Toyota Gazoo Racing and Lexus Gazoo Racing announced their 2017 Autobacs Super GT Series participation in a press conference held Thursday morning at the Mega Web theme park in Toyota City.
Lexus’ six-car GT500 entry is highlighted by the return of Toyota Gazoo Racing ace driver Kazuki Nakajima, who returns to Super GT for the first time since 2015 in the #36 au TOM’s Lexus LC500.
In GT300, apr Racing and LM Corsa are the works teams for TGR, with LM Corsa fielding two brand new Lexus RC F GT3s this season.
Most of Lexus’ team and driver combinations remain intact from the 2016 season. Defending GT500 champions Lexus Team SARD will once again be led by drivers Heikki Kovalainen and Kohei Hirate, driving the Denso Kobelco SARD LC500 that now carries the champions’ number 1.
Lexus Team Wako’s LeMans, Lexus Team WedsSport BANDOH, and Lexus Team ZENT Cerumo will also retain their driver combinations from last season.
Last year’s GT500 vice-champions Kazuya Oshima and Andrea Caldarelli will pilot the #6 Wako’s 4CR LC500, the #19 WedsSport Advan LC500 will be driven by Yuhi Sekiguchi and defending Super Formula Champion Yuji Kunimoto, and in the #38 ZENT Cerumo LC500, Yuji Tachikawa returns for his record nineteenth consecutive season at Team Cerumo, alongside Hiroaki Ishiura.
There are no changes of tyre suppliers: All of Lexus’ GT500 cars will use Bridgestone tyres, with the exception of the #19 WedsSport Advan LC500, which will use Yokohama tyres.
But at Lexus Team TOM’s, there is a major overhaul of their two-car driver lineups, with Kazuki Nakajima (right) returning to Super GT to pilot the #36 au TOM’s LC500. He’ll be joined by Englishman James Rossiter (center), who moves back to the #36 team after spending last year with Lexus Team KeePer TOM’s. Former GT500 champion Daisuke Ito (centre) steps away from full-time driving duties to serve as team director of the #36 car.
The elder of racing legend Satoru Nakajima’s two sons, Nakajima previously raced in Super GT in 2005, then again from 2011 to 2014. He has won three races at the GT500 level, highlighted by a victory in the 2014 International Suzuka 1000km with TOM’s and co-driver Rossiter.
Nakajima also raced for just over two seasons with the Williams F1 Team (2007-2009) as co-driver to current World Drivers’ Champion Nico Rosberg, is a two-time Super Formula champion, and has been one of the main players for Toyota’s LMP1 team in the WEC.
Once again, Nakajima will participate in Super Formula and the WEC in addition to his Super GT schedule. With the WEC taking top priority for Nakajima, he will miss the Fuji 500km on May 4 due to a clash of dates with the WEC 6 Hours of Spa-Francorchamps on May 6, and Ito will take his place in the #36 au TOM’s LC500.
The second of the Lexus Team TOM’s entries, the #37 KeePer TOM’s LC500, will be driven by the young and exciting driver combination of Ryo Hirakawa and Nick Cassidy of New Zealand, with Cassidy moving over from the #36 to counter Rossiter’s move from the #37. Both drivers turn just 23 this season, and both are former All-Japan F3 champions.
In addition, Hirakawa has joined the Red Bull family of global athletes as their first Super GT driver, and AUTOSPORTweb can confirm that Red Bull will sponsor the KeePer TOM’s LC500 in some capacity this season.
In GT300, Toyota Gazoo Racing’s works programme will be represented by two hybrid-V8 Toyota Prius GTs from apr Racing, and two brand new Lexus RC F GT3s from LM Corsa.
GT300 runner-up Yuichi Nakayama moves from the #31 Toyota Prius to the new #51 JMS P.MU LM Corsa RC F GT3, equipped with Bridgestone tyres. His new co-driver is Super GT newcomer Sho Tsuboi, a top prospect of the Toyota Young Driver Program (TDP), and together they form one of the most potent young driver lineups in the GT300 category.
Tsuboi, 21 years old from Saitama, was the inaugural FIA F4 Japanese Champion in 2015, and last year, finished as the top rookie in the All-Japan Formula Three Championship, in third place with 15 podiums from 17 races.
The #60 Syntium LM Corsa RC F GT3 will once again by driven by the veteran combination of former GT500 champion Akira Iida and three-time Suzuka 1000km class winner Hiroki Yoshimoto, who raced and helped develop the “prototype” RC F GT3 over two difficult seasons in 2015 and 2016. The #60 RC F will be fitted with Yokohama tyres.
The pro-am combination of Hiroaki Nagai and Kota Sasaki will drive the #30 Toyota Prius GT for apr. Sasaki is a former GT300 champion (2005) and holds both the single-season and career records for most pole positions in the class. Nagai is a Porsche Carrera Cup Japan graduate, and the President and CEO of the Nagai Motor Company, which owns several large dealership chains in the city of Yokkaichi. Their best finish together in 2016 was ninth at the Fuji 500km.
In the #31 Toyota Prius, former Arnage Racing driver Rintaro Kubo is the surprising choice to replace Nakayama in one of the premier entries in GT300. Kubo, 23, had a steady but scoreless first season with Arnage in 2016. He’s a former Super FJ champion (2013) and has also raced in the All-Japan F3 N-Class, Porsche Carrera Cup, and Toyota 86/BRZ Race series.
Koki Saga, 33, returns for his eighth season at apr, and his ninth in Super GT in total. He and Yuichi Nakayama finished 2nd in the GT300 Drivers’ Championship last year. Saga has driven the hybrid-powered Toyota Prius GT since its debut in 2012.
As was the case last year, the #30 Prius will be equipped with a lithium-ion battery hybrid and Yokohama tyres, while the #31 Prius will be equipped with a capacitor-driven hybrid and Bridgestone tyres.
Lexus Team SARD – #1 Denso Kobelco SARD LC500 [Bridgestone]
Drivers: Heikki Kovalainen [Finland] / Kohei Hirate [Japan]
Lexus Team Wako’s LeMans – #6 Wako’s LC500 [Bridgestone]
Drivers: Kazuya Oshima [Japan] / Andrea Caldarelli [Japan]
Lexus Team WedsSport BANDOH – #19 WedsSport Advan LC500 [Yokohama]
Drivers: Yuhi Sekiguchi [Japan] / Yuji Kunimoto [Japan]
Lexus Team au TOM’s – #36 au TOM’s LC500 [Bridgestone]
Drivers: Kazuki Nakajima [Japan] / James Rossiter [Great Britain]
Lexus Team KeePer TOM’s – #37 KeePer TOM’s LC500 [Bridgestone]
Drivers: Ryo Hirakawa [Japan] / Nick Cassidy [New Zealand]
Lexus Team ZENT Cerumo – #38 ZENT Cerumo LC500 [Bridgestone]
Drivers: Yuji Tachikawa [Japan] / Hiroaki Ishiura [Japan]
apr Racing – #30 Toyota Prius apr GT [Yokohama]
Drivers: Hiroaki Nagai [Japan] / Kota Sasaki [Japan]
apr Racing – #31 Toyota Prius apr GT [Bridgestone]
Drivers: Koki Saga [Japan] / Rintaro Kubo [Japan]
LM Corsa – #51 JMS P.MU RC F GT3 [Bridgestone]
Drivers: Yuichi Nakayama [Japan] / Sho Tsuboi [Japan]
LM Corsa – #60 Syntium LM Corsa RC F GT3 [Yokohama]
Drivers: Akira Iida [Japan] / Hiroki Yoshimoto [Japan]
Feature photo by Ryuji Hirano and AUTOSPORTweb.