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Analysis

Why Honda's new 'master and apprentice' have struggled so far

ARTA has been one of SUPER GT’s leading GT300 outfits for many years, but the Honda outfit is having a tough time so far this season with its all-new ‘master-and-apprentice’ driver line-up of Hideki Mutoh and Iori Kimura.

#55 ARTA NSX GT3

Since switching to the NSX GT3 in 2019, ARTA had struck upon a solid formula by pairing veteran Shinichi Takagi with the next bright young thing from the Honda junior stable - winning the title that year with Nirei Fukuzumi before he was promoted to the GT500 ranks.

Fellow Honda-backed youngsters Toshiki Oyu and Ren Sato then took over the second seat in successive years, albeit not with the same level of success as Fukuzumi. But for 2022, 52-year-old Takagi’s unexpected move to rejoin his old teammate Morio Nitta at K-tunes Racing forced ARTA to opt for a new lead driver in its line-up for the first time in more than 20 years.

Enter Hideki Mutoh, a mainstay of Honda’s GT500 fleet until he was ousted to make way for Oyu at Team Mugen for 2021. Barring a single cameo outing for Team Kunimitsu in place of an unwell Tadasuke Makino in the opening round of the season at Okayama, he spent last year on the sidelines.

Following Takagi's departure, Honda is putting ex-IndyCar racer Mutoh’s talents to good use as a mentor for its young guns, with SUPER GT novice and Japanese F4 graduate Iori Kimura being chosen to partner him in the Bridgestone-shod #55 NSX GT3 for the 2022 campaign.

“Now it’s my turn to be the ‘teacher’!” jokes Mutoh, who turns 40 later this year. “I’ve a contract with Honda to develop the young drivers, so it’s a new phase of my career. 

“I didn’t drive a race car from last April until this March at Motegi [in testing]. It was only a GT300 car but it still felt quite fast! The car is so different from GT500, so I’ve needed time to adapt. But racing in GT300 is for sure more calm than GT500, and the package is competitive with the Bridgestone tyres."

Mutoh, pictured here with Takuma Sato, made his final IndyCar start in 2011 at Motegi

Mutoh, pictured here with Takuma Sato, made his final IndyCar start in 2011 at Motegi

Although he’s best known for his IndyCar exploits for Andretti-Green and latterly Newman/Haas between 2008 and 2010, Mutoh is no stranger to success in SUPER GT either, winning the 2013 GT300 title for Mugen alongside Yuhki Nakayama.

He’s also got plenty of GT500 experience as well, and is one of the only - perhaps only - drivers to have done one season with every single one of Honda’s current teams in the top class. That includes a season with ARTA back in 2011, albeit when the team was run in-house instead of being operated by Servus Japan as it is now.

Unfortunately, he endured four difficult seasons after rejoining Mugen for top class return in 2017, struggling on uncompetitive Yokohama tyres and scoring just one podium in that time.

“I wish I could have driven Bridgestone for one more year” reflects Mutoh, whose one and only GT500 victory came in 2006 for Nakajima Racing. “In 2016 I was with Drago Corse [on Bridgestones] and we were competitive, but then I switched to Yokohama tyres and maybe that was the wrong decision. But that’s life, now I have a different project.”

Mutoh's final GT500 years with Honda were spent battling the odds on uncompetitive Yokohama tyres

Mutoh's final GT500 years with Honda were spent battling the odds on uncompetitive Yokohama tyres

Kimura meanwhile takes over from Sato as Honda’s junior driver in the #55, a move that followed Sato’s infamous collision with the Kunimitsu GT500 machine of Naoki Yamamoto while the latter was in a title-winning position in the season finale at Fuji Speedway.

Sato wasn’t axed by Honda - rather he was promoted from Super Formula Lights to Super Formula. But the Japanese marque wanted its protege to focus solely on single-seaters after he appeared to struggle moving between SF Lights and the much heavier GT300 car. 

It’s a combination that Russian-Japanese driver Kimura is also finding tricky, as he combines his ARTA duties with racing for Lights title-winning squad B-Max Racing.

“Last year I was doing F4, which has quite poor grip, and you have to carry as much speed as possible,” explains Kimura. “The Lights car has much more downforce, whereas in SUPER GT, the cornering performance is quite similar to Formula 4, but you have around double the weight, so it’s harder to control when you have understeer or oversteer.

“Adapting to left-hand drive has also been a difficult point, as well as racing different types of cars with different strengths and tyres. I’m having to think more deeply and understand the good points and bad points of my car and the other cars.”

Kimura has a Russian father and Japanese mother, but has spent all his life in Japan and considers himself Japanese

Kimura has a Russian father and Japanese mother, but has spent all his life in Japan and considers himself Japanese

It’s been a bruising start to the season. Kimura was involved in race-ending accidents in both of the first two races at Okayama and Fuji, while the most recent race at Suzuka yielded a solitary point for 10th after Mutoh spun in qualifying, leaving the pair well down the grid.

By contrast, the only other GT300 team running the NSX GT3, Team UpGarage (also run by Servus Japan), is riding high in fourth in the standings following a second place at Okayama.

Kimura theorises that a combination of the Yokohama tyre and UpGarage man Takashi Kobayashi’s long experience of the NSX GT3 are both playing roles in the performance gap.

”The Yokohama tyre is much better than it has been in other years; you see that with the Realize [Kondo Racing] GT-R and JLOC Lamborghinis,” he says. “Also we have the Evo2 update this year and Kobayashi-san has a lot of experience with the NSX GT3, so maybe they can understand more easily the good points and bad points.

“On the other hand, we have no experience of the old car. We can only look at the data. Mutoh-san has experience and knowledge about racing in general, but he doesn’t have so much experience of GT3 cars with SUPER GT tyres. So he is also learning like me. That’s a difficult point, I think.”

Suzuka could have yielded a better result had Mutoh and Kimura qualified higher than 16th

Suzuka could have yielded a better result had Mutoh and Kimura qualified higher than 16th

Photo by: Masahide Kamio

Kobayashi’s young teammate Kakunoshin Ota is a direct rival of Kimura’s. Both graduated from Japanese F4 last year and Ota is also racing in SF Lights with Toda Racing. But so far it’s Ota who has impressed more: both have won two races each in Lights, but Ota has backed that up with an additional six podium finishes, compared to just two for Kimura.

“I’ve known him since karting, for more than 10 years,” says Kimura of Ota. “I know his strong points and weak points, but we have a really good relationship. We were in the same team in F4 last year and we worked well together to try to beat the Toyota drivers. Now we are more like rivals because we are in different teams, but the relationship is still good.”

But while Fukuzumi and Oyu were promoted to Honda’s GT500 stable after only a season each in GT300, Kimura is aware that a promotion as early as 2023 isn’t realistic as he still needs to build up his experience, instead targeting a potential step up in ‘24.

“The difficult point is that Nirei raced in GP3 and FIA F2 and Toshiki was also already in Japanese F3 for a couple years,” he explains. “They already had more experience than me when they joined SUPER GT. Sato stepped up directly from F4 and really struggled. 

“I still have to learn a lot, so it’s a tough challenge. In SF Lights usually Honda junior drivers need two seasons, and here maybe it’s the same. But if Honda gives me the chance to go to GT500 sooner, I’m always ready for that.”

  • Stream every qualifying session and race of the 2022 SUPER GT season only on Motorsport.tv.
Kimura's fellow Honda junior Ren Sato had a tough time with ARTA last year

Kimura's fellow Honda junior Ren Sato had a tough time with ARTA last year

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