The SUPER GT and Super Formula questions Honda hasn’t answered
When Honda revealed its plans for the upcoming SUPER GT and Super Formula season last Friday at the Tokyo Auto Salon, some intriguing questions remained unanswered.
Firstly, what we did find out: in SUPER GT, there was the announcement of a ‘new model’ of NSX-GT to be used in the GT500 class this year, a clear reference to the NSX Type S-based car that has already been spied testing at Motegi even if the car itself remains officially under wraps.
There was also the driver line-up, which confirmed the widely anticipated return to the Honda fold for Nobuharu Matsushita after a season at Nissan.
Likewise in Super Formula, the driver roster was revealed, albeit with two TBAs listed and a new team – Team Goh – that didn’t issue any official communique of its own until Tuesday.
Earlier this week we wrote about Team Goh’s split from Mugen and who could fill its second cockpit. Since them, team boss Kazuhiro Ikeda has taken to Twitter to clarify the driver will be Japanese because of continued travel restrictions, in a boost to Ukyo Sasahara’s hopes of landing the seat.
But there remains some intrigue surrounding Goh’s only confirmed driver Ren Sato, who was conspicuously absent from Honda’s SUPER GT roster.
Intrigue surrounds the status of both of ARTA's 2021 GT300 drivers, Ren Sato (L) and Shinichi Takagi (R).
As a reminder, Sato was in the dock following last year’s Fuji Speedway finale after he crashed into Naoki Yamamoto’s Team Kunimitsu NSX-GT, an error that destroyed not only Yamamoto’s title hopes but Honda’s chances of its first back-to-back GT500 titles.
That mistake appears to have cost Sato his seat in SUPER GT for the time being at least, as his place aboard the #55 ARTA NSX GT3 for 2022 has been taken by another Honda junior driver, Iori Kimura.
We’ve yet to hear an explanation from Honda or Sato himself about this matter, which is made all the more puzzling by the 20-year-old’s simultaneous promotion from Super Formula Lights to Super Formula following an appearance in last month’s Suzuka rookie test.
It’s hard to think of any other reason for replacing Sato – who at least proved his speed, even if his consistency was lacking – besides the optics of what happened at Fuji. But whether we’ll ever get proper clarification from Honda is another matter.
The other change in ARTA’s GT300 line-up is long-time Honda GT500 man and ex-IndyCar racer Hideki Mutoh replacing Shinichi Takagi.
While this move is more logical considering Takagi’s advancing years, there was no definitive word as to whether his replacement by Mutoh effectively marks the end of the 51-year-old’s long and distinguished SUPER GT career.
Takagi's most recent GT300 title success came in 2019, when he shared ARTA's NSX GT3 with Nirei Fukuzumi.
Takagi’s name however did appear in another intriguing location – on a press release naming Kimura as a B-Max Super Formula Lights driver.
The arrival of Kimura, as well as Takagi being named B-Max SF Lights team manager, suggests that B-Max is deepening its ties with Super Formula engine supplier Honda this year at the expense of its long-standing alliance with Nissan.
Motorsport.com reported last week that B-Max has ended its involvement in Nissan’s SUPER GT programme, with NISMO poised to take over the running of the #3 car that had been running under the 'NDDP Racing by B-Max' banner.
B-Max has a history of running Nissan junior drivers in All-Japan Formula 3, the forerunner to Super Formula Lights, notably taking Mitsunori Takaboshi to the title in 2017. Indeed, Takaboshi took a manager role in the team last year alongside his Nissan GT500 drive.
But now the team’s Super Formula driver Nobuharu Matsushita has left Nissan to become a fully-fledged Honda factory driver, it would make sense that B-Max would gravitate towards the Sakura manufacturer and away from Nissan.
B-Max is aiming to run a second Honda-powered car alongside Matsushita this season.
Russian-Japanese driver Kimura racing for B-Max in SF Lights expands Honda’s footprint in the support series, with Kakunoshin Ota also stepping up to replace Sato at Toda Racing – the Honda junior team of choice in recent seasons.
Kimura was Honda’s best-placed junior driver in Japanese Formula 4 last year, as he scored four wins en route to third in the standings. Ota was fifth with four second-place finishes, one place ahead of Shun Koide, who joined Kimura and Ota in last year’s end-of-season Super Formula Lights test but appears to have missed out on a race drive.
Ota also joins Kimura on Honda’s GT300 roster in SUPER GT, as he takes over from Teppei Natori as Takashi Kobayashi’s partner at Team UpGarage.
With Sato on the sidelines in SUPER GT, Kimura and Ota both have an opportunity to prove they deserve to emulate recent Honda GT300 graduates Nirei Fukuzumi and Toshiki Oyu and stake a claim to a GT500 promotion.
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