Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays! The Autobacs Super GT Series 2018-19 off-season is in full swing, and it’s time for another Hot Stove League/Silly Season/Winter Offseason update from Super GT World.
Much of the information in this article comes from the latest issue of auto sport Magazine of Japan, volume 1497, available now to download and available in print on 18 January.
DISCLAIMER: All of the information in this article is speculative, and has not been confirmed by any of the manufacturers, drivers, or teams involved.
🔴 – Very likely to be confirmed / ⭕ Likely to be confirmed / 🔺 Possible, but unconfirmed
Honda will be the first to reveal their driver lineups for the 2019 season, in two weeks time at the Tokyo Auto Salon on 11-13 January.
We are starting to know what that lineup will look like in two weeks time.
As reported earlier, Naoki Yamamoto and Jenson Button are certain to retain their GT500 Championship together for Team Kunimitsu. The combination of Tomoki Nojiri and Takuya Izawa was very effective for Autobacs Racing Team Aguri, so they will stay together. And after progress in 2018, Team Mugen are set to retain Hideki Mutoh and Daisuke Nakajima.
Where the uncertainty lies with two weeks before Honda’s announcement now lies with Keihin Real Racing and Nakajima Racing.
Koudai Tsukakoshi will be back to drive his eleventh full season with Real Racing, the only team that the 32-year-old has ever driven for. Less certain is who his co-driver will be, as in addition to 2010 GT500 Champion Takashi Kogure returning to the team as an option, Bertrand Baguette is also in play for a transfer from Nakajima Racing after five seasons.
The staff at auto sport report that it’s more likely that Baguette will replace Kogure, which would put the Belgian driver in a car that won last year’s Okayama GT 300km Race and finished 6th in the GT500 Championship – giving him a great chance to bid for a title with Real Racing, alongside the fellow Bridgestone-clad Hondas of ARTA and Team Kunimitsu.
The other side to the equation would be the likely end of Takashi Kogure’s GT500 career after 15 seasons and 118 starts. Kogure and fellow Honda veteran Kosuke Matsuura are both at a crossroads, and are likely to be displaced from the GT500 camp.
At Nakajima Racing, there’s the possibility of an all-new driver lineup consisting of two of the following three drivers: Narain Karthikeyan, Hiroki Otsu, and Tadasuke Makino.
Karthikeyan’s time in Super Formula seems to have drawn to a close, but the Indian trailblazer tested for Nakajima Racing at Sepang last winter and was keen on remaining in a top-flight category if it wasn’t Super Formula. The 41-year-old would also bring sponsorship from the Tata Group – which would help in the event that Nakajima’s longtime sponsor, Epson, scales back their sponsorship.
Otsu had a fantastic rookie year in GT300 with Modulo Drago Corse, highlighted by a fourth-place finish at Sportsland SUGO in a three-wide photo finish, and a maiden podium at Autopolis. Otsu also won the ST-TCR Championship in Super Taikyu driving for Modulo Dome Honda. A move up to the premier class seems in short order for the 24-year-old Honda prospect.
Makino is no stranger to GT500 – after all, he finished 2nd in his very first race in the category at Chang International Circuit in 2016. His return to Japan after a two-year expedition in Europe will see him race in Super Formula at Nakajima Racing, but now a return to Super GT could also be in the cards for the 21-year-old phenom and top prospect of the Honda Formula Dream Project (HFDP).
HONDA GT500 TEAM AND DRIVER PROJECTIONS
8 – Autobacs Racing Team Aguri (Bridgestone) – 🔴 Tomoki Nojiri / 🔴 Takuya Izawa
16 – Team Mugen (Yokohama) – 🔴 Hideki Mutoh / 🔴 Daisuke Nakajima
17 – Real Racing (Bridgestone) – 🔴 Koudai Tsukakoshi / ⭕ Bertrand Baguette / 🔺 Takashi Kogure
64 – Nakajima Racing (Dunlop) – 🔺 Narain Karthikeyan / 🔺 Hiroki Otsu /
🔺 Tadasuke Makino
100 – Team Kunimitsu (Bridgestone) – 🔴 Naoki Yamamoto / 🔴 Jenson Button
Lexus’ GT500 driver lineup is expected to be announced in the first or second week of February with the rest of Toyota Gazoo Racing’s global motorsports activities.
Going into February, Lexus’ fleet of drivers looks very stable – and we now have a solid idea of who will be moving where in 2019.
Three lineups will not change: Ryo Hirakawa and Nick Cassidy at Lexus Team KeePer TOM’s (#37), Kazuki Nakajima and Yuhi Sekiguchi at Lexus Team au TOM’s (#36), and Yuji Tachikawa and Hiroaki Ishiura at Lexus Team ZENT Cerumo.
Kenta Yamashita is the most likely candidate to replace the departing Felix Rosenqvist at Lexus Team Wako’s LeMans, and he’ll partner the returning Kazuya Oshima in the #6 car.
With Yamashita leaving Lexus Team WedsSport Bandoh in that scenario, it will allow Sho Tsuboi, the top prospect of the Toyota Young Driver Program (TDP), to move up to a full-time GT500 ride in the #19 WedsSport LC500 alongside the returning Yuji Kunimoto.
Nakajima’s GT500 return was secured in large part thanks to the recent schedule update which saw the 2019 Motegi GT 250km Race moved forward one week to avoid a clash with the WEC 4 Hours of Shanghai. Despite that change to help out Nakajima and fellow Toyota WEC star Kamui Kobayashi, it’s looking less and less likely that Kobayashi will return to Super GT next year alongside his WEC and Super Formula commitments.
That would then allow Toyota to promote Yuichi Nakayama to a full-time GT500 ride, in the #39 Denso SARD LC500 alongside 2016 GT500 Champion Heikki Kovalainen. Or, Nakayama could end up at Team LeMans, with Yamashita at Team SARD, as an alternative with the other roster selections intact around them.
Most of the intrigue around Toyota Motor Corporation’s GT500 activities will be aimed towards the 2020 season. Toyota will unveil the GR Supra Super GT Concept at the 2019 Tokyo Auto Salon, and there’s a real chance that the new Mk. V Supra will bring in the Supra’s long-anticipated return to Super GT’s premier class with the latest GT500 rules revisions in 2020.
LEXUS GT500 TEAM AND DRIVER PROJECTIONS
6 – Lexus Team Wako’s LeMans (Bridgestone) – 🔴 Kazuya Oshima / ⭕ Kenta Yamashita / 🔺 Yuichi Nakayama
19 – Lexus Team WedsSport Bandoh (Yokohama) – 🔴 Yuji Kunimoto / ⭕ Sho Tsuboi
36 – Lexus Team au TOM’s (Bridgestone) – 🔴 Kazuki Nakajima / 🔴 Yuhi Sekiguchi
37 – Lexus Team KeePer TOM’s (Bridgestone) – 🔴 Ryo Hirakawa / 🔴 Nick Cassidy
38 – Lexus Team ZENT Cerumo (Bridgestone) – 🔴 Yuji Tachikawa / 🔴 Hiroaki Ishiura
39 – Lexus Team SARD (Bridgestone) – 🔴 Heikki Kovalainen / ⭕ Yuichi Nakayama / 🔺 Kenta Yamashita
Now, for the silliest factor in the Silly Season. The hottest flame in the Hot Stove. It was said in the last update that Nissan could be in to make wholesale changes to their GT500 driver lineup. That’s looking more and more likely by the day.
So let’s start off with the lineup that will be retained for 2019: Tsugio Matsuda and Ronnie Quintarelli at NISMO in the #23 “Red Car”. They were the leading force for Nissan in a tough 2018 season that saw plenty of potential, but only one win for the effort put in.
After that, there are the outside forces at play.
Kohei Hirate has been linked to a bombshell transfer from Toyota to Nissan all winter, and that’s looking more and more likely each and every week. James Rossiter was another veteran GT500 driver that was linked to switch to Nissan after six years under the Toyota umbrella.
Two weeks ago at Fuji Speedway, just days after the NISMO Festival wrapped up, Nissan teams used a track day to run a test of several interested GT500 prospects. Rossiter was in amongst those drivers testing. As well as one name familiar to Super GT fans, and one less so.
Frédéric Makowiecki seems to be in the frame for a shock return to GT500. While the Frenchman was retained by Porsche as a factory driver, his commitments with Porsche will be as an endurance race specialist, meaning he does not have a full-season commitment lined up as of yet. Makowiecki was a Suzuka 1000km winner with Honda over a two-year run from 2013-2014.
And there is also Daniel Juncadella, formerly of Mercedes’ DTM programme which shuttered at the end of 2018. The 27-year-old will have a reserve driver role with Mercedes-affiliated HWA RaceLab in this year’s Formula E Championship, but Juncadella is now seeking a full-time race seat after being displaced from DTM.
And there’s talks that a fellow DTM export, Lucas Auer, will be racing in Super GT. Auer is already set to race in Super Formula with Honda and Red Bull backing, but curiously, his links to Super GT are starting to solidify, not with Honda, but with Nissan.
What does all this mean?
Satoshi Motoyama is indeed likely to return to contest his 23rd consecutive GT500 season for Nissan at NDDP Racing with B-Max. The aforementioned Hirate could be his teammate, or it could be Makowiecki, in the #3 “White Car”.
Calsonic Team Impul’s #12 “Blue Car” could retain the lineup of Jann Mardenborough and Daiki Sasaki, or retain one, most likely Sasaki, and bring in Rossiter, who’s also been linked to Kondo Racing.
Speaking of Kondo Racing, Mitsunori Takaboshi is likely to return, even with his Formula E third driver commitments at Nissan. Rossiter is in the frame. So too is Juncadella.
What that also means is that there is no certainty that 13-year GT500 veteran João Paulo de Oliveira will return. There’s no certainty that Katsumasa Chiyo, whose return to drive the Bathurst 12 Hour in 2019 was just announced a week ago, will stay in GT500 after three largely luckless seasons. Not even Mardenborough, the most accomplished Nissan GT Academy graduate of all time, is secure for 2019 – auto sport does not even list the Welshman as a likely candidate to drive for Nissan next year.
And, of course, there’s no talk of Nissan adding a fifth car to offset the potential influx of new drivers.
It’s important to restate that this is all educated speculation, but speculation nonetheless. We won’t actually know the picture in full until February.
NISSAN GT500 TEAM AND DRIVER PROJECTIONS
3 – NDDP Racing with B-Max (Michelin) – 🔺 Satoshi Motoyama / 🔺 Kohei Hirate / 🔺 Frédéric Makowiecki
12 – Team Impul – (Bridgestone) – ⭕ Daiki Sasaki / 🔺 James Rossiter
23 – NISMO (Michelin) – 🔴 Tsugio Matsuda / 🔴 Ronnie Quintarelli
24 – Kondo Racing (Yokohama) – ⭕ Mitsunori Takaboshi / 🔺 Daniel Juncadella / 🔺 Lucas Auer
GT300 IN BRIEF
Goodsmile Racing & Team UKYO confirmed Nobuteru Taniguchi and Tatsuya Kataoka as their driver lineup for the 2019 season. It’s the eighth year together for three-time champions Taniguchi and Kataoka. GSR & Team UKYO also confirmed their entry into the 2019 Suzuka 10 Hours, with Taniguchi and Kataoka joined by Kamui Kobayashi.
Hiroki Yoshida announced he will be leaving Gainer and changing teams in 2019, at the team’s end of year celebrations on 17 December. The 34-year-old scored his first-ever Super GT podium this September at Sportsland SUGO. His new team is yet to be announced.
McLaren may be on their way back to the GT300 class of Super GT via their new 720S GT3, which ran its first race in the Gulf 12 Hours at Yas Marina Circuit in Abu Dhabi. Servus Japan, the racing garage which handles maintenance for Autobacs Racing Team Aguri’s GT300 entry, are reported to be behind McLaren’s latest push in Japan.
There’s talk of a McLaren 720S appearing next season, via a collaborative effort between Servus, veteran driver Seiji Ara, and legendary team owner Kazumichi Goh, who led McLaren’s works team to a dominant run to the GT500 title in 1996.
While Aston Martin and McLaren may be on their way back to Super GT, there’s a chance that EIcars Bentley and their Continental GT3 may withdraw after two seasons in GT300.