The 2016 Super GT World Awards recognize the most outstanding individuals from the 2016 Autobacs Super GT Series.
To celebrate the most outstanding all-around driver in the GT500 class, the fastest and most competitive class of GT sports car racing on the planet, we present the GT500 Driver of the Year award.
There were 32 drivers who took part in at least GT500 class outing in 2016, and the gaps between each drivers’ abilities is so incredibly small. There are no weak links in the GT500 driver roster whatsoever. Making this list was incredibly difficult, and know that even the drivers who did not make the cut as a finalist for this award, or even made it into the honourable mentions, deserve all the praise in the world as elite talents in all of motorsport.
Now, for the honourable mentions, the finalists, and the winner of this year’s GT500 Driver of the Year award…
Nick Cassidy – The only true rookie in the GT500 field, 22-year-old Cassidy finished fifth in the final standings thanks to consistent form and several fun on-track battles with the likes of Tachikawa and Kovalainen.
Ryo Hirakawa – While not quite as successful in his sophomore GT500 campaign, Hirakawa still demonstrated more than enough pace, with his pole at Okayama, two podiums to open the year, plus his superb run in the European Le Mans Series and 24 Hours of Le Mans.
Yuji Kunimoto – Very quietly, and understatedly, Kunimoto matched his more dynamic co-driver’s pace in the WedsSport RC-F, closed out their first GT500 win at Buriram, and did well to replace the retired Juichi Wakisaka. And he won the Super Formula title over his co-driver Yuhi Sekiguchi, just for good measure.
João Paulo de Oliveira – Should have won the Fuji 500km for Team Impul, but came back to win the 300km thanks to a personal “grand slam” – he led every lap of his stint from pole position, and set the fastest lap en route to a win.
Ronnie Quintarelli – Quintarelli drove brilliantly and aggressively all season long to give NISMO a fighting shot at the championship treble, with back-to-back wins at Okayama and Fuji, headlined by a heated battle for the win at the 500km in May.
Kohei Hirate is now just the third driver to win multiple GT500 titles at 30 years of age or younger. The other two are Yuji Tachikawa and Andre Lotterer. If that says anything about the talent that Hirate has as a driver, it is very strong praise.
He came through big time when Lexus Team SARD needed him most at the final round at Motegi – setting the track record in Sunday qualifying, having two dynamite starts in both races with fastest laps in each, and of course, taking the title on the final weekend of the season. Then there was also the hard battle he had with Daiki Sasaki at Sugo for the lead of the race in the final laps, and even when Hirate wasn’t at the sharp end of the grid, he made very few if any mistakes and helped the team score points in every round.
It is Kovalainen, the ex-Grand Prix hero, who will likely receive all the acclaim for the success that Lexus Team SARD had this past season in finally winning their first title. Hirate only got as close to Formula 1 as one lackluster year in GP2, but heed these words: Kohei Hirate one of the best drivers in Super GT, has been for years, and will continue to be for a long time.
At the same time, Heikki-san stepped up his game in a big, big way this year, showing the world why he was a former Grand Prix race winner as he did more than his part to drive the Denso SARD RC-F to its first GT500 title.
Kovalainen did his part over two monster stints at Fuji to take his first podium. Then at Sugo, he charged to the lead of the race early on, had a fun battle with Yuhi Sekiguchi and went on to finish second. He conquered a wet qualifying for the first race at Motegi to take his first ever pole position, then closed out their championship-crowning victory the next day in the final race. Like Hirate, Kovalainen almost never made any mistakes, if at all this year.
Kovalainen’s progression from 2015 to 2016 reinforced the strength of Super GT’s premier class, and eventually, proved why he was rated so highly for so many years, even as he was mired in F1’s middle grid. At only 35 years old, he’s still got plenty of time to cement his legacy as an all-time great in Super GT with another championship or two.
Emerging from a three-way tie at the start of the season, in 2016, Tsugio Matsuda became the winningest driver in GT500 history with a win at the opening round in Okayama, then put his record further out of reach by winning at the Fuji 500km with co-driver Ronnie Quintarelli. It’s now a question of when, not if, Matsuda becomes the first driver to 20 career wins.
It wasn’t just the important milestone as Super GT’s new all-time wins leader that puts Matsuda on the list of finalists for GT500 Driver of the Year. He was so smooth and consistent – as he always has been throughout his career – and demonstrated amazing race craft with his performance at the Suzuka 1000km, where he banged out fast lap after fast lap in the middle portions of the race despite running on the maximum 100 kilograms’ success ballast.
For years, he’s often been the calming, consistent “yin” to the hard-charging “yang” of drivers like Oliveira and Quintarelli. Now a two-time GT500 champion to go along with his two Formula Nippon/Super Formula titles, Tsugio Matsuda can make a case now for all-time greatness, in the same discussion with fellow Nissan luminaries like Hasemi and Hoshino. And he’s still in the prime of his career.
It’s quite hard to get ’round the fact that Oshima has now been racing in Super GT for the better part of a decade. Even harder to get ’round the fact that he doesn’t turn 30 until this April. In 2016, Oshima had his best-ever camapaign as a GT500 driver by finishing as vice-champion at Lexus Team LeMans.
He was the Wako’s RC-F’s quick man on Saturdays, taking pole position at the race in Sportsland Sugo in record fashion, and another front-row start in Okayama to open the year. On Sundays, he was their closer, and he closed out seven top-five finishes on the season – not necessarily by being the outright fastest or the hardest charger, but by driving smart and consolidating positions when he and his team needed it the most.
Oshima has long been rated as one of the best natural talents in Japanese motorsport for a long time. He’s gone from phenom to outright standout driver, and he’s been pounding on the door of a breakthrough result. The one he got in 2016 may finally put Oshima closer to his first GT500 title very soon.
Katsumasa Chiyo and J.P. Oliveira were rapid, but too unlucky to contend. Satoshi Motoyama and Masataka Yanagida were crafty, but not quite as quick as they would be in years past. Apart from the NISMO duo of Matsuda & RQ, Nissan’s best GT500 driver in 2016 was 25-year-old Daiki Sasaki.
Sasaki was by far Kondo Racing’s faster of the two drivers between himself and Yanagida in qualifying, just missing pole at the Saturday Motegi race by less than a tenth of a second. In races, and especially in the closing stint at Sportsland Sugo on worn Yokohama tyres, he was relentless and unmoving as he held off a train of Lexus RC-Fs to win a shortened race – then he proved at Motegi he could get out of the gates just as well, with a strong opening stint to an eventual win.
“The Wolf” is making a case to be a future GT500 champion, and he’s already asserted himself as the ace driver of a Kondo Racing squad that is getting better, year after year. He’s already led them to their best season so far. How high does Sasaki and Kondo Racing’s ceiling go from here? Pretty damn high.
Honda endured a lacklustre 2016 campaign on the whole, failing to win a race for the first time since 1997, with all five of their teams occupying the bottom five places in the Teams’ Championship. Even in a nightmarish year for the team as a whole, however, Koudai Tsukakoshi still proved his value as an all-around driver.
Tsukakoshi was regularly the faster of the Keihin NSX’s two drivers from round to round, he gave Honda their first front row start at Sugo, and tied their best finish of the year at the Fuji 300km when he won a thrilling battle with Takuya Izawa for second place.
27 points and 11th place in the standings for he and Takashi Kogure do not seem that much, but in the context of a frustrating year for Honda as a whole, Real Racing were by far the most consistent of their teams, and Koudai Tsukakoshi was by far the best of Honda’s nine full-time drivers in 2016. If the 2017 NSX-GT can finally be a contender, Tsukakoshi will have the Keihin NSX in firm contention for a title, very soon.
And the winner is…
Every now and then, a driver emerges from seemingly out of nowhere, exploding onto the scene with such a fury that their abilities can no longer be overlooked. In 2016, Yuhi Sekiguchi was not just a breakout star in Super GT and Super Formula, he was, pound-for-pound, one of the best racing drivers in the world.
2016 saw Sekiguchi become the undisputed ace driver at Lexus Team WedsSport BANDOH, with his mentor Juichi Wakisaka’s retirement. He responded by giving the WedsSport team their very first GT500 win at Buriram, Thailand, with a near-perfect opening stint where he led every lap from pole. On that weekend in the Kingdom, he was utterly peerless.
And when he had to battle for position, whether it was with Hiroaki Ishiura at Okayama, Heikki Kovalainen at Sugo, Kazuya Oshima at Fuji and again at Suzuka, or Ryo Hirakawa at Motegi, he was just so fun to watch. Sekiguchi has become more tempered since his days as the “Bad Boy” of the track, but he’s still one of the most assertive, aggressive, and exciting drivers on the circuit, with a style reminiscent of his Super Formula team boss, Kazuyoshi Hoshino.
Hirate and Heikki won the title, Oshima was vice-champion, but in terms of out and out individual driving, whether he was leading the WedsSport Bandoh team to their best ever GT500 campaign, or nearly becoming only the second true rookie to win the Super Formula title, Yuhi Sekiguchi – who has scratched, clawed, and persevered through a decade of hardships offsetting glimpses of success, was the most outstanding driver in the GT500 class in 2016.