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The Top 10 Super GT/Super Formula drivers of 2019

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The Top 10 Super GT/Super Formula drivers of 2019
By:
Co-author: Rachit Thukral
Nov 19, 2019, 11:22 AM

For the first time, Motorsport.com ranks the outstanding drivers of the 2019 season in both Super Formula and SUPER GT.

Given Motorsport.com's increasing coverage of Japan's two premier racing series, we felt it was appropriate to pay tribute to the outstanding stars of one of the most competitive national scenes anywhere in the world.

But rather than compile separate lists for Super Formula and SUPER GT, which would have featured largely the same drivers given how many of them compete in both championships, we decided to go down the route of a single countdown. Read on to see who made the cut.

Start action

Start action

Photo by: Masahide Kamio

Honourable mentions

Both of the drivers that Honda recalled from Europe last year enjoyed quietly impressive campaigns back at home. Nirei Fukuzumi was able to ease his way into GT racing with a seat with the ARTA squad in GT300 and immediately proved one of the class's most consistent and capable performers, helping veteran Shinichi Takagi to a first title after some 17 years of trying. He also ended his first full year in Super Formula on a high with Dandelion Racing, scoring a podium in the season finale at Suzuka to conclude the year a respectable P7 overall.

Tadasuke Makino had a harder time in Super Formula despite taking pole on his series debut at in the Suzuka opener, finding himself overshadowed by Nakajima Racing teammate Alex Palou as the campaign progressed. But it was in SUPER GT where the Formula 2 race winner made his mark at the wheel of Nakajima's Dunlop-shod NSX-GT, claiming a superb second place in the wet at Sugo alongside Narain Karthikeyan in one of the drives of the season.

Another driver who made the most of being on a sub-optimal tyre in SUPER GT was Kondo Racing's Jann Mardenborough, who showed the same flashes of pace that nearly won him two GT500 races in 2018. A podium shot at Fuji literally went up in smoke as the Kondo Nissan caught fire, but the real highlight of the season for the sometime GT Academy winner came at Buriram where he and Mitsunori Takaboshi finished as the top Nissan drivers in fourth.

Frederic Makowiecki also proved a crucial asset for Nissan brand on his first year back in Japan, leading a revitalised B-Max team along with teammate Kohei Hirate. Makowiecki’s first outstanding drive at the Fuji 500-mile went unrewarded amid a series of unrelated misfortunes, but he was finally compensated for his efforts at Sugo as he ended a year-long winless spell for Nissan with a charging wet-weather drive.

#3 B-Max Racing team Nissan GT-R: Frederic Makowiecki, Kohei Hirate

#3 B-Max Racing team Nissan GT-R: Frederic Makowiecki, Kohei Hirate

Photo by: Masahide Kamio

10. Japan Sho Tsuboi

11th in Super Formula / 11th in SUPER GT (with Yuji Kunimoto)

Having annihilated the competition in All-Japan F3 and equally impressed in SUPER GT's GT300 class last year, the pressure was on Tsuboi to maintain that form as he stepped up to the two highest categories in Japan. But it’s fair to say he lived up to expectations.

Tsuboi was particularly impressive in Super Formula, outperforming his two-time championship-winning teammate Hiroaki Ishiura at the Inging squad. While Ishiura failed to muster a single top-five finish all season, Tsuboi was fifth on his debut at Suzuka and later resisted a charging Nick Cassidy to secure a maiden podium in a wet race at Fuji.

In GT500, too, Tsuboi visited the rostrum once, he and Yuji Kunimoto finishing third at Buriram in the Bandoh Lexus which was rarely competitive with its Yokohama tyres.

Sho Tsuboi, Cerumo Inging

Sho Tsuboi, Cerumo Inging

9. Japan Koudai Tsukakoshi

19th in Super Formula / 6th in SUPER GT (with Bertrand Baguette)

Honda only started two races from pole in SUPER GT this year, and on both occasions it had Tsukakoshi to thank. And while Tsukakoshi and his teammate in the Real Racing NSX-GT Bertrand Baguette couldn't convert either of those poles into wins, they still did enough to end the season as the lead Honda crew.

It was far from a perfect season for Tsukakoshi, who blotted his copybook by making contact with Naoki Yamamoto at Okayama and also hit the wall at Suzuka. But elsewhere he was impressive, particularly at Autopolis - where he was a full seven tenths clear of the field in qualifying and raced to an early 10-second lead in the race before the weather intervened.

Tsukakoshi also had the unenviable task of taking over the Real Racing Super Formula seat when Tristan Charpentier was axed due to financial issues after the season opener, doing a stoic job in trying circumstances. His strong run to seventh in the Suzuka finale ensured the team didn't end the campaign on zero points.

#17 Real Racing Honda NSX-GT: Koudai Tsukakoshi, Bertrand Baguette

#17 Real Racing Honda NSX-GT: Koudai Tsukakoshi, Bertrand Baguette

Photo by: Masahide Kamio

8. Japan Kamui Kobayashi

6th in Super Formula

Since moving to the single-car KCMG team in 2017, Kobayashi has consistently outperformed the car to emerge as a regular frontrunner in Super Formula. And 2019 was no different, as he secured two podium finishes and stayed in the title hunt until the very last round.

However, a first victory continues to elude Kobayashi - something even the ex-F1 driver finds hard to fathom. It’s not that the 33-year-old has never been in a position to score a win. Indeed, Kobayashi had looked on course to take several wins this season, only for misfortune to strike.

The Suzuka season opener was a prime example; after he seized the lead early on and steadily increased his advantage out front, an ill-timed safety car not only cost Kobayashi a certain shot at victory but even dropped him outside the points.

Kamui Kobayashi, KCMG

Kamui Kobayashi, KCMG

Photo by: Masahide Kamio

7. United Kingdom Jenson Button

8th in SUPER GT (with Naoki Yamamoto)

It would be something of an understatement to say that Button's SUPER GT title defence didn't go according to plan. The writing was on the wall for the 2009 F1 champion when Honda's 2019 aero upgrade made the NSX-GT "unpredictable" to drive in windy conditions in a pre-season test at Okayama, meaning it was ditched and leaving all the Honda runners vulnerable.

That didn't stop Button's class shining through on occasions, however, the Briton coming into the 2019 campaign a much more rounded performer than he had been 12 months prior.

He and Yamamoto were very unlucky to have missed a win in the bonus-points Fuji 500 miles, finishing second behind the LeMans Lexus that gained massively under the safety car, while at Sugo Button's hard work in the rain was undone by a bad tyre choice that sent Yamamoto plummeting down the order.

Button's announcement that the Motegi season finale would be his last race in SUPER GT was not unexpected, and it's clear the 39-year-old is still hungry to explore other avenues in the final years of his top-line motorsport career.

But fans of the Japanese series should be grateful for the international spotlight he brought with him, as well as confirmation of just what a high-level championship it is.

#1 Team Kunimitsu Honda NSX-GT: Jenson Button

#1 Team Kunimitsu Honda NSX-GT: Jenson Button

Photo by: Tomohiro Yoshita

6. Japan Yuhi Sekiguchi

8th in Super Formula / 7th in SUPER GT (with Kazuki Nakajima)

On paper, it was a trying Super Formula campaign for Sekiguchi as he limped to eighth in the drivers’ standings - his worst championship finish to date. But that statistic fails to highlight what was one of the most impressive comeback drives in recent memory.

Forced to start from 16th on the grid after a red flag-strewn qualifying at Autopolis, Sekiguchi gained track position early on and started escaping from the field by more than a second a lap, building a 45-second gap to complete his pitstop and score the unlikeliest of victories. 

It was a similar story in SUPER GT, Sekiguchi’s giving the #36 TOM'S Lexus two pole positions and soaking up pressure from Cassidy to win at Suzuka. He and Kazuki Nakajima may have even stood a chance of fighting for the title had Nakajima not clattered into a GT300 car while running second at the bonus-points Fuji round.

Yuhi Sekiguchi, Team Impul

Yuhi Sekiguchi, Team Impul

Photo by: Masahide Kamio

5. Japan Ryo Hirakawa

10th in Super Formula / 2nd in SUPER GT (with Nick Cassidy)

Since he was passed over for a Toyota LMP1 drive in 2017, Hirakawa has steadily built his reputation as one of the most dependable racers on the Japanese scene, the 25-year-old having formed a devastatingly effective partnership in SUPER GT with Nick Cassidy at TOM'S. Champions in 2017 and runners-up in both 2018 and '19 certainly isn't a shabby record.

Whilst rarely as quick as Cassidy, Hirakawa was still an indispensable asset, showing speed even when the #37 Lexus was loaded up with ballast. He helped keep the title hopes of the TOM'S squad alive with strong drives to third at Autopolis and fourth at Sugo before getting the better of Super Formula teammate Sekiguchi at Motegi to take victory.

In Super Formula there was little to choose between the two Team Impul drivers, who both scored a win apiece. But Hirakawa had the edge over Sekiguchi in qualifying, scoring pole at Okayama and out-qualifying his teammate 4-3 over the course of the season.

#37 Team Tom's Lexus LC500: Ryo Hirakawa, Nick Cassidy

#37 Team Tom's Lexus LC500: Ryo Hirakawa, Nick Cassidy

Photo by: Masahide Kamio

4. Japan Naoki Yamamoto

2nd in Super Formula / 8th in SUPER GT (with Jenson Button)

He may have failed to defend either of his 2018 titles, but 2019 will always remain a memorable year for Yamamoto, albeit for his maiden run in a Formula 1 car at Suzuka with Toro Rosso and not for his results in either of his primary racing campaigns.

Initially, Yamamoto appeared to pick up where he left off in 2018, scoring three podium finishes in a row in Super Formula, including a victory at Motegi for his new Dandelion Racing team. In SUPER GT, too, he led the season opener until being rear-ended by Tsukakoshi.

But in the middle of the year his form tailed off in both series and he and Button were soon out of title running in SUPER GT after a disastrous run in the wet at Autopolis. In Super Formula, he headed into the Suzuka decider as the championship leader, but had no answer to Cassidy’s pace and was even outshone by teammate Fukuzumi.

Yamamoto conceded in the run-up to the finale that the sheer amount of preparation needed for his Suzuka F1 run, involving multiple trips to Europe, had inevitably forced him to take his eye off the ball at home - a situation made even harder by the need to spearhead development for Honda's new front-engined NSX-GT that will race in SUPER GT in 2020.

Ensuring the success of that project and the prospect of fighting for a third Super Formula crown should provide plenty of motivation for Yamamoto to reassert himself next year.

Naoki Yamamoto, Dandelion Racing

Naoki Yamamoto, Dandelion Racing

Photo by: Masahide Kamio

3. Spain Alex Palou

3rd in Super Formula / 15th in SUPER GT GT300 (with Seiji Ara)

Had the Suzuka Super Formula finale been run 10 times, on nine of those occasions Palou probably would have walked away as the series' first rookie champion since Ralf Schumacher all the way back in 1996. But just a handful of laps into the race, disaster struck.

An intercooler tube on Palou's Nakajima Racing-run Dallara-Honda had worked its way loose and somehow became snarled up in the right-rear suspension, robbing him of vital downforce and initiating a painful descent down from the order all the way to last.

After the race, Palou was obviously disappointed but at the same time magnanimous in defeat, preferring to focus on the positives of his rookie campaign: three pole positions (nobody else managed more than one), a superb first win at Fuji and a points haul more than four times greater than that of his highly-rated Nakajima Racing teammate Makino.

In SUPER GT's GT300 class, Palou and teammate Seiji Ara were never in the title picture owing the uncompetitiveness of the Team Goh McLaren 720S for almost the entire season.

That didn't stop them from scoring a superb second place in the wet at Autopolis though, and after a McLaren-friendly BoP tweak Palou put in perhaps the qualifying performance of the season to score pole at the Motegi season finale, further underlining his prodigious speed.

Alex Palou, Nakajima Racing

Alex Palou, Nakajima Racing

Photo by: Masahide Kamio

2. Japan Kenta Yamashita

5th in Super Formula / 1st in SUPER GT (with Kazuya Oshima)

As far as racing seasons go for Japanese drivers in their early 20s, they don't get much better than the one Yamashita has had in 2019: a SUPER GT title, a first victory in Super Formula and a likely shot at a top endurance racing drive with one of the world's biggest auto makers, Toyota.

While Yamashita and Kazuya Oshima no doubt were helped to title glory by the safety car at Fuji - a result that "threw the championship's whole ballast system out of the window", according to Cassidy - their other triumph at Buriram was earned fair and square, as Yamashita resisted fierce pressure from Cassidy to take Team LeMans' first victory in six years.

Despite the advantage given to them at Fuji, Yamashita and Oshima still had to get the job done at Motegi, and for a while it looked like the title could yet slip from their grasp as Oshima endured a nightmare first few laps.

But Yamashita's pace was electrifying once he took over the #6 Lexus, and even if his audacious move on Sekiguchi's TOM'S car hadn't stuck the first time, it seemed inevitable he would eventually find his way through into second, the position needed to secure the trophy.

In Super Formula, a couple of bad races in the middle of the season blunted Yamashita's title hopes. But fourth overall and second-best of the Toyota contingent is certainly no mean feat, especially if you compare his record to that of title-winning Kondo Racing teammate Kunimoto - incidentally, the last driver from Japan to be handed a Toyota LMP1 shot.

#6 Lexus Team LeMans Lexus LC500: Kazuya Oshima, Kenta Yamashita

#6 Lexus Team LeMans Lexus LC500: Kazuya Oshima, Kenta Yamashita

Photo by: Masahide Kamio

1. New Zealand Nick Cassidy

1st in Super Formula / 2nd in SUPER GT (with Ryo Hirakawa)

Cassidy was arguably more consistent than his title rival Yamamoto in 2018, but a double title defeat meant his achievements were completely overshadowed by those of his Japanese rival.

A year on, it’s Cassidy’s name that has been in the ascendancy, with calls emerging from several quarters to hand him an F1 test - and deservedly so. For Cassidy successfully defeated Yamamoto in a straight fight in Super Formula, taking revenge for the previous year’s defeat.

The key to the Kiwi’s success was not just racking up points finishes race after race, but also striking at Yamamoto’s strongest circuit - Suzuka. Admittedly, some luck helped Cassidy to an against-the-odds win on the series’ first visit to the track, but his second-place finish in the title decider owed nothing to fortune and was ultimately what swung things in his direction.

In SUPER GT, Cassidy and TOM'S teammate Hirakawa narrowly missed out on a second title in three years, but the championship picture would have looked very different had their Team LeMans rivals not lucked in during a controversial 500-mile race at Fuji.

Champion Nick Cassidy, TOM'S

Champion Nick Cassidy, TOM'S

Photo by: Masahide Kamio

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About this article

Series Super GT , Super Formula
Author Jamie Klein