Getting to know Honda GT500 rookies Ren Sato and Riki Okusa

By Jamie Klein

Getting to know Honda GT500 rookies Ren Sato and Riki Okusa

Honda is opening a new chapter in its long SUPER GT history this year with the introduction of an all-new GT500 car, the Civic Type R-GT. But the 2024 season also brings with it a major change in the Sakura-based manufacturer’s driver lineups.

Four of the five Honda crews are entering the season with new driver pairings, and of those, two feature total newcomers to the championship’s top GT500 class. Ren Sato makes his return to SUPER GT after two seasons away in the #16 ARTA car, while Riki Okusa steps up from the GT300 class to join Nakajima Racing in the #64 Civic Type R-GT.

Ahead of the start of the season at Okayama International Circuit on April 13-14, both Sato and Okusa shared their thoughts about their rise to the top and the season to come.

Sato is no stranger to ARTA, as he drove for the team in the 2021 season in the GT300 class, sharing a Honda NSX GT3 with Shinichi Takagi. He showed good speed that year, earning three podiums, but his campaign was overshadowed by a collision with the Team Kunimitsu Honda NSX-GT of Naoki Yamamoto in the title-deciding race at Fuji.

The following season, Sato made his debut in Super Formula, where he has spent the last two seasons honing his craft. Incidentally, he became Yamamoto’s teammate last year at Nakajima Racing after winning Rookie of the Year in 2022, and the 22-year-old has gained a reputation for being one of the fastest young drivers in the championship.

“It was three years ago that I drove in SUPER GT, and since then I’ve always been hoping to return,” says Sato. “I’ve been watching the races on TV and trying to learn from that.

“Lately in Super Formula I’ve been quick in both qualifying and the race, and that’s helped me with my confidence, and I think the experience I’ve gained with the set-up will be useful [in SUPER GT]. Since I debuted in Super Formula, my understanding of racing cars has increased a lot, so I think it’s made it a lot easier for me to make the step up.”

Sato had his first taste of the new Civic Type R-GT at a private test at Okayama in February, and has since driven the car in two tests at Suzuka and the two official pre-season tests at Okayama and Fuji Speedway. In that time, he has formed a close bond with teammate Hiroki Otsu, who was one of the instructors at Suzuka Racing School (now Honda Racing School) when Sato came through the ranks as a fresh-faced 18-year-old back in 2017.

Driving the #16 ARTA car, Otsu and his 2023 teammate Nirei Fukuzumi finished as the top Honda crew in the championship last year, staying in contention for the title until the final race. Sato admits there’s some pressure to maintain that kind of form as Aguri Suzuki’s eponymous team chases a coveted first GT500 title since 2007.

“I’m in the same team that finished last season as the top Honda team in the championship, so I feel some sense of responsibility, but in each test I’ve been getting more and more confident,” says Sato. “It’s a bit heavier than the Super Formula car, but I’ve been able to get used to the car and I feel comfortable in the car in both wet and dry conditions.”

On his goals for the season, Sato adds: “As I’ve told Aguri-san, my aim is to try and score points in every race, and not leave anything on the table. And then, if we get the chance to fight for a podium or victory, then we’ll do our best to achieve that.”

While Sato was already part of the Honda family last season, his fellow GT500 rookie Okusa has spent the last two seasons racing Nissan machinery in the GT300 class. But back in 2019, Okusa made it to the final four in the battle for that year’s SRS scholarship, missing out against Ayumu Iwasa, Iori Kimura and Syun Koide.

Credit: Takahiro Yamamoto
Credit: Takahiro Yamamoto

After that setback, Okusa was able to earn the chance to drive for Nissan GT300 team Gainer in 2022 through his performances in the Formula Regional Japanese series, quickly marking himself out as one of the most exciting talents in SUPER GT’s lower class.

“Personally I’m really happy to have been able to switch to Honda,” says Okusa. “Having made it to the final four of the SRS scholarship, I’m really glad to be back. Although we’re not racing in the same category, it feels like I finally caught up to my contemporaries.

“It’s also a career path nobody else has really taken in recent times, so I’d be happy if this can be an inspiration to other young drivers.”

After a standout debut campaign in which Okusa came close to winning the GT300 title, he endured a tougher second season in SUPER GT with Gainer, but he still calls it an “important year for me to grow up as a driver” despite the lack of results.

But the most important thing that happened in 2023 was the chance for Okusa to take part in the final weekend of the Super Formula season at Suzuka with the TGM Grand Prix team, where he belied his lack of single-seater experience with his performance.

Credit: Riki Okusa
Credit: Riki Okusa

Given TGM’s Honda links, it was that showing at Suzuka, where he finished 13th in the second race to beat teammate Cem Bolukbasi, that opened the door to his return.

“It was really thanks to that weekend in Super Formula that I was approached by Honda. Without that chance, most likely I would still be with Nissan,” admits Okusa. “I was really surprised to have been made the offer. It was decided around the final round of the SUPER GT season, but at the time I felt like it was something that would never happen.”

Okusa got behind the wheel of the Civic Type R-GT for the first time in a four-day test in Sepang in January, which he says was a valuable chance to get used not only to the car itself but also the Dunlop tyres that he and teammate Takuya Izawa will use in 2024. He also had the chance to bank further mileage in tests at Suzuka, Okayama and finally Fuji.

Veteran Izawa is well-versed in helping bring younger drivers up to speed, having partnered Kakunoshin Ohta last year and Otsu from 2020-22, and 24-year-old Okusa is hoping to harness that knowledge and the Nakajima package to have a strong rookie season.

“To be making my debut in GT500 at the same time as a new car is introduced, I think it makes it a little easier to master the car, and it’s a reset for everybody,” says Okusa. “So it’s good timing. It’s an easy car to drive and I feel like we can be in the fight.

“Of course I’d like to win a race, but first of all I’d like to be on the podium and make sure we are in the fight for the championship. Suzuka has always been a good track for Dunlop, so I want to make use of our speed there and translate that into good results.”

Credit: Takahiro Yamamoto
Credit: Takahiro Yamamoto

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