Every year, Super GT World honours the most outstanding performers in the Autobacs Super GT Series with the Super GT World Awards.
Every racing team leans on the experience of its leader to guide them through the months of grueling miles, preparation, and battles along the course of a season. The Team Director of the Year award is given to the most outstanding Team Director in the Super GT paddock.
In 2016, Hideki Noda won the inaugural Team Director of the Year Award after leading Lexus Team SARD to a GT500 Championship in just his second season. In 2017, Takeshi Tsuchiya won the award as Team Director and Chief Engineer of Tsuchiya Engineering, taking over from his father Haruo after a bout with cancer took him away from the day-to-day operations of the team.
Of course, in 2018, there were many successful team leaders who stood out for many reasons.
In GT300, for instance, Ukyo Katayama led Goodsmile Racing & Team UKYO in a solid title defence that came up short, and a great outing in the Suzuka 10 Hours as the best all-Asian team in the field. Masahiko Kageyama of K-Tunes Racing LM Corsa and Kazumi Fujii of Gainer enjoyed victories in their class, as did Makoto Shibuya of Subaru/R&D Sport.
Give recognition as well to some underdog team bosses: Tetsuji Tamanaka of Team Mach, Hiroshi Aoyagi of Saitama Toyopet GreenBrave, and Muneharu Ito of Arnage Racing all enjoyed their moments in the spotlight with some great top-ten finishes – and more could have been had still!
GT500 is filled with standout team leaders as well. Daisuke Ito enjoyed a signature win in the Fuji GT 500 Mile race, leading Lexus Team au TOM’s to the victory. Juichi Wakisaka led Lexus Team LeMans through a solid season, one tampered by the grief of losing chief engineer Kenji Yamada on 22 April.
Masataka Bandoh got his WedsSport LC500 back to the podium twice. Yutaka Suzuki continued to get the best out of the NISMO team and drivers Tsugio Matsuda & Ronnie Quintarelli, and Kazuyoshi Hoshino certainly deserved more success with Team Impul this year. Katsutomo Kaneishi of Keihin Real Racing was persistent in seeing his squad to their first win in almost eight years at Okayama.
In a field of many, these were the six Team Directors who stood out above them all. Here are the finalists, followed by the winner.
6TH: MAKOTO ISHIDA [石田 誠]
Makoto Ishida is the director of Team UPGarage, who spun off from Racing Project Bandoh after three seasons in 2018, then went out and signed GT500 race winner Takashi Kobayashi to partner former GT300 champion Yuhki Nakayama, the only ever-present at the team besides Ishida.
Years of persistence for Ishida paid off from the first race of the season, when Team UPGarage scored their very first win at Okayama International Circuit. Though their championship challenge faded during the summer months, it was a breakthrough for the entire squad, one that finally gave them credibility as a team capable of competing for wins every year.
They were also one of the few non-GT3 runners at the Suzuka 10 Hours, and all of this came under Ishida’s leadership in 2018.
5TH: MASANORI SEKIYA [関谷 正徳]
Masanori Sekiya headed up the #1 KeePer TOM’s LC500 team led by Ryo Hirakawa and Nick Cassidy. The pressure was always going to be on for the defending champions, but the proven, championship-winning driver turned championship-winning team boss led them to four podiums and second in the GT500 standings.
Separate to Super GT, Sekiya headed up a perfect season for TOM’s in the All-Japan Formula 3 Championship: A perfect 19 wins in 19 races for champion Sho Tsuboi and vice-champion Ritomo Miyata. He promoted successful seasons for the Inter Proto Series and the all-womens’ Kyojo Cup at Fuji Speedway.
23 years removed from that breakthrough win at Le Mans, Masanori Sekiya continues to lead TOM’s Racing to victories and titles, and remains one of Japanese motorsports’ most influential figures.
4TH: HIROTO KANESO [金曽 裕人]
From a small garage in the city of Atsugi, Hiroto Kaneso is the driving force behind apr Racing and their two mid-engined Toyota Prius GTs. This was the last year for these Prius race cars, which trace their lineage in some places back to the old SW20 MR2s of the late 1990s.
As team director and owner, Kaneso oversaw a return to form for the #31 Prius of Koki Saga and new recruit Kohei Hirate. The duo combined for four podium finishes in 2018, up from just the one that the #31 car had in 2018, and they were title contenders all season long.
Even the #30 car of Hiroaki Nagai, Kota Sasaki, and Manabu Orido showed improved form thanks to the installation of a new capacitor-driven hybrid system, though they didn’t score the points to show for it. The new front-engined Prius PHV GTs that will debut in 2019 are a testament to Kaneso’s dedication to pushing the envelope on the original JAF-GT platform and its capabilities.
3RD: AGURI SUZUKI [鈴木 亜久里]
Like Kaneso, Aguri Suzuki also runs two Super GT teams, one in GT500, and one in GT300. The GT300 side of Autobacs Racing Team Aguri continued to be excellent under the supervision of Keiichi Tsuchiya. Shinichi Takagi became GT300’s joint career wins leader, Sean Walkinshaw made massive progress, and the #55 ARTA BMW M6 competed for the title til the end.
But until recently, their GT500 programme had languished a bit. A win at the Fuji summer race last year sparked hope of an ARTA revival in the top class. In 2018, that revival was realized. Tomoki Nojiri took a series-leading three pole positions, and he and a resurgent Takuya Izawa led ARTA to two wins, and 3rd in the championship tables.
That was the best ranking for ARTA in GT500 since 2009, and finally, put the bright orange number 8 back where it had been for most of the first decade of the 21st century: A serious championship threat. So they will continue to be in 2019.
2ND: TADASHI MIZOTA [溝田 唯司]
Mizota is both the Team Director and Chief Engineer of the #65 LEON Cvstos Mercedes-AMG GT3. He assumed the latter role in 2013, helping LEON Racing become a regular threat for podiums in a season. Then in 2016 he became Team Director, and along with a number of other key additions like Bridgestone tyres, helped the team become a threat for wins and championships.
Mizota strategized a masterful championship campaign for K2 R&D LEON Racing in 2018, a year in which they finished every race in the points, and kept putting up consistent scores until their championship-winning victory at Twin Ring Motegi. Mizota was willing to make the brave strategic calls when it mattered most, opting to exchange two tyres only on most mid-race pit stops from the very first round at Okayama.
Motegi was the first time they took a fuel-only stop, and as the ARTA BMW languished in traffic on the same strategy and same brand of tyres, Kurosawa and Gamou romped to the lead, the win, and the GT300 Championship – the culmination of LEON Racing’s gradual ascent under Tadashi Mizota’s direction.
And the winner is…!
1ST: KUNIMITSU TAKAHASHI [高橋 国光]
Kunimitsu Takahashi was one of the giants of Japanese motor racing who helped get the All-Japan GT Championship off the ground in 1994. Takahashi spent the twilight of his career winning races in GT500, all the way to age 59. When he retired as a driver, he pursued the dream of becoming a champion again, but as Kunimitsu-san saw the evolution of the JGTC to Super GT, the ultimate prize was always elusive.
Between the near-misses in years like 2006, there were long stretches without any victories at all. But when the team of Naoki Yamamoto and Jenson Button was announced, there was hope for Team Kunimitsu’s fans that this might finally be their year. That hope solidified as they racked up podiums in two of the first three rounds. Then they won from pole at Sportsland Sugo to end a three-year winless spell, which made the fans believe this would be their year.
And finally, at Twin Ring Motegi, by just over a second, Kunimitsu Takahashi – a man who’d spent time as a Super GT driver, the chairman of the entire series, and as a dedicated team owner and mentor to a new generation of drivers – finally won the championship after 24 years.
For seeing out a dream of winning the GT500 Championship, a quarter-century in the making, the legendary “Iron Man” of Japanese motor racing, Kunimitsu Takahashi, is our choice for Team Director of the Year in 2018.