With the start of a new season of the Autobacs Super GT Series, comes the arrival of several new fans, new teams, and in particular, new drivers. In 2017, Super GT welcomes twelve drivers who will take part in their very first full seasons, nine of which are making their very first start in the series on April 9 at Okayama International Circuit.
Running the gamut from young, talented factory racing drivers, to gentleman drivers, to bonafide national racing legends – all twelve drivers bring something unique to the table in 2017.
And at the end of the season, the most outstanding performer of these rookie contenders will be awarded one of Super GT World’s end-of-season honours, the Shingo Tachi Memorial Award, which was presented last season to Nissan star driver Jann Mardenborough.
As the 2017 season draws closer, Super GT World introduces you to this year’s rookie class.
Of the 2017 rookies that will be at Okayama, six hail from Japan, two are from Thailand, and one each come from Australia, New Zealand, Germany, and the United Kingdom. The age range is from 21 years old at the start of the 2017 season, to 53 years old. It’s an interesting mix of drivers, all at different skill levels.
Sho Tsuboi (LM Corsa) is the top-rated Japanese rookie in the field this year. The Toyota Young Driver Program (TDP) prospect was the inaugural FIA F4 Japanese Champion in 2015, and the top rookie in the 2016 All-Japan Formula Three Championship, finishing third in the standings.
Paired with TDP graduate Yuichi Nakayama in one of the new Lexus RC F GT3s backed by Toyota Gazoo Racing and LM Corsa, expectations are high for the 21-year-old out of Saitama, who is also the pre-season favourite to take the All-Japan F3 crown with TOM’s.
25-year-old German Sven Müller (D’Station Racing) is the most prolific of the international rookies, the newest Porsche factory racing driver in 2017 coming in as a reigning double Porsche Carrera Cup champion, winning the Carrera Cup of Germany, and the Mobil 1 Supercup in the same season.
Müller is on the fast track to a prolific career on the global stage with Porsche – and his acqusition by D’Station Racing may have put the team over the top into the immediate title picture.
Shintaro Kawabata (Team Upgarage with Bandoh, seen above on right) was one of the surprise rookie performers in pre-season testing, leading the way in his very first session in the Upgarage Toyota 86 MC at Okayama.
Kawabata, a protegé of former GT500 champions Juichi Wakisaka and Toranosuke Takagi, steps up from Japanese F4, where he swept both races of the Okayama round last year. He’s also won races in Porsche Carrera Cup Japan. If he can harness his real speed and potential over the course of a season, he can be a real dark horse pick for Rookie of the Year.
Another surprise from testing was Palmerston North, New Zealand’s Jono Lester (Gulf Racing with Pacific), who starts his first full season after entering two rounds last year with the now-defunct Lamborghini Team Direction Shift.
The well-traveled Lester, a former Super Taikyu vice-champion in 2012 and 2013, was an astonishing fourth in the last session at Okayama, and third in the final day of testing at Fuji. Lester told Matthew Hansen of Velocity News, “I definitely think we can challenge for podiums and race wins this year,” and also says the Gulf NAC Porsche 911 – which scored just two points last season – has more pace left within it. Barring a sudden BoP nerf, “The Octopus” could be in for a great season ahead.
Also from the Australia/New Zealand region comes Sydney native Jake Parsons (Team Taisan SARD). Parsons has raced single-seaters throughout Australia, continental Asia, and even in the United States – but this is his first full-time foray into sports cars, and he does so racing for a Taisan team that has won more GT300 races than any other team in history.
Sean Walkinshaw (Autobacs Racing Team Aguri, seen above on right) is a multi-national newcomer – born in Belgium, raised in Oxfordshire, England, and representing Scotland – the country of his father, the great touring car racer and team owner Tom Walkinshaw.
He drove the last two seasons in the Blancpain GT Series as a NISMO Global Athlete, and raced with Team RJN last year in the Silver Cup category. It’s a big step up for Walkinshaw, but as he says – “with the fantastic support I’ve been getting from ARTA, I’m sure I’m going to be able to adapt very quickly.” This team was fifth in last year’s championship.
Three teams have all-rookie lineups. The first are Rn-sports and EVA Racing, with Keishi Ishikawa (right) and Ryosei Yamashita (left). Ishikawa is a former Honda Formula Dream Project (HDFP) driver graduating from All-Japan F3, and Yamashita moves up from the Toyota 86/BRZ Race series.
Ishikawa made a solid one-off debut in last year’s Suzuka 1000km, but Yamashita is a virtual unknown, stepping all the way up from the one-make ranks into the ultra-competitive GT300 class.
The second is Team Mach, with Natsu Sakaguchi (right) and Kiyoto Fujinami (left) making up the youngest lineup in Super GT at an average age of 21. Sakaguchi is another HFDP alumni, and Fujinami is a former Nissan Driver Development Program (NDDP) prospect.
For Sakaguchi, this is his first racing action after two years out of the sport – but he immediately got up to speed in his first test. Fujinami arrives after three solid seasons in Super Taikyu, where he’ll continue to race this year as well.
Lastly, there’s Panther Team Thailand, with the all-Thai lineup of Nattavude Charoensukhawatana (right) and Nattapong Horthongkum (left), the two oldest rookies in the field this weekend – at 53 and 36 years old respectively.
“Mad Cow” Nattavude is a Thai racing legend on two wheels and four, with sixteen national and regional racing titles to his name. Nattapong has won single-seater championships in Asia early in his career. But the team and their two drivers are making a huge step up from the still-developing Thai national circuit to the established Japanese series – even when accounting for Nattavude’s two wildcard appearances in 2014 & 2016.
One driver who was scheduled to make his debut this weekend was Takayuki Hiranuma (Saitama Toyopet GreenBrave), stepping up after four years in Super Taikyu, including an ST-4 Class championship in 2015.
However, those plans hit a snag when Hiranuma failed to complete the necessary laps to pass his rookie test, and was pulled off the entry list for the first round at Okayama, and replaced with veteran third driver Shigekazu Wakisaka.
For now, the upbeat car salesman turned racing driver will need to wait at least another round for his Super GT race debut.
Keep an eye out on reigning Porsche Carrera Cup Japan champion Tsubasa Kondo during the season as well. Kondo’s just signed as an alternate driver at VivaC Team Tsuchiya and tested at Fuji Speedway in preparation for a race start in the Fuji 500km in place of Kenta Yamashita.
His next start would make him rookie-eligible, having already driven two races with Team Taisan SARD in the Motegi GT Grand Final.
Who will emerge from this year’s rookie class as the next great Super GT legend?