2016 Review: Autobacs Racing Team Aguri – GT500

It’s astonishing how far Autobacs Racing Team Aguri, a/k/a ARTA, have fallen in the GT500 class in the last several years. Once a perennial powerhouse of Honda’s fleet, they’re now just an afterthought, even for an already struggling manufacturer. All ARTA did in 2016 was reinforce this status.

#8 ARTA Honda NSX Concept-GT

Drivers: Kosuke Matsuura / Tomoki Nojiri
GT500 Drivers’ Championship: 15th Place (16 points)
GT500 Teams’ Championship: 13th Place (33 points)
Best Finish: 6th (Fuji 500km, Fuji 300km)
Best Qualifying: 4th (Buriram)

Aguri Suzuki’s squad are one of two Honda teams led by modern day F1 heroes from Japan that have fallen on very hard times since the start of this decade in 2010. The other is Nakajima Racing, led by Satoru Nakajima – the only other GT500 team ARTA have finished ahead of in the standings in the last three seasons.

It’s really hard to figure out how exactly they can’t seem to get it together in GT500 since the first-generation NSX was retired after 2009. They run the same Bridgestone Potenza tyres that won this year’s GT500 championship. They have most of the same high-ranking personnel in place that they did ten years ago. They have one of the largest fan bases, and enough sponsorship resources from Autobacs to run not one but two teams with a winning pedigree.

2016 was the second of Matsuura, the former Indy 500 Rookie of the Year, paired with the younger Nojiri, who is one of three true rookies to win a Super Formula race in their first season. This is the first time ARTA have carried the same driver pairing over consecutive seasons since ’09.

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The year started with brake failure forcing them to be the only car to retire from Okayama – highlighting one of the NSX Concept-GT’s major flaws since removing its hybrid powertrain. One of quite a few flaws with Honda’s derisively-labeled “GT400” machine.

Then they picked up a sixth place finish in the Fuji 500km that, until the series returned to Fuji that August, was Honda’s best result of the season. In that 300km race later in the year, they matched their best finish of the season in sixth – the lowest best finish of any team in GT500 all season.

Nojiri’s ill-advised divebomb up the inside of Masataka Yanagida at Sugo ended with the ARTA machine beached in a sand trap, then after the two sixth-places at Fuji, a very quiet ninth at Suzuka, then eighth at Buriram despite suffering damage from a collision with the Gainer Nissan GT-R from the GT300 class to close out their scoring for 2016. For the first time since 2012, Autobacs Racing Team Aguri did not record a single top-five finish in GT500.

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It’s hard to look at the team and pin the blame on its drivers, especially not when Nojiri has demonstrated that he can win races and compete with the best that Super Formula has to offer, and has brought that same speed over to Super GT. Matsuura isn’t a slouch either, even if most people just assumed he fell off the face of the earth after he left IndyCar.

Next year will be the tenth anniversary of ARTA’s historic GT500 championship-winning season, a year in which the ARTA NSX of Daisuke Ito and Ralph Firman became the first to clinch the title with a round to go, and set a new single-season points scoring record in the premier class.

In the last six seasons, ARTA have just one podium finish – the memorable Sugo 300km race where ARTA took a double-victory thanks to a bizarre final sequence where five potential GT500 winners crashed out ahead of them. A very memorable outlier nonetheless.

They’ll undergo another driver shakeup in 2017, with Matsuura off to Nakajima Racing and the Epson NSX, while Nojiri, Takuya Izawa, Takashi Kobayashi, and young Tadasuke Makino are all in the frame to drive for ARTA – hoping that they can somehow put the team back on the winning track next season.

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