2019 Super GT World Awards: GT500 Driver of the Year

Every year, the most oustanding GT500 driver in the Autobacs Super GT Series is honoured with the GT500 Driver of the Year Award, part of the 2019 Super GT World Awards.

We are honoured to announce the winner of the 2019 GT500 Driver of the Year.

Before revealing the finalists and the winner, it is important to establish that this year’s awards finalists were selected by a panel of five esteemed international Super GT journalists and enthusiasts who cover the sport with intense detail and attention.

The panelists are as follows:

The panelists

R.J. O’Connell – Founder and editor-in-chief of Super GT World, Japanese contributor at DailySportsCar

Jens “Geinou” – Japanese motorsport writer at RacingBlog.de

Pierre-Laurent Ribault – Writer and photographer of LeBlogAuto

Alex Sinclair – Former NFL writer for SB Nation and Super GT super fan

Esteban Garcia – Contributor to MotorBox Radio Network

The voting process

After reaching out to these dedicated Super GT journalists, we first took turns exchanging a handful of candidates who would be deemed worthy of nomination in each category – and after all selections were received, I was responsible for selecting eight finalists who would proceed to the next phase.

After the finalists were selected, the panel was asked to rank the finalists in each category. Most selected only their top three, others selected their top five or ranked all eight. With these second-round votes, points are distributed based on the Major League Baseball Most Valuable Player voting system:

1st Place – 14 points
2nd Place – 9 points
3rd Place – 8 points
4th Place – 7 points
5th Place – 6 points
6th Place – 5 points
7th Place – 4 points
8th Place – 3 points
9th Place – 2 points
10th Place – 1 point

I must implore the reader to understand that because a driver was not selected as a finalist is in no way indicative that they are not of a high standard. And ultimately, we are thinking of how to bring more people on board and streamline the voting process for 2020.

Let’s first consider a few drivers who were unlucky to have made the cut for finalists but truly could have been credible inclusions in the list all the same.

Yuji Tachikawa and Hiroaki Ishiura won the Fuji 500 Miles, of course, and Tachikawa did so as a manager/driver for the first time this year. Kazuki Nakajima, as you all may know already, won the 24 Hours of Le Mans again and even became the first Japanese world champion of motorsport.

To say nothing of fellow Lexus/Toyota standouts like Heikki Kovalainen and Sho Tsuboi, who were also very, very good.

Nissan struggled for relevance for most of 2019, but the contributions of veteran Tsugio Matsuda cannot be ignored, nor can the contributions of newcomer Frédéric Makowiecki.

And when it came to Honda, Naoki Yamamoto, last year’s Driver of the Year, just narrowly missed the cut despite a number of heroic drives – so too did Bertrand Baguette, impressing mightily in his first year with Keihin Real Racing.

The truth is that to even make it to GT500 requires supreme skill. It is a category that is as professional and high-quality as the premier classes of WEC or IMSA, as high-quality as its sister series the DTM. To be recognized as one of the eight best, one has to be extraordinary at a level beyond the normal excellence.

And now, the finalists for GT500 Driver of the Year.

© Real Racing

8th Place: Koudai Tsukakoshi

4 points

When putting together this list, we wanted to ensure one driver from all three manufacturers got in as finalists. If someone had told me in 2018 that in 2019, Honda would have just one finalist and that it wasn’t the reigning GT500 Driver of the Year Naoki Yamamoto, it would seem hard to believe.

And if that driver wasn’t Yamamoto, after the first race of 2019, it sure wasn’t looking like it would be Koudai Tsukakoshi, after hitting Yamamoto in a heated battle for the lead that ultimately turned into a win for ARTA after a post-race time penalty.

The 2019 season was one where the 33-year-old Tsukakoshi was trying to race to keep his place in Honda’s GT500 fleet after over a decade with the manufacturer. Under those circumstances, Tsukakoshi rose to the occasion and fought back from the self-made adversity of 2019’s season opener to end the year as Honda’s most consistent driver on a weekend-to-weekend basis.

Tsukakoshi led a fight back from a spin at the Fuji 500km to finish 5th and get the season back on track. Or so it seemed, until Suzuka, when Tsukakoshi crashed out of the last corner. Then came a puncture at Buriram. Then in qualifying for the Fuji 500 Miles, Tsukakoshi suffered a brake failure and a high-speed wipeout at the end of the front straight. Halfway through the season, the season was completely unraveling.

That’s when Koudai Tsukakoshi dug deep and decided that he’d had enough, leading himself and co-driver Bertrand Baguette to go from 15th and last on the grid to finish 8th at Fuji. Then he followed that up with back-to-back pole positions at Autopolis and Sugo. These were races that were affected by rain and Safety Cars. Tsukakoshi did all he could to win from pole at Autopolis, but three Safety Cars at the worst time meant that they could only finish 2nd.

At Sugo, the choice to start on slicks backfired massively, and it cost them points. At Motegi, Tsukakoshi finished 5th ahead of Yamamoto, best of the Hondas, a victory for bragging rights between the two Honda aces, and continued his resurgent second half into a podium finish in the first Super GT x DTM Dream Race at Fuji.

The resiliency to come back into form after a first-half slump alone was impressive, but once Koudai Tsukakoshi rounded back into form, he was Honda’s best driver on a race-to-race basis.

-R.J.


7th Place: Ronnie Quintarelli

8 points, 1 third-place vote

In 2019, Ronnie Quintarelli put together an absolutely stellar season despite not taking a race victory at NISMO for the first time in five years.

He took three pole positions, the first at Okayama, the second and third in the two races at Fuji Speedway, to move into second on the all-time GT500 pole winners’ list behind Yuji Tachikawa and his unassailable record of 23.

Quintarelli and Tachikawa fought it out for the overall victory in May during the Fuji 500km, and despite Quintarelli’s best efforts to get out ahead, lost out in the duel to Tachikawa. Then came the Fuji 500 Miles in August, Quintarelli had started from pole, and he alongside Tsugio Matsuda led a whopping 81 laps until, ironically, one of their fellow Nissans triggered the pivotal safety car – and the pivotal call to the pit lane – that turned the race out of their favour, though they still bagged a podium finish.

Adding further insult to injury, the Safety Car lottery bit them again the very next race at Autopolis and trapped them a lap down – but at Sugo there was a breakthrough, a podium finish in the final laps – where the tone was set by a fine start from Quintarelli who avoided the chaos in front of him.

Any one of the four podiums that Quintarelli scored in 2019, even the rain-shortened 2nd place finish at Okayama, could have flipped into a victory – in particular, the Fuji 500 Miles seemed a race that if not for that Safety Car, would have been his and Matsuda’s to win.

Third place in the championship ranking is a positive overall result for us, but also this year we have been not strong enough to challenge the title.

Sorry to our fans.

-Ronnie Quintarelli

Quintarelli’s season may have seemed a disappointment from the perspective of not winning another race or not adding a fifth GT500 title to his mantle, yes, but considering how deep the Nissan camp’s struggles ran for most of the last three seasons, and this year in particular, it was something of a miracle that Matsuda and Quintarelli were able to consistently get on the podium as often as they did – and this year Quintarelli was the star performer of the NISMO duo, at least in the context of Super GT.

Ronnie Quintarelli’s legacy is already secure, of course, but he’ll be motivated to improve in 2020 and show that even as he nears the sunset of his brilliant career that he still has at least one more title run left in him in GT500.

-R.J.


6th Place: Kohei Hirate

9 points

Kohei Hirate’s recent time in Super GT could be described as a wild rollercoaster ride.

Following his second GT500 title in 2016, Hirate faced a difficult 2017 littered with incidents including some involving his own Lexus stablemates, which ended up costing him his premier class cockpit at Lexus. Thus, Hirate was moved down to GT300, landing a top drive with apr Racing and finishing third in the Drivers’ Championship in the mid-engined Prius GT’s last tour of duty. But Hirate’s goal was bigger though: He wanted to get back into GT500.

With no opportunities available at Lexus, Hirate knocked on Nissan’s doors in Yokohama. After a successful shootout at Fuji Speedway, he made the switch to Nissan official – an almost unheard of decision nowadays for a driver – especially a Japanese driver who’d been driving for Toyota since he literally stepped up from karting – to switch camps.

Adding more pressure on Hirate was the task of being selected to drive for a completely revamped NDDP Racing with B-Max and replacing the legendary Satoshi Motoyama, and some Toyota supporters weren’t too happy with Hirate’s decision. Would he buckle as he did in 2017, or, would he excel as he did when he won two titles in 2013 and 2016?

The year started well enough in fact, 4th at Okayama, 6th in the Fuji 500km in a race where they threatened to crash the podium, 9th at Suzuka having come back from a ten-second stop/go penalty, and 6th at Buriram. At the Fuji 500 Miles, they were running with the lead pack before that Safety Car intervention, and then suffered a mechanical breakdown thereafter.

In treacherous conditions at Sportsland Sugo, Hirate made the right tyre call, was responsible for the team’s overall strategy and handed the wheel to his team-mate Makowiecki – a Michelin tyre specialist and adept in conditions like the ones at Sugo – in perfect position to finish the job for Nissan’s sole victory of the season.

Before the start, we had to decide whether to go with slick or wet tires, and since I know a lot about Sugo, I was able to suggest that we go with the wet tires, and that is what the team decided to do.

– Kohei Hirate

It is a shame that Hirate’s championship season effectively ended with a DNS at Motegi, and was a non-factor during the Dream Race weekend. He came to Nissan seen in the eyes of less scrupulous Super GT supporters as damaged goods from Toyota. He ended the year bringing leadership and confidence to a camp that desperately needed it, in line with the Kohei Hirate who won those two titles before the age of 30, in line with the one-time Formula 1 aspirant whose dream was cut short after a difficult 2007 Formula 2 campaign.

It’s why he was reported to jump to NISMO’s flagship team in 2020, but, given another season like this, Nissan may have found their ace of the future.

-Jens


5th Place: Kazuya Oshima

12 points

While the Super GT World Awards honour the most outstanding individuals, Super GT is a team sport. In order to win the championship, it takes two drivers who are complementing each other.

And while 2019 saw the spotlight shone bright upon Kenta Yamashita, it would be downright unfair to neglect Kazuya Oshima’s part in the team’s 2019 run to the GT500 Drivers’ Championship. According to team director Juichi Wakisaka, it was Oshima, a veteran of over 100 races at just 32 years old, who was working on the set-ups, making suggestions and further developing the car throughout the year.

I am relieved to finally get the title as this is my 11th year in the GT500 class. There were tough years with not being able to get a good result, but even in those days, the team, engineers, director, and all the mechanics believed in me, so now I feel I repayed an obligation to them.

-Kazuya Oshima

Oshima’s input with the setups was definitely something learned from his mentor, the late Kenji Yamada, his engineer throughout most of his time in Japan and even his brief excursion into Europe until Yamada passed away on 22 April, 2018.

In those tough years with Team LeMans, Oshima was always quick, ready to make good on the potential that he showed when he won the GT300 and All-Japan Formula 3 Championships – the “Junior Double Championship” – as a 20-year-old in 2007. Ready to make good on the potential he showed as he was standing on the top step of a Formula 3 Euro Series podium with the late, great Jules Bianchi in 2008.

He openly wept when he broke Team LeMans’ nine-year winless drought in 2012, and it had to feel just as good to end another lengthy winless drought in Buriram this July, and double up at the Fuji 500 Miles from seemingly nowhere.

At Motegi, Oshima struggling with the tyre pressure at first, losing some track positions in the opening laps. Oshima fought back though, driving to the front again before handing the baton to his team-mate Kenta Yamashita, who was able to finish the job after Oshima laid the groundwork for a championship-clinching drive to 2nd place.

After 11 seasons of trying, including heartbreaking near misses in 2016 and 2017, Oshima finally won his first title in GT500 after a year where he got to show his talent both on as well as off the track. Becoming the reflection of his team boss Wakisaka in his later years and seeing Team LeMans, a team that was in turmoil behind the scenes, to the promised land at last.

-Jens


4th Place: Ryo Hirakawa

14 points, 1 third-place vote

For the elation that Team LeMans felt when they won the championship, the contrast was Ryo Hirakawa, helmet over head, slumped against the pit wall tearfully at the end of a Motegi Grand Final where he’d driven a picture-perfect race, winning for the second time at Motegi in five years, and it just wasn’t enough to wrap up the title.

Was this an indictment of Hirakawa losing a step? Of course not – he still drove with the same flat-out approach that won him the title in 2017 with Nick Cassidy, and nearly won the title again last year – just as they did this year.

Where Hirakawa really shined through was in his races where the ballast was at its highest, at the Fuji 500 Miles, and particularly at Autopolis. Hirakawa’s two stints at Fuji went a long way towards helping him and Cassidy come up from 14th and a lap down to finish 4th.

And then came Autopolis and, in particular, an incredible final-lap dash on slick tyres on a rapidly-drying track. Coming into the final lap, Hirakawa was seventh. With incredible tenacity, Hirakawa passed four cars in just over a lap to go from 7th to 3rd, all while on heavy success ballast. It was a sprint that had everyone at Lexus Team KeePer TOM’s on their feet in applause, as Cassidy high-fived all of his mechanics.

Six straight top-five finishes to end the 2019 season, with the piece du resistance coming with a commanding victory at Motegi, where Hirakawa drove away to victory by 12 seconds in the closing stint. Perhaps in any other circumstance, it would have been enough to win the title, but alas, it wasn’t to be.

It’s good about winning our first victory this season, but it is shocking about missing the championship.

-Ryo Hirakawa

Hirakawa’s 2019 campaign also saw him put on a great show in the DTM finale at Hockenheimring as a wildcard entrant, and winning his first Super Formula race was also a major milestone for him this year.

All this, two second-place finishes in the championship after winning the title at 23 years old in 2017, and he only turns 26 in March. Hirakawa is becoming the ace driver that Toyota envisioned when he was a teenager, and perhaps, his talents warrant another chance on the world championship stage as well.

-R.J.


3rd Place: Yuhi Sekiguchi

30 points, 1 first-place vote, 1 second-place vote

In 2016, Yuhi Sekiguchi was Super GT World’s inaugural winner of the GT500 Driver of the Year. When he was on his game that year, nobody was more valuable to his team than he was at Racing Project Bandoh, in particular, when he drove from pole to his first career victory.

How have things gone for Sekiguchi since joining TOM’s in 2018? Well, they’ve gone quite alright. And that was especially the case in 2019.

Kazuki Nakajima, his more experienced co-driver, is the star of the show – as his world-class talents demonstrate in the FIA World Endurance Championship, Nakajima is a worthy two-time Le Mans 24 Hours champion. But just in the context of Super GT? Sekiguchi was a half-step to a full-step more dynamic than Nakajima, and made the case in 2019 to be a bona fide Driver of the Year contender.

Sekiguchi did the job on Saturday when qualifying for the Suzuka 300km, and faced a tough closing stint on race day – but after a challenge from Oshima, Sekiguchi was able to hold onto the top spot and claim the victory. He would also add another pole position in the season finale at Twin Ring Motegi.

As there was distance between the competitors, I knew I wouldn’t be overtaken, and everything went well as I expected. Personally I am satisfied to achieve this excellent result with the outcome of my previous experience.

-Yuhi Sekiguchi

He was also quite unlucky to come out on the wrong end of a number of on-track battles. Not just the one everyone remembers – the incredible pass through the gravel at Motegi – but the one that seems forgotten over time, the battle between Sekiguchi and Cassidy at Buriram which saw Cassidy muscle past and Sekiguchi launch off a sausage kerb, tear up the floor of the au TOM’s LC500, and drop down from a sure podium to the back end of the points.

Sekiguchi was helpless to watch Nakajima come into contact with a GT300 car and lose out on a potential podium finish at the Fuji 500 Miles, which absolutely crippled their chances of competing for the title – top it all off, they had a stop/go penalty for an unauthorized engine change at Sugo to try and dig out of, a deficit too great to overcome – one that was perhaps spurned by a mechanical retirement at the Fuji 500 Miles

The story of 2019 will be one where Yuhi Sekiguchi can look back and know that he was absolutely driving in championship form, but time and time again, bad luck came back to haunt him.

But when things went his way as they did at Suzuka, the more tempered, refined Yuhi Sekiguchi – who is still one of the most ruthless competitors in all of Super GT with those refinements – is a champion-caliber driver, who will be in the discussion for 2020 title favourites with whomever his teammate is next season.

-R.J.


2nd Place: Nick Cassidy

48 points, 1 first-place vote, 2 second-place votes, 2 third-place votes

If you know who the runner-up is, there’s a good chance you know who the winner is too, but let’s talk about the year Nick Cassidy had in 2019.

Fighting for victories in Super GT is not an easy task. Fighting for the championship once is even more difficult. And in this ultra-competitive championship, fighting for the title three years in a row seems almost impossible. And yet it is something that 2017 champion Nick Cassidy was able to do, coming just two points away from becoming the fifth Japanese Double Champion in the end.

In 2019, Cassidy scored four podium positions – Suzuka, Buriram, Autopolis, as well as victory at the Motegi finale. It was in the late spring and early summer where Cassidy’s unrelenting style came to the fore. At Suzuka, with second place on the line, Cassidy made one brave pass on Oshima to take the position. Oshima took the place back, then in heavy traffic in the narrow S-Curves, Cassidy dashed past Oshima, this time for good, with 4 to go.

Cass didn’t back down from the fight that Yuhi Sekiguchi brought him for 2nd place at Buriram, when he muscled his way past and left Sekiguchi with nowhere else to go but off a sausage kerb and down the order. It was a declarative statement: The fiery Kiwi, whose passion really unites everyone at TOM’s to get behind him, was now asserting himself as the alpha dog of the GT500 grid.

It was like seeing André Lotterer emerge from intriguing contender to genuine superstar once upon a time at the very same TOM’s team.

Cassidy then went on to scrap with his great friend and rival, Kenta Yamashita, for the win and ultimately took second place.

The KeePer TOM’s LC500 was fighting with heavy success ballast all year long. Despite all of this, the 25-year-old Kiwi managed to grab P3 at Autpolis with a whopping 88 kilograms of additional Success Ballast, thanks to Hirakawa’s last-lap heroics, and at the Fuji 500 Miles, Cassidy led a charge from 14th to 4th.

He’d later claim that the Autopolis race was most likely his best race all year long, especially since the odds were against them, being the heaviest car on the grid with a Stage 3 fuel-flow limiter. But he also looks back at the Fuji 500 Miles as the one race that turned the title out of his favour, and he firmly believes that the mid-race Safety Car intervention cost him the title when all was said and done.

From round three onwards we finished every race in the top four. We had a lot of podiums these last races, catching the gap, even in the changing weather. We beat [the #6 car] in six out of eight races, which says it all really.

– Nick Cassidy

Even though he missed his second GT500 title by just 2 points, Cassidy described 2019 as his year yet, not only winning the Super Formula championship, but also by writing himself into the history books as the winner of the first ever Dream Race between Super GT and DTM, from pole position, in dominant fashion.

Five years ago, with his fortunes seemingly running out in Europe, Nick Cassidy made a move that has now changed his entire life by coming to Japan and racing with TOM’s. He no longer needs to chase Formula 1, rather, F1 needs to pursue him, in a sense. Of course, he’s happy to define his own unique legacy in Japan, and at 25 years old, Cassidy has all the time in the world to write even more incredible chapters in his racing life.

-Jens


GT500 Driver of the Year: Kenta Yamashita

60 points, 3 first-place votes, 2 second-place votes

Like a phoenix rising from the ashes: After a difficult and tragic 2018 season, Team LeMans not only ended their five-year winless drought this season, they also won their first championship since 2002.

There was one driver in particular who finally had the chance to shine and show his talent, in a year that might be shaping the future of his career. After a one-off in 2017, 24-year-old Kenta Yamashita celebrated his long-awaited full-time GT500 debut in 2018, scoring two podiums in his debut premier class campaign with Team Bandoh.

Just one year later, Yamashita was now at Team LeMans, and he not only scored two victories, but secured the drivers’ championship in the defining moment of his young career – bigger even than the 2016 Macau Grand Prix drive that put his name on the same level as the young stars of his generation, including the driver he succeeded, IndyCar Rookie of the Year Felix Rosenqvist.

This was of course the season finale at Motegi. Yamashita ran third and knew that he had to get past the au TOM’s LC500 of Yuhi Sekiguchi if he wanted to win the title, as their rivals Hirakawa and Cassidy were leading the race and could have won the championship with a victory. What followed was one the best battles in recent years.

A hard but always fair fight that saw both Lexus LC500 go through multiple corners side-by-side as well as cutting through the dirt in the final corner. In the end it was Kenta Yamashita who stood tall, not giving in to the stern defense of Sekiguchi.

“We were both flat out and side-by-side, and it was a big shock when we touched. I turned the steering wheel left, but I went straight on with the momentum. It was a little aggressive, it’s not uncommon for two cars to go round the last corner together, but the championship was on the line, so I didn’t intend to back down.”

“I think if I didn’t get past there, I might not have got past and I wouldn’t have been champion.”

-Kenta Yamashita

Granted, the lucky break at the Fuji 500 Miles round in August might’ve given the team the points advantage they needed in the end, but to say Yamashita’s successes were all the result of one fortuitous bounce would do the young man a total disservice.

After all, prior to that round, Yamashita had to fend off the best attack that Cassidy could throw his way at Chang International Circuit to seal the first win for Team LeMans since November 2013, and his first premier class victory with it. At Suzuka, he ran comfortably with the lead pack in his opening stint.

And at Autopolis with maximum ballast, Yamashita held onto sixth place, and he again took sixth at Sugo with a brilliant overtake on Yuichi Nakayama in the closing laps of the race.

It was that one overtake at Motegi that ultimately decided the championship, but the story of Kenta Yamashita’s ascent to the top of the GT500 world was more than just that one moment.

Toyota Gazoo Racing had already taken note of this. Already part of their WEC Challenge Program and competing in the LMP2 class, Yamashita got the opportunity to test the current-gen Toyota TS050 Hybrid in preparation for a potential full-time drive in the new Le Mans Hypercar class with the factory team in the GR Super Sport Concept. He impressed with flying colours.

It’s almost a guarantee that Kenta Yamashita won’t be defending his GT500 title next season. Instead, he’s set to follow the footsteps of Kazuki Nakajima in WEC, climbing the ladder from LMP2 to LMH.

An opportunity that his skills have deserved for years. Toyota found the next Japanese racing superstar when they picked him for the Toyota Young Driver Programme in 2014. He had to come a close second to his friend Cassidy in 2015 and Formula 2 star Nobuharu Matsushita the year before, then finally became All-Japan Formula Three Champion – and this year he just won his first Super Formula race and now stands as a GT500 Drivers’ Champion.

Super GT’s loss for 2020 will be the World Endurance Championship’s gain, and it perhaps won’t be too long before we’ll revel in Kenta Yamashita becoming a champion of the fabled Grand Prix d’Endurance in Le Mans.

-Jens

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