Every year, Super GT World honours the most outstanding performers in the Autobacs Super GT Series with the Super GT World Awards.
The International Driver of the Year Award is given annually to the most outstanding non-Japanese driver in the Autobacs Super GT Series across both the GT500 and GT300 classes. From the first foreign champion in Erik Comas to today’s group of international Super GT stars, drivers from all over the world continue to challenge Super GT, the fastest GT racing series on Earth.
Drivers from 13 different countries entered the 2018 Autobacs Super GT Series in at least one race this year – England, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland, Italy, France, Germany, Belgium, Sweden, Finland, Thailand, Brazil, and New Zealand.
There was certainly a great crop of drivers to choose from in that regard. Certainly Heikki Kovalainen, winner at Thailand for Lexus Team SARD. Or Bertrand Baguette, who put in outstanding drives that belied Nakajima Racing’s lack of points this year.
Sven Müller was solid across multiple continents – including Japan with D’station Racing – and Richard Lyons still has the speed to compete at a high level for Audi Team Hitotsuyama. Marco Mapelli makes a case to be at least the “first man out,” a rapid driver on debut for Team JLOC.
And of course, what turned out to be the swansong season for João Paulo Lima de Oliveira, finishing where the journey began in earnest, with Kondo Racing.
Of these many international stars, six made the cut to be named finalists, and at the end, one of them takes the award…
6TH: SEAN WALKINSHAW [ショーン・ウォーキンショー]
- GT300 Drivers’ Championship: 2nd Place (62 points)
- Race Wins: 2 (Fuji 500km, Fuji 500mi)
- Fastest Laps: 1 (Buriram)
The only GT300 driver to be named a finalist, and a bonafide championship contender to the very end of the season. Sean Walkinshaw was much improved in 2018 on the whole.
He and Shinichi Takagi teamed up to dominate the series’ two visits to Fuji Speedway, running their winning streak at the circuit to three races in total. A third podium would have been his at Chang International Circuit in Thailand, before a late puncture took them completely off the top 10 – just as Walkinshaw was having arguably his best-ever race stint of the year.
Most impressive was the way Walkinshaw closed out ARTA’s drive from 22nd on the grid at Autopolis, with their championship lead at serious risk, to finish fourth. Though Walkinshaw didn’t receive the championship accolades in 2018, he has everything to be proud of for his performance this year.
5TH: FELIX ROSENQVIST [フェリックス・ローゼンクヴィスト]
- GT500 Drivers’ Championship: 10th Place (41 points)
- Podiums: 1 (Buriram)
- Top-10 Finishes: 6 (Okayama, Fuji 500km, Buriram, Fuji 500mi, Autopolis, Sugo)
Felix Rosenqvist spent 2018 driving around the world in a Mahindra Formula E car, an Oreca 05 LMP2 prototype for Jackie Chan DC Racing at the Rolex 24 Hours, a Porsche Carrera Cup car, a Mercedes-AMG GT3 in the Spa 24 Hours, and oh yeah, his first full season in a Super GT Lexus LC500.
Having only missed one race at Suzuka due to prior commitments in Formula E, Rosenqvist racked up top five finishes in his first three appearances – culminating with a 2nd place and maiden podium at Buriram. The results faded down the stretch, but Rosenqvist never lost his stunning race pace, even during a difficult year for everyone at Team LeMans.
If you’re an IndyCar fan who’s not yet excited about the arrival of Felix Rosenqvist, you absolutely should be – he has the credentials and genuine pace to become an Indy 500 winner and IndyCar Series champion.
4TH: JANN MARDENBOROUGH [ヤン・マーデンボロー]
- GT500 Drivers’ Championship: 12th Place (29 points)
- Podiums: 1 (Sugo)
- Top 10 Finishes: 4 (Fuji 500km, Suzuka, Buriram, Sugo)
- Fastest 10 Race Laps Average: 1 (Sugo)
Jann Mardenborough finally attained something resembling the success in GT500 that his talents deserved, thanks to a maiden podium finish at Sportsland Sugo driving the famous Calsonic GT-R for Team Impul.
But that could have easily been a victory with the pace that Mardenborough was driving – and of course, it came a month after Mardenborough was on track to win the Fuji 500 Miles, only to see the win taken away after leading 94 laps thanks to an intercooler pipe coming loose inside the engine bay.
For a good measure of the season, even when Nissan weren’t at their best as a manufacturer, Mardenborough’s progress in 2018 was a shining beacon of hope. We certainly hope we have not seen the last of Jann tha’ Man in a GT500 car – he’s so close to a premier class breakthrough, and he’s still just 27 years old.
3RD: JENSON BUTTON [ジェンソン・バトン]
- GT500 Drivers’ Championship: 1st Place (78 points)
- Wins: 1 (Sugo)
- Podiums: 4 (Okayama, Suzuka, Sugo, Motegi)
In terms of what Jenson Button brings as an international Super GT superstar, his value as an ambassador of the series to the rest of the world, his dedication to the series as a veteran of 300+ F1 Grands Prix in his life prior, it is immeasurable.
He brings instant credibility to the series with more than just his presence but his commitment to the team, and as he succeeded in 2018, his fans and so many more people followed along the journey. Even more than anticipated – who else could have managed to co-produce a seasons’ worth of highlights with Toby Moody on commentary?
While in the FIA World Endurance Championship he might have had to shoulder the load for privateer SMP Racing, in Super GT he did not have to be the man for all seasons and the man to carry the entire team. And that’s perfectly fine – in a weird way, by not even being the fastest of his two drivers on most days, he also put over a field of F1-caliber talent around him.
2ND: RONNIE QUINTARELLI [ロニー・クインタレッリ]
- GT500 Drivers’ Championship: 8th Place (43 points)
- Wins: 1 (Fuji 500km)
- Pole Positions: 1 (Fuji 500mi)
- Fastest Laps: 1 (Fuji 500mi)
- Fastest 10 Race Laps Averages: 3 (Okayama, Fuji 500km, Fuji 500mi)
Of course, in the time before JB came to Super GT, “RQ” was long the gold standard for international drivers in Super GT. In many people’s eyes, he still is – even as he nears 40, he is every bit the tenacious, unrelentingly quick competitor he was five or ten years ago. He won this award the last two years and could easily make a case for a third in a row.
A proud ambassador from Italy to Japan and vice versa, Quintarelli’s form should have netted him more than just the one race win, but from the first race at Okayama, to the win on Golden Week at the Fuji 500km, and all the way to the NISMO Festival where he won the NISMO GP exhibition race, “RQ” was the brightest light of what ended as a bleak time for Nissan.
He did it the hard way, stuck around through early struggles, and now, four-time Ronnie Quintarelli is the undisputed most successful international driver in Super GT history.
And the winner is!
1ST: NICK CASSIDY [ニック・キャシディ]
- GT500 Drivers’ Championship: 2nd Place (75 points)
- Wins: 1 (Autopolis)
- Podiums: 4 (Okayama, Suzuka, Fuji 500mi, Autopolis)
- Super Formula Drivers’ Championship: 2nd Place (1 win, 1 pole, 1 fastest lap, 37 points)
While Kiwis Shane van Gisbergen and Scott McLaughlin slugged out a heavyweight title fight for the Australian Supercars title, a few thousand kilometers north, Nick Cassidy continued to add to New Zealand’s incredible racing heritage with his breakout season in the upper echelons of Japanese auto racing.
It was a breakout year that began with a hard-fought scrap for the lead with veteran Takashi Kogure at Okayama, continued through another tough fight to hold off Yuhi Sekiguchi for a TOM’s 1-2 at the Fuji 500 Miles, and along the entire journey, Cassidy was seeking to become the first Double Champion of Super Formula and Super GT in fourteen years. We know that he missed out, only just, on both fronts. But what a year he had in both championships.
It’s amazing to think that Cassidy is still just 24 years old, already is a GT500 champion, and has his entire racing future ahead of him. He is as confident and capable as he’s ever been, which should terrify rivals going into 2019 as he prepares to win back the titles he so narrowly lost in the past year. Even if one day the journey ends for Nick Cassidy in Japan, he has already left a legacy as New Zealand’s greatest racing export to the country.
Nick Cassidy is our selection for International Driver of the Year, 2018.