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Rhapsody in Blue: The History of Calsonic & Nissan Racing

R O'Connell looks back at the beginnings of one of racing's most iconic liveries

There’s a good number of Super GT fans who are glad to know that one of the most familiar liveries and sponsors will remain on the grid this year.

For over 30 years, Japanese automotive parts maker Calsonic has been synonymous with Nissan Motorsport, particularly in Japan where the Calsonic Nissan GT500 cars of Team Impul have competed since the series’ beginnings in 1994.

The merger of Magneti Marelli and Calsonic Kansei into Marelli Corporation threatened the presence of the instantly recognizable Calsonic Blue cars, but thankfully, Marelli have kept the name and heritage of Calsonic alive on the track for 2020!

Of course, the history of Calsonic and Nissan go back to before the Calsonic name ever existed: Originally known as Nihon Radiator (or “Nichira” for short) the company first struck a deal to sponsor Kazuyoshi Hoshino in the Japan Super Silhouette Series.

This Group 5 Nissan Silvia Turbo gained the nickname “White Lightning”.

The Nichira sponsorship followed Hoshino into Group C prototype racing.

In 1985 at the WEC-Japan 1000km of Fuji, Hoshino Racing scored a major upset by winning the race overall – Hoshino, Akira Hagiwara, and the late Keiji Matsumoto became the first Japanese drivers to win a round of the FIA World Sportscar Championship when heavy rain led the international entrants to pull out in unison, leaving the race to be contested squarely amongst the Japanese entrants.

Eventually Nissan, and with it, the Nichira name came to Le Mans for the first time in ‘86, and by 1988 Nihon Radiator had officially changed its name to Calsonic.

The sunset of the Group C era saw Hoshino and Nissan at their peak with the blue/white/red Calsonic-sponsored NISMO cars: In 1990 he won the prestigious Suzuka 1000km…

…in ‘91, Hoshino and Toshio Suzuki went on to win three races and the All-Japan Sports Prototype Championship title…

…then in ‘92, Hoshino and his R92CP that he shared with Suzuki and Takao Wada won the last five races in a row to become the final JSPC champions.

The 1988 All-Japan Touring Car Championship saw the debut of the first true blue Calsonic Nissan Skyline: The R31 GTS-R.

Nissan legend Moto Kitano drove to his final victory in this car, the first for the Calsonic Skyline GTS-R, at Sendai Hi-Land Raceway in 1989.

The R31 Calsonic Skyline was quick in its own right, but its successor was something else entirely.

In 1990, the R32 Skyline GT-R made its debut, changing Group A Touring Cars forever from the moment Hoshino and Suzuki won the season-opening round at Nishi-Nihon (Miné) Circuit.

That 1990 season saw the duo win five of the six races and finish with the most points. Because Hoshino drove a longer distance over the season, per the rules of the JTC, he was crowned sole champion.

Another three victories followed in 1991.

Newcomer Masahiko Kageyama joined Hoshino in 1992, as they won yet another three races, and then in ‘93, they won four races as Kageyama took the crown.

Of the 29 consecutive races that the R32 Skyline GT-R won in succession from 1990 until the end of the Group A era in 1993, the Calsonic GT-R accounted for over half of them, including the prestigious Fuji Inter-TEC 500 Kilometre Race in ‘90 and ‘91.

1993 was a soft launch for what would become the All-Japan GT Championship, this Calsonic Skyline GT-R was a quasi-GT1 car that competed in four exhibition races, with Kageyama as its primary driver.

When the JGTC officially launched in 1994 with its dual-class structure, the R32 Calsonic Skyline GT-R became the first championship-winning car, winning the ‘94 and ‘95 titles in succession courtesy of Kageyama-san.

Hoshino later joined in on the action mid-way through the ‘95 season.

The Calsonic Skyline was upgraded to the R33 model in 1996 and raced for the next three seasons.

Nissan’s future ace-in-waiting Satoshi Motoyama drove alongside Hoshino beginning in 1997, and then Takuya Kurosawa stepped in for the ‘98 season.

At Le Mans, there was no blue, but the Calsonic name was part of Nissan’s Le Mans return with the R390 GT1. Hoshino, Kageyama, and Érik Comas placed 12th overall in ‘97…

…and then in 1998, Hoshino, Kageyama, and Japan’s first F1 podium finisher Aguri Suzuki became the first all-Japanese trio to stand on the overall podium at Le Mans with a 3rd overall finish, with a bit more blue this time out.

The turn of the century brought us the R34 Calsonic Skyline GT-R. The younger of the Kageyama brothers, Masami, joined Hoshino in ‘99 before in 2000, Motoyama returned to the team for his second stint.

After three winless seasons, Hoshino and Motoyama won the penultimate round at Miné Circuit in 2000, which proved to be Hoshino’s final victory in his decorated driving career – he retired from driving in mid-2002 to focus solely on managing Team Impul.

2003 ushered in a completely new era for the Calsonic GT-R. Hoshino’s retirement and Motoyama moving to the works NISMO team meant driving duties fell to talented Frenchman Benoît Tréluyer and young Japanese driver Yuji Ide.

They won the July race at Fuji (moved from Sepang due to the SARS outbreak) and the season-finale at Suzuka in the swansong race for the Nissan Skyline GT-R.

From 2004 to 2007 the Calsonic colours graced a Nissan Fairlady Z33 (350Z) silhouette. Ide and Treluyer again won the season finale at Suzuka.

Then in 2006, with Ide off to embark on an F1 debut from hell, Kazuyoshi Hoshino’s son Kazuki stepped up to GT500 for his father’s team.

The signature moment of this era was the blue Calsonic Z car of the younger Hoshino, Tréluyer, and third driver Jérémie Dufour taking a commanding victory in the first Suzuka 1000km to be held as a Super GT championship round. Tréluyer commanded the race in three blistering stints, and father and son celebrated a popular victory.

Then in 2008, the R35 GT-R debuted in GT500 competition. A new team of Tsugio Matsuda and Sébastien Philippe won two of the last four rounds…

…including the Suzuka 1000km – the second win for Team Impul in three years and the season finale at Fuji.

Calsonic were forced to pare back its sponsorship in 2009 – as many companies did during the dreaded Lehman Shock of ‘08-09.

But they were back in full force soon enough, with 2010 seeing a new lineup of Matsuda, and Italian Ronnie Quintarelli, foreshadowing a dynasty to come in just a few years’ time.

Their first win together came at Sepang in July.

Brazilian João Paulo de Oliveira joined Impul in 2011, and over the next three seasons, he and Matsuda would win a race in all three years, Okayama in ‘11, the Fuji summer race in ‘12, and Sepang in ‘13.

2013 would be the first of three near-misses with the title, and 2013 would also be the last year before new regulations completely changed the game in GT500.

Enter the meaner, tougher 2014 Nissan GT-R NISMO GT500, the first from the NRE (Nippon Race Engine) era with its powerful 2-litre turbo-4 cylinder pumping out over 600 horsepower.

Oliveira, now with new teammate Hironobu Yasuda, won the Fuji 500km to ring in Nissan’s run in GT500’s new era in style.

2015 was the Yasuda/Oliveira tandem’s closest call with the title. Four podium finishes brought them within reach, but they didn’t have a win in hand to push them over the top.

2016’s Fuji summer race was the last victory to date for Calsonic Team Impul, Yasuda and Oliveira taking the victory in the 300km race after coming within a lap and a blown tyre of winning the 500km race again.

A soft reset of the GT500 regs didn’t treat the Calsonic GT-R kindly, there were some cruel near-misses with victory from 2017 to 2019.

This was also the time where GT Academy champion Jann Mardenborough got to live every avid Gran Turismo player’s fantasy and drive the real-life Calsonic GT-R from ‘17-18.

We even got to see a Calsonic Nissan Altima compete in the Australian Supercars’ 2017 Sandown 500 enduro, inspired by the early-90s version.

Victory seemed in hand at the 2018 Fuji 500 Miles, before a loose radiator pipe ripped the heart out of Mardenborough and new teammate Daiki Sasaki.

In 2019, Sasaki and James Rossiter enjoyed similar misfortunes despite the promise of change. In the winter of 2020, GT300 underdog Kazuki Hiramine became the latest driver to don the famous Calsonic blue colours.

I’ve been fond of the Calsonic Nissans since childhood in all their variations, I even have a 1:43 model of the 1990 JTCC R32 Skyline GT-R at home.

With no patterns but a solid shade of eye-catching blue, the Calsonic Nissans have become internationally recognizable just like the Gulf and Martini cars of yesteryear, their partnership with Nissan and specifically Team Impul is one of if not the longest-serving partnerships between title sponsor and team at nearly 40 years strong.

Here’s to more memories in the years to come.

Images courtesy of Nissan and Suzuka Circuit