2018 Super GT World Awards: GT500 Driver of the Year

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

The GT500 class of Super GT may be the pinnacle of sports car racing today. 30 of the world’s best drivers, battling for the honours for Japan’s biggest automakers, in the fastest GT silhouette cars on the planet. Amongst them, only one driver can be called, “Driver of the Year.”

In 2016, the award was given to breakout performer Yuhi Sekiguchi, a first-time GT500 class winner and nearly the rookie champion of Super Formula. In 2017, the honours went to 23-year-old Ryo Hirakawa, who realized the potential that many had expected him to achieve upon winning his first GT500 title, and achieving championship success overseas in the ultra-competitive European Le Mans Series.

With so many excellent drivers, it was so, so very hard to narrow it down to a short list of only six potential winners.

Jann Mardenborough, had his best season as a GT500 driver to date. He put in quite a few fast stints aboard the Calsonic GT-R for Team Impul. And was he ever so close to winning the Fuji 500 Miles, before a loose intercooler pipe ripped it away from him and Daiki Sasaki.

Koudai Tsukakoshi ended a long winless drought for himself and for Keihin Real Racing with a pole position and a victory at Okayama International Circuit, one where he withstood the pressure of Naoki Yamamoto in a heated battle.

Hiroaki Ishiura very quietly competed for his third Super Formula Championship and finished every race in the points for Lexus Team ZENT Cerumo, alongside his co-driver and mentor Yuji Tachikawa.

Kenta Yamashita achieved his first career podiums in GT500 and in Super Formula, the latter of which aided Kondo Racing to their very first Teams’ Championship in Super Formula.

There were also drivers who achieved incredible milestones in and out of Super GT.

Tsugio Matsuda became the first GT500 driver to win 20 career races at the Fuji 500km on Golden Week, and he also set a new record of nine consecutive seasons with a race win, surpassing the departing J.P. Oliveira.

And, of course, Kazuki Nakajima ended Toyota’s 33-year wait for a Le Mans 24 Hours victory, avenging the last-lap heartbreak of the 2016 race. He then followed that up by winning the first Fuji 500 Mile Race since 1992.

And there were two drivers that one might consider to be just on the outside looking in for a place as a finalist. In fact, if one were to argue that either of them should have been over someone else, there would be no protest.

The first is Takuya Izawa, who bounced back after a bit of a slump the last two years, bounced back from being displaced from Team Kunimitsu and long-time co-driver Naoki Yamamoto, to help ARTA along to two big wins at Suzuka and Motegi – during which, Izawa recorded the fastest 10 race laps’ averages in both events.

And the second was the 2016 winner, Yuhi Sekiguchi, who if not for a litre of fuel at the end would have won at Buriram, but then won the Fuji 500 Mile race with Kazuki Nakajima and Lexus Team au TOM’s – the biggest win of his career thus far. He also continued to be a threat in the Super Formula Championship. I give credit to Alex Sinclair for reminding me how good his 2018 season was, even if it came unraveled at the end at Motegi.

But of the 30 full-time drivers, only six were finalists – and here they are.


6TH: RYO HIRAKAWA [平川 亮]

© Toyota
  • GT500 Drivers’ Championship: 2nd Place (75 Points)
  • Wins: 1 (Autopolis)
  • Podium Finishes: 4 (Okayama, Suzuka, Fuji 500mi, Autopolis)
  • Super Formula Championship: 5th Place (2 Podiums, 1 Pole Position)

nominated by Geinou

Ryo Hirakawa has a very distinctive driving style, one that, when he was the teenage sensation winning the 2012 Formula 3 and Porsche Carrera Cup titles in Japan, gave him the moniker of the “Japanese-made Schumacher”, in reference to the seven-time F1 champion Michael.

No other race than the Motegi Grand Final showed this, when Ryo Hirakawa burned one qualifying lap after another, one of his specialties, into the track and overtaking the Epson Modulo NSX of Kosuke Matsuura without any hesitation, even though it meant some slight contact between the two cars, in an underrated “Pass of the Year” contender in any motorsport.

In just a few laps he managed to close the gap to Jenson Button’s Raybrig NSX for one of the closest championship battles in recent years, playing out in real-time on track. The relentless pursuit took a toll on his tyres and Hirakawa saw himself fading, but he never gave up, and still tried his best to get past the former Formula One World Champion in traffic in one of the most intense battles of the year.

But even though he missed out on defending his and Nick Cassidy’s title by a mere 1.5 seconds, he can look back at a successful season. Yes, there was no Le Mans visit or any chances to run with the elite prototype talents of the WEC or ELMS. But along with the runner-up finish in GT500, he also had by far his best Super Formula campaign after a two-year layoff, snatching two podiums and finishing 5th in the standings.

Knowing Ryo Hirakawa, he likely has already set his sights set to 2019.


5TH: JENSON BUTTON [ジェンソン・バトン]

© GT Association
  • GT500 Drivers’ Championship: 1st Place (78 points)
  • Wins: 1 (Sugo)
  • Podium Finishes: 4 (Okayama, Suzuka, Sugo, Motegi)
  • First driver to win GT500 title in debut season since 2005

nominated by Geinou

Jenson Button dominated the news headlines before as well as after the season. Somewhere at a talk show at Honda Racing Thanks Day in Motegi in December 2017, Button dropped a bombshell off-camera: That he’d be racing in Super GT full-time in 2018. This after 17 seasons and one extra Monaco Grand Prix, a cumulative sum of 305 races, in Formula 1. Very suddenly, a lot of interest was given to Super GT where there wasn’t before.

Being a former Formula 1 World Champion, the protagonist of that fairytale 2009 title run with Brawn GP, one could’ve easily thought that Button might take his success in Japan’s premier category for granted, that it would be easy to compete in GT500. And yes, he did ultimately win the title in his first season -however, the Briton didn’t underestimate this new challenge.

After experiencing a tough first outing in Super GT in the 2017 Suzuka 1000km, he devoted himself to learning the ins and outs of the series, not just with an extensive winter test program, but also by talking and learning from the people around him, especially his teammate Naoki Yamamoto. After the season it was Kunimitsu Takahashi himself who said how delighted he was to see Button’s devotion.

Being a former Formula 1 World Champion, he didn’t look down on everyone else but up instead, putting over his teammates and fellow competitors around him. It’s no surprise that he praised his teammate Naoki Yamamoto, who he called the main factor in their championship run in 2018.

Always with a big smile on his face, you could see how much fun and enjoyment Button had this year. Learning in every race, especially managing traffic, he greatly contributed to Team Kunimitsu’s first ever GT500 Championship – he didn’t have to carry the entire team on his shoulders, he didn’t have to be the fastest man on the track every single race, but when they needed him to perform, such as that chase with Hirakawa at Motegi, he absolutely did with the class of a World Champion.

And all of that in his very first full-time Super GT campaign.


4TH: RONNIE QUINTARELLI [ロニー・クインタレッリ]

© Nissan
  • GT500 Drivers’ Championship: 8th Place (43 points)
  • Wins: 1 (Fuji 500km)
  • Pole Positions: 1 (Fuji 500mi)
  • Fastest Laps: 2 (Fuji 500km, Fuji 500mi)
  • Fastest 10 Race Laps Averages: Okayama, Fuji 500km, Fuji 500mi
  • Surpassed 100 Career Races in 2018

nominated by R.J.

If someone was the standout performer for Nissan, who struggled to just one victory in eight rounds this season and did not have any of their cars competing for championships at seasons’ end, it would be the four-time GT500 Champion, the most successful international driver in Super GT history, Ronnie Quintarelli.

That win came on May 4 at the Fuji 500 Kilometer classic on Golden Week, one where he and Tsugio Matsuda had to withstand a surprising challenge from GT500 newcomer Sho Tsuboi and Heikki Kovalainen to take the victory.

It was also the third consecutive race, after winning the finale at Motegi, and leading early at Okayama before a slightly controversial jump-start penalty took them out of the race lead, that Quintarelli posted the fastest average of 10 or 20 race laps in a race. It’s almost the endurance racing analogue of measuring a baseball players’ OPS (on base percentage, plus slugging percentage), as a measure of batting proficiency – or in the racing case, the measure of one’s outright pace when the points are paid.

He also did the same in the Fuji 500 Miles, thanks to a go-for-broke final sprint brought on by an emergency tyre stop, that ultimately took Quintarelli and Matsuda out of contention for the win. It also set the tone for a 2nd-half skid where the #23 Motul GT-R “Red Car” didn’t finish higher than 7th.

Quintarelli also became the fifth international driver, joining Krumm, Lyons, Couto, and Oliveira, to reach 100 career starts. He’s the most successful international driver in Super GT history. And he was, by far, the brightest light in a difficult season by Nissan’s standards.


3RD: TOMOKI NOJIRI [野尻 智紀]

© ARTA Project
  • GT500 Drivers’ Championship: 3rd Place (71 points)
  • Wins: 2 (Suzuka, Motegi)
  • Pole Positions: 3 (Suzuka, Autopolis, Motegi)
  • Podium Finishes: 3 (Suzuka, Sugo, Motegi)

nominated by Geinou

Is Tomoki Nojiri the most underrated GT500 driver in the field? There’s a very good case to make for the 29-year-old driver, who just completed his fourth campaign in the GT500 class with Autobacs Racing Team Aguri.

Nojiri and co-driver Takuya Izawa were the only tandem to win more than one race in the most competitive top class in sports car racing. Honda were pleased that those wins came at their home circuits: Suzuka Circuit, and Twin Ring Motegi.

They were both brilliant in their own way, but what set Nojiri apart was the complete form he demonstrated, both in qualifying, and in race setup. Over the last two seasons, Nojiri has five pole positions to his name. He added three more this season: At Suzuka, at Autopolis, and at Motegi, each time, he shattered the old track record, such was his blistering pace over a single lap.

In those victories, Nojiri withheld a relentless charge from Naoki Yamamoto, weaving in and out of traffic in the narrow Suzuka esses along the way. He then set to bury the field in a commanding closing stint in Motegi. There was a close call with victory at Sugo, where he ran down Jenson Button thanks to just a tiny bit of help from a rogue course vehicle.

All of this helped Autobacs Racing Team Aguri, who weren’t too far removed from finishing dead last in the GT500 standings in consecutive years, to a third-place championship finish and their best season in nearly a decade. Nojiri was the driver that’s been around to lead that turnaround. Over the next few years, he will surely be a championship contender – and that would surely shed the moniker of the series’ most underrated top star.


2ND: NICK CASSIDY [ニック・キャシディ]

© Toyota
  • GT500 Drivers’ Championship: 2nd Place (75 Points)
  • Wins: 1 (Autopolis)
  • Podium Finishes: 4 (Okayama, Suzuka, Fuji 500mi, Autopolis)
  • Super Formula Championship Runner-up (1 win, 1 pole position, 4 podiums)

nominated by Geinou

Sure, he was champion in 2017, but it’s safe to say that Nick Cassidy had his best season in Japan in 2018, barely missing out on becoming only the fourth ever driver to win both the Super GT as well as Super Formula championships in the same year. In both cases, Cassidy missed out on it by just one mere second against his main rival Naoki Yamamoto.

While some might say that he was in the shadows of his teammate Ryo Hirakawa during their title run last year, the 24-year-old New Zealander certainly jumped out of his teammate’s shadow this year. Mostly dedicated to driving the starting stints of races, Cassidy always made good use of his aggressive yet smart driving style, especially when managing GT300 traffic – a crucial skill to success in Super GT, one he’s gotten better at year after year.

One of his best performances this year was probably at the Fuji 500 Mile Race, where the KeePer TOM’s LC500 had to struggle with 41kg of Success Ballast and a Fuel-Flow Restrictor. Despite joking of being part of the “GT400” class before the weekend due to the heavy handicap, Cassidy managed to help the team to score a strong and important second place finish, their third podium of the season, and one that put them in the championship lead for the first time.

The breakthrough win came in another TOM’s 1-2 at Autopolis, thanks to another strong opening stint from Cassidy to put his running mate Hirakawa in position to win at the end. Cassidy himself will lament qualifying setbacks, pitstop trouble in Buriram, a slow race in Sugo – but he and Hirakawa absolutely left everything out on the track in pursuit of back-to-back championships.

Alongside it, Cassidy established himself as a Super Formula Championship contender. His breakthrough came in a dominant “hat trick” victory at Fuji Speedway, winning with the fastest lap from pole position. It helped Kondo Racing win the Teams’ Championship for the first time after years of futility, and he so, so nearly won the Japanese Top Formula Championship.

The fateful career shift from Europe to Japan in 2015 will be the point where the legacy of Nick Cassidy is truly, truly established: He is one of the finest young racing drivers on the planet.

And now, the winner of the GT500 Driver of the Year Award…


1ST: NAOKI YAMAMOTO [山本 尚貴]

© GT Association
  • GT500 Drivers’ Championship: 1st Place (78 points)
  • Wins: 1 (Sugo)
  • Pole Positions: 1 (Sugo)
  • Podium Finishes: 4 (Okayama, Suzuka, Sugo, Motegi)
  • Japanese Super Formula Champion – 3 wins, 2 pole positions
  • Fourth Japanese “Double Champion” – First since 2004

nominated by Geinou

Naoki Yamamoto described his 2017 season as frustrating. Despite finishing as the best of the Honda drivers in the Super GT standings, he was frustrated to not win a race. He also spent the Super Formula season in the shadow of rookie teammate and future F1 prospect Pierre Gasly. Looking back at the year, he explained that he did a lot of mistakes out of frustration while trying to push for better results.

It was a winter of self-reflection. 2018 already started on a high note in his personal life, when he and his wife Eri Kano became parents of two healthy twins in February, and he carried all of the positive feeling in his personal life into his 2018 campaigns, with Team Kunimitsu in Super GT, and with Team Mugen in Super Formula.

In 2018, Yamamoto won his first Super GT title after nine seasons, helping to repay the man he considers his foster father, team principal Kunimitsu Takahashi – the man who hand-picked Yamamoto to jump right out of the National Class of All-Japan Formula 3 right into GT500, and who has trusted him as his lead driver for 7 of the last 9 years. Yamamoto, and his new co-driver Jenson Button, captured Team Kunimitsu’s first GT500 title after 25 years of trying.

His battles on track were astounding, with Nick Cassidy, with Koudai Tsukakoshi at Okayama – on a set of used Bridgestone tyres, no less – and with Tomoki Nojiri at Suzuka. He stood out above a proven World Champion in Button, who said after the season that his talents merit a place on a Formula 1 grid – and rightfully so. Even Honda’s F1 braintrust says they might consider it, under the right circumstances.

With just the Super GT title, Yamamoto would have had a successful season in a career of remarkable consistency and success. But in Super Formula, he won three races, two pole positions, and in the final race of the season, took his second series title – one that felt a whole lot better than the 2013 championship that, by his own admission, felt offputting with his main title rivals André Lotterer and Loïc Duval unable to battle him on track.

And in doing so, Yamamoto did something that hadn’t been done in 14 years, that had only been done by three other people: Championship titles in Super GT’s top class, and in Super Formula. The elusive “Double Championship.” After climbing out of the car at Motegi in the Grand Final, the tears, the emotion, overcame Yamamoto all at once. The feeling of everything that went into a historic season.

Naoki Yamamoto was already one of the best Japanese drivers around. He’s been validated by a World Championship-winning teammate and the racing world at large, thanks to his two titles in 2018. And for that, Naoki Yamamoto is Super GT World’s GT500 Driver of the Year.

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