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Analysis

Why Honda is facing a 2023 SUPER GT driver conundrum

Honda can count itself lucky to have an extremely solid core of SUPER GT drivers as the 2022 season approaches. But with a number of promising junior drivers on its books too, it looks like some tough decisions are looming, as Jamie Klein explains.

Cars leave the pitlane

A few weeks ago, this writer attempted to rank the top five GT500 line-ups in SUPER GT this year. As it so happened, the top three were all Honda teams.

That’s partly because Honda has three strong ‘A’ drivers in its three Bridgestone cars in the form of Naoki Yamamoto, Tomoki Nojiri and Koudai Tsukakoshi, with each paired by a fast young driver with experience of racing in Europe. And there’s not a lot wrong with the marque’s two other line-ups either.

But perhaps you can have two much of a good thing, because Honda faces some potentially tricky driver decisions next year. As well as its 10 GT500 incumbents, it has a number of young drivers to choose from - not only those racing in Japan, but also in Europe.

Firstly, let’s review the young drivers that Honda has on its books. In Japan, there’s Ren Sato, who drove in GT300 last year but made the headlines for all the wrong reasons as he took out the Kunimitsu NSX-GT of Yamamoto in the Fuji Speedway finale, essentially denying Honda the title. Despite that mishap, Sato remains on the payroll, and is set for his first Super Formula campaign with Team Goh this season.

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Then there are Iori Kimura and Kakunoshin Ota, who have both been handed dual Super Formula Lights and SUPER GT GT300 programmes for 2022. Unlike Sato, they lack any European experience, but Russian-Japanese Kimura in particular was a four-time race winner in Japanese Formula 4 and has been handed the keys to the #55 ARTA NSX GT3 that Sato raced last year, suggesting he is rated highly by the Honda top brass.

#55 ARTA NSX GT3

#55 ARTA NSX GT3

Photo by: Masahide Kamio

Moving across to Europe, FIA F3 race winner Ayumu Iwasa is moving up to F2 with DAMS - and while he has support from Red Bull, the costs are high and the competition with the energy drink giant’s other drivers is likely to be fierce. If he doesn’t make a big impression, then he could well be heading back to Japan and needing a drive on the domestic scene.

The remaining members of the Honda scheme are Souta Arao and Yuto Nomura, who won last year’s Suzuka SRS scholarship and this year will follow in the footsteps of Sato and Iwasa by racing in French F4. History suggests one will get the chance to step up to FIA F3 and the other will be heading back to Japan for ‘23, although not in a GT500 car.

Anyway, even without Arao and Nomura, that’s still 14 drivers vying for 10 seats - a veritable embarrassment of riches. And the now-renamed Honda Racing School will keep churning out future candidates for GT500 and Super Formula drives for some time to come too.

Of course, when it comes to Honda’s 2023 line-up decisions, much will depend on how its candidates perform on-track this year. But, of the manufacturer’s 10 GT500 drivers this year, some start in a better position than others.

Yamamoto, Nojiri and Tsukakoshi all look to be virtually unimpeachable. Similarly, Tadasuke Makino and Nirei Fukuzumi are patently not going anywhere, and it would be a surprise to see Nobuharu Matsushita fall out of favour so soon after he was poached from Nissan.

Nobuharu Matsushita

Nobuharu Matsushita

Photo by: Motorsport.com / Japan

That leaves the four Dunlop team drivers: Takuya Izawa, Hiroki Otsu, Ukyo Sasahara and Toshiki Oyu. Based on age alone, Izawa would have to be regarded as the most vulnerable. At 37, he’s still more than a decade younger than the oldest driver in GT500, Toyota mainstay Yuji Tachikawa, and is hardly past it. But, he has already been ‘demoted’ from ARTA to Nakajima Racing and is definitely on the ‘downslope’ of his career.

That said, Izawa is highly rated by Dunlop and has been credited for helping the tyre maker improve its performances in the last two seasons, and if he was to be stood down then it’s likely an equally experienced campaigner would be needed to take his place.

Tsukakoshi fits the profile best, but if he was to be moved over to Dunlop, someone would have to take his place in the Bridgestone camp. The most likely candidate in this regard would be Oyu, who impressed in his first season of GT500 competition last year with Team Mugen. How he fares in Super Formula as well as SUPER GT will likely have a bearing on whether the call-up comes as early as 2023, or a little later on.

Besides Izawa, the next-most vulnerable is probably Ukyo Sasahara, who, while worthy of his current drive on merit, only got his GT500 seat when Matsushita turned down the chance to drive for Team Mugen in 2020. The fact he hasn’t got a Super Formula drive also suggests that he’s a place behind fellow third-year driver Hiroki Otsu in the Honda pecking order.

Hiroki Otsu, Ukyo Sasahara

Hiroki Otsu, Ukyo Sasahara

Photo by: Masahide Kamio

The two drivers who appear to have the best chance to oust one of the incumbents are Iwasa, if he loses his place in F2, and Sato, if he does well in Super Formula. But if neither of those things happen, you wouldn’t rule out the current 10 all staying on.

As for Kimura and Ota, Honda has form when it comes to promoting its youngsters from GT300 to GT500, as Fukuzumi, Otsu and Oyu can all attest. But given neither of them have had a chance to go to Europe so far, we have to conclude that only an absolutely sensational performance in the lower category would be enough to force their way into the picture.

Then there’s another wild card - a certain Yuki Tsunoda, whose place in the AlphaTauri F1 team for 2023 and beyond remains very much up in the air.

The most successful product of the Honda training system in recent years, it’s hard to imagine that if Tsunoda was to lose his seat in F1 that the Sakura marque wouldn’t help him land on his feet somewhere. That could mean IndyCar, where Honda has a strong presence, but it could equally mean a double SUPER GT/Super Formula programme.

That would leave Honda in an awkward position, as it would no doubt want Tsunoda in a competitive (read Bridgestone-shod) car. It may mean Tsukakoshi giving up his place at Real Racing and Izawa being shuffled aside to make room for his old Formula Nippon teammate at Nakajima Racing, as well as Oyu having to wait another year to move up.

 

Equally, that would increase the chances of some of the lesser members of the Honda junior stable, such as Kimura, Ota and Shun Koide, who was evaluated but ultimately passed over for a Super Formula Lights campaign, dropping off the scheme entirely.

They would join some equally well-qualified Honda rejects of recent seasons, including Sena Sakaguchi (now fully embedded at Toyota), Atsushi Miyake (racing in Super Formula with Team Goh this year) and Teppei Natori.

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It’s inevitable that when Honda has such a well-functioning escalator from entry level (SRS) to the upper echelons of Japan’s domestic scene, with opportunities to race in Europe thrown in for good measure, it will attract plenty of talent. And there won’t be space to accommodate everyone even in the best of years.

But the fact that Honda has now assembled a particularly strong core of drivers in SUPER GT with few obvious candidates to drop in favour of fresh talent, combined with its surfeit of talented youngsters, is likely going to give it some tough choices to make in ‘23 and beyond.

 

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