Motorsport.com once again brings you its countdown of the most impressive performers from both of Japan's two top categories, with a mixture of home-grown talent and international stars making up this year's list. Following much deliberation, debate, drafting and re-drafting, read on to see who makes the cut after a unique season.
Heikki Kovalainen seemed like a different driver at the end of 2020 compared to at the end of each of his last two seasons, rejuvenated by SARD getting its act together internally under the guidance of new team director Juichi Wakisaka. After missing the first two races of the year due to travel restrictions, the Finn extended his streak of winning at least one race a season into a fifth year, and looks primed for a tilt at a second title in 2021.
Honda protege Nirei Fukuzumi impressed in his first year of GT500 competition with ARTA, doing a perfect job of battling his inner demons while essentially racing himself to deliver the first win of a troubled year for the team at Motegi. In Super Formula too, he was closer to teammate Naoki Yamamoto than the raw figures suggest, suffering more than his fair share of bad luck. A first victory in the category surely can't be far away.
Kazuki Hiramine and Ritomo Miyata likewise excelled as rookies in SUPER GT's top class. Hiramine rapidly established himself as the de facto number one driver over error-prone Daiki Sasaki at the Impul Nissan squad, and deserved much more than the sole podium he scored. Miyata meanwhile made the most of being on the unfancied Yokohama tyre in the Bandoh Toyota, and was also impressive on his two cameos in Super Formula for TOM'S, outqualifying his reigning champion teammate Nick Cassidy on both occasions.
, who shone on all three of his cameos in the series this year - firstly replacing Kovalainen at SARD and then Cassidy at TOM'S. But the hoped-for title challenge in Super Formula with Kondo Racing under the guidance of experienced engineer Kazuya Abe (the architect of Yamamoto's 2013 and 2018 titles) didn't quite materialise, although he still finished a creditable sixth in the standings after finishing in the points in every race he started.
Kenta Yamashita（KONDO RACING）
5th in Super Formula / 5th in SUPER GT (with Nirei Fukuzumi)
It was a close-run thing between Nojiri and his full-season SUPER GT teammate Fukuzumi for the final spot on the list. Fukuzumi’s lack of GT500 experience makes his early errors easier to forgive than some of veteran Nojiri’s blunders, but what tipped the scales in favour of the latter was an accomplished Super Formula season that came close to landing him the title.
Indeed, with a better start from pole, a quicker pitstop and no puncture in the Fuji finale, it would have been Nojiri and not his more celebrated Honda colleague Yamamoto that walked away with the silverware. As it was, the Mugen driver ended up fifth overall, but able to look back on by far his most consistent season in the single-seater category.
In SUPER GT, Nojiri can be blamed for costing ARTA two victories at Fuji, but he redeemed himself with a flawless opening stint to set up the win at Motegi, which he followed up with another solid display in the Fuji finale in unpromising circumstances. Assuming they stay together in 2021, he and Fukuzumi ought to be a force to be reckoned with.
#8 Autobacs Racing Team Aguri Honda NSX-GT: Tomoki Nojiri, Nirei Fukuzumi
13th in Super Formula / 4th in SUPER GT (with Yuhi Sekiguchi)
Having faced the possible end of his career in the wake of Renault’s decision to drop him from its junior programme two years ago, it’s been quite the turnaround from Fenestraz, who has cemented his place as a Toyota factory driver in his second year in Japan.
In Super Formula, a debut podium at Motegi was followed by one of the most horrible luckless streaks suffered by any driver in recent memory. That he scored only two more points finishes all years was in no way a reflection of the potential he displayed, as exemplified by his perfect qualifying record against Kondo teammate Kenta Yamashita.
Fenestraz was arguably even more impressive in SUPER GT as he replaced Kazuki Nakajima alongside Yuhi Sekiguchi in the #36 TOM’S car. In fact, while the experienced Sekiguchi blew hot and cold all year, GT500 rookie Fenestraz was a paragon of consistency - and while there were a few heated battles in his stints, it's hard to think of one serious error he made.
Sacha Fenestraz（#36 au TOM'S GR Supra）
3rd in SUPER GT (with Bertrand Baguette)
In the season that he racked up his 100th SUPER GT start, the understated Tsukakoshi again proved why he’s such an indispensable asset to both Honda and the Real Racing team, making a significant contribution to both of Katsutomo Kaneishi squad’s wins this year.
At the second race Fuji, Tsukakoshi was snapping at Nojiri’s heels and there to apply the pressure that caused the latter to spin on cold tyres and allow the handsome Keihin-liveried car to sweep past for its first win in two years. And at Motegi two races later, Tsukakoshi had to negotiate Hiroaki Ishiura’s Toyota and then resist the pressure of the safety car restart in the closing stages to seal the win while carrying 46kg of ballast.
Tsukakoshi was left without a full-time drive in Super Formula this year following Real’s disappearance from the grid, but did a typically strong job in two outings for Drago Corse when Tatiana Calderon was unable to attend the Okayama and Sugo rounds. His experience was just what the relatively inexperienced one-car team needed to sort its set-up.
#17 KEIHIN NSX-GT
6th in SUPER GT (with Tsugio Matsuda)
At 40 years old, four-time SUPER GT champion Quintarelli shows no sign of slowing down - and while he fell short of what would have been a record-extending fifth GT500 title, he proved that if Nissan gives him the necessary tools, he’s still more than up to the job.
It would certainly be fair to say that Quintarelli did the bulk of the heavy lifting in his seventh season in tandem with teammate Tsugio Matsuda in the flagship NISMO GT-R. His pass for the lead around the outside of Yuji Tachikawa in the first Suzuka race was memorable, as was the three-in-one move in the Fuji finale that for a fleeting moment put Nissan in position to take the title before the reality of tyre degradation set in.
But arguably more impressive than such showy moves was Quintarelli’s knack of simply lapping consistently at the pace the Nissan-Michelin package allowed. He had the #23 car higher than it had much right to be in the second Motegi race, and his laps leading up to the safety car period at Suzuka were critical to being able to take advantage of such a huge stroke of luck.
#23 NISMO Nissan GT-R: Tsugio Matsuda, Ronnie Quintarelli
3rd in Super Formula / 7th in SUPER GT (with Kazuya Oshima)
In his second year of Super Formula and GT500 competition, Toyota protege Tsuboi once again demonstrated the prodigious speed that is sure to make him a champion in either or both categories in due course, and perhaps get himself on the radar for a chance overseas.
Tsuboi’s qualifying effort to put himself second on the grid for the final round of the Super Formula season at Fuji has to rank as one of the laps of the year, and from there he put together a flawless race to grab a second victory to add to the one he took ahead of Inging teammate Hiroaki Ishiura at Okayama. Over the course of the year he out-qualified the retiring two-time champion 4-3, another signal of the changing of the guard in the single-seater series.
Partnering reigning champion Kazuya Oshima in Cerumo’s ‘Rookie Racing’-branded car in SUPER GT, Tsuboi was always one to watch whenever he climbed aboard the #14 Supra, showing blistering pace en route to three podiums in the first five races. Seventh overall for he and Oshima at the end of the year was poor recompense for his efforts.
Sho Tsuboi（JMS P.MU／CERUMO・INGING）
12th in Super Formula / 1st in SUPER GT (with Naoki Yamamoto)
It’s hard to believe that a driver as talented as Makino had gone six years without winning a championship prior to this season, but that was finally put to bed when he and Naoki Yamamoto came through to win the SUPER GT title for Team Kunimitsu and Honda.
In the early part of the year, Makino arguably shaded the more experienced Yamamoto, belying his lack of experience on Bridgestones and immediately proving at least the equal of the man he replaced in the #100 car, Jenson Button. His drive at Suzuka that gave he and Yamamoto their first podium of the year in August was superb, as was the opening stint that ultimately set the team up for title glory in the Fuji title-decider.
Less than half of teammate Toshiki Oyu’s points in Super Formula may seem unimpressive on the face of it, but it has to be remembered that Makino was taken out by the rookie in two of his six races, and ended up missing the finale due to illness. Providing he makes a full recovery, there’s little reason to think he won’t be up with the best of the Honda runners next year.
#100 Team Kunimitsu Honda NSX-GT: Naoki Yamamoto, Tadasuke Makino
3rd in SUPER GT (with Koudai Tsukakoshi)
Following the departure of both Button and Narain Karthikeyan, Baguette was left as the sole ‘gaijin’ on Honda’s GT500 roster this season. And the Belgian assembled arguably his finest campaign of his seven so far in SUPER GT to justify the marque’s continued faith in him, all while being stuck in Japan and unable to visit his family back home.
In his second year on Bridgestone tyres, Baguette formed an increasingly tight bond with Tsukakoshi, only this time he was very often the more impressive of the pair. Besides the drives that teed up Real Racing’s two wins, his showings in the final two rounds of the season were a joy to watch, as he battled up the order to keep his team’s title hopes alive.
In the final reckoning it wasn’t quite enough, but this was a season in which Real Racing really re-established itself as a force to be reckoned with within the Honda fold, and Baguette can justifiably claim a large part of the credit for that. At 34, Baguette is still very much at his peak, and his hunger for a first SUPER GT title is clear to see. It would be no surprise to see him fulfil that ambition in the seasons to come on the evidence of 2020.
Bertrand Baguette（#17 KEIHIN NSX-GT）
1st in Super Formula / 1st in SUPER GT (with Tadasuke Makino)
It might seem harsh to put the driver that became the first-ever to earn a second ‘double’ of Super Formula and SUPER GT crowns only third in this list. But to put Yamamoto at the top would be to succumb to ‘recency bias’ and overlook an uncharacteristically mediocre start to the year, albeit one which he deserves great credit in turning around.
It took until October’s third round of the Super Formula season at Sugo for Yamamoto to really put in a noteworthy performance, as he bagged the final step on the podium to get his title challenge back on track. That was followed by the second Suzuka SUPER GT race, where the misfortune of Makino being hit in the pits by Cassidy seemed to have a strange galvanising effect on both the Kunimitsu team, and crucially Yamamoto himself.
From there it was all uphill: he came close to overhauling the huge safety car-assisted advantage of the Nakajima Honda for second at Motegi, narrowly lost out to Nojiri in a tight Super Formula battle at Autopolis, delivered the stint of his life in a GT car at Fuji to claim that title, and then dominated the SF field in the first race at Suzuka. After losing a chance to wrap up the title early the next day, he did exactly what was required at Fuji to seal the deal.
Naoki Yamamoto, DOCOMO TEAM DANDELION RACING
4th in Super Formula / 8th in SUPER GT
Even before he’d got his Super Formula or SUPER GT campaigns underway, Cassidy achieved his long-cherished dream of a top drive in a global series when he inked a deal to join Envision Virgin Racing in Formula E for 2021. But that didn’t detract from the task at hand in what, for now at least, proved to be his final season in Japan’s two premier categories.
Some anonymous qualifying performances notwithstanding, Cassidy was the driver of the season in Super Formula. His race pace was often on another level to that of his rivals, and had his Toyota engine not gone pop while he was leading the second Suzuka race, it’s highly likely he would have bowed out of the category as a two-time champion.
Unfortunately, the conflict between the Formula E test at Valencia and the final round of the SUPER GT season at Fuji ultimately denied Cassidy a shot at taking a second title alongside Ryo Hirakawa. But up to the point he was replaced in the #37 car, he was frequently among the quickest drivers on track, always fully committed and exciting to watch. Whoever ends up filling his place alongside Hirakawa has an unimaginably tough act to follow.
#37 KeePer TOM'S GR Supra
2nd in Super Formula / 2nd in SUPER GT
To say that motorsport can be cruel at times has become something of a cliche, but if any driver can justify a degree of self-pity this winter, it’s Hirakawa. At the midpoint of the season, the Toyota driver looked good for both the Super Formula and SUPER GT crowns, and that he came away with neither prize was little short of a travesty of justice for a man who had no peer when it came to combining speed and consistency in 2020.
We’ve become used to Hirakawa being in the mix for SUPER GT titles in the last four seasons, so it was little surprise to see he and Cassidy at the vanguard of the Toyota GR Supra charge, but it was in Super Formula that Hirakawa really turned heads. Last year he and Impul stablemate Sekiguchi were hard to separate, but Hirakawa’s domination of the Motegi opener set the tone for probably the most one-sided intra-team battle on the grid.
If Hirakawa made his anguish at losing the SUPER GT title plain for all to see, his disappointment of coming up two points shy in Super Formula was much more well-concealed. He had clearly been swimming against the tide in the closing stages of the season as the power advantage of the Honda runners became clear, but a first title in the category is surely only a matter of time if he can keep up his 2020 form.
Ryo Hirakawa, Team Impul
To revisit last year's Super Formula/SUPER GT Top 10 list, click here.