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Interview

The star rookie every SUPER GT manufacturer should want

Several new faces have made a splash in SUPER GT’s GT300 class this year, but the one who has really stood out above the rest is Gainer Nissan driver Riki Okusa.

#10 TANAX GAINER GT-R

Even seasoned observers of Japanese motorsport knew little about Okusa when he was announced as one of the drivers for the #10 Gainer entry for the 2022 season alongside Ryuichiro Tomita, but he quickly made himself known.

Qualifying third for the Okayama opener, Okusa aggressively sent it up the inside of the K-tunes Lexus of veteran Morio Nitta to grab second at Turn 1 when the race began.

Although that race only yielded sixth place, Okusa wouldn’t have long to wait to bank his first GT300 class win, which came in Round 2 at Fuji. He went on to qualify on pole for Round 3 at Suzuka, only for that to be taken away for a technical infraction, but on the series’ return to Suzuka at Round 5 he made up for that by grabbing the top spot again.

The upshot is that Okusa heads into the final race of the season at Motegi next weekend just six points away from the top spot in the standings and in with a realistic chance of becoming SUPER GT’s first solo GT300 champion since Andre Cuoto in 2015 (Tomita missed the Autopolis race and thus can’t beat Okusa’s points total).

So just how did the 22-year-old from Kanagawa Prefecture emerge from near-total obscurity to being one of the hottest properties on the SUPER GT grid?

Riki Okusa, #10 TANAX GAINER GT-R

Riki Okusa, #10 TANAX GAINER GT-R

Photo by: Masahide Kamio

The typical route for Japanese drivers when they graduate from karting is to enter Japanese Formula 4, which supports SUPER GT and was the place where drivers like Sho Tsuboi, Tadasuke Makino, Ritomo Miyata and even current AlphaTauri Formula 1 man Yuki Tsunoda cut their teeth.

Instead, on the advice of his mentor and now-Gainer stablemate Hironobu Yasuda, Okusa learned his craft in the second-tier Super Taikyu sportscar series, winning the ST-3 class title in 2019 at the wheel of a Lexus IS350.

“I started racing in Super Taikyu when I turned 18,” Okusa told Motorsport.com’s Japanese edition. “Yasuda-san told me, ‘forget about FIA F4, you should train in Super Taikyu’.

“Giving way to faster cars and how to keep a sense of distance are things that you can’t learn in F4, so I am glad I got to experience this in Super Taikyu.”

  • Stream every qualifying session and race of the 2022 SUPER GT season only on Motorsport.tv.

Okusa wasn’t done with single-seaters however. In a one-off All-Japan F3 outing at Fuji at the end of 2018, he finished a very respectable fifth, and then the following year he made it to the final four in the battle for that year’s Honda’s Suzuka Racing School scholarship.

Despite eschewing FIA F4, Okusa (45) kept his hand in single-seaters, impressing in Formula Regional Japan

Despite eschewing FIA F4, Okusa (45) kept his hand in single-seaters, impressing in Formula Regional Japan

But the quality of that year’s crop was high: current Formula 2 racer Ayumu Iwasa won the scholarship and a ticket to a paid drive in French F4, while Okusa’s other rivals were Iori Kimura, back for a second go after missing out on the ‘18 scholarship to Atsushi Miyake, and Shun Koide. Kimura and Koide would go on to race in Japanese F4 as Honda juniors while Okusa was discarded.

“That year the level of the drivers was really high, and it was a year when a lot of new fastest-ever laps were set,” Okusa reflected. “The fact I even made it to the final four gave me a lot of confidence. I was disappointed not to be selected [for a scholarship] but I just tried to look forward.”

In 2020, Okusa made a one-off outing in the all-new Formula Regional Japanese series at Fuji, scoring a podium, and the following year he competed in three race weekends out of five, taking two wins at Motegi and ending up third overall.

That was what attracted the attention of Gainer, who invited Okusa to a shootout as it pondered how to go about replacing the retiring Kazuki Hoshino and the departing Katsuyuki Hiranaka in its two car SUPER GT line-up.

#10 TANAX GAINER GT-R

#10 TANAX GAINER GT-R

Photo by: Masahide Kamio

The #10 car in which Okusa has partnered Tomita is viewed as the ‘junior’ car within the Gainer set-up, but such has been the rookie’s performances that he’s outscored the ‘senior’ #11 squad of his mentor Yasuda and Keishi Ishikawa.

“The theme this year was ‘stand out’, but I didn’t think I’d be able to show off my speed this much,” said Okusa. “Honestly, I’ve been able to fight better than I imagined. I’ve been the strongest rookie driver this year, so I am relieved.

“But I think it’s thanks to Tomita-san, to [tyre supplier] Dunlop, to Gainer, and to everything matching well that I’ve been able to show such a performance. I’ve nothing but gratitude.”

As part of the Nissan GT300 line-up, Okusa has to be regarded as a strong contender for a GT500 seat with the Yokohama marque in future seasons, even if 2023 is likely to be a year too soon. But given that Okusa has no official Nissan ties as such, Toyota and Honda would be doing themselves a disservice if they didn’t at least make enquiries about his availability.

Putting Okusa in a GT500 seat may seem like something of a risk on the face of it, but given how quickly he’s adapted to the lower category, and the fact he has a solid foundation of experience in Super Taikyu, he could turn out to be an excellent investment, not to mention the benefits of denying a rival marque one of the brightest young prospects on the grid.

Regardless of where he ends up, Okusa has marked himself as one to watch for the future this year. A rookie GT300 title at Motegi would merely be the cherry on the cake of a career-changing season.

Riki Okusa, Ryuichiro Tomita, #10 TANAX GAINER GT-R

Riki Okusa, Ryuichiro Tomita, #10 TANAX GAINER GT-R

Photo by: Masahide Kamio

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