With the combination of a new car, a new team, a new project leader, yet mostly the same driver lineup from last season, Honda supporters are hoping that 2017 will be the year that they get back on par with Nissan and Lexus in the Autobacs Super GT Series.
2016 represented rock bottom for Honda’s Super GT project, going without a race win for the first time since 1997, occupying the bottom of the GT500 points table, and suffering the withdrawal of one of their newest flagship teams after just two seasons. But there’s a cautious optimism that Honda can turn it around, and return to their winning ways in 2017.
The 2017 GT500 regulations represent the closest thing to a clean sheet for Honda to work with since 2014, with the launch of the next-generation Nippon Race Engine (NRE) and the chassis construction that forms the basis of the proposed Class One regulations.
The new NSX-GT surpasses the somewhat flawed NSX Concept-GT from 2014-16, and aims to improve where the concept model fell short in terms of power and driveability. This time around, the car is not designed around the short-lived hybrid powertrain of 2014-15, which has now been legislated out of the rulebook for GT500 all together in 2017.
The 25% reduction in downforce for all three GT500 manufacturers puts Honda back on a level playing field with Lexus and Nissan, and judging from the shape of the new 2017 NSX-GT, it certainly looks the part of a champion machine on the surface.
In the engine department, Honda will need to focus more than ever upon not only maximizing the power of the HR-414E engine, but also in keeping that engine cool behind the cockpit of the NSX-GT – overheating was another one of Honda’s nagging flaws from the last three years.
There’s still some skepticism as to whether Honda can make the mid-engined NSX-GT work on a GT500 platform that is specifically designed for front-engined cars like the Nissan GT-R and the new Lexus LC.
But Super GT has been the battleground for the flagship supercars of Japan going back to its formative years, and the mid-engined NSX is the only vehicle in Honda’s range that fits the bill as a GT500 challenger.
The big story of the 2016-17 off-season for Honda was the return of Team Mugen to Super GT for the first time since 2014, and to the GT500 class for the first time since 2003, replacing the defunct Drago Modulo Honda Racing team run by Ryo Michigami.
Even those who aren’t fans of Super GT know of the Mugen name through their successes in Formula 1 and other international racing series, mostly as an engine builder. This is reflected in the hype around their return to Super GT when it was announced in December, not only from diehard fans of the series, but casual followers as well.
They along with Nakajima Racing launched their 2017 programme in a December test session at Twin Ring Motegi. Mugen in particular assembled a very formidable squad on paper.
Hideki Mutoh and Daisuke Nakajima (pictured above from 2012) form a strong driver lineup. Mutoh, now with his sixth different GT500 team in his career, is a proven and quick driver, and Nakajima, youngest son of Satoru, has been quietly improving in form over the last four seasons.
Bringing in Yokohama tyres on board as a partner was another master stroke for Honda and Mugen, with Yokohama coming off a banner 2016 season in GT500, and Honda willing to try any new strategies they can to boost their performance on the whole.
Team director Nagataka Tezuka, and chief engineer Motohisa Takahashi, both come over from Mugen’s Super Formula programme to lead the new era of Mugen in Super GT. Tezuka was chief engineer at Team Kunimitsu from 2006 to 2014, and oversaw Naoki Yamamoto’s 2013 Super Formula championship. Meanwhile, Takahashi was the chief engineer at Kunimitsu when they scored Honda’s most recent win in Super GT.
And they weren’t the only key personnel changes Honda made in 2016.
Masahiro Saiki was named as the new Honda GT Project Leader at Honda’s Tokyo Auto Salon Super GT announcement, coming over from their Super Formula project to replace Masahiko Matsumoto, who was project leader since 2010.
The decision to replace Matsumoto, who’s been involved with Honda’s racing family since 1987, wasn’t easy. But with how hard they cratered in 2016, a change had to be made – no doubt Matsumoto will find another chance to succeed elsewhere at Honda.
Nakajima Racing, in addition to signing former ARTA driver Kosuke Matsuura to partner Bertrand Baguette in the #64 Epson NSX, also acquired the services of former Kondo Racing and JLOC chief engineer Kimitoshi Sugisaki to help the team end their own decade-long winless drought.
Apart from that, however, there’s a lot about the Honda stable for 2017 that’s very much familiar.
Nine out of the ten drivers who will race for Honda this season have been racing for Honda in GT500 over the last two seasons: Mutoh, Nakajima, Matsuura, Baguette, Tomoki Nojiri, Koudai Tsukakoshi, Takashi Kogure, Naoki Yamamoto, and Takuya Izawa.
Honda’s four returning teams from 2016 – ARTA, Real, Nakajima, and Kunimitsu – also return their title sponsors and tyre suppliers, while Real Racing (Tsukakoshi/Kogure) and Team Kunimitsu (Yamamoto/Izawa) keep their same driver lineups from last year as well.
The only new face for 2017 is the returning Takashi Kobayashi, who returns to GT500 after spending the last four years with ARTA in GT300, a race winner in each of those four seasons.
Kobayashi had a fairy-tale debut in GT500 at the 2010 Suzuka Summer Special, winning pole position in his first time in the car. But over the next two seasons with ARTA, he was unlucky as ARTA fell to the bottom of the order in the top class. Since his “demotion” to GT300 – if you can call it that – Kobayashi has a renewed confidence to prove his worth in the top category.
If anything was ailing Honda last season, it certainly wasn’t their drivers, and Honda are to be commended for keeping the faith in their drivers from last season, including giving one of them a second chance at the premier class, rather than blowing the whole thing up.
Better to focus on the assets they do have than lament the ones they won’t in 2017. Oliver Turvey is off to Formula E full-time, and Tadasuke Makino (above) is expected to contest the European Formula 3 Championship en route to Formula 1.
At Tokyo Auto Salon, there was also no mention of a certain former F1 World Champion and his involvement in the series, but we’ll likely know more about Jenson Button’s Suzuka 1000km plans either in February at Honda Racing’s global motorsports programme announcement, or in the months leading up to the 1000km itself.
Without any of these drivers, Honda’s lineup of drivers is still top notch: Their ten drivers combine for one GT500 title (Kogure), one GT300 title (Mutoh), one Super Formula title (Yamamoto), three Japanese Formula 3 titles (Kogure, Yamamoto, Kobayashi), one WEC LMP2 drivers’ crown (Baguette), and two Indianapolis 500 Rookie of the Year awards (Matsuura and Mutoh).
Honda made the necessary changes to their GT500 project going into 2017, while maintaining the threads of continuity they needed to keep going forward. Optimism remains somewhat tempered after last season, and understandably so, after a year filled with shortcomings, catastrophic failures, and “GT400” jokes galore. But they have all the pieces in place for a return to form – perhaps, even a serious run at the title – in 2017.