)
#46 S Road GT-R: Satoshi Motoyama / Katsumasa Chiyo

Nissan are expected to remain at four cars in GT500 next season. The rumoured fifth Nissan GT-R, speculated to have been a second entry from NISMO sponsored by Red Bull, is now very unlikely to materialize for 2017.

NISMO’s sole entry will revert to their traditional number 23, the Motul GT-R expected to be driven by Matsuda and Quintarelli once again, together making up the most successful driving combination in Super GT history, with six championships and 30 career victories.

MOLA are also expected to retain their 2016 driver combo in the S Road GT-R, with elder statesman Motoyama returning for his record twenty-first GT500 campaign, alongside GT500 sophomore candidate Chiyo.

Team Impul face an uncertain future in 2017, with title sponsor Calsonic Kansei looking unlikely to return after 34 years of partnership. They may also enter 2017 with a different driver lineup than last season.

Jann Mardenborough has long been speculated for a move up to GT500 after one season in GT300, and he is linked to the Team Impul GT-R, potentially to partner Yasuda. Mardenborough tested an Impul Super Formula car in the winter of 2014, and team director Kazuyoshi Hoshino is a proponent of his – has been ever since that test.

Mardenborough is also linked to Kondo Racing, potentially joining Sasaki in the Forum Engineering GT-R. Should Impul get Mardenborough instead, which seems the more likely of the two, it opens the door for Oliveira to return to Kondo Racing for the first time since 2010.

Either one of these scenarios would project to push two-time GT500 champion Yanagida out of Nissan’s GT500 driver lineup for 2017.

While not listed anywhere in auto sport‘s 2017 plans for Nissan, Mitsunori Takaboshi should not be counted out of the running for a GT500 promotion, though without the addition of another Nissan GT500 squad, he is expected to stay in Europe for another season in Blancpain GT.

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HONDA

#8 ARTA NSX: Kosuke Matsuura / Tomoki Nojiri / Takuya Izawa (?) / Tadasuke Makino (?)
#16 Mugen NSX: Hideki Mutoh / Daisuke Nakajima (?) / Naoki Yamamoto (?) / Jenson Button (?)
#17 Keihin NSX: Koudai Tsukakoshi / Takashi Kogure
#64 Epson NSX: Daisuke Nakajima / Bertrand Baguette / (Unidentified “Newcomer”?)
#100 Raybrig NSX: Naoki Yamamoto / Takuya Izawa / Jenson Button (?) / (Unidentified “Foreigner”?)

Honda will have five teams in GT500 next season, and all signs indicate that Team Mugen will return to the series, and take the entry vacated by Drago Modulo Honda Racing after 2016. After the whirlwind season they had as a whole, it’s only fitting that Honda’s silly season picture is also a map of potential chaos.

One of the Mugen NSX’s seats is expected to go to Mutoh, who was part of Mugen’s GT300 championship winning team from 2013.

Alongside Mutoh could be either Daisuke Nakajima or Yamamoto. Both drivers have ties to Mugen: Nakajima drove the Mugen CR-Z in 2012, while Yamamoto is Mugen’s sole driver in Super Formula. It’s more likely that Nakajima would get the nod.

ARTA is predicted to be the most likely landing spot for Honda’s top young driver Makino, potentially replacing Nojiri alongside Matsuura. But the 20-year-old is also tipped to sign with Prema Powerteam in the FIA European F3 Championship for 2017, with the ultimate goal of ascending the ladder to Formula 1.

Like Nick Cassidy, Makino could attempt to run Super GT and European F3 in the same season, but the Autopolis round on May 21 takes place on the same weekend as the F3 Pau Grand Prix in France, creating at least one clash of dates.

Real Racing’s lineup is the only one that may not change at all: Tsukakoshi and Kogure, Honda’s top team from an otherwise wretched 2016 for the manufacturer, will surely stay together in the Keihin NSX.

The Epson NSX could be piloted by Nakajima and Baguette for a fourth straight season, but if Nakajima takes the Mugen drive, it opens the door for an unknown driver, described as a “newcomer”, to partner Baguette.

And it’s the same at Team Kunimitsu: They could be able to keep the popular duo of Yamamoto and Izawa in the Raybrig NSX, but not only is Yamamoto in play for Mugen, but Izawa could move back to ARTA, where he drove from 2008 to 2009, potentially as a replacement for Nojiri. Either of these scenarios could also provide an opening for an unknown international driver to come in and drive the Raybrig NSX.

Honda is also the focus of a potential defection in the tyre wars, as Yokohama Advan are aiming to supply a third GT500 team from 2017. Which team they will align with is to be determined, though it is worth noting that Team Kunimitsu have a history with Yokohama dating back to the JGTC’s formative years.

…Oh, and then there’s the small matter of one Jenson Button. You might have heard of this bloke from Somerset. The former Formula 1 World Champion has been on the record since announcing his sabbatical retirement from F1 in September that Super GT is one of his racing options for 2017.

But his involvement in Super GT next season will likely be limited to a third driver role for the Suzuka 1000km, with either Team Mugen or Team Kunimitsu. Still, having Button on the grid as a one-off for Japan’s great race will be a massive draw in itself, that much can be assured.

Special thanks to friend of the show Geinou of RacingBlog.de and to Japanese Samurai of the TenTenths Motorsport Forum for providing additional information.

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