2016 Super GT World Awards: GT300 Driver of the Year

The 2016 Super GT World Awards recognize the most outstanding individuals from the 2016 Autobacs Super GT Series.

The GT300 Driver of the Year Award for 2016 is awarded to the most outstanding driver in a category that has steadily, and now explosively, become one of if not the most competitive classes in top-level professional sports car racing anywhere in the world.

Every year, the standard of competition in the GT300 continues to rise beyond expectations, thanks to the JAF-GT versus FIA GT3 war, the multi-tiered tyre war between Yokohama, Dunlop and Bridgestone, and the incredible mixture of all-pro, pro-am, and true-am talents that give the GT300 class a unique character all to itself.

Over 70 drivers took part in a GT300 class race in 2017. Trimming a shortlist of seven finalists out of that roster is a very daunting task. A subjective award will attract criticism and encourage debate, even one that is decided by a small panel of individuals. But we can try. And thus, we honour the most outstanding driver in the ultra-competitive GT300 class for 2016.

Honourable Mentions

Naoya Gamou: Qualified his LEON AMG on the front row twice, and began the season with a breakthrough first win at Okayama. Pound for pound, one of GT300’s fastest drivers.

Kazuki Hiramine: Emerged as the fastest of JLOC’s driving stable in 2016, scored his first podium finish in Motegi, and also won the Super Taikyu ST-X title for Kondo Racing.

Takuto Iguchi: Gave the Subaru BRZ its best grid positions of the year, and put on a memorable recovery effort at Suzuka where he came back from an early spin to put the car in position to win.

Yuhki Nakayama: Led Team Upgarage with Bandoh to being one of 2016’s most improved teams, and qualified on pole for Suzuka.

Naoya Yamano: Two-time All-Japan Gymkhana champ emerged out of nowhere to provide comparable pace to his much-heralded co-driver Jörg Bergmeister, and finished in the top ten in the GT300 drivers’ standings for the first time in his career.

The finalists

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TAKASHI KOBAYASHI

Between the two drivers of the ARTA BMW M6, Shinichi Takagi and Takashi Kobayashi, there are two evenly matched drivers on sheer pace alone. But when it comes to execution, the younger Kobayashi was just more consistent in 2016, and came through in the biggest spots for the team.

Kobayashi’s season wasn’t perfect of course, his lone unforced error coming when he spun and crashed on cold tyres at Sugo. Apart from that, he took pole position and dominated the early leg of the Fuji 500km, he held his nerve to take a solid third place at Buriram, and of course, he held off a tenacious Richard Lyons to win the 300km race at Fuji by just 0.106 seconds. At the high speed tracks, Kobayashi and the powerful BMW were at their best, and he picked up where he left off with the old Honda CR-Z perfectly.

Still just 29 years old, Kobayashi’s superb form in GT300 with ARTA should hopefully warrant a promotion back to their GT500 side next season.

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RICHARD LYONS

The other player in that memorable race at Fuji Speedway in August, Lyons came up just short at the mountain in August, but on the whole, he enjoyed his best season in his GT300 career to date with Audi Team Hitotsuyama.

This year, Lyons led Hitotsuyama Racing to their very first win in Super GT in over fifteen years in the series at Twin Ring Motegi, and led Audi back to victory for the first time since 2012. The disappointing outcome at Fuji did sting at the time, but that second-place finish did go a long way into helping he and Tomonobu Fujii finish as the best of the GT300 runners in the championship, along with four more finishes of seventh or higher.

One of the top drivers in GT500 for over a decade, it’s great to see Lyons back on form in Super GT, leading Audi and Hitotsuyama Racing to their greatest successes in the series.

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JANN MARDENBOROUGH

The way he drove back from deep into the field into the sharp end of the points at Sugo and the Fuji 300km was reminiscent of NASCAR champion Kevin Harvick’s famous rallies that have often left people asking “Where did he come from!?“, and no driver maximized the brute strength of the Nissan GT-R GT3 like “Jann tha Man.”

The Fuji 500km was his breakout performance, scything his way to the front, and pulling away at the very end to take his first win. Another could have easily come at Buriram, where he was the outright fastest single driver during the race. Even in the races where his car wasn’t so spectacular, such as at Suzuka, or in either race at Motegi, Mardenborough was still scrapping it out with fun wheel-to-wheel battles.

NDDP Racing came very close to winning the GT300 championship, and Mardenborough’s pure driving skill was the biggest reason why. He is a special talent, someone who transcends just being another talented driver, and a future legend of this sport when all is said and done.

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YUICHI NAKAYAMA

While the V8-powered, hybrid-powertrain, prototype-derived Toyota Prius apr GTs are examples of modern Japanese motorsport engineering and creativity, they owe a great deal of their success to the strength of their team and their drivers. For the second straight year, young Yuichi Nakayama was the driving force behind the #31 Prius’ success.

In contrast to a frustrating zero-score campaign in Super Formula, Nakayama was one of the standout performers in GT300. He was electric in qualifying – with a record pole at Motegi and two more front-row laps at Sugo and Suzuka, and at the end of races, when his late-race heroics secured their victory at Sugo, and a crucial second place at the Suzuka 1000km by overtaking Ryuichiro Tomita’s Gainer GT-R on the penultimate lap.

He did almost everything one could ask for to give the apr Prius a chance at winning the title, and after back-to-back seasons of effectively finishing runner-up in the GT300 standings, 25-year-old Nakayama should be in line for a GT500 promotion, hopefully in the near future.

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TAKESHI TSUCHIYA

After 21 seasons, and at the end of an incredible career, Takeshi Tsuchiya finally won his first championship in Super GT. It’s the primary reason why he’s nominated as a finalist for the award for best GT300 driver.

If Tsuchiya looked like he was losing a step towards the end of the season, it may very well have just been by design. Early in the season, he romped to pole position at Okayama, and scored two fastest laps, once at Okayama and again at Sportsland Sugo. As the year went on, Tsuchiya began to defer a bigger share of the driving time to his protegé Takamitsu Matsui, and Tsuchiya no longer needed to carry the team as their ace driver.

In the last three races of the season, Tsuchiya only needed to do a little bit to help the team go a long way to securing the GT300 title. Turns out, that little bit was all Takeshi needed to forever etch his name into the list of Super GT champions in an emotional finale.

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HIDEKI YAMAUCHI

It is infuriatingly difficult to select just one driver of a team into a shortlist of “Driver of the Year” finalists when the two are so evenly matched. But, it can be reasonably argued that Hideki Yamauchi, in the context of his 2016 season as co-driver to Takuto Iguchi, has the edge this season.

Yamauchi and Iguchi were evenly matched over qualifying and race laps in 2016, but the edge goes to Yamauchi really for his performances in the two biggest races on his calendar. He was the MVP of Subaru’s big win in the Suzuka 1000km – qualifying fourth, starting well on a damp track, and driving two stints on worn tyres, Yamauchi drove on to his first career GT300 win in the biggest race of the season.

Combine this with a class win in the chaotic Nürburgring 24 Hours, also in a boxer-engined Subaru, and Yamauchi had a breakout 2016 season that could spring him forward into great success over the next several years.

And the winner is…

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TAKAMITSU MATSUI

From the Summer Series onward, there was no one driver who impacted his team in a more positive way than Takamitsu Matsui of VivaC Team Tsuchiya.

He could only show mere glimpses of his true potential in an injury-shortened 2015, but come 2016, Matsui was determined to show his worth in a GT300 car. A hard-fought third place at the Fuji 500km helped his confidence a bit, but what really set him in motion was a cameo appearance in the All-Japan F3 championship the week before his race at Sugo.

He then won pole position at Sugo, which then parlayed into another podium finish. Then he won from pole at Buriram, using Team Tsuchiya’s strategy of not changing tyres on their stop – and Matsui was equal parts fast as he was gentle on his double-stinted Yokohama tyres.

That same strategy worked again at Motegi, when Matsui took the lead late in the race, then drove away from the field and on to his first GT300 title.

From relatively unknown newcomer, to breakout star and champion – maybe even a future GT500 driver – Takamitsu Matsui emerged from a very tough field to earn our award as the most outstanding GT300 driver of 2016.

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