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After Years Of Adversity, Super GT’s J.P. Oliveira Is Back In Championship Contention

R.J. O’Connell speaks with the GT300 Championship leader ahead of the final round of the 2020 season

João Paulo Lima de Oliveira has been here before in Japan. In just his second year racing in Japan, Oliveira became All-Japan Formula Three Champion in 2005, defeating highly-touted second-generation driver Kazuki Nakajima. It led to his debut as a Nissan factory driver in the Autobacs Super GT Series in 2006, and a simultaneous debut in the Formula Nippon (now Super Formula) Championship, where he eventually overcame the challenge of André Lotterer and Loïc Duval to win the 2010 Japanese Top Formula title.

Now after winning two of the last three races, the man simply known as “JP” is back in the championship-winning form that he’s been used to for most of the last fifteen years. He leads the GT300 Drivers’ Championship in Super GT, alongside his Kondo Racing co-driver Kiyoto Fujinami, going into the season finale at Fuji Speedway on 29 November.

Oliveira is kind enough to speak with me on a Wednesday afternoon, just two weeks away from the last race of the season, where after several difficult seasons in Super GT, he has rediscovered the form that has made him one of the greatest international talents that has ever raced in Japan.

“The last couple of years have been sort of difficult, just finding the right position to be in and finding an opportunity really, where I could just do what I can [as a driver], you know, it’s, it’s been challenging,” says Oliveira. “But also, it’s been times which, you know, I’ve learned some, and it made me grow even more and take opportunities, like this year, a bit more seriously. The challenging times definitely helped me learn, and gave me the right perspective for when things are going, you know, in the right direction.”

Oliveira spent thirteen seasons in GT500 as a Nissan driver. But after difficult seasons in 2017-18 with Kondo Racing, Oliveira was let go by Nissan and prepared to seek opportunities outside of Japan. Oliveira then secured a drive for Aston Martin customers D’station Racing in the GT300 class for 2019. Hopes were high for Oliveira as he began his time in Super GT’s ultra-competitive second division, but a campaign littered with poor fortune saw Oliveira fail to score a single point for the first time ever. It may have left some to wonder if Oliveira would ever compete for a Super GT championship again.

“This year, things are going well. And we’re in a good rhythm, with a good team, and a good teammate. And so I just want to continue that, and carry on.”

This season, Oliveira came back home to Kondo Racing – a team that he knows very well – to drive their GT300 class #56 Realize Nissan Automobile Technical College GT-R GT3, bringing the Brazilian back into the Nissan family, and into a competitive team that regularly competed for victories last season. Kondo Racing’s GT300 entry debuted last season, as a continuation of a squad that won the 2016 Super Taikyu Series’ ST-X (GT3) title.

“I think, right from the beginning when I first came on board, the team and I got to know Fujinami-san… I had seen him [race] before, but I didn’t know what he was like [to work with]. And, you know, right from that moment, I could start feeling that this was probably going to be a good opportunity for me, given that he was a fast driver. And I know the team is very capable. And so I saw some of the things that were around me aligning and I thought you know, this is a good opportunity, we really got to make the most of it.”

“Credit to everyone really in the team for having a good season so far. The engineer [Shinichi Yonebayashi] has been doing a great job, first of all, in creating the right strategies on the race weekend. And we just sort of follow the same pattern every time and it’s been working out. So yeah, we’ve got to a rhythm now, where we [myself and Fujinami] both know exactly what our jobs are and what we should get out of the weekend. I think the relationship with Yokohama as well has been only growing, and we’re able to make calls on the tyres with some confidence, which sometimes has been difficult, and Super GT, you know, you have all these different track conditions and types of weather, and it’s always difficult to make the right calls on the tyres.”

“We have this programme, the Nissan Mechanic Challenge, which is a partnership with the Nissan dealerships around Japan, and we get young [student] mechanics to come and learn. And at the same time, they’re learning, they’re being given [opportunities]. Obviously, we have a team of mechanics who are very professional and very experienced. But these mechanics, the Nissan dealership mechanics, they can come to the track and learn by watching them, sometimes by doing their required tasks. The car is not entirely, you know, managed by them. But it is a fantastic opportunity for these guys to come in and work with a proper race car and, I think, see things that otherwise they would not have a chance to, so I think it’s a great thing, a great initiative from Kondo Racing and Nissan.”

The contributions of both the student mechanics from the Nissan Automobile Technical College and the dealership mechanics that also work with Kondo Racing’s full-time staff of professionals, cannot be understated, the Nissan Mechanic Challenge has been near and dear to this team and to Nissan, going back to their time in Super Taikyu a few years ago.

When asked about the strength of the Nissan GT-R GT3, a car that has all but disappeared from the GT3 landscape outside of Japan in recent years, Oliveira was very candid. “I know this car well, from my time driving for KCMG last year, at the Nurburgring, Kyalami, and this year at Bathurst. Compared to GT500, in GT3, by regulation, you’re not allowed to develop the car. So as soon as you’ve homologated the car, that’s it.”

“The car suits a very particular kind of style. It may suit some drivers, it may not suit some others. And it’s a car that has downforce and has probably one of the very best balances of downforce and drag in GT3. We struggle in some areas, but the Japanese tracks are pretty smooth. That’s one of the characteristics of racetracks in Japan in general. Suzuka, high speed, flowing, but still not bumpy, not a rough track, in terms of riding the kerbs, and so on. Then you have Motegi, and Fuji, which is basically half of our calendar of this year, which are very smooth tracks. And that kind of circuit favours the GT-R. So I think it has been a positive experience racing here.”

“But I also understand how it may be difficult to race in Europe against other manufacturers, especially if you are a solo team, or maybe a couple of teams running this car, and then going against manufacturers which have plenty of customers, other references to work with. In Japan, we have quite a few teams running the GT-R, and on different tyres as well. So then you get the opportunity to see what performance can be found from the tyres, and what can be found in the car. Sometimes you see the Dunlop teams perform quite well on a track which perhaps we’re not that strong. So from that, we would know that we are having difficulties with the tyres. And that kind of thing, they don’t really don’t have the chance to see in Europe. It’s all on one type of tyre.”

Even as Bridgestone and Dunlop customer teams have enjoyed the bulk of the success in GT300 this year, Oliveira doesn’t believe that Kondo Racing has more of an edge than the other nineteen customers of Yokohama tyres. “I think it’s having perhaps an edge in our approach, and how we’ve been, you know, saying getting more and more in the rhythm every weekend.”

“We’ve been confident about making the [strategy] calls on the tyres, but we also know we have information about what other people are using, and it’s similar to what we have. Sometimes it’s down to, perhaps, you have to choose six sets of tyres that you’re gonna mark before the race. And sometimes if you mark the wrong tyres, then perhaps you’re gonna have a tyre, which is not adequate for the first stint of the race, you may have a quick tyre for qualifying, but then maybe you’re going to struggle in the first stint or so. And so there’s a number of things, that sort of making a difference.”

Oliveira’s new teammate this season is Kiyoto Fujinami, a former prospect of the Nissan Driver Development Programme (NDDP) that also produced current GT500 stars such as Katsumasa Chiyo, Mitsunori Takaboshi, and Daiki Sasaki. In Fujinami, Oliveira sees a young talent that possesses very rare qualities. “I’ve seen him grow through the year. I’ve seen him improve on things which, I clearly could see that he needed a few pointers at the beginning of the year, but right, you know, throughout the season, I could see those things were coming.”

“I think one of the good points I see about him is that he’s really himself – and he’s focused on the things that he needs to improve. He just does what his job is. And obviously, he’s very quick, aggressive over a single lap, which you know, I think is pretty good. And he also has a very good approach to the races – he’s been doing good starts, good first stints, and staying out of trouble. So that’s all very important.”

“But I think in Super GT there’s one quality which I have seen over the years, you know, some teammates get a little bit more distracted. Perhaps they get a little bit too competitive with each other. Obviously, we are all competitive, but it is important that we are working in the same direction, and not against each other. I think it is super important in Super GT that you find a driver with that kind of energy. It’s something that I didn’t have with all my teammates in GT500. I can feel it with him. And this energy is super important. You may have two strong drivers but if they are not focused and don’t know exactly what their role is, then it’ll become a problem.”

When asked if Fujinami could follow 2019 Kondo Racing GT300 drivers Kazuki Hiramine and Sacha Fenestraz up to GT500, Oliveira said, “Well, I hope so. I mean, he’s 25 [years old], and he’s got many years ahead of him. So I know, from my side, I can vouch for him to go up and race in GT500. If not next year, then the year after. If he has a strong season in GT300 this year – I don’t see why he wouldn’t be able to move up. There are young driver programmes at Toyota and at Honda, and Nissan, perhaps not so much. So I would like to see him go up.”

And of course, Oliveira has built a strong bond over the years with his current team principal, Masahiko Kondo, a successful team owner, top-flight racing driver, and of course, an award-winning, multi-million selling rock & roll musician. “Yeah, I mean, we go back a long way,” Oliveira says of “Matchy” Kondo. “My first season was with Hasemi Motorsport, but then for my second year, I joined Kondo-san’s team, picked up their first victory at Malaysia, and we built a strong relationship from there. And I also started driving in Formula Nippon for his team that same year, and I was also able to pick up his first victory in Formula Nippon [in 2008]. And now also, we took the first victory together for the team in GT300.

“So there’s a good history between me and this team, and I’m very happy that I’m able to return to Kondo Racing after 2017 and 2018 which, perhaps were not the best years there. But Kondo, you know, he’s, always been very supportive of me. He’s always been very, very close to me. He’s helped me a lot, and so our relationship is pretty good. So I would say I am very happy to be able to reward the team for giving me this opportunity, for all the history that we have. I think it feels good to be doing all of this with them.”

2020 hasn’t been perfect of course. A Safety Car intervention at Suzuka on 24 October left Kondo Racing to languish in the midfield. A post-race time penalty at Motegi on 13 September left Oliveira livid with fellow Nissan customer team Gainer. Not to mention, Kondo Racing’s GT500 team has been hexed by all sorts of poor fortune this season, emblematic of Nissan’s continued search to improve their entire programme beyond just the flagship number 23 car of NISMO.

But the memory that sticks with Oliveira the most this year, more than the two wins at Fuji on 3 October, and just this past week at Motegi, has been his incredible fight at the first Suzuka round, on 23 August. Even when considering how it ended, with Oliveira being punted off twice and dropping from 2nd to 9th in the final five laps – it is still something that evokes strong feelings in him.

“I think it’s a cliche to say that winning a race is a favourite moment. The battles on track are what I love the most, you know. I really, I really love wheel to wheel racing.” It’s something that Oliveira cherishes, a driver who has long been renowned for his bold, hard-charging style moulded after his countryman Ayrton Senna, but a driver who also knows the virtues of racing other drivers carefully. “As much as I love [wheel-to-wheel racing], Super GT is also a series where you have to be very careful about the type of contact you have. It’s not like other series in the world where you can race a little bit more aggressively.”

“I think back to the battles at Suzuka [in August], even though it was very challenging for me. Because I was really driving on tyres that were past their life at the end of the race. To me, those moments, they’re very important, because you are really racing with all your instincts, and you just have to make the most out of it. I mean, I had vibrations, I had all sorts of trouble in my tyres. But I just carried on as if I just needed to finish that race. So I think that is a memorable moment. I don’t know if it’s my favourite, but it’s, you know, it’s a very memorable moment for me.”

Oliveira, Fujinami, and Kondo Racing will be driving at Fuji Speedway for the fourth time this season, one of the many effects of a season impacted by the novel coronavirus pandemic. The Success Ballast has been removed for this race, meaning this championship will truly be decided by the best team and the best drivers.

“In terms of the way we approach the race weekend, we won’t change anything,” says Oliveira. “I think the biggest difference for the last race will be the tyres, because obviously the temperature is going down, and that makes a massive difference for what tyres we’re going to bring. It’s definitely going to be colder than all the other races we had so far this year – way colder. And we didn’t have that much experience this year running very cold temperatures. So then you can see tyres, kind of being the real factor there. Some tyre compounds might be too soft, some people might be having pick-up issues, and so on. We’re going to sit down next week, and then analyze our options – and hopefully make the right call on the tyres that we have available.”

A win in the finale would clinch the championship for Kondo Racing, whose drivers, Oliveira and Fujinami, have a five-point lead over Naoya Gamou and Togo Suganami of K2 R&D LEON Racing.

When asked about what winning this championship would mean to him, Oliveira says, “It would definitely be a, you know, a realization.” Oliveira’s quest for a Super GT championship is one that has been nearly fifteen years in the making – he’s made 122 consecutive starts since his 2006 debut, and with 9 wins in GT500, Oliveira is the winningest driver to have never won a premier class title. In the six seasons he spent driving the famous Calsonic GT-R for Team Impul, there was a stretch of three seasons in particular, 2013 to 2015, where Oliveira came closer than ever before to that elusive first title in GT500, only for those dreams to be dashed in the last race of the season.

In the penultimate race in 2013, Oliveira tripped over a backmarker, spun off, and plummeted from the top of the table to being virtually eliminated. In 2014, the first-lap contact in the finale at Motegi cost him a chance in a must-win race. And in 2015, the combined speed of Oliveira and co-driver Hironobu Yasuda just wasn’t enough to get them over the line in mixed conditions.

“Obviously I want to get the championship in GT500. That’s always been my target. And perhaps I will still have that chance someday,” Oliveira says. “But for now, I would be very happy if I could take the championship in GT300. And also the first championship [in Super GT] for Kondo Racing, in their 20th anniversary season as well.” Kondo Racing has previously won a Teams’ Championship in Super Formula, where Kondo Racing first started racing back in 2000, but since entering GT500 in 2006, they’ve never won a championship in Super GT.

And how would J.P. Oliveira celebrate the occasion, if indeed he becomes champion after fifteen years of peaks and valleys, near-misses and setbacks, in this strange and memorable season?

“You know, I’m very low key. I’m not a big celebration kind of guy, to be honest with you!” he laughs.

“But I’ll definitely have a party with Fujinami-san and Kondo-san, and you know, the people that had the biggest role in this year. I want to celebrate with them if it comes to that. That would be ideal,” says Oliveira. “Yeah. I like that.”

Images courtesy of the GT Association

Additional photographs courtesy of the Nissan Automobile Technical College