Last year was a banner season for Nissan in SUPER GT. On top of the fact it won the GT500 crown that had eluded it since 2015 with the brand new Z, it locked out the top two in the drivers’ standings, and it won the GT300 title to boot.
In fact, pretty much every team in the Nissan GT500 stable had something to celebrate last year. But for the #23 NISMO crew of Ronnie Quintarelli and Tsugio Matsuda, the drivers that delivered Nissan’s previous GT500 successes in 2014-15, it was a season to forget.
The old veterans were outclassed by the sister #3 car of Katsumasa Chiyo and Mitsunori Takaboshi as NISMO expanded to two cars, and failed to win a race all season. While Quintarelli scored a pole at Suzuka, in terms of race results second at Sugo was as good as it got for the pair. And that was a race that he and Matsuda should have won if not for an unfortunate strategy error that effectively handed victory to Chiyo and Takaboshi.
Nissan’s lead contender, the car whose status is bound up in the fact its number reads ‘Ni-san’, was well and truly humbled. But now the attention has turned to how Quintarelli and Matsuda can get back to winning ways in their 10th season together as team-mates.
“We have been trying to get car #23 back to where it was two or three years ago, back to being a solid team,” Quintarelli says. “During the off-season, NISMO has been working on the #23 side of the garage and I can feel the atmosphere [of old] coming back again.
“During these tests I felt the atmosphere coming back and we had quite solid tests. I could see the motivation inside the team is very good. We still have to improve the small details, but the motivation is there and this is the most important point I felt from testing.”
Looking back at what went wrong last year, Quintarelli highlights NISMO’s expansion to a second car and the tragic loss of team director Yutaka Suzuki just a few months before the 2022 season was due to begin, as contributing factors to the #23 crew’s struggles.
“Losing [Suzuki] was a big blow,” Quintarelli says. “And going from running one car to two cars is a big difference. What works well on one car may not work on the other. Especially at the beginning of the season, there was a lot of pressure with the new car and things didn’t go so smoothly as they did in the past.”
There is also the question of whether the newly-formed #3 team was perhaps more energised than their opposite numbers in the #23 side of the garage who have been working together a long time.
“I really appreciate the effort that NISMO has made to try to change some ‘pieces’ to improve things inside the team, especially on the motivation side,” says the Italian. “When you have two drivers who have been together for 10 years, plus the chief engineer [Takeshi Nakajima], sometimes you can become flat. You need some spark in the team.
“It seems now we are not the ‘ace’ car inside NISMO, just we have the ‘ace’ number but based on the results of last year, it’s not the case that we are the aces. Even this point is motivating.
“For them [the #3] it was a new challenge, they were naturally very motivated. They had nothing to lose: if they were behind us, it was normal.”
Quintarelli also concedes that the #23 side of the garage pursued a blind alley on set-up, influenced by their vast knowledge of how to get the most from the old GT-R – allowing the fresher #3 crew to get the jump on them.
“When we switched to the Z we started off with a set-up similar to that of the GT-R,” he explains. “Car #3 started from scratch with a new set-up concept and we were working in completely different ways.
“In the pre-season tests, when the conditions are cool and you have good downforce, it looked quite good. But I would say from around Round 3 [at Suzuka], when we had a warmer weekend, we realised we were not competitive enough. We started struggling a lot, and car #3 was clearly faster than us. This was the story of the season.”
So far, NISMO has conducted four off-season tests, joining in group tests at Suzuka and Fuji before testing just its own two cars in Michelin-organised tests at Motegi and Okayama.
The two red Nissans were the only GT500 cars missing from last week’s two days of manufacturer testing at Suzuka, where the ARTA Honda of Toshiki Oyu laid down an ominous marker with a new unofficial record some 1.5s up on the existing benchmark.
Quintarelli jokes that “we weren’t doing times that fast in Formula Nippon [now Super Formula] 15 years ago!” But he adds that with the aerodynamics freeze this season, he isn’t worrying unduly about whether Honda has got the jump on Nissan over the winter.
“I don’t know exactly how to judge it, because the biggest thing this year is the carbon-neutral fuel, which has an impact on the engine power,” he points out. “From the GTA test at Okayama, every car has to use the new fuel, but up until now there have been cars running on regular fuel and this is an advantage.
“Using CNF, you lose power. From the first time we used it, it was not so bad, but you could feel the loss of power. We have to optimise how the engine is working with the new CNF.
“Honda seems to be very quick, but I don’t think they improved by 1.5 seconds! We won’t know for sure until the official test at Okayama, where everyone will have the new fuel and everyone will be running under the same conditions. So let’s see there.”