2017 Super GT World Awards: Shinichi Yamaji Memorial Award

Every year, Super GT World honours the most outstanding performers in the Autobacs Super GT Series with the Super GT World Awards.

In recognition of the individuals whose contributions to the series best exemplify the positive values of sportsmanship, competition, and humanity, Super GT World presents the Shinichi Yamaji Memorial Award. It is named after veteran competitor Shinichi Yamaji (1964-2014), who defined himself and his legacy long after his passing, through a single act of courage in the 1998 All Japan GT Championship.

Last year, there was a unanimous victor, this year, there were seven finalists – but only one could win the award. First, some honourable mentions…

It was so difficult to whittle the list down to just a handful of finalists, of the drivers, teams, and non-driving individuals who best demonstrated the “spirit of the race”.

Gulf Racing with Pacific as a team deserve praise for being the most improved team, backed by a staff of mechanics who are all university students. Saitama Toyopet GreenBrave proved that ordinary people – in this case, their team of civilian service mechanics turned race mechanics – can do extraordinary things in their first season in the series. Team Taisan SARD, meanwhile, helped revitalize the rebuilding Fukushima Prefecture by moving their operations to the state.

Hiroaki Nagai may have been the most exceptional “gentleman driver” in all of Super GT and beyond, Natsu Sakaguchi came back to racing after two years away to focus on finishing school, and both Akira Iida and Hiroki Yoshimoto finally earned the results they and the LM Corsa – OTG Motorsport team have worked for over two years to get.

They were all worth consideration, and they all helped to make Super GT a more colourful and positive place to race. We picked six nominees, and one winner.


JENSON BUTTON [ジェンソン・バトン]

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© GT Association

nominated by R.J.

When the announcement was made on June 2nd, 2017, that Jenson Button would race for the first time in Super GT at the Suzuka 1000km, it made headlines across the racing world.

This was a driver just removed from the final chapter of an incredible 17-plus seasons in Formula 1: A career of over 300 Grand Prix starts, 50 podiums, 15 victories, and one improbable run to the World Drivers’ Championship in 2009. A man as beloved back home in Frome, England, as he is in Suzuka, Japan, where he spent nearly a decade racing with Honda power in the self-declared pinnacle of motorsport.

The impact of Button’s debut, the first former F1 World Champion to race in Super GT, was felt at the box office as the Suzuka 1000km saw a 20% jump in attendance for its final running before its Suzuka 10 Hour metamorphosis. It was felt in the press, where a series that was once merely the fascination of a few became the focal point for many.

Naturally, when he announced on December 3 that he would race full-time, not only did it grab the headlines, but it did something incredible for Super GT: Solidify it in an ultra-competitive landscape as a destination for the best drivers in the world to race, beyond the scope of F1, WEC, and the like.

The fanfare wasn’t as big as what Fernando Alonso did at the Indianapolis 500 three months prior, but for the long run, Jenson Button’s sports car racing debut may have a greater impact.


INGING & ARNAGE RACING

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© INGING Motorsport

nominated by Geinou

It was one of the scariest moments of the year, when three-time GT300 champion Morio Nitta had his horrendous crash at the season-opening round at Okayama. Thankfully he escaped the accident uninjured, but the damage could have ended INGING & Arnage Racing’s season then and there.

Even with the backing of INGING, this is still one of Super GT’s smallest teams. But they tried valiantly to get their new Ferrari 488 GT3 ready in just three weeks for the Fuji 500km, ultimately to no avail. They then returned, three weeks later, at Autopolis – by just being on the grid again, they defied the expectations of many, and the car looked just as beautiful as ever.

Then came a rainy July afternoon at Sportsland Sugo. Thanks to a perfectly-timed pit stop, the Ferrari found itself leading the race during a Safety Car intervention on merit. They held on to finish second, to equal the best result for Arnage Racing, four years and two manufacturers ago – and for Nitta, 50 years young and just three months removed from being extricated from a battered Ferrari in a dire scene, another podium finish.

No matter what they did for the remainder of the 2017 season, INGING & Arnage Racing demonstrated the value of perseverance and never giving up when all seemed to be hopeless.


AUTOBACS RACING TEAM AGURI

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© ARTA Project

nominated by Geinou

From the improbable dream of a season-opening pole position, their first in seven years, came the nightmare that unfolded for Tomoki Nojiri, Takashi Kobayashi, and the #8 ARTA NSX-GT when they were one of four Hondas to break down with electrical failures within the first handful of laps of the race. They wouldn’t even take the start.

But from that nightmare start, emerged the hope for the season to come. The Okayama pole was a bit of a fluke, but there was nothing flukey about Nojiri’s back-to-back poles to open the Summer Series at Sugo and Fuji, nor their recovery from an early spin to finish 5th.

But then came the pinnacle of ARTA’s 20th anniversary celebrations, when Nojiri notched his third pole position, bolted out to a commanding lead at the Fuji 300km, then handed over to Takashi Kobayashi – given a second lease on GT500 life after five years – who closed out the first part of ARTA’s double pole-to-win sweep of the summer race at Fuji, the first GT500 win for the orange squad since, ironically, the last ARTA double victory at Sugo in 2013.

Completing that magic moment was the third straight GT300 victory for ARTA, with Shinichi Takagi tying up his long-time co-driver Morio Nitta for the most career GT300 race victories, and a first win for rookie Sean Walkinshaw. The GT300 team continued to be a benchmark of excellence as they competed for the championship with a combination of brutal speed and aggressive pit strategy.

ARTA didn’t have it easy in the last few years, but they held close to their values and never gave up, being an ambassador for the spirit of competition – and giving fans of one of Super GT’s most popular outfits reason to be optimistic for the future.


NAKAJIMA RACING

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nominated by Alex Sinclair

To many, it was only fitting that one of Super GT’s oldest and most traditional teams won the final Suzuka 1000km, at a Honda-owned circuit, fielding a Honda NSX, and being led, as usual, by a man who has been part of Honda racing royalty for over thirty years in Satoru Nakajima.

It may have been the greatest upset in recent Super GT history, as Nakajima Racing, four years in a row the bottom-ranked team in GT500, had not won a race since November of 2007. Even with the promise of a revised NSX-GT, few but the team’s most ardent supporters even thought the team would ever return to their winning ways.

Certainly not at the Suzuka 1000km, the biggest race of the year, and certainly not in a dry race, when the team were basically relegated to wet-weather specialists on their best days which were now fewer and farther between.

Instead, Nakajima Racing and Dunlop nailed the synchronicity between car, setup, and tyres. All that was left for the drivers to execute. Bertrand Baguette, a world-class driver who’d yet to see a reward for his tireless work for the team in four seasons, put them in position to battle for the win. The mechanics never made a mistake on a pit stop. And when the door opened for them to win, Kosuke Matsuura, the crafty veteran whose IndyCar tenure seems but a distant memory of a dark age, had to fight back tears as he claimed the sweetest win of his career.

For what its worth, they were also stout at Sugo, and again at Buriram, and with the win at Suzuka, they finally escaped the basement of the GT500 standings. Maybe, just maybe, it’s the start of a return to the form of Nakajima Racing from years past.


GOODSMILE RACING WITH TEAM UKYO

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© Goodsmile Racing

nominated by R.J.

In many respects, Goodsmile Racing with Team Ukyo seem like the perfected image of a Japanese auto racing team, just because of their anime-inspired “itasha” livery. Ten years ago, it was all that this struggling independent team had going for them.

But everything changed in 2011 when the team brought in a new director in Ukyo Katayama, a new lead driver in Nobuteru Taniguchi, and a new BMW Z4 GT3 – and from then, when they won their first championship, the rest is history.

In 2017, they won their third championship. Taniguchi and Tatsuya Kataoka equalled the all-time record for the most GT300 Drivers’ Championships with their third each. It was their first winning season, and their first title, since switching from BMW to Mercedes. They also made a popular venture to the 24 Hours of Spa-Francorchamps.

But more profoundly than that, as the professional standards of GT300 continue to escalate with the presence of full-on works teams, Goodsmile Racing and their two veteran drivers continue to remain at the top of their game. The cars have changed, but the core of the team remains the same.

That includes the backing of thousands of personal sponsors, who invest in the team by buying figurines, making Goodsmile Racing the most successful crowd-funded sports car racing team in the world in a time way before and after the craze of the Kickstarter.

They’re a novelty act no more: They are possibly the greatest GT300 team of all time.


TAKESHI TERANISHI [寺西 猛]

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© Car Watch

nominated by R.J.

Teranishi is the owner and president of Autopolis Corporation, the man at the helm of overseeing the southernmost circuit’s rebuilding efforts after the earthquakes that rocked nearby Kumamoto in April 2016.

Which was a task bigger than simply repaving tarmac left broken apart, rebuilding a paddock that had been ravaged by the quakes, and making sure the circuit was accessible to all the locals.

No, for this was a task to restore some sense of normalcy to the Kyushu region by bringing back top-level racing to the circuit after a forced absence. The effects of the quakes will still be felt for many years to come as roadways and landmarks, and homes and businesses, are still rebuilding, while the ultimate loss – that of human life – can never be salvaged. What the return of Super GT and Super Formula brought was some relief.

And it just so happened that the racing was really, really good at Autopolis, from the high-drama battle for the GT500 win, the closest-ever GT300 finish, and months later, a barnstormer of a race in Super Formula that saw the rise of Pierre Gasly to Formula 1.

Teranishi brought to the circuit a new lease on life after years of Autopolis being written off as Japan’s great “white elephant” of a race track. More importantly, he and everyone at Autopolis brought to the Kyushu region a small, yet significant, token of hope for the future.


And the winner is…

VIVAC TEAM TSUCHIYA

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© VivaC Team Tsuchiya

nominated by Geinou

Just days after the family team’s greatest triumph – as father Haruo Tsuchiya and his son Takeshi celebrated the 2016 GT300 Championship – came their near-tragedy. The father was diagnosed with cancer and would be ripped away from the day-to-day operations of the team he founded over 40 years ago.

It left the son, Takeshi Tsuchiya, to take over every major facet of the team. It was a pretty short “retirement” for the former driver, veteran of 21 seasons, who was now thrust into the role of general manager, chief engineer, and even part-time test driver when all he’d expected to take on was the latter of the two.

Would VivaC Team Tsuchiya continue their successes in 2017? The answer was, in a general sense, yes.

Granted, there were many a hardship along the path to defending the titles. Their only win – and indeed, the only win of 2017 for a non-FIA GT3 car – was held to by just 0.091 seconds, with a fuel pick-up issue nearly robbing them at Autopolis.

They battled at Okayama, before a spin took them off the podium. They stunned the field by taking pole with an 82kg handicap at Suzuka, but were pitched into a rollover that left them at the point of no return to keep their hopes alive. A botched tyre selection at Buriram to start ended their hopes of a title defense, but as they did throughout 2017, they went out swinging.

The spirit of the team is embodied in how hard they worked to rebuild the car from their Suzuka crash to get it ready for Thailand. It is embodied in lead driver Takamitsu Matsui’s rise from forgotten young journeyman to an ultra-rapid GT300 champion and a staple of the Nürburgring. It is embodied in how the team helped to boost the fortunes of fellow privateers Team Mach, and how they wish to one day return to GT500 as the sole privateer, the strongest privateer, in all of Super GT.

VivaC Team Tsuchiya, the mightiest independent, demonstrated the values of perseverance and sportsmanship through victory and defeat, and for that, they receive the Shinichi Yamaji Memorial Award for 2017.

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