January 19, 2021

How Honda’s youngest-ever Super GT champion was forged

During that dramatic SUPER GT season finale at Fuji Speedway last month, it was Naoki Yamamoto at the wheel of the Team Kunimitsu Honda when Ryo Hirakawa’s TOM’S Toyota slowed exiting the final corner having run out of fuel within sight of the chequered flag, allowing Honda to steal the title from under the nose of its arch-rival manufacturer.

Watching Yamamoto close on Hirakawa during that nail-biting final 15 or so laps, and the dramatic conclusion, it was easy to overlook Makino’s role in setting up his teammate with a great stint of his own – at least until the TV pictures showed Makino bawling his eyes out, celebrating with chief engineer Hitoshi Iyoki and the rest of the crew of the #100 NSX-GT once Yamamoto had crossed the line for the team’s second title in three years.

Surprisingly for a driver who, not so long ago, was being tipped as a prospect for a drive in Formula 1 with Honda, the SUPER GT title was the first championship crown Makino had earned since he won two titles in Super-FJ machinery back in 2014. And since then, it’s been something of a bumpy road for the now-23-year-old Osaka native, who spent two hard years racing in Europe’s junior formulae only for his F1 dreams to come to nothing.

Motorsport.com had the chance to catch up with Makino last weekend at Suzuka, where the penultimate round of the Super Formula championship was taking place only a matter of days after the incredible events of Fuji. Such a tight turnaround gave him precious little time to properly reflect on the biggest achievement of his career to date. 

“Honestly, I’ve done nothing to celebrate!” Makino says. “I think it will only sink in after the Super Formula season ends. But before the last round, it was very simple. We were just 100 percent focused on winning the race, the same as everybody else. Naoki-san did a really good job in his stint, I was just praying… and finally we got it. 

“Before the last two races, it was a really difficult season. Always in the race we weren’t bad, but in qualifying we struggled a lot. We were so frustrated.”

Naoki Yamamoto, Tadasuke Makino(#100 RAYBRIG NSX-GT)

Naoki Yamamoto, Tadasuke Makino(#100 RAYBRIG NSX-GT)

Photo by: Masahide Kamio

It was that frustration that partly explains the jubilant response to Yamamoto crossing the finish line at Fuji, but for Makino there was another dimension to the outpouring of emotion that was on display – his own struggles to establish himself as a professional racing driver.

There were a lot of feelings,” he says. “Of course I was happy to win, but [more than that], a few years ago I was thinking of quitting racing, because of money problems. But many sponsors helped me, and I was able to continue racing. I was thinking about a lot of things [when Yamamoto won the race], so that’s why I started crying.”

In the post-race press conference, Makino in particular thanked current Nissan GT300 driver Hironobu Yasuda for his help through a particularly tough period financially, which came in the form of a chance to drive for his Hirotex Racing team in go-karts. From there he was able to graduate to cars, with his Super-FJ crowns being followed by a close runner-up spot in the 2015 Japanese Formula 4 series to another future GT500 star, Toyota’s Sho Tsuboi.

“I was in karting, I was maybe 17 years old,” recalls Makino. “It was when I was having money troubles and I was close to finishing my racing career, but Yasuda-san helped me. He had a karting team, so I was driving for this team, and also around this time a lot of sponsors helped me. Thanks to them I was able to drive Super-FJ and Formula 4.

“[In 2015] I went to Honda’s driving school [at Suzuka]. At this time, of course I wanted to become a professional driver. To do this you need to either go to Honda’s or Toyota’s driving school. Several years earlier, I went to Toyota’s racing school, and I passed, but this time also I had money problems and I couldn’t even pay the first budget. Years later I moved to Honda, finally, and at this time a lot of sponsors helped me to drive in Formula 3.”

Tadasuke Makino(TODA RACING)

Tadasuke Makino(TODA RACING)

It was in 2016 that Makino joined the Honda ‘Formula Dream Project’ scheme, securing a drive in All-Japan Formula 3 with the unfancied Toda Racing team. While he was only fifth overall that year, he handsomely outperformed his fellow Honda-backed drivers, and distinguished himself in a couple of early SUPER GT outings – memorably helping the Drago Corse squad to second place in Thailand on his debut in a GT500 car.

Those showings convinced Honda to send Makino to race in the European Formula 3 series in 2017, and after a single season with Hitech GP that was disrupted by a wrist injury, he was suddenly thrust into Formula 2 with Russian Time for 2018. But how does he look back on those two crucial formative years of his career now, with the benefit of hindsight?

“I’m not frustrated [with the results], because it was a really good experience for me,” he says. “It was a surprise to get that chance to race in European F3 but I learned a lot of things, also about the difference between the Japanese style and European style of racing. The tracks in Japan are a lot smoother, but European tracks are very different.

“It’s difficult to say [if a second year in F3 would have been beneficial],  but if you have the chance to move up to F2, of course you have to take it. Iit was a really difficult situation because I’d never tried the Pirelli tyre. Honestly I wanted to do one more year in F2. The first year, there were many things I experienced for the first time. By the time of the last few rounds, I’d learned the Pirelli tyre and I had good confidence, but Honda decided everything.”

Despite the promise Makino showed, particularly in his feature race win at Monza, his two-year European adventure was doomed by a failure to score any superlicence points, as he finished 15th overall in F3 and then 13th in F2. That consideration was behind Honda’s decision to send Makino and his compatriot Nirei Fukuzumi back to Japan in 2019, with Nobuharu Matsushita going the other way after a single year in Super Formula.

Tadasuke Makino, RUSSIAN TIME

Tadasuke Makino, RUSSIAN TIME

Photo by: FIA Formula 2

It’s clear that not being given a second chance in F2 in particular is something that still hurts. Asked how he felt when he was given the news about Honda’s plans to place him in Super Formula and SUPER GT, it’s clear that Makino is taking care not to say anything to offend the company that has done so much for him, only commenting: “It’s difficult to say.” 

When it’s put to him that he must have been pretty upset about the situation, he lets out a “yeah” before adding: “But now my focus is 100 percent on Super Formula and SUPER GT.”

At that time, it must have been hard for Makino to get excited about the prospect of a season with Nakajima Racing in SUPER GT, given that the team’s Dunlop-shod NSX-GT finished last in the championship in 2018 with a best finish of ninth. But, sharing the car with ex-grand prix driver Narain Karthikeyan, he made the most of the situation, and in wet conditions at Sugo he was able to match the second place he scored on his GT500 debut.

Reflecting on that season, Makino says: “I learned a lot of things, especially about tyre development. I learned about constructions, compounds and everything. It was a really good introduction. Also, driving the Dunlop tyre, you get a lot more testing because you are the only car [using the tyre]. I was able to drive a lot and get a lot of mileage, which was really important, especially as this year there was almost no chance to test because of coronavirus.”

#64 Nakajima Racing Honda NSX-GT: Narain Karthikeyan, Tadasuke Makino

#64 Nakajima Racing Honda NSX-GT: Narain Karthikeyan, Tadasuke Makino

Photo by: Masahide Kamio

When Jenson Button called time on his SUPER GT tenure, opening a prime spot alongside Yamamoto at Team Kunimitsu for 2020, Makino was chosen to step in, giving Yamamoto a younger – and arguably quicker – teammate for the first time. With an average grid slot for the year of seventh, the duo were rarely the quickest, even among the Honda camp. But, their consistency was unmatched by any of the other NSX-GT crews.

Indeed, sixth in the Toyota-dominated Fuji season opener turned out to be Yamamoto and Makino’s worst finish of the whole season, and there was only one non-score when Makino was rammed from behind on his way into pits by Nick Cassidy’s Toyota at Suzuka.

Makino described that incident as a “turning point” of the season, as the Team Kunimitsu crew scrambled to replace the mangled rear bodywork of the #100 NSX-GT and send it back out on track with Yamamoto at the wheel, albeit 20 laps down on the rest of the field.

It was a really frustrating situation,” Makino says. “But I think all of the team members really wanted to win after this accident. It changed our mindset, I think. It was a really good thing, it was motivating. Also, before Fuji the other two [Bridgestone-shod] Hondas, the #8 [ARTA] and the #17 [Real Racing], had won races, and we hadn’t. The last win for the #100 car was at Sugo in 2018, so everyone in the team was really determined to win.”

#100 RAYBRIG NSX-GT

#100 RAYBRIG NSX-GT

Photo by: Masahide Kamio

Makino continues a recent trend of young drivers winning the GT500 title early in their careers, joining Nick Cassidy (2017) and Kenta Yamashita (2019) in doing so at just the second attempt. Although not as young as Cassidy was at the time of his triumph alongside Hirakawa, Makino is the youngest to have won the title at the wheel of a Honda, seven years younger than Yamamoto was when he took the 2018 crown alongside Button.

Back when Makino was unveiled as Button’s replacement in January at the Tokyo Auto Salon, the youngster laid out his ambitions to help Team Kunimitsu recapture the title in no uncertain terms. Such fighting talk will have only added to the inevitable pressure to form a strong partnership with Yamamoto from the off, but he did so with admirable aplomb.

The blend of youthful speed and experience that the Makino/Yamamoto axis provides is likely to prove tough to beat in years to come. In fact, with the Hirakawa/Cassidy partnership having now reached its conclusion, there’s an argument to say the Team Kunimitsu duo will now be the strongest pairing on the grid, depending on how the silly season shakes out.

“Of course after Jenson left, it was big pressure to replace him,” Makino admits. “But it wasn’t like I was worried or anything, just normal feelings of pressure. I had a good relationship with Naoki, even before the first race. He has a lot of experience, and he can set-up the car and develop the car, and tyre selection. I learnt a lot of things from him, and I’m still learning. It’s a really good situation for me, Naoki is one of the best drivers in Japan.

“I remember saying at the Tokyo Auto Salon, I would try to turn the #100 car into the #1 car. It was a big thing to say, but finally we came back with the #1 car, so I’m really happy.”

Naoki Yamamoto, Tadasuke Makino(#100 RAYBRIG NSX-GT)

Naoki Yamamoto, Tadasuke Makino(#100 RAYBRIG NSX-GT)

Photo by: Masahide Kamio

View Original Article Source