2019 Super GT World Awards: Panel Selected Awards

Every year, Super GT World honours the finest individuals in the Autobacs Super GT Series with the annual Super GT World Awards.

This entry in Super GT World contains the winners of four of the panel-selected awards categories for 2019: The Clubman Driver of the Year Award, the International Driver of the Year Award, the Manager of the Year Award, and, the Shingo Tachi Memorial Award for the Rookie of the Year.

Our panel-selected awards finalists were nominated by a small but dedicated panel of Super GT journalists who cover the sport both as a passion and in some cases as a profession, which are listed below:

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 – Alumnus of SB Nation, Contributor to Reddit Sports Car Racing Community and Endurance Chat podcast

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” (six in the case of the Clubman Driver of the Year category) 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 or individual was not selected as a finalist is in no way indicative that they are not of a high standard, certainly not in two ultra-competitive classes like GT500 and GT300 where competitive balance measures are aggressively meted out. And ultimately, we are thinking of how to bring more people on board and streamline the voting process for 2020.

With that said, here are the results of four of our panel-selected categories in the 2019 Super GT World Awards.


CLUBMAN DRIVER OF THE YEAR

The Clubman Driver of the Year (formerly Gentleman Driver of the Year) is awarded to the most outstanding non-professional GT300 driver of the past season.

Drivers are graded in this category based on their driving standards, rewarding consistent finishing results and top-ten finishes in races. Drivers are also graded based on their contributions to the series as gentleman/clubman drivers on and off-track.

Any drivers who are classified Bronze or Silver by the FIA Driver Categorisation System as of 2019 (or graded as a “Gentleman” driver by the Super Taikyu Organisation’s driver classification system), with no prior professional-level racing experience (i.e. GT500, Japanese Top Formula, F1) are automatically eligible. Silver drivers must be above the age of 30 to qualify, and then further subjective judgment is made on the driver’s amateur status before they are able to proceed for consideration.

For example, though Saitama Toyopet GreenBrave driver Shigekazu Wakisaka is classified Bronze by the FIA Driver Categorisation system, his past record of racing for multiple seasons in Japanese Top Formula and GT500 would render him ineligible for the award.

6th Place: Hiroaki Nagai (24pts) – Quick all year in the #30 Prius despite his gentleman driver credentials, at times prone to pushing too hard, but still a credible amateur.

5th Place: Marchy Lee (25 pts) – The only silver driver in the ballot, owner/driver Lee’s opening stint at Buriram set the table for his best-ever Super GT result in 6th.

4th Place: Masaki Tanaka (28pts) – If for no other reason but a consistent, mistake-free campaign and for leading the first race of the GT300 Sprint Cup – which in itself was incredible for the 53-year-old sportsman racer!

3rd Place: Masaki Kano (30pts, 1 first-place vote) – Another solid campaign for the 2018 award winner, at times outperforming his much younger co-drivers in the same car on pace and composure!

2nd Place: Yusaku Shibata (31pts, 1 first-place vote) – Shibata is a gymkhana legend and well-established in tuner car culture, but as a circuit racer is still considered an amateur. He might be the fastest bronze driver in any form of GT racing though, he was genuinely matching the pace of out-and-out professionals during his races, and led Tomei Sports to their first top-ten Super GT finish in nearly 25 years at Motegi.

And the winner is…!

Kazuho Takahashi

48 points, received 3 first-place votes

A sentimental pick for the panel given his retirement at season’s end, but truth be told, a gentleman driver’s worth to a series is sometimes more than just his outright speed.

At one point, Takahashi was the number one gentleman racer in GT300, and he drove genuinely well this year at Sportsland Sugo in wet conditions, and held his own when asked to drive in the Fuji 500 Miles, en route to Cars Tokai Dream28’s best finish of the year.

That he’s found the will and the motivation to keep racing into his mid-60’s – he turned 66 this year, mind you! – is a testament to the dedication that Takahashi has for racing, all while continuing to be a shrewd and dedicated owner of VT Holdings, one of the largest car dealership networks in Japan. With Takahashi staying as Team Director of Cars Tokai Dream28 for 2020, Super GT will be all the better that he’ll still have a presence for the years to come – and in the lower categories, he’s still intent on racing.


INTERNATIONAL DRIVER OF THE YEAR

The International Driver of the Year Award is given to the most outstanding non-Japanese driver across both GT500 and GT300 classes in the previous season.

Drivers are graded based on their performance relative to the strength of their respective teams and how well they represented their respective countries as an ambassador for Super GT.

8th Place: Jann Mardenborough (4pts) – Jann the Man was only able to muster a single top-five finish – but if not for the safety car intervention at Autopolis, it could have been a podium or even a race win for the Welshman.

7th Place: Heikki Kovalainen (5pts) Quietly, the 2016 GT500 Champion had another solid year, his fourth straight season with a race win, and four top-fives in total to net him and new teammate Yuichi Nakayama 5th in the standings – a testament to Heikki-san’s renewed focus at a critical juncture of his racing career.

6th Place: Narain Karthikeyan (10pts) – The highlight of Narain’s 2019 season by far was the masterful victory in the second Super GT x DTM Dream Race, against a world-class field and with no prior expectations of victory, the Indian trailblazer signed off from his time in Japan in storybook fashion.

5th Place: Álex Palou (15pts) – IndyCar-bound Palou brought attention from his native Spain just as his countryman Pedro de la Rosa did, competing for Super Formula and GT300 Rookie of the Year honours. In Super GT, Palou scored a podium at Autopolis, and finished the year with pole position at Motegi.

4th Place: Frédéric Makowiecki (23pts) – Makowiecki had the CraftSports Motul GT-R back in contention for victories upon arrival and sealed off a solid campaign with a win in the driving rain at Sugo. It’s no wonder Porsche asked to have Makowiecki back in IMSA full-time in 2020 – after all, his talents are world-class in any arena.

3rd Place: Sacha Fenestraz (31pts) Not only did Fenestraz have a solid rookie campaign with seven top-ten finishes and a podium in GT300, not only did he win the All-Japan Formula Three Championship in masterful fashion, he also brought in a massive influx of attention from Argentina, where the Frenchman was raised.

2nd Place: Ronnie Quintarelli (35pts) – Quintarelli’s dazzling 2019 season saw him take three pole positions and come oh so close to a win on a number of occasions from both Fuji rounds to Autopolis. In nearly any other year, especially given Nissan’s struggles on the whole, he’d be the odds-on International Driver of the Year.

And the winner – by unanimous decision…!

Nick Cassidy

70 points, received all 5 first-place votes

It really couldn’t have been anyone but Nick Cassidy that stood out as the International Driver of the Year in Super GT.

He’s become more brash, more tenacious, and more and more confident as the years have gone on since his Japanese debut in 2015 and his GT500 debut in 2016. He’d be the easy heir-apparent to his TOM’s predecessors like Lotterer and Duval before him if an easy pathway to the premier class at Le Mans was available. For now, he’s happy to make his home racing in Japan.

And what a year it was, not only the Super Formula Championship crown, but a near-flawless season where his only misstep was a spin in the rain-shortened Okayama round. Otherwise, with four podiums and a victory, and just two points off the title for the second straight year, Cassidy was by far the series’ best non-Japanese driver once again. New Zealand’s motor racing landscape has genuine superstars like Van Gisbergen, Hartley, McLaughlin, and Evans – it’s high time Cassidy is recognized on equal footing with them all.


MANAGER OF THE YEAR

The Manager of the Year (formerly Team Director of the Year) is given to the most outstanding person in a directorial capacity across both GT500 and GT300 classes. Individuals in the Team Director, General Manager, Executive Advisor, or Chief Engineer positions are eligible for consideration.

Leaders are graded based on their overall contributions to the team’s success, whether it is continuing a consistent track record of success, or overseeing a major improvement from one year into the next.

8th Place: Isao Noritake (5pts) – Team JLOC’s ever-present leader led his #87 team to victory in the Fuji 500 Miles with a brilliant strategic ploy, the #88 car racked up two podiums and two more top-5s, and both cars finished in the Top 8 in the GT300 Championships.

7th Place: Hiroshi Aoyama (9pts) – The General Manager at Saitama Toyopet GreenBrave has successfully seen his team rise from curious newcomers to the best team with a JAF-GT300/MC car on the grid, with two podiums and a pole position – all with a team staffed entirely by service mechanics and two journeyman drivers who enjoyed the best years of their careers.

6th Place: Daisuke Ito (17pts, 1 first-place vote) Two sickening DNFs at Fuji and some more bad beats throughout the year prevented Daisuke Ito’s number 36 TOM’s crew from title contentions, but his team was on song at Suzuka and he’s done quite well in his first three seasons as a manager.

5th Place: Masahiko Kondo (20pts) – While GT500 bore little success for Matchy but a single top-five finish, it was the GT300 side of things – in conjunction with the student and service mechanics of the Nissan Mechanic Challenge – that put Kondo’s leadership in the spotlight, as they competed for the title almost all the way through to the end.

3rd Place (tie): Toshikazu Tanaka and Jun Yamada (23 pts, received equal second, third, and fifth-place votes) – Two managers tied for third, in different ways.

Tanaka was tasked with succeeding the legendary Masahiro Hasemi at NDDP Racing with B-Max, who’d had a wretched 2018. Under his leadership, the team improved rapidly out of the box and even won Nissan’s only GT500 race of the year!

Yamada took over the Team Director role as Masanori Sekiya was given a higher-ranking spot at TOM’s, picking right up where the 37 team left off under Sekiya’s stewardship with another close championship fight and a win at Motegi.

2nd Place: Aguri Suzuki (31pts) – After years of near-misses with the GT300 crown, Aguri Suzuki and the Autobacs Racing Team Aguri (ARTA) squad finally enjoyed a consistent and prolific season to wrap up the GT300 Championships for Honda. They’d also taken Honda’s only GT500 victory, promoted to first at Okayama after a post-race penalty for Keihin Real Racing.

And the winner is…!

Juichi Wakisaka

65 points, received 4 first-place votes

When Juichi Wakisaka retired from racing, he immediately was tasked with becoming the new leader at Team LeMans – who at that point hadn’t won a championship since he was their ace driver in 2002.

They were also coming off a fraught 2018 that saw just a single podium finish, rookie Felix Rosenqvist bolt to IndyCar, and the sudden passing of chief engineer Kazuya Abe. Out of those circumstances, Wakisaka, the fiery, flambouyant principal who will always express his emotions from the pit wall – especially on camera during a race – would not let his team falter.

Amidst those circumstances, amidst a crumbling relationship between Toyota and Team LeMans’ ownership, Wakisaka led his team out of a five-year winless drought at Buriram, he made the controversial yet gutsy strategy call to win them the Fuji 500 Miles, and under his leadership, Team LeMans were now champions again in 2019. Where he goes next isn’t certain, but what is sure is this: Becoming a championship-winning team director after a hall-of-fame driving career has further cemented Wakisaka’s place among the all-time Super GT greats, perhaps one of the greatest of all time in any era of professional racing in Japan.


SHINGO TACHI MEMORIAL AWARD – ROOKIE OF THE YEAR

The Shingo Tachi Memorial Award is given to the most outstanding rookie driver of the past season across both GT500 and GT300 classes.

The award is named in honour of the late Shingo Tachi, who recorded an all-time record five race victories in 1998 en route to the GT300 Drivers’ Championship alongside Keiichi Suzuki, before his tragic passing in a testing accident on 11 March, 1999.

To be eligible for consideration, a driver must have taken part in no more than three championship race weekends prior to the start of the most recent Super GT season. Drivers who have previously participated in other sports car racing championships, or single-seater championships up to the Formula One World Championship, are still considered eligible because of the unique challenges that multi-class sports car racing in Super GT may present.

8th Place: Shinya Sean Michimi (4pts) – The Japanese-American driver was exceptional in his five races at X Works Racing, during which time he recorded a 7th on debut at the Fuji 500 Kilometers, and finished the year with a 6th in Sugo and an 8th in Motegi. He’ll race in IMSA’s Endurance Cup next year and it’s a shame that we can only wonder what he could potentially accomplish with a full season under his belt for at least another year in sports cars.

7th: Togo Suganami (12pts) – Appointed out of the FIA Formula 4 Championship to take over for K2 R&D LEON Racing’s Haruki Kurosawa with three races left in the season, Suganami demonstrated incredible ability right out of the box, with a 7th in Autopolis, a narrow miss on a debut podium at Sugo in 4th, and an even narrower miss with a first career victory in Motegi, finishing 2nd after the LEON AMG ran out of fuel on the last lap. Because he competed in no more than three weekends this year, Suganami retains his Rookie of the Year eligibility for 2020, where he’s expected to be a favourite.

6th: Shawn Thong (13pts) – Shawn Thong has demonstrated over a number of years why he is Hong Kong’s best young sports car driver, and he and X Works Racing demonstrated why in their debut years. Thong was the workhorse leader at the wheel of the X Works EVA GT-R all season long, getting them into Q2 in all eight races, scoring four top-ten finishes including a charge through the pack to secure a season-high 6th at Buriram (matched at Sugo). Easily the most impressive debut season for a non-Japanese team and driver in modern Super GT memory.

5th: Tadasuke Makino (16pts) – Because Makino’s four starts took place over three race meetings in 2016, he still retains Rookie of the Year eligibility for 2019 after two years racing in europe. The high point of a workmanlike season at Nakajima Racing was at Sugo, where Makino was in form all weekend and put some spectacular moves on established champions like Hirakawa and Matsuda to take his second career podium in 2nd – matching his career best. That was off the back of another great wet run at Autopolis, finishing 7th, and with six top-ten finishes, Makino’s first full season in GT500 springboards him into being a driver to watch at Team Kunimitsu for 2020.

4th: Sena Sakaguchi (27pts) – Being declared the winner of the rain-shortened Okayama round gave Sena Sakaguchi an acclaim: The first rookie GT300 class winner to win on debut in over 15 years. He then followed that up with another victory at Suzuka, two wins in just three starts for the ex-Honda junior and one at the home track of his former employers. He nearly took the honours of being a rookie champion with a strong finish – in particular it was his charge from 5th to 3rd in the last laps at Sugo that really kept him and co-driver Morio Nitta – 32 years his elder – competing for the title to the very end of the season.

3rd: Álex Palou (29pts) – Palou’s two top-ten finishes and one pole position have to be graded on a curve in the context of his GT300 campaign – his prowess in Super Formula was already well established – as McLaren Customer Racing Japan struggled with BoP deficits most of the year. Palou was still determined as hell to drag the pink and black 720S to the front, with impressive drives at the Fuji 500km, at Sugo when he went from 28th to 12th, the pole run at Motegi to end the year, and of course, that second-place finish where it looked for the longest time that he could have put Kazumichi Goh’s team back on the top step of a Super GT podium for the first time since 1996.

2nd: Sacha Fenestraz (36pts, 1 first-place vote) – His run to the title in the All-Japan Formula Three Championship was expected and excellent, but in the context of Fenestraz’ GT300 racing debut, he was even better than advertised. Seven top-ten finishes, but the finest of them all was his brilliant opening stint in the Buriram round that put him within touch of the victory until the final half of a lap of the race. He brought credibility and exposure to the Kondo Racing team in their first year as a GT300 outfit, as they competed for the title all the way to the time trials of the last round. Perhaps, Renault Sport will regret relinquishing him from their academy after just one season as he’s tipped to drive in the premier class in 2020.

And the winner is…!

Nirei Fukuzumi

56 points, received 4 first-place votes

Just as last year when Jenson Button became champion on his debut year, Nirei Fukuzumi has done the same and has thus become the winner of the 2019 Shingo Tachi Memorial Award – though, there really is more to it than just that.

Getting the call to take the ARTA NSX GT3 to pole in its first race meeting at Okayama. Hanging tough with the leaders during his middle stint at Fuji, his first ever race stint in a GT300 car. A peerless drive at Sugo to wrap up the victory in the wet with Nobuteru Taniguchi breathing down his neck. And sealing it with a fourth-place finish, and scoring points in every race for ARTA as they led the championship for most of the year all the way to the last round.

Fukuzumi was placed in a position to succeed after a haphazard 2018 season split between Japan and Europe. He made the most of that and it’s no wonder now why ARTA will be bringing him up to the premier class next year.

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