PREVIEW – SUPER GT 2011 : THE GT500 LINEUP

Time to go racing. The 2011 Super GT season has been impacted by the March 11 earthquake and will start one month late but looks to be a good year nevertheless. Before the cars take it to the first session next Saturday at Fuji, let’s have a look at the competitors , starting with GT500.

On a technical level, 2011 is a stable year. The 2009 regulations continue mostly untouched, while the GT Association is busy trying to find a common ground for a unified regulation with the DTM down the line in 2013 at earliest. As such, nobody is building new cars, and the three machines are the same as last year : Nissan GT-R, Lexus SC430 and Honda HSV-010. The latter is the youngest of the bunch, being introduced in 2010, while the GT-Rs are starting to be quite battered, being around since 2008. The Lexus are in-between, being the second generation on that platform that replaced the Supra in 2006. The big news is the addition of 2 cars to the racing roster, one fourth GT-R and a sixth SC430.


Honda


We will again see the same five HSV-010, in the same teams. As expected, the champion team Dome Wieder continues with the same pair of Takashi Kogure and Loïc Duval on the no1 car. The Frenchman, by the way, will forego Formula Nippon and instead race in Le Mans Series in the Oreca Peugeot 908 in parallel with his Super GT season (he just won the first event at Sebring). That will certainly put a lot of miles on his frequent flyer card, as it will for André Lotterer and Benoît Tréluyer, the other two Super GT drivers racing again in Europe for the Audi works team as they did successfully last year. The no100 HSV-010 of team Raybrig Kunimitsu, the no17 of Keihin Real Racing and the Nakajima Epson no32 do also continue with their driver lineup unchanged : respectively Takuya Izawa-Naoki Yamamoto at Raybrig, Toshihiro Kaneishi-Koudai Tsukakoshi at Real Racing and Ryo Michigami – Yuhki Nakayama at Nakajima. The liveries are variations on what they were last year.

Big shakeup for the ARTA team however, where both 2010 drivers are out to make room for Hideki Mutoh, the Honda backed Indycar hopeful coming home after 3 seasons in the US. His come back in Japan looks like a failover plan, although Honda will try to leverage his international driver status among Japanese fans. He will be joined by Takashi Kobayashi, the rookie to watch this season. Kobayashi did well in national F3 last year but most importantly made a big splash by taking the pole position for his first laps in the HSV-010 during his spot entry as the third driver on the ARTA car at the Suzuka 700km last August. He did not get to race, Firman and Ide winning on their own, but from that moment it was clear that the kid secured his place in the Honda organization. He will also graduate to Formula Nippon for 2011.

It is a shame for Ralph Firman, who did not manage to go back to championship form after Daisuke Ito, with whom he took the title in 2007, went to Lexus. His seasons with Izawa and last year Ide proved disappointing. That’s one of the fiercest racers of the series who steps aside and big shoes to fill for Mutoh. In the case of Ide, he did not really convinced that he got his mojo back with the ARTA drive, and at 36, like Firman, he has to give way to the young guard. He keeps however quite a lot of clout on the Japanese racing scene, so he may be back at some point.

Many different configurations of radiators and bonnets were observed on the car during the tests, to correct the Achille’s heel of the HSV-010, its top speed. We will have to wait and see which layout has been chosen, a headache for the Honda Racing engineers given that they could not complete the test program as the last official session was cancelled.

The Honda 2011 Motor sport Press Conference news that made the largest headlines, however, is not directly related to the race car. It is rather the quotes from Honda President Ito who, for the first time, answered the usual question about a road version of the HSV-010 or such successor to the NSX: “I have that in mind” and “Honda has to follow the tradition of Super GT racers” (meaning that the race car should be based on a production machine). After the success of the HSV-010 and the relentless pleading of the Honda community, it seems Honda finally saw the light. Let’s hope that the production turmoil induced by the earthquake will not kill the Honda supercar once again.

1 Weider Honda Racing
Honda HSV-010 GT / HR10EG
Takashi Kogure – Loïc Duval[FRA]
Bridgestone

8 AUTOBACS RACING TEAM AGURI
Honda HSV-010 GT / HR10EG
Hideki Mutoh – Takashi Kobayashi
Bridgestone

17 KEIHIN REAL RACING
Honda HSV-010 GT / HR10EG
Toshihiro Kaneishi – Koudai Tsukakoshi
Bridgestone

32 NAKAJIMA RACING EPSON
Honda HSV-010 GT / HR10EG
Ryo Michigami – Yuhki Nakayama
Dunlop

100 TEAM KUNIMITSU RAYBRIG
Honda HSV-010 GT / HR10EG
Takuya Izawa – Naoki Yamamoto
Bridgestone


Nissan


Unlike last year Nissan chose not to held a full blown press launch and instead published a simple press release, followed later by an informal public talk show at Nissan headquarters in Yokohama. The budget is closely under control, then, but for a good cause : to bring a fourth GT-R back in action ! Last year’s three cars entry was something of an anomaly, said to be have been caused by the big accident of Satoshi Motoyama in testing just before the beginning of the 2010 season. The chassis was wrote off and left no option to Nismo armed with a tight budget and no time left bit to fall back to a three cars configuration. This year everybody made it through testing without a major shunt, so the 4 GT-Rs are go. The fourth chassis will be operated by the Mola Team, which was racing one of the two Z in GT300 last year. The car will sport the team’s usual no46, S-Road sponsoring and will be Michelin shod. At the wheel, Ronnie Quintarelli (ex-Impul) will be joined by 2010 GT300 champion Masataka “Ma” Yanagida, back in GT500 after being sent to GT300 duties for a while when the second Nismo GT-R no22 was retired from GT500 at the end of 2007.

The Nismo works car no23 will be once again left to the tried and true pair of Satoshi Motoyama and Benoît Tréluyer, but gets a new challenge by switching back to Bridgestone after one season on Michelin. The first part of 2010 was a bit of a struggle for the Nismo outfit because of the new engine and tires development, but things were starting to gel from Sugo onward, although the Impul GT-R, shod in Bridgestone, was in effect the fastest of the trio. Could it be that Nismo, who want badly to be back in title contention, prefer to play it safe with their longtime partner while giving the more risky alternative to the newcomers ? Actually, it could be the opposite result as the Michelin fared very well in testing. The no12 Impul machine, after a dismal 2009 season, regained form in 2010 and should be up to the task again this year. With Ronnie Quintarelli gone to Mola, the new partner of Tsugio Matsuda is Joao Paolo de Oliveira. It is a natural move for the Brazilian who won the Formula Nippon Championship for Kazuyoshi Hoshino’s operation last year and seems very comfortable at Impul. This could be a big year again for JP, who made the most of his tenure at Kondo Racing but was not able to have a proper shot at the title.

This leads us neatly to Kondo Racing where the newest Nismo recruit will join Hironobu Yasuda: Bjorn Wirdheim, coming straight from Lexus. The infamous “red light” mistake made by the Swedish driver at 2010’s last race in Motegi was probably not the best way to end his run at Lexus, but the man is fast and experienced, two desirable traits that helped him to land the drive at Nissan. As JP de Oliveira will have to adapt to the Bridgestone tires, Wirdheim will have to learn to use the Yokohama rubber used by Kondo Racing, on top of switching from the SC430 to the GT-R. The speed with which Bjorn will adapt to his new car will be one of the interesting things to watch in the first part of the season.

The GT-Rs will once again this year use the 3,4l V8 they began using last year.

12 TEAM IMPUL CALSONIC
NISSAN GT-R R35 / VRH34A
Tsugio Matsuda – Joao Paulo Lima de Oliveira[BRA]
Bridgestone

23 NISMO MOTUL AUTECH
NISSAN GT-R R35 / VRH34A
Satoshi Motoyama – Benoît Treluyer[FRA]
Bridgestone

24 KONDO RACING ADVAN
NISSAN GT-R R35 / VRH34A
Hironobu Yasuda – Bjorn Wirdheim[SWE]
Yokohama

46 MOLA S Road
NISSAN GT-R R35 / VRH34A
Masataka Yanagida – Ronnie Quintarelli[ITA]
Michelin


Lexus


Like Nissan, Lexus did not have a big bash to announce its teams and the press release came last after Honda and Nissan. The reason is that the sixth SC project took time to finalize. This new Lexus is entered by one of the most established Super GT structures which however never ventured in GT500 until now: Racing Project Bandoh.The Bandoh outfit was a big player in GT300 with multiple titles in the belt and strong ties to Toyota. For the last three years they were running the IS350 silhouette and took their last title in 2009. Tatsuya Kataoka, resident top driver, will be there as he knows the team and also has GT500 experience up until 2008. “Max” Orido will not and will be replaced by a newcomer in the Toyota realm but a well know figure in GT500, Seiji Ara. Ara was driving the Kondo Racing GT-R up to 2009 before unsuccessfully branching to FIA GT1. He comes to Bandoh with knowledge of the Yokohama Advan tires, a good thing since Advan will equip the n19 SC430.

The five other teams are the same as last year but 2011 will see a shakeup in the drivers lineup triggered by the return of another high profile refugee, Kazuki Nakajima. Ousted from his Williams seat after Toyota decided to retire from F1 at the end of 2009, Kazuki spent last year in front of his TV and was itching to come back behind the wheel of a race car. He has got his chance in 2011 at TOM’S where he will be paired with “Race King” André Lotterer in the no36 car. Apart from being in pole position to become the ladies favorite pair, the two drivers have clearly the potential to become the spearhead of the Lexus assault, although the Eneos Le Mans no6 team, which almost clenched the title in 2010, might not agree with me.

There the increasingly hungry for victory Daisuke Ito will be paired with hotshot Kazuya Oshima, who proved himself a fast and reliable driver at Kraft for the last two seasons. The team Eneos Le Mans was at the top of its game last year, and with two drivers very strongly motivated and sure footed could be the one to beat, as Nakajima has to regain experience in the category.

Hiroaki Ishiura, who was Oshima’s teammate last year, gets the task of rebooting the no39 SARD car with rookie Takuto Iguchi. SARD spent a number of years at the back of the Lexus group, hampered by tyre troubles and other technical difficulties. It started to get better last season under the guidance of ex-Nissan Chief Engineer Riccardo Divila. This year SARD is switching tyre manufacturer from Dunlop to Michelin. Ishiura will have to exert his development ability, arguably one of his forte, and leadership with his rookie teammate.

The no35 Kraft car will be taken over by veterans Juichi Wakisaka and André Couto. At one point during the winter Wakisaka, coming from TOM’S, seemed to ponder retirement but he was lured back into the fray. A wise move for Lexus, given Juichi’s invaluable experience. He showed at Motegi last October during his incredible battle with Kogure in the championship winning Honda that he still has got the gusto when circumstances ask for it. He is also extremely popular with the fans for his off-track antics, to the point that he is well on his way to become an established TV personality. André Couto is also very experienced and the combination of them could prove very potent. Count on them to rake in the points, especially when things get tough. The Kraft team gets new title sponsoring from D’STATION KeePer and new colors.

Lastly, Yuji Tachikawa will be there once again for the Zent Cerumo team in the no38 car. He will this time be paired with Kohei Hirate, coming from SARD. Richard Lyons, whom Hirate replaces, is off to Australia in V8 Supercars. The Zent car is used to be at the front and 2010 was very frustrating for them. They have to get their act together this year.

6 LEXUS TEAM LeMans ENEOS
LEXUS SC430 / RV8KG
Daisuke Ito – Kazuya Oshima
Bridgestone

19 LEXUS TEAM WedsSport BANDOH WedsSport
LEXUS SC430 / RV8KG
Tatsuya Kataoka – Seiji Ara
Yokohama

35 LEXUS TEAM KRAFT D’STATION KeePer
LEXUS SC430 / RV8KG
Juichi Wakisaka – Andre Couto[PRT]
Bridgestone

36 LEXUS TEAM PETRONAS TOM’S
LEXUS SC430 / RV8KG
Andre Lotterer[DEU] – Kazuki Nakajima
Bridgestone

38 LEXUS TEAM ZENT CERUMO
LEXUS SC430 / RV8KG
Yuji Tachikawa – Kohei Hirate
Bridgestone

39 LEXUS TEAM SARD DENSO
LEXUS SC430 / RV8KG
Hiroaki Ishiura – Takuto Iguchi
Michelin

That’s it for the GT500 category. We will look at the GT300 in the next post, where a lot of changes are on the cards as well. In the meantime, here is the 2011 Super GT introduction video with selected footage from the 2010 season and a taste of what it’s like to be there.

7tune – The Ultimate JDM Experience since 2005

Words – Pierre-Laurent Ribault
Photos – Honda, Nissan, Toyota

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