Super GT season preview: Can Button defend his crown?

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Super GT season preview: Can Button defend his crown?
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Apr 10, 2019, 7:00 AM

The 2019 Super GT season kicks off this weekend at Okayama. Can Jenson Button and Honda repeat their 2018 glory and take back-to-back titles? Or will rival marques Nissan and Lexus strike back?

Button spent much of last year downplaying the results he achieved, preferring to attribute his success to his experienced teammate in Team Kunimitsu's NSX-GT, Naoki Yamamoto.

It was clear the 2009 Formula 1 champion, who made a one-off debut in the Suzuka 1000km in 2017 before embarking on a full Super GT season last year, needed time to get accustomed to the intricacies of multi-class sportscar racing, particularly managing GT300 traffic.

But at the final race of the season at Motegi Button clearly showed how much progress he'd made. The manner in which he resisted pressure from TOM'S Lexus driver Ryo Hirakawa with the championship at stake in closing stages showed he was finally fully up to speed.

Armed with the experience of his successful rookie campaign and teamed again with the redoubtable Yamamoto, Button will surely be a potent threat for the title again this season. But which teams and drivers are likely to prove the biggest challengers to Kunimitsu Honda?

The revival of a legendary Nissan team 

Nissan squad Impul was such a dominant force in its heyday that its success was not confined to Japan, with victories at Spa 24 Hours and Bathurst 1000 in 1991 making it one of the biggest powerhouses in sportscar racing around the world.

However, this once-mighty team has been struggling to find its feet more recently, and hasn’t won a race in Super GT since 2016. For the fans of Impul and its iconic all-blue Calsonic livery, testing marked the start of a revival for which they have been waiting for years.

Daiki Sasaki and James Rossiter, who has been lured away from Lexus, topped every single test during the pre-season - proving equally quick in the cool conditions of Japan or in sunny Malaysia.

Impul’s all-conquering pace in testing was part of a wider resurgence for Nissan, which carried out a major shake-up of its driver line-ups in the off-season after ending 2018 as the slowest of the three manufacturers in the GT500 class.

It dropped some of its long-running drivers - most notably, Satoshi Motoyama - in favour of fresh talent, scouted from both rival manufacturers as well as outside Japan.

A major push was also made on the development side which so far appears to have paid off, but only Okayama will tell whether Nissan will prove as quick in race trim as it has done in testing.

Click below for more information on Nissan's line-ups:

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#12 Impul

#12 Impul
1/4

Photo by: Masahide Kamio

James Rossiter
Debut: 2013
Wins: 6
Poles: 4
Best championship finish: 3rd (2013, 14)

Daiki Sasaki
Debut: 2017
Wins: 3
Poles: 1
Best championship finish: 7th (2016)

#23 NISMO

#23 NISMO
2/4

Photo by: Masahide Kamio

Ronnie Quintarelli
Debut: 2005
Wins: 14
Poles: 11
Championships: 4 (2011, '12, '14, '15)

Tsugio Matsuda
Debut: 2000
Wins: 20
Poles: 14
Championships: 2 (2014, '15)

#3 B-Max

#3 B-Max
3/4

Photo by: Masahide Kamio

Frederic Makowiecki
Debut: 2013
Wins: 2
Poles: 0
Best championship finish: 4th (2014)

Kohei Hirate
Debut: 2009
Wins: 7
Poles: 6
Championships: 2 (2013, '16)

#24 Kondo Racing

#24 Kondo Racing
4/4

Photo by: Masahide Kamio

Jann Mardenborough
Debut: 2017
Wins: 0
Poles: 0
Best championship finish: 12th (2018)

Mitsunori Takaboshi
Debut: 2016 (one race), 2018 (full-time)
Wins: 0
Poles: 0
Best championship finish: 14th (2018)

Was Honda disguising its pace in testing?

Honda’s subdued showing in pre-season testing was partly down to its traditional tactic of concealing pace until the first round, but one must also take into account that it has received more than its fair share of setbacks in the past few months.

The first came at the final test at Fuji, when Honda was forced to take off its new front aero package as it not only delivered inconsistent results, but also affected with the functioning of the rest of the car. It has now been forced to revert to a design closer to what it ran in 2018, which it admits is slower than the new one.

More recently, Super GT organiser GTA added another 5kg of ballast to the NSX-GT to negate the advantage of its mid-engine layout, raising the weight difference to its front-engined rivals to 29kg.

Both these setbacks will undoubtedly impact the performance of the NSX, but it has been suggested that Honda was already expecting an increase in ballast and hence was running heavier cars in testing to account for it.

Rumours about Honda sandbagging in testing were also rife throughout the paddock. Even Narain Karthikeyan, whose team Nakajima was quickest of all Hondas in testing, said the Kunimitsu and Real Racing in particular “will be really fast when it matters.”

As such, Honda may not be as slow as testing suggests - especially as it is yet to unleash the Formula 1-style qualifying modes that allowed it to consistently start at the front of the field last year.

Click below for more information on Honda's line-ups:

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#1 Team Kunimitsu

#1 Team Kunimitsu
1/5

Photo by: Masahide Kamio

Jenson Button
Debut: 2018
Wins: 1
Poles: 1
Championships: 1 (2018)

Naoki Yamamoto
Debut: 2010
Wins: 4
Poles: 1
Championships: 1 (2018)

#17 Real Racing

#17 Real Racing
2/5

Photo by: Masahide Kamio

Bertrand Baguette
Debut: 2014
Wins: 1
Poles: 0
Best championship finish: 11th (2017)

Koudai Tsukakoshi
Debut: 2008
Wins: 2
Poles: 2
Best championship finish: 2nd (2013)

#16 Team Mugen

#16 Team Mugen
3/5

Photo by: Masahide Kamio

Hideki Mutoh
Debut: 2014
Wins: 0
Poles: 2
Best championship finish: 8th (2015)

Daisuke Nakajima
Debut: 2013
Wins: 0
Poles: 1
Best championship finish: 15th (2013, '15, '18)

#64 Nakajima Racing

#64 Nakajima Racing
4/5

Photo by: Masahide Kamio

Tadasuke Makino
Debut: 2016
Wins: 0
Poles: 0
Best championship finish: 16th (never completed full season)

Narain Karthikeyan
Debut: 2019
Wins: N/A
Poles: N/A
Best championship finish: N/A

#8 ARTA

#8 ARTA
5/5

Photo by: Masahide Kamio

Tomoki Nojiri
Debut: 2015
Wins: 3
Poles: 3
Best championship finish: 3rd (2018)

Takuya Izawa
Debut: 2007
Wins: 6
Poles: 5
Best championship finish: 3rd (2018)

Can Lexus return to the top on its swansong?

While Honda and Nissan have been making headlines in pre-season testing for opposite reasons, Lexus was quietly completing its own programme.

Hirakawa, who won the 2017 title along with Nick Cassidy, said he expects all three manufacturers to be closely matched in testing, suggesting an underlying confidence that the Lexus LC500 will once again be a match for the Nissan and Honda.

Last year Lexus was the most consistent manufacturer of the three, with not even a single weekend where it was unusually off the pace. More importantly, it gave Honda a tough fight in race trim and that strength is likely to be carried forward to this year.

With Toyota returning to Super GT next year, 2019 will serve as the swansong campaign for the company's Lexus brand. The luxury car manufacturer won in its very first year in the series in 2006 and has since added four more titles to its tally. 

Toyota's decision to bring back the Supra moniker also marks the end of the LC500's lifecycle, a car that has won eight of the 16 races it has contested in its short two year history.

Click below for more information on Lexus's line-ups:

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#37 TOM'S

#37 TOM'S
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Photo by: Masahide Kamio

Nick Cassidy
Debut: 2013
Wins: 3
Poles: 1
Championships: 1 (2017)

Ryo Hirakawa
Debut: 2014
Wins: 5
Poles: 4
Championships: 1 (2017)

#36 TOM'S

#36 TOM'S
2/6

Photo by: Masahide Kamio

Kazuki Nakajima
Debut: 2013
Wins: 6
Poles: 2
Best championship finish: 3rd (2013)

Yuhi Sekiguchi
Debut: 2013
Wins: 2
Poles: 2
Best championship finish: 4th (2016)

#6 Team LeMans

#6 Team LeMans
3/6

Photo by: Masahide Kamio

Kenta Yamashita
Debut: 2017
Wins: 0
Poles: 0
Best championship finish: 11th (2018)

Kazuya Oshima
Debut: 2009
Wins: 4
Poles: 6
Best championship finish: 2nd (2016)

#19 Racing Project Bandoh

#19 Racing Project Bandoh
4/6

Photo by: Masahide Kamio

Yuji Kunimoto
Debut: 2012
Wins: 2
Poles: 3
Best championship finish: 4th (2016)

Sho Tsuboi
Debut: 2018 (one race)
Wins: N/A
Poles: N/A
Best championship finish: N/A

#39 Lexus Team Sard Lexus LC500:

#39 Lexus Team Sard Lexus LC500:
5/6

Photo by: Masahide Kamio

Heikki Kovalainen
Debut: 2015
Wins: 3
Poles: 2
Championships - 1 (2016)

Yuichi Nakayama
Debut: 2019
Wins: N/A
Poles: N/A
Best championship finish: N/A

#38 Team Cerumo Lexus

#38 Team Cerumo Lexus
6/6

Photo by: Masahide Kamio

Hiroaki Ishiura
Debut: 2008
Wins: 5
Poles: 9
Best championship finish: 3rd (2012)

Yuji Tachikawa
Debut: 1996
Wins: 18
Poles: 22
Championships: 3 (2001, '05, '13)

The rookie and the returnees

The GT500 class will feature seven new or returning drivers this season and among them is Porsche factory ace Frederic Makowiecki, who won two races for Honda during a relatively difficult stint in Super GT in 2012-13.

He returns to the series after five seasons, albeit with Nissan and its Michelin-shod B-Max team.

Nissan has also picked up two drivers from the Lexus stable, namely Rossiter (Impul) and Kohei Hirate, with Hirate joining Makowiecki at B-Max.

Like B-Max, Nakajima Racing also has an all-new line-up, with Super Formula convert Karthikeyan teaming up with Formula 2 race winner Tadasuke Makino, who contested three races in Super GT in 2016 and even bagged a podium finish on his debut.

Another Japanese driver Yuichi Nakayama will replace Kamui Kobayashi at Sard, but the most interesting prospect of all is Sho Tsuboi, who steps up to GT500 on the back of a championship-winning season in Japanese F3 and a successful campaign in Super GT's GT300 class.

GT300: The return of Aston and McLaren

Super GT’s burgeoning GT300 class will also grab its fair share of attention this year, not least because of the return of factory-supported entries from Aston Martin and McLaren.

Aston’s new Vantage got off to a winning start in Japan this year, with D’station taking the top spot in the Super Taikyu season opener at Suzuka. However, with a total of 29 cars contesting the GT300 category this year, following that up with victory in Super GT would be no mean feat. 

What could make the difference for Aston, though, is it’s top notch driver line-up, led by ex-Nissan GT500 star Joao Paulo de Oliveira. Teammate Tomonobu Fujii has also won races in GT300, while the addition of Darren Turner for the Fuji 500-mile is another coup for the D'station team.

McLaren’s return to Super GT has been made possible by Team Goh, the squad that led the British car manufacturer to the top the prize in the All-Japan Grand Touring Car Championship in 1996. Le Mans 24 Hours winner Seiji Ara will share Goh's 720S GT3 with rising star Alex Palou.

Aston and McLaren will face plenty of competition from an established cast of teams, including the Mercedes-AMGs run by 2017 champions GoodSmile Racing with Team Ukyo and last year’s winners Leon Racing.

Tsuchiya Engineering’s Toyota 86 MC also enjoyed a solid run in testing, while the factory-supported R&D Sport Subaru is also known for its speed, if not its reliability.

Finally, 2010 GT500 champion Takashi Kogure - axed from Honda's GT500 line-up after last year - could also emerge as a potential threat in the #87 Lamborghini he shares with Yuya Motojima.

Click below for more information on all the GT300 teams:

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#2 Cars Tokai Dream28 Lotus Evora: Kazuho Takahashi, Hiroki Katoh

#2 Cars Tokai Dream28 Lotus Evora: Kazuho Takahashi, Hiroki Katoh
1/26

Photo by: Masahide Kamio

#4 Goodsmile Racing & Team Ukyo Mercedes AMG GT3: Nobuteru Taniguchi, Tatsuya Kataoka

#4 Goodsmile Racing & Team Ukyo Mercedes AMG GT3: Nobuteru Taniguchi, Tatsuya Kataoka
2/26

Photo by: Masahide Kamio

#5 TEAM MACH Toyota MC86: Natsu Sakaguchi, Yuya Hiraki

#5 TEAM MACH Toyota MC86: Natsu Sakaguchi, Yuya Hiraki
3/26

Photo by: Masahide Kamio

#7 D'station Aston Martin Vantage GT3: Tomonobu Fujii, Joao Paulo de Oliveira

#7 D'station Aston Martin Vantage GT3: Tomonobu Fujii, Joao Paulo de Oliveira
4/26

Photo by: Masahide Kamio

#9 PACIFIC Porsche 911 GT3 R: Naoki Yokomizo, Kyosuke Mineo

#9 PACIFIC Porsche 911 GT3 R: Naoki Yokomizo, Kyosuke Mineo
5/26

Photo by: Masahide Kamio

#10 Gainer Nissan GT-R: Kazuki Hoshino, Keishi Ishikawa; #11 Gainer Nissan GT-R: Katsuyuki Hiranaka, Hironobu Yasuda

#10 Gainer Nissan GT-R: Kazuki Hoshino, Keishi Ishikawa; #11 Gainer Nissan GT-R: Katsuyuki Hiranaka, Hironobu Yasuda
6/26

Photo by: Masahide Kamio

#18 Team Upgarage With Bandoh Honda NSX GT3 Evo: Takashi Kobayashi, Kosuke Matsuura

#18 Team Upgarage With Bandoh Honda NSX GT3 Evo: Takashi Kobayashi, Kosuke Matsuura
7/26

Photo by: Masahide Kamio

#21 Audi Team Hitotsuyama Audi R8 LMS: Richard Lyon, Ryuichiro Tomita

#21 Audi Team Hitotsuyama Audi R8 LMS: Richard Lyon, Ryuichiro Tomita
8/26

Photo by: Masahide Kamio

#22 R'Qs AMG GT3: Hisashi Wada, Masaki Jyonai

#22 R'Qs AMG GT3: Hisashi Wada, Masaki Jyonai
9/26

Photo by: Masahide Kamio

#25 Team Tsuchiya Toyota MC86: Takamitsu Matsui, Kimiya Sato

#25 Team Tsuchiya Toyota MC86: Takamitsu Matsui, Kimiya Sato
10/26

Photo by: Masahide Kamio

#30 apr Toyota Prius GT: Hiroaki Nagai, Manabu Orid; #31 APR Toyota Prius GT: Koki Saga, Yuhki Nakayama

#30 apr Toyota Prius GT: Hiroaki Nagai, Manabu Orid; #31 APR Toyota Prius GT: Koki Saga, Yuhki Nakayama
11/26

Photo by: Masahide Kamio

#33 X Works Nissan GT-R NISMO GT3: Shaun Thong, Marchy Lee

#33 X Works Nissan GT-R NISMO GT3: Shaun Thong, Marchy Lee
12/26

Photo by: Tomohiro Yoshita

#34 Modulo Drago Corse Honda NSX GT3 Evo: Ryo Michigami, Hiroki Otsu

#34 Modulo Drago Corse Honda NSX GT3 Evo: Ryo Michigami, Hiroki Otsu
13/26

Photo by: Masahide Kamio

#35 Team Thailand Lexus RC F GT3: Nattapong Hortongkum, Sean Walkinshaw

#35 Team Thailand Lexus RC F GT3: Nattapong Hortongkum, Sean Walkinshaw
14/26

Photo by: Masahide Kamio

#48 NILLZ Racing Nissan GT-R: Masaki Tanaka, Taiyou Iida

#48 NILLZ Racing Nissan GT-R: Masaki Tanaka, Taiyou Iida
15/26

Photo by: Masahide Kamio

#50 ARNAGE AMG GT3: Masaki Kano, Ryosei Yamashita

#50 ARNAGE AMG GT3: Masaki Kano, Ryosei Yamashita
16/26

Photo by: Masahide Kamio

#52 Saitama Toyopet Green Brave Toyota Mark X MC: Shigekazu Wakisaka, Hiroki Yoshida

#52 Saitama Toyopet Green Brave Toyota Mark X MC: Shigekazu Wakisaka, Hiroki Yoshida
17/26

Photo by: Motorsport.com / Japan

#55 ATRA NSX GT3: Shinichi Takagi, Nirei Fukuzumi

#55 ATRA NSX GT3: Shinichi Takagi, Nirei Fukuzumi
18/26

Photo by: Masahide Kamio

#56 Kondo Nissan GT-R GT3: Kazuki Hiramine, Sacha Fenestraz

#56 Kondo Nissan GT-R GT3: Kazuki Hiramine, Sacha Fenestraz
19/26

Photo by: Motorsport.com / Japan

#60 LMcorsa RC F GT3: Hiroki Yoshimoto, Ritomo Miyata

#60 LMcorsa RC F GT3: Hiroki Yoshimoto, Ritomo Miyata
20/26

Photo by: Masahide Kamio

#96 K-Tunes Racing LM Corsa Lexus RC F GT3: Sena Sakaguchi, Morio Nitta

#96 K-Tunes Racing LM Corsa Lexus RC F GT3: Sena Sakaguchi, Morio Nitta
21/26

Photo by: Masahide Kamio

#61 SUBARU BRZ R&D SPORT: Takuto Iguchi, Hideki Yamauchi

#61 SUBARU BRZ R&D SPORT: Takuto Iguchi, Hideki Yamauchi
22/26

Photo by: Masahide Kamio

#65 K2 R&D Leon Racing Mercedes AMG GT3: Haruki Kurosawa, Naoya Gamou

#65 K2 R&D Leon Racing Mercedes AMG GT3: Haruki Kurosawa, Naoya Gamou
23/26

Photo by: Masahide Kamio

#720 McLaren Customer Racing Japan McLaren 720S GT3: Seiji Ara, Alex Palou

#720 McLaren Customer Racing Japan McLaren 720S GT3: Seiji Ara, Alex Palou
24/26

Photo by: Masahide Kamio

#87 JLOC Lamborghini Huracan GT3: Tsubasa Takahashi, Andre Couto; #88 JLOC Lamborghini Huracan GT3: Takashi Kogure, Yuya Motojima

#87 JLOC Lamborghini Huracan GT3: Tsubasa Takahashi, Andre Couto; #88 JLOC Lamborghini Huracan GT3: Takashi Kogure, Yuya Motojima
25/26

Photo by: Masahide Kamio

#360 Tomei Sports Nissan GT-R: Atsushi Tanaka, Takayuki Aoki

#360 Tomei Sports Nissan GT-R: Atsushi Tanaka, Takayuki Aoki
26/26

Photo by: Masahide Kamio

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Series Super GT
Author Rachit Thukral
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