Super GT silly season: How the 2019 grid could look
The Super GT silly season is in full swing, with talk of drivers switching manufacturers and new faces joining the series gathering pace.
All three Japanese giants are expected to shuffle their line-ups, but the biggest changes are expected at Nissan, which is set to overhaul its GT500 roster after an underwhelming end to the 2018 season.
The Yokohama-based manufacturer held a private shootout session at Fuji Speedway at the end of last year, pitting Lexus/Toyota racer James Rossiter, Porsche GT ace Frederic Makowiecki and Mercedes DTM outcast Dani Juncadella against some of its established drivers.
Of the trio, Rossiter has been linked to one of the Kondo seats alongside either Bathurst 12 Hour winner Katsumasa Chiyo or Nissan's new Formula E reserve Mitsunori Takaboshi.
The Englishman has won six races in the series so far and finished third in the championship in both 2013 and ‘14, but his association with Lexus/Toyota has been cast into question after a dismal season with TOM’S in Super Formula.
Heikki Kovalainen's former teammate Kohei Hirate is another Toyota-affiliated driver who looks set to jump ship and join Nissan this year after being moved to a GT300 role in 2018.
The 2016 champion could drive for the B-Max team alongside three-time champion Satoshi Motoyama, although Lucas Auer - who is driving for the team in Super Formula - has also been linked to that seat.
Elsewhere, NISMO pair Ronnie Quintarelli and Tsugio Matsuda are likely to keep their drives, while Daiki Sasaki is also expected to stay at Impul for another year.
With at least two new recruits at Nissan, some existing drivers could be transferred to Nissan's other motorsport programmes or dropped altogether.
Joao Paulo de Oliveira confirmed this week that he's splitting with the Yokohama-based manufacturer after 13 seasons during which he won nine races and came within five points of winning the 2015 title.
GT Academy graduate Jann Mardenborough, who nearly won the Fuji 500 miles alongside Sasaki, also looks like becoming a victim of Nissan's Super GT shake-up.
Although Chiyo has been liked to a Kondo drive, his place in Nissan's GT500 roster isn't totally safe at the moment.
#8 Autobacs Racing Team Aguri Honda NSX Concept GT: Tomoki Nojiri, Takuya Izawa
Photo by: Masahide Kamio
While it’s all but confirmed that Team Kunimitsu will keep an unchanged line-up of Naoki Yamamoto and Jenson Button after their 2018 title triumph, there is little certainty in some of the other Honda teams.
Former Le Mans 24 Hours class winner Bertrand Baguette appears to hold the key to the shake-up as he could stay with Nakajima Racing or join Real Racing squad, triggering a chain reaction in each case.
Real fielded Koudai Tsukakoshi and Takashi Kogure last year and both are in the running for the 2019 seats, alongside Baguette.
Ex-Formula 1 driver Narain Karthikeyan is expected to end his single-seater career and join Super GT after he tested for Nakajima Racing at Sepang.
Karthikeyan was joined by Honda GT300 racer Hiroki Otsu and Formula 2 race winner Tadasuke Makino, all of whom are in running for the two Nakajima seats along with Baguette.
Meanwhile, ARTA is likely to retain Tomoki Nojiri and Takuya Izawa, while Mugen may also decide to keep both Hideki Mutoh and Daisuke Nakajima.
Lexus LC500 line-up
Photo by: Masahide Kamio
Toyota is keen to hand a top-line Super GT seat to rising star Sho Tsuboi after the 23-year-old dominated the Japanese F3 series and scored a podium finish in a one-off GT500 appearance with the Sard team.
Tsuboi has been linked to seats at both Bandoh and Sard, although the Bandoh route appears more likely of the two after he tested for the squad at Sepang this month.
Kenta Yamashita is likely to make way for Tsuboi by joining Team LeMans, where he is set to replace IndyCar-bound Felix Rosenqvist.
Meanwhile, TOM’S will make no changes to its successful two-car line-up. Yuhi Sekiguchi and Kazuki Nakajima will share the team’s #36 car, while 2017 Nick Cassidy and Ryo Hirakawa will jointly pilot the team’s #37 LC 500.
Kamui Kobayashi is likely to quit Super GT after just one season to focus on his other two programmes with Toyota, namely the FIA World Endurance Championship and Super Formula. This could provide Yuichi Nakayama the chance to step up to the GT500 fold after several years driving Toyota machinery in GT300.
Although the three manufacturers will announce their Super GT line-up in separate events in the these two months, the recent tyre test at Sepang provided a reliable indicator of this year's line-up.
However, the situation is complicated by the fact that each manufacturer fielded only a limited number of cars - and hence only had a limited number of drivers to run.
Lexus had three cars at Sepang, with a Toyota Racing Development (TRD)-run car joining entries from Bandoh and TOM'S. Honda was represented by Nakajima Racing and Mugen and was also running its own development car, while Nissan ran a sole NISMO machine.
Expected line-up and rumoured drivers:
*Italics - rumoured
De Oliveira splits with Nissan after 13 Super GT seasons
Honda announces 2019 Super GT drivers, Button to stay on