The 2016-17 off-season saw a lot of off-season changes in the Autobacs Super GT Series. At the first round of the 2017 season at Okayama International Circuit alone, nine drivers made their Super GT debuts, and twenty-four drivers switched teams in the off-season, including those returning to the series after more than a year out.
But Super GT is as much a team sport as anything else, and it takes strong leadership, and a savvy technical mind, to power a team to success. In the off-season, there were a number of changes of team directors and chief engineers for some of Super GT’s premier squads.
Some were well-documented, others slipped by us, because we’re a one-man crew and very, very unprofessional. Some of these changes already paid off at Okayama – so let’s run down the “coaching changes” in Super GT this off-season:
Starting at the top, both the reigning GT500 champions, Lexus Team SARD, and the reigning GT300 champions, VivaC Team Tsuchiya, started the season with brand new team directors.
Katsuyuki Sato was named General Manager of Lexus Team SARD in the off-season. Sato, who was named President & CEO of the entire SARD Corporation on February 1, 2014, assumes the directorial role formerly held by Hideki Noda, who moves over to Team Taisan SARD to become their new Team Director.
Takeshi Tsuchiya begins 2017 as VivaC Team Tsuchiya’s Team Director, Chief Engineer, and their Entrant Representative (a similar title to “Car Owner” in the NASCAR ranks).
This, of course, is due to his father, Haruo Tsuchiya, recovering from a bout of oral cancer in the off-season. Haruo has since left the hospital, but is not well enough just yet to return to his role as Team Director and Representative. Therefore, his son Takeshi, recently retired from full-time driving after winning the 2016 GT300 Championship, will be the “everyman” at the #25 squad for the forseeable future.
Of course, the new and rebranded teams bring new leadership to Super GT as well.
Team Mugen announced their leadership structure back in December: Nagataka Tezuka, who was chief engineer at Team Kunimitsu and who led Mugen to the Super Formula championship in 2013, was announced as Mugen’s new Team Director in GT500.
Excellence Porsche Team KTR became D’station Racing this off-season, and with it, comes a whole new management structure that’s a bit less straightforward – with Entrant Representative Toshiaki Takeda and General Manager Kazuhiro Sasaki of baseball fame each sharing Directorial duties.
Also among the ranks of the team directors of new teams: Thai racing hero (and former All-Japan Touring Car Championship driver!) Suttipong Smittachartch runs Panther Team Thailand, Saitama Toyopet GreenBrave is run by Katsutoshi Iwata, and championship-winning engineer Hiroyuki Teramoto directs EIcars Bentley TTO.
Former GT500 champion Daisuke Ito is now the Team Director for the same team he drove for in 2016, Lexus Team au TOM’s. He’s also returning to the cockpit at the Fuji 500km to replace Kazuki Nakajima. But he’s not the only former driver moving into a directorial role this season.
Three-time GT500 champion Masahiko Kageyama now leads the revamped JMS/P.MU LM Corsa Lexus squad. Longtime Team Mach lead driver Tetsuji Tamanaka retired from driving full-time to become the new Team Director, as did Masayuki Ueda at Rn-sports/EVA Racing.
And journeyman driver Yashiro Kimihiro is now the director at Pacific with Gulf Racing – who scored their very first podium finish at Okayama.
At JLOC, team owner founder Isao Noritake is now also returning to the director’s role at both the #87 and #88 teams, putting a familiar face back atop the pitbox of one of Super GT’s longest-serving teams.
Junichi Kofuji is the new Team Director and Chief Engineer on the other LM Corsa squad, the #60 Syntium RC F GT3.
There were also a number of engineering changes in the off-season.
The big shuffle with Team Mugen replacing Drago Modulo Honda Racing at Honda, means three new Chief Engineers in the Honda GT500 stable. Former Team Kunimitsu engineer Motohisa Takahashi is now in the same position at Team Mugen.
Hitoshi Iyoki is now engineering the #100 Raybrig NSX of Team Kunimitsu, moving over from Drago Modulo Honda Racing.
And former Kondo Racing and JLOC engineer Kimitoshi Sugisaki, who worked with Stoffel Vandoorne in Super Formula last season, is now the lead engineer at Nakajima Racing.
In GT300, the new engineering acquisitions include Hiroyuki Ando (Autobacs Racing Team Aguri – BMW), Shinji Matsuoka (LM Corsa #51), Katsuhiko Sakuma (D’station Racing), Tomohiro Yamamoto (Team Mach), Masafumi Katsumata (JLOC #88), and Ken Yamane (Team Taisan SARD). Ando, Matsuoka, and Sakuma saw their teams score top-ten finishes, and Yamamoto oversaw a drastically improved Mach 86 at Okayama.
Miguel Angel Gálvez of Audi Team Hitotsuyama is the series’ only foreign-born Chief Engineer, the Spaniard coming in as a former AF Corse engineer in Europe, representing Audi Sport Team WRT.
And, in Saitama Toyopet GreenBrave’s spirit of bringing dealership mechanics to the race track, Yutaka Kondo, a dealership mechanic who specializes in full-service oil changes, is now the Chief Engineer of the #52 Toyota Mark X MC. Seemingly ordinary people doing extraordinary things.
We’ll get another chance to see how these changes will benefit their teams this year at the Fuji 500km on Thursday.