Super GT’s silly season, or “Hot Stove League”, is back. Most of the information in this piece comes from the latest issue of auto sport Magazine, volume 1495, available in digital format now and in print 14 December.
This edition breaks down the potential changes to the GT500 driver fleets for Honda, Toyota (Lexus), and Nissan as the 2019 season approaches.
DISCLAIMER: All of the information in this article is speculative, and has not been confirmed by any of the manufacturers, drivers, or teams involved.
There was a chance that Naoki Yamamoto could have been signed away by Scuderia Toro Rosso to represent Honda in Formula 1. There was a chance Jenson Button‘s new commentary deal with Sky Sports F1 could have pulled him away from Super GT.
But Yamamoto is staying in Japan (with the option for an F1 free practice run in 2019), and Button has said he’s going to stay around for “more of the same.” The dream team that won the Raybrig NSX its first title will stay together. The only question to be answered now is whether or not Team Kunimitsu will keep their trademark #100, or switch to the champion’s number 1.
Honda don’t need to change much with a fleet that won four of the eight races and won the championship. That stability is reflected in the fact that Koudai Tsukakoshi and Takashi Kogure are also likely to stay in the #17 for Real Racing, for a fourth consecutive year.
But just because they don’t need a change does not mean that Honda won’t change.
At Autobacs Racing Team Aguri, Tomoki Nojiri will stay. Takuya Izawa is likely to stay after his resurgent 2018 season, but he could also be on the move to Nakajima Racing. If Izawa is moved from ARTA, the most likely option to replace him is 21-year-old Nirei Fukuzumi, who is coming back to Japan after three years on the European ladder to Formula 1. Fukuzumi’s one and only Super GT start to date came with ARTA’s GT300 team, as a third driver in their Honda CR-Z GT in the 2015 Suzuka 1000km.
Tadasuke Makino is also set to come back to Super Formula, but a double campaign in GT500 is less likely, despite his prior successes in 2016.
Nakajima Racing have run Bertrand Baguette and Kosuke Matsuura for the last two seasons. Baguette is set to return to Super Formula with Nakajima Racing, which could lead to the Belgian prioritizing that SF return over a sixth season in GT500. Matsuura, who turns 40 next year, is the oldest driver in Honda’s fleet.
Should either of them move out, the next man in line seems to be Honda’s new GT star in waiting, Hiroki Otsu. Otsu had a fantastic 2018 season, winning the ST-TCR title for Dome Racing in Super Taikyu, and scoring a podium finish at Autopolis in his rookie year with Modulo Drago Corse. One suggestion, proposed by Juichi Wakisaka, is that Otsu could move up, and Matsuura could step down to GT300.
Also in consideration is a known commodity at Nakajima Racing: Indian trailblazer Narain Karthikeyan, who at 41 is still looking to stay in a top-flight championship even if he is displaced from Super Formula as recent reports suggest.
But the outside force that could really shake things up at Honda is 24-year-old Austrian Lucas Auer, DTM race winner, and nephew to F1 great (and DTM chairman) Gerhard Berger. With the shuttering of Mercedes’ DTM programme, Auer is seeking new opportunities – and he’s been heavily linked to a double campaign with Honda power in Super Formula, and in Super GT, where he could drive for Team Mugen.
That would likely come at the expense of Daisuke Nakajima, rather than Hideki Mutoh, who is locked in aboard the #16 car.
And of course, there’s the matter of the NSX-GT itself: Will 2019 be the swansong for the mid-engined layout, or have we already seen it in 2018? Racecar Engineering‘s Sam Collins suggests that Honda are already planning to test a front-engined GT500 car with the NSX silhouette, which could be here by 2019.
It looked as if Lexus had the potential for the most potential turnover in their driver lineup next year, but things seemed to have calmed. Felix Rosenqvist is departing, that much is certain, for the IndyCar Series in 2019. Rosenqvist has said it’s only “goodbye for now.” He’s going to be awesome in IndyCar, y’all.
That Kazuki Nakajima staying at Lexus Team au TOM’s is a certainty would indicate that both he and Kamui Kobayashi will continue their triple-threat efforts in WEC, Super Formula, and Super GT. This may likely come by way of the Motegi round moving back a week – as it also clashes with the WEC 4 Hours of Shanghai and the Super Taikyu finale at Okayama.
Heikki Kovalainen told Motorsport.com that he’s “not sure” about a return, but auto sport Magazine’s reporting tells us he’s very likely to stay at Lexus Team SARD for a fifth season after all, with Kobayashi likely to stay, though yet to be confirmed.
Amidst all those potential moving parts, Sho Tsuboi is the next man up from the Toyota Young Driver programme (TDP). There are, luckily, no major injuries for the 23-year-old after his brush with fate at Macau this past month, and after his dominant All-Japan F3 title campaign, podiums in both GT500 and GT300, and a Super Taikyu win to boot, Tsuboi is earmarked for a GT500 promotion in 2019 – with either Team LeMans, Lexus Team WedsSport Bandoh, or Lexus Team SARD.
But Yuichi Nakayama may also be in play at any one of the three aforementioned teams – LeMans, SARD, or Bandoh. It would seem as if Nakayama’s chance for a GT500 promotion might have passed him by, but two wins in each of his last two GT300 campaigns, seven total since 2015, are a sign that he still beckons for a step up to the top flight. Lest it be forgotten, Nakayama is a Japanese F3 champion, and has raced for Toyota in Super Formula.
Yuhi Sekiguchi is likely to remain with Kazuki Nakajima in the #36 side of the TOM’s garage, while Ryo Hirakawa and Nick Cassidy are sticking together on the #37 side. Kazuya Oshima remains at Team LeMans, to partner either Tsuboi, Nakayama, or potentially Kenta Yamashita, who may switch over from the WedsSport team. Yuji Kunimoto is likely to stay with the WedsSport crew in any case.
And Yuji Tachikawa is destined to drive for a 21st consecutive season at Lexus Team ZENT Cerumo, alongside Hiroaki Ishiura.
With the 2018 NISMO Festival at Fuji Speedway looming around the corner, Nissan’s GT500 driver lineup could be one of the most stable parts of the Hot Stove League – in an uncertain time for the entire Renault Nissan Alliance in a Post-Ghosn world.
But only one driver is “locked in” across Nissan’s four GT500 cars: Ronnie Quintarelli, the four-time GT500 Drivers’ Champion, will stay aboard the #23 Motul Autech GT-R for the flagship NISMO team. Tsugio Matsuda is likely, but unconfirmed as of yet, to stay along as his teammate. Both drivers turn 40 years old during the 2019 season.
Daiki Sasaki and Jann Mardenborough will likely stay aboard the #12 Calsonic Impul GT-R, João Paulo de Oliveira and Mitsunori Takaboshi will likely stay in the #24 Forum Engineering Advan GT-R for Kondo Racing, and Satoshi Motoyama and Katsumasa Chiyo are likely to stay in the #3 CraftSports Motul GT-R for B-Max Racing with NDDP.
All likely, but not yet confirmed. This is because of no less than five potential drivers who could shake up the Nissan driver fleet – including two potential defectures from Toyota.
Two-time GT500 champion Kohei Hirate has been a Toyota-backed driver for his entire career. In 2018, Hirate was moved to the GT300 class and apr Racing, where he placed 2nd in the GT300 Championship with Koki Saga. The 32-year-old switching to Nissan would be a massive shock to a series where drivers do not often change manufacturer allegiances.
James Rossiter is another such driver who’s been a long-time fixture of Toyota’s national racing programmes. Rossiter is coming off a perplexing scoreless season at Vantelin Team TOM’s in the Super Formula Championship, but drove two races in Super GT for Lexus Team TOM’s and Lexus Team LeMans Wako’s. His presence at the series finale at Twin Ring Motegi led to speculation of an imminent Super GT return – but few could have guessed a return with Nissan would have been on the cards at the time.
Like Hirate, Hironobu Yasuda is also eyeing up a move back up to GT500 after spending 2018 in GT300, where he was a race winner with the top Nissan customer team Gainer. Kazuki Hiramine is a seemingly out-of-left-field pick, but the 26-year-old Team JLOC ace has represented Nissan in the Pirelli Super Taikyu Series with Kondo Racing for several years. Struan Moore, the 23-year-old Jersey-born Brit, has driven for Nissan in various GT championships across Europe, and has raced full-time in All-Japan Formula 3 – he may be eyeing a move back to Japan.
If an opening is made for these or any other drivers, most likely it could come via Motoyama, who turns 48 next March, retiring prior to the 2019 season. There’s a chance that a younger driver in the fleet, like Mardenborough or Takaboshi, may get pulled to Nissan e.Dams’ Formula E team in place of Alexander Albon as well.
Welcome Phoenix Racing Asia to the Super GT Series next year, representing Hong Kong as a full-time entrant in the 2019 GT300 class. The car of choice is yet to be confirmed, but the team will field an all-Hong Konger lineup of Marchy Lee, Shawn Thong, and third driver Adderly Fong tagging in for the endurance rounds.
Aston Martin have sold a brand-new Vantage GT3 to an established GT300 team to be revealed at a later date. That said, Juichi Wakisaka, team principal of Lexus Team Wako’s LeMans, might have let slip in a talk show that Oyama-based KTR, operating as D’Station Racing in Super GT, would be the new Aston customer team.