Team Upgarage with Bandoh are the latest team to announce their plans for the 2017 Autobacs Super GT Series, their third season in the championship.
For 2017, the #18 Upgarage Toyota 86 MC will be piloted by former GT300 champion Yuhki Nakayama, who returns for his third season in the team, to be joined by a rookie graduate from the FIA F4 Japanese Championship for the second straight year: 24-year-old Shintaro Kawabata of Osaka, Japan.
It’s been a steady climb for the collaborative efforts of used auto parts reseller Upgarage and former GT300 champion team Racing Project BANDOH since their 2015 debut with the Mother Chassis Toyota 86 built by Dome.
They went from one top-ten finish and two championship points in 2015, to twenty-five points, two best finishes of fourth place, and a maiden GT300 pole position at the 45th International Suzuka 1000km in 2016.
Team general manager Masataka Bandoh has stated that he expects the Upgarage team to take its first victory in 2017, with the ultimate goal of winning championships in both classes – with Bandoh leading Lexus Team WedsSport Bandoh in GT500.
Nakayama, 29, will once again serve as the lead driver of the Upgarage 86. After a four-year GT500 tenure with Nakajima Racing (2009-2012) that saw him take a pole position and three podiums, he moved to GT300, where he and Hideki Mutoh won the 2013 GT300 Drivers’ Championship with Team Mugen and the new Honda CR-Z GT.
Nakayama finished fourteenth in the GT300 championship last season, taking his first GT300 class pole position at Suzuka. The ninth-year veteran of 64 races will also continue to carry out duties as the lead test driver for Dome Racing and the Toyota 86 MC project.
Despite being a former GT300 champion, Nakayama’s only victory thus far was in a 2013 Asian Le Mans Series event at Fuji Speedway, which counted for GT300 championship points, but does not count towards his official Super GT career record.
The newcomer is Kawabata, 24, a former karting protegé of former GT500 and Formula Nippon champion Toranosuke Takagi. He replaces Shinnosuke Yamada, another F4-to-Super GT graduate who moves to Team Taisan SARD this season.
Kawabata has experience in single-seaters and sports cars: In 2013, he was a Porsche scholarship driver in the Porsche Carrera Cup Japan (PCCJ), finishing sixth in the championship with a race victory. In the last two years, he’s raced in Japanese F4, finishing 13th in the 2015 championship, and 9th in the 2016 standings. Kawabata opened the 2016 Japanese F4 season with a weekend sweep at Okayama International Circuit.
The feeling is that team director Makoto Ishida, general manager Bandoh, and the Upgarage team have discovered another “diamond in the rough” with Kawabata. With the confirmation of Team Upgarage’s plans, only eight teams are yet to complete their 2017 driver lineups.