This year’s list has a very different feel to it compared to the 2021 version, with only four of last year’s top 10 making the grade this time. Among those to miss the cut are three of last year’s top five, including the second-placed driver from ’21. On the other hand, there are three new entries and three returning from previous years. Read on to see who makes the grade!
Toshiki Oyu had an up-and-down third season in Super Formula for Nakajima Racing, the highlights of which were a podium at Sugo and a maiden pole at Motegi. But he was easily the pick of the bunch across Dunlop’s two-car stable in SUPER GT, setting the pace in Q1 on two occasions and shining in the wet when a podium was up for grabs at Sugo.
Oyu’s Nakajima Racing teammate Naoki Yamamoto had an easy run to a first Super Formula win in the wet at Motegi, but managed only one top-six finish in the dry. In SUPER GT he was still the gold standard in the Honda camp, exemplified by his controlled win in the Motegi finale, but his final-lap crash at Suzuka proved costly to Team Kunimitsu’s chances.
Nobuharu Matsushita was another driver to take a wet Super Formula win, breaking his victory duck at Suzuka, but elsewhere the one-car B-Max Racing squad struggled badly. Matsushita and Koudai Tsukakoshi kept Real Racing in title contention until the end in SUPER GT but a lacklustre performance in the Motegi decider put paid to their hopes.
Yuhi Sekiguchi didn’t light up the SARD Toyota team in the way some had hoped when he was named as Heikki Kovalainen’s replacement at the team. But his peaks in an inconsistent Super Formula season were superb, as he would have likely won at Fuji in July if not for a pesky loose wheel, before he fought off Impul teammate Ryo Hirakawa to win at Motegi.
In the Nissan camp, Mitsunori Takaboshi did a solid job in his first season with NISMO and on Michelin tyres as partner to Katsumasa Chiyo, while Kohei Hirate also impressed as he went in the opposition direction to the Yokohama-shod Kondo Racing squad. Daiki Sasaki likewise deserves credit for Kondo’s strongest campaign in some years.
10. Ukyo Sasahara (new entry)
6th in Super Formula / 14th in SUPER GT (with Toshiki Oyu)
It was a close call between Sasahara and his Team Mugen SUPER GT partner Oyu for the final spot on this list. Oyu somehow seemed to be able to get more out of the Red Bull-liveried Honda NSX-GT’s Dunlop tyres than Sasahara, particularly in qualifying, but in Super Formula, the latter was unquestionably the more impressive. If this list was based on only the single-seater series, needless to say he’d be much further up the order.
Perennial super-sub Sasahara grabbed an unexpected 11th-hour chance to join Tomoki Nojiri at Mugen with both hands, making a statement of intent with pole at the Fuji opener. Some misfortune in the early races was finally balanced out with a dash of fortune in Round 6 at Fuji, where Sasahara scored a long-awaited first win, but more impressive was his charge to victory at Suzuka in the penultimate round, passing Nojiri for good measure.
Despite finishing as the third-best Honda driver in the standings, Sasahara is understood to have been made what can only be described as an insultingly poor offer by the marque for 2023. It’s a decision Honda could live to regret as Sasahara weighs up whether to leave the manufacturer.
9. Sho Tsuboi (up 1)
11th in Super Formula / 10th in SUPER GT (with Giuliano Alesi)
The fact that the #36 TOM’S crew endured the limpest SUPER GT title defence since MOLA’s disastrous 2013 season can in no way be attributed to the performance of Tsuboi, who was arguably the standout driver of the Toyota stable. Giuliano Alesi’s lack of pace was simply too much of a hurdle to overcome, with the car’s best results coming in the longer races where Tsuboi could do the bulk of the driving. Always tasked with Q1 in qualifying, the reigning champion was fastest in the opening segment four times out of eight.
Tsuboi’s fourth season in Super Formula at the Inging squad was something of a letdown, especially after expectations had been raised with some seriously rapid pre-season times. But by the middle of the season there were clear signs of a revival, and only a mistimed pitstop cost him the chance of a first win since 2020 at Fuji in Round 6.
In 2023, Tsuboi will be paired with Ritomo Miyata in the #36 Toyota in SUPER GT, while in Super Formula he sticks with Inging as part of an unchanged driver line-up. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see him return to the top step of the podium in either series.
8. Tadasuke Makino (re-entry)
5th in Super Formula / 3rd in SUPER GT (with Naoki Yamamoto)
Following Nirei Fukuzumi’s move to Drago Corse in Super Formula, Makino was promoted to Dandelion’s #5 car for 2022 – and working with ace engineer Kimitoshi Sugisaki, the results were a big improvement on his first season with the team, even taking into account his early 2021 illness. After a shaky opening weekend at Fuji, he established himself as one of the series’ most consistent performers, highlighted by podiums at Suzuka and Motegi – although he was left frustrated to miss out on the first win he’s been chasing since 2019.
Makino didn’t get too many chances to shine in SUPER GT as he drove the unglamorous opening stints before handing over to Naoki Yamamoto. But he was responsible for Team Kunimitsu’s pole in the season finale at Motegi, before he proceeded to drive away from the field prior to the safety car. It’s not hard to see why he called it the best stint of his career.
Already a champion and proven ace in SUPER GT, the aim for next year for Makino has to be to break through for that first Super Formula win with Dandelion. If he can find that extra half a percent of outright speed, it’s surely only a matter of time before it comes.
7. Kazuki Hiramine (new entry)
1st in SUPER GT (with Bertrand Baguette)
Since he got the nod to replace James Rossiter at Team Impul in 2020, Hiramine has been steadily burnishing his reputation as one of Nissan’s most dependably fast and exciting GT500 talents. But it was clear that he and Bertrand Baguette – his third different teammate in three years in the #12 car – were a match made in heaven. From Round 4 at Fuji onwards, the pair were pretty much the class of the field, with Hiramine’s highlight being his memorable charge to victory in Round 5 at Suzuka after a well-timed caution period.
What stops Hiramine from featuring as high up this list as his teammate is the fact he was responsible for some errors, notably running wide exiting the pits at Fuji and going off-track at Autopolis while battling the Rookie Racing Toyota. That said, the points given away in the process were minor, and didn’t ultimately prevent he and Baguette from clinching the title.
More importantly, Impul boss Kazuyoshi Hoshino loves a tryer, and is usually willing to overlook mistakes that have come about simply as a result of his driver pushing as hard as possible. And there’s certainly no denying that’s exactly what Hiramine did in 2022.
6. Ritomo Miyata (up 2)
4th in Super Formula / 6th in SUPER GT (with Sacha Fenestraz)
Miyata has long been regarded as one of Toyota’s brightest young prospects, but this was the season that he really established himself firmly in the top rank of the marque’s domestic talents. That was clearest in Super Formula as he qualified fourth or higher in every race bar three – once at Fuji, where he lost his times for causing a red flag, and twice at Motegi, his self-proclaimed bogey track. Fourth in the points, Miyata utterly crushed TOM’S teammate Giuliano Alesi after a 2021 season in which they had been much more evenly matched.
In SUPER GT, Miyata was given the chance to step up to the Bridgestone stable after two seasons of heroics on Yokohama tyres, replacing WEC-bound Ryo Hirakawa at TOM’S. Paired with his close friend Sacha Fenestraz, the pair fell short in their quest to become the series’ youngest-ever champions, but did manage to win the August Fuji race, and would have been higher up the points standings without a penalty at the same track in May.
With Fenestraz off to Formula E next year, Miyata moves across to the #36 TOM’S car to Tsuboi, a combination that has ‘title challenger’ written all over it. In Super Formula he remains at TOM’S, but whether he’ll have Alesi as his teammate again remains to be seen.
5. Katsumasa Chiyo (new entry)
2nd in SUPER GT (with Mitsunori Takaboshi)
It’s hard to think of another driver in GT500 who has shown such outstanding progression in the past two years as Chiyo. From a year on the sidelines to a slightly underwhelming first year at what was then the B-Max/NDDP Nissan outfit in 2020, the 35-year-old has grown in stature and confidence, and seemed to excel in the role of ‘A-driver’ this year after two years alongside Kohei Hirate, which coincided with NISMO taking over the running of the #3 car.
After he and Mitsunori Takaboshi were robbed of the chance of delivering Nissan a first win at Fuji, Chiyo showed a statement of intent next time out at Suzuka with a spellbinding Q1 lap, and set the foundations for a first win in his opening stint. Equally impressive was the way he took advantage of the Michelin tyre’s superiority in the rain at Sugo, outfoxing the sister #23 Nissan to make it two wins in the opening six races.
Chiyo and Takaboshi did what few would have expected at the start of the season, which was to become the benchmark pairing of the two-car NISMO stable. Whether Nissan will opt to switch up its line-ups as a result will be one of the key storylines to follow this winter.
4. Ryo Hirakawa (down 1)
3rd in Super Formula
For the first time since 2017, Hirakawa was only engaged in one of Japan’s two premier categories this season, following Toyota’s decision to stand down Kazuki Nakajima from its WEC line-up in favour of his younger compatriot. While Hirakawa was outstanding from Le Mans onwards in the Toyota GR010 Hybrid, for the purposes of this ranking, only his Super Formula achievements with Team Impul can be considered.
On paper, this was an improved season compared to 2021: Hirakawa finished third overall instead of fourth, comfortably clear of teammate Yuhi Sekiguchi, and he scored two victories after a winless ‘21. But at the same time, he went from being the top dog of the Toyota stable to being beaten fair and square by his old SUPER GT partner Sacha Fenestraz. As Hirakawa admitted, his struggles in qualifying told the story – not only did Fenestraz have a better record, so did fellow Toyota users Ritomo Miyata and Sho Tsuboi.
There will also be an element of frustration that Hirakawa couldn’t take full advantage of what was an improved season for Toyota on the whole after a year of having no hope against Honda. As he prepares for a sixth season at Impul next year, he’ll have to hope that trend continues if he’s finally to snatch the crown that has eluded him for too long.
3. Bertrand Baguette (re-entry)
1st in SUPER GT (with Kazuki Hiramine)
When news first emerged of Baguette switching from Honda to Nissan for 2022, effectively ‘swapping’ places with Nobuharu Matsushita, it seemed like the latter may have got the better side of the deal. But in the end, Baguette’s exit from Honda turned out to be a major blessing in disguise, as he joined Nissan for the first year of the all-conquering Z, and at an Impul team that was strengthened by the arrival of Kazuki Hoshino as an advisor.
Paired with Kazuki Hiramine aboard the iconic #12 Calsonic-liveried Z, Baguette admitted it took him a few rounds to get his head around how to extract the most from his new equipment after eight seasons in a Honda NSX. But in race trim he was fast from the outset, making barely a mistake all season, and he improved his one-lap pace as well, with his Q2 lap and subsequent opening stint in the Motegi finale proving crucial to Impul’s title triumph.
Baguette is virtually alone in the GT500 field in having a wife and children on the other side of the world, and Japan’s strict travel restrictions prevented him from being with his family for much of 2020-21. From that standpoint, you’d struggle to find anyone in the paddock who wasn’t chuffed for the Belgian when he and Hiramine got the job done at Motegi.
2. Sacha Fenestraz (re-entry)
2nd in Super Formula / 6th in SUPER GT (with Ritomo Miyata)
After a 2021 that was more or less a write-off due to Japan’s travel restrictions and visa woes, Fenestraz was back with a bang in 2022. Boosted by the arrival of Michael Krumm to smooth over communication with his Kondo Racing team in Super Formula, he immediately emerged as a threat for wins and podiums. After taking his first win at Sugo, he should have finished closer to eventual champion Tomoki Nojiri than he ultimately did, but in the end he saw off Ryo Hirakawa to finish the year as runner-up and top Toyota driver.
In SUPER GT, Fenestraz was promoted to the role of ‘A-driver’ in the #37 TOM’S car, predictably gelling well with his new partner Ritomo Miyata. An off-weekend in the opener at Okayama and a costly spin in qualifying at Autopolis aside, Fenestraz performed strongly, generally making the most of what was not always a terribly competitive Toyota/Bridgestone package, particularly in the latter part of the season after the two Fuji races.
Japanese racing’s loss is Formula E’s gain next year, as Fenestraz embarks on a new adventure with Nissan in the all-electric series. Hopes of combining FE with a part-season in one of Super Formula or SUPER GT have come to naught, but what seems certain is that at some point in future, in some fashion, the popular Franco-Argentine will be back.
1. Tomoki Nojiri (no change)
1st in Super Formula / 12th in SUPER GT (with Nirei Fukuzumi)
For a second year running, there was really no question about who would top this ranking. At the halfway point of the season, it did look as if Nojiri would have serious competition on his hands to defend his Super Formula title, but a podium at Round 6 at Fuji on a day that both of his nearest rivals, Sacha Fenestraz and Ryo Hirakawa, were eliminated in crashes, swung the pendulum firmly back in favour of the Team Mugen driver. In the end, for a second year in a row, Nojiri was able to wrap up the crown with a race to spare.
Even as it became increasingly likely Nojiri would become Japan’s first back-to-back top single-seater champion since Tsugio Matsuda in 2007-08, he was clearly troubled by a growing winless streak as he drove very much with the championship in mind. After giving best to teammate Ukyo Sasahara in the opening Suzuka race and winning the title with second, he stamped his authority on the field the next day with a dominant pole-to-win.
A rather fortunate win at Fuji aside, the less said about ARTA’s SUPER GT season the better, and Nojiri – in typical Japanese racing driver fashion – was keen to shoulder some of the blame for the team’s failings. But the good news is that he gets the chance to start afresh next year as ARTA joins forces with his Super Formula team Mugen for a two-car attack.