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Ronnie Quintarelli, In Search Of More History With NISMO

The four-time GT500 Champion speaks about the journey to an elusive fifth championship title

For NISMO Super GT driver Ronnie Quintarelli, a fifth GT500 Drivers’ Championship has been a goal that’s been a long time coming.

“When I won my championship in 2015, for me it was like a dream come true,” says Quintarelli. “I became the driver with the most titles in Super GT. Being in front of drivers like [Satoshi] Motoyama, [Yuji] Tachikawa, [Juichi] Wakisaka… I was watching them on TV when I first came to Japan, they were like heroes to me.”

“And in such a short time, five years, five seasons, that I could win four championships, it was something unbelievable for me,” he says. “But in 2016, when I started the new season after winning the title, I found myself still very motivated, and after winning two titles in a row with the NISMO team, I wanted to challenge again to try and win three titles in a row, something that I couldn’t do in 2013.” Despite achieving what no other driver in Super GT’s premier class had accomplished before in such a short time frame, that fifth title has proven much harder to achieve in the years since.

“We lost the title in 2016 at the last round. It was quite an upset because we were leading early in the season.” In fact, they became the first team in GT500 that didn’t win the championship after winning consecutive races to open the season. “And from that moment, from the end of 2016 at Motegi, I really felt, you know – this kind of taste of winning the championship again, which is something magic, and I was close to that.”

“2017 especially, [we came] very close to achieving a fifth title. 2018, not so much. Last year was not easy, we were there, but not close. The good thing is that every season, at one point of the season, we have led the championship every year since 2011. Since that last race at Motegi in 2016, I’ve really wanted to win this fifth title. It sounds better to have five than four! Under the circumstances, myself and the team have been working very, very hard to try and challenge it.”

Ronnie Quintarelli is Super GT’s most successful foreign driver by far and now ranks among the series’ greatest ever drivers, Japanese or otherwise. Along with his record four GT500 titles, he has taken 16 GT500 class victories as of publication – which has him tied for third on the all-time list with Motoyama, and only trailing Tachikawa and, of course, his co-driver at NISMO, Tsugio Matsuda. He’s one of only five foreign drivers that’s ever amassed more than 100 starts, as well. That’s not bad for a driver who once admitted that he may not have been cut out for sports car racing after an up-and-down rookie season in 2005 before a switch from Toyota to Nissan in 2008 set him on a path to unbelievable success in Super GT’s premier class.

© Nissan

But it’s the way that Quintarelli has integrated into Japanese society, ever since he arrived in the All-Japan Formula 3 Championship in 2003, became champion in 2004, then stepped up to Japan’s top categories of GT500 and Formula Nippon (now Super Formula), that has stood out even more so than his driving accomplishments. Quintarelli married his wife Emi in 2008, and resides in Japan permanently along with their children, Leo and Luna. He speaks the native language fluently enough to where he does all of his TV interviews in Japanese, and even does some television commentary for races where he’s not competing. Just as Álex Ramirez has gone above and beyond the level that any foreign player has ever contributed to professional baseball in Japan, Ronnie Quintarelli has made a greater impact on motor racing in Japan that goes far beyond trophies and titles.

Quintarelli has also been one of the most, if not the single most proactive driver when it comes to providing aid for disaster relief in this time. His charitable work with Italians for Tohoku to help rebuild the city of Rikuzentakata and its surrounding communities following the Great Tohoku Earthquake and Tsunami in 2011, and to aid the earthquake-stricken town of Amatrice, Italy in 2016 alongside fellow countryman Andrea Caldarelli, are even more impactful than his on-track successes. It is these contributions that earned Quintarelli a special honour, Officer of the Order of the Star of Italy.

This country is as much home for Ronnie Quintarelli as is his birthplace of fair Verona, Italy.

After finishing 2nd or 3rd in three of the last four seasons, Quintarelli once again finds himself within reach of that difficult fifth championship in 2020, the debut season for the new Nissan GT-R NISMO GT500, which adheres to the unified Class One technical regulations.

For Quintarelli, and for Nissan, finding performance with the new car hasn’t always been easy. “When I was talking with NISMO about the new car in the middle of last season, they said, and they also heard, reading some articles, that we should have less downforce compared to the 2019 car. But as we were doing three years before, for the 2017 car, of course, like on the aerodynamics side, the development people were trying to gain more downforce with their skill. And I was very surprised because when I first tested the new car last year, I had the bad memories of 2017 when we lost 15 to 20 per cent of downforce compared to the 2016 car. It was terrible to drive the car. So I was worried, I didn’t want to experience that again.”

“I like the feeling of a car with huge downforce, that goes through the corner with the fireworks. When you see Super GT cars go through high-speed corners with a lot of sparks, it means you have a lot of downforce. And when I first tested the new car, I had the feeling that the car was more balanced on the mechanical side, and in high-speed corners, the downforce seemed to be much better than last year’s car. So I was quite surprised!”

“From the experience with the previous homologation, from 2016 to 2017, when we had that big loss of downforce – I think the people on the aerodynamic side, they tried to figure out where to act so as not to lose total performance. And on my side, as I’ve said in some previous interviews in Japan before the start of the season – since 2014 when we started the collaboration with DTM and Class One, this is the best car that I’ve driven since the start of 2014,” proclaims Quintarelli. “Obviously, it’s great for NISMO, but I think that all of the guys working on aerodynamics for Nissan, Honda, and Toyota – they’re all high-level people. All of them have done a good job. They’ve done a very good job at Nissan, but the other manufacturers are also quick.”

© GT Association

Even with the positive initial reaction to the 2020 GT-R, which featured Nissan’s first engine with pre-chamber ignition technology first used by Honda and Toyota, Quintarelli knew that there was still improvement to be found from the new car, a challenge that was made even more difficult when the series took an enforced three-month hiatus due to the novel coronavirus pandemic.

“Basically, because of the irregular season, with the pandemic… we started to test together with the other manufacturers. We were at the GTA test at Okayama in the middle of March. And then we were planning to test some new things in Fuji, but the test was cancelled at the end of March. And then we had three months without doing anything. And I was not happy with their car’s set up in the first preseason test. And I will say that throughout the season, the car has improved a lot. We made many steps with the car setup, the way we are using the car now is a bit different compared to the end of 2019. So the big improvement we’ve had so far is with the car setup, and also the tyre development, the engine, finding some improvement in drivability.”

“This year we switched to Bosch for the ECU, and it had a big impact on the engine department and how they had to set it up, the engine mapping, you know, turbo lag, acceleration, torque, and how to use it. The first challenge for NISMO was that, with the new Bosch system, the drivability was not very good at first, it was very difficult to drive the car. We’ve made a big step from that point of view. So now I feel that the drivability of the car is very good, and it helps us to have better performance out on track.”

If ever there was a point where the work that Nissan, NISMO, and Quintarelli put into improving the Nissan GT-R came good, it was in the third race of the season at Suzuka Circuit on 23 August, site of their first win of the season, and the first win in over two years, having gone winless throughout 2019, the first time ever that Matsuda and Quintarelli faced a winless season. “We came out of the first round where we were not performing, we did not get a good result, and in round two, we were better, but still very far away from fighting for the podium. And then we arrived at Suzuka, where some of our rivals’ cars are carrying weight [from Success Ballast]. We knew it was going to be harder for them, and we could take advantage of that. But there were still some potentially good cars with no weight at Suzuka, so we thought at that moment that it was not our race yet – like, maybe we needed to wait one or two more races for these other cars to get more Success Ballast, and then maybe our time of glory would come.

“But when we arrived at Suzuka, we’d started working harder on the car setup. And it was the first time to go out of Fuji to race, after we had the last test at Fuji, the first two races at Fuji, it was Fuji, Fuji, Fuji… and we arrived at Suzuka, and straight away the car felt good to drive. The lap times from the free practice were impressive, compared to our rivals, much better than the expectations, and we found ourselves quicker compared to some of the cars that had similar weight handicaps to us.”

“And we did good to qualify P2, and in the race, we felt like we could win the race. Not because the other cars that were close to us had trouble or retired, but because we had performance, we had speed! And I was very surprised, like, I didn’t expect to win at Suzuka after the first two rounds. Even the fights I had with Tachikawa and [Takuya] Izawa at the beginning, it was very close. I think it was very exciting [for the fans] to see us battling through the traffic, because Suzuka is very tough in the traffic with the GT300 cars, and that race has definitely been the best for us so far this season.”

© GT Association (GTA)

Quintarelli and Matsuda then went on to win the sixth round at Suzuka, an improbable victory that came just a day after Matsuda walked away from a scary crash in qualifying. The timing of a Safety Car intervention may have helped them go from 15th to 1st during routine pit stops, but once they took the lead, they never faltered up front.

A third win of the season, in the final race at Fuji Speedway on 29 November, would clinch the championship for NISMO. It’s not only been a long time coming for Quintarelli, but also his co-driver Tsugio Matsuda, with whom Quintarelli has spent the last seven seasons with as co-drivers of the red number 23 Motul Autech GT-R.

“He’s a very talented driver,” Quintarelli says of Matsuda. “I’ve known him since the days he was driving in Japanese Top Formula, Formula Nippon at the time, and he was a top performer in Japan, at a very high level. He was winning and dominating in the series, he won titles there in 2007 and 2008. So I could see his speed, in those years was very impressive. And he was also doing well in GT, he stepped up from Formula 3 to Formula Nippon and Super GT, when he was 18 or 19 – you know, he’s had such a long career, and I have always admired him.

“When he came to NISMO in 2014 and became my teammate, in that time, it was a bit sad for me, because I lost Masataka Yanagida as a teammate, and I was a bit sad about that because I won my first two titles with him [at MOLA]. But I knew that a great driver was coming to be alongside me as a teammate.”

Yes, he has a lot of speed, but also it is very easy for him to adapt to the car. If he jumps into the car, after I would say a few weeks or months away, or if he comes to a new circuit or somewhere that he has not driven for months, it is very easy for him to get to find the limit and the potential of the car. He doesn’t need to like, drive one hour in the car, you know, after four or five laps, he’s already there. And that is very important because in a Super GT race weekend, you just have one Saturday morning practice session, and you have to share the car. And to be quick to adapt to the car, to the conditions, to the track, and the tyre situation in a short time is a key point to perform well. And he has this natural quality, and then when he is under pressure, he’s also very strong.”

© Nissan

“For me, I still remember that title we won in 2015 when we were coming from behind, and we were fighting with the Calsonic car in Motegi. I think we were second after the pit stop, and we had four or five cars behind like pushing, and putting huge pressure on us, and we have our rival car two positions behind. I think that was the best race that I’ve ever had with Tsugio. Sometimes when I go back and watch the highlights of that race, it is still very impressive. And he has this kind of mentality that is a strong tool when he’s under pressure, which is important as well. I think he’s one of the best teammates I ever had in my present career.”

Matsuda would stand to equal Motoyama, Tachikawa, and Wakisaka and become only the fifth driver to win three or more GT500 Championships if he and Quintarelli win the championship this season. Given that he’s already the winningest GT500 driver of all time, the combination of Matsuda and Quintarelli should go down as the greatest driver pairing in the history of Super GT’s premier class – no qualifiers needed.

Credit as well to the upper management of NISMO Team Director, Yutaka Suzuki, who succeeded the great Kunihiko Kakimoto in 2009, and Chief Engineer, Takeshi Nakajima, who took his current role at NISMO in 2014.

“He didn’t have any experience as a director for another Nissan team, but he started off as a director of NISMO’s car number 23, and for him, this number 23 car and this team means everything,” Quintarelli says of Suzuki. “And I can really feel the love that he has for car number 23.”

“He’s very focused, and he always tries to assemble the best team members, the best mechanics and staff. Every season, even if we have some rotation of team crew because NISMO is working on other projects, he’s always trying to find the best people to work with, to put together this puzzle and put us in the best position possible. Even for us drivers, he is there every time to listen to us, he is always trying to support us. Obviously, we can make mistakes, but you know, he’s not there to criticize us, he always tries to support us, to encourage us when things are not going well. Even if we are driving for the factory team, driving for NISMO, we never feel like the director is always there every time with a critical eye on us. He helps make the atmosphere very good.”

© Nissan

On the subject of his chief engineer, Quintarelli says, “Nakajima-san, for me he’s like a brother to me. He’s a very special person for me, because we’ve won all these titles together. He was there in 2011, my first experience with him was as a Track Engineer for MOLA. It was a big challenge for him, but he came in straight away and helped us win the title. And the second year, we won it again. And the relationship with him, for me I think it’s something special. I don’t feel the need to hesitate to say anything to him. We understand each other very easily, like I said, it’s like having a brother [in the garage] for me.”

Quintarelli also has a long-standing partnership with NISMO’s tyre partners at Michelin, going back to 2009, when the French manufacturer entered Super GT’s top class full-time for the first time in eight years, and Quintarelli was driving for legendary team principal Masahiro Hasemi. Apart from a one-year stint at Team Impul on Bridgestone tyres, Quintarelli has spent the last ten seasons driving on Michelin rubber, winning their first titles as a tyre supplier, and even influencing NISMO’s decision to go from Bridgestone to Michelin when he joined the team in 2013.

“I was their first driver when they came back to GT500, and I can remember how much they were struggling in certain track conditions, but also how good we were in certain other conditions. I remember how in high temperatures, we were good straight away. Thanks to that, I think Michelin has a very good tyre on a high temperature track surface, you know, most people are still talking about that, ten years later. The collaboration between NISMO and Michelin is getting stronger every year. At the beginning, they tended not to share so much data. Instead of working together, we tended to work apart. This was not a perfect way, but now everything is open on both sides. If NISMO requests something from Michelin, to give them some feedback on what we need, they will do that for us. At the same time, they’ll analyse the data from the car when we’re on track, they’ll have a very good knowledge of how our car is working, and they’ll give us some advice on how to modify and develop the car, and the car setup as well.”

“It’s amazing, this relationship, being there since the beginning,” says Quintarelli. “I want to know everything about the car and the tyres. I’m not the kind of driver that just goes around the circuit and just giving them ‘understeer’ or ‘oversteer’, I want to know everything. We work together, we win and we lose together.”

© GT Association (GTA)

As the final race of the season approaches, Quintarelli is confident that his team has made further progress in recent weeks. “Honestly, in the last two races, or the last round at Motegi, we made another step with the car, for us drivers to be more comfortable in certain situations at Motegi. Even if we didn’t show extreme speed in the race, we could show some speed in qualifying. In the race we were struggling a bit with tyres, because we tried something new at Motegi. It was not working perfectly, but what we tried to do was gather more information for the last round at Fuji. From Motegi to Fuji, obviously we cannot do so much, but we still need to work out the details on the car setup – because as you said, it gets cold at the end of November. And I’m confident in the car, now the car feels like I can drive it as I like. Inside the car, I can fight. Everything is comfortable. That’s thanks to the work that NISMO did, that I can make a request to them, and it took time, but now they could bring what I wanted in Motegi, so that’s good, very good news.”

“One of the key points, I think, it’ll be the tires,” Quintarelli says of what it will take to get an advantage in the finale. “Because in GT500, all four tyre manufacturers are bringing in all the technology they have, the maximum of the maximum, they have everything And it means sometimes, the working range is very narrow. If you are in the sweet spot, you have amazing grip, something that you just see in dreams. But if you are out of this sweet spot, you start to have graining, pickup, and you start to lose not tenths, but seconds during the race. When you have a low track temperature, it’s easier for this to happen. With these extreme tyres, this sweet spot becomes narrower, and because there’s no testing in these conditions. We will try to to be ready, to prepare the tyres and prepare for the track conditions.

“But you never know. We have free practice, then qualifying, and the track conditions are always changing. And then you go to the race, you have almost fifty cars on track putting rubber down onto the track. With Michelin, we will try and prepare the best tyres.”

There’s little need to go further in-depth about Nissan’s struggles as a company, which is trying to emerge from a low point, even as it suffers through the automotive industry’s “corona shock” – even more so than some of their peers. Motor racing has been in Nissan’s history for over sixty years – from the first Japan Grand Prix races in the ‘60s, to their successes in touring cars with the Skyline GT-R and Group C racing with their line of sports prototypes.

And even as Nissan’s primary focus shifts away from traditional forms of petrol-powered racing, their GT500 programme is still important – and Quintarelli knows what winning this championship would mean for Nissan supporters. “You can see this sometimes on SNS or from some key people in the Nissan fan groups, they really have a lot of passion. And I think the fans, they put more pressure on us than even the executives at Nissan or NISMO,” Quintarelli laughs. “They are very demanding, you know, but they’re very nice. So, I think they will be very happy as well.”

© GT Association (GTA)

And if Quintarelli can drive NISMO to that long-elusive, and history-making fifth GT500 Drivers’ Championship he’s been working towards for five years? “I think we’re not going to sleep Sunday night after the race,” Quintarelli says. “It will be something emotional. Because I know how special it is to win a championship in Super GT.” And of course, the current circumstances mean any post-race celebrations must be a bit different than what he’s been used to.

“My dream is to invite everyone from the team for a big dinner or some kind of party as we had in the past, for all the people that have been working hard and supporting us, and to have them all together. But because of this situation, this is maybe not the case. But I would like maybe to have some celebration together to thank each group. Even if I have to have dinner every day with, I don’t know, with the rules of the country, maybe a maximum of four people? Yeah, it would be because of the pandemic that we would have dinner every day! Like I want to thank everybody, this is like, my dream you know?

“Because when you’re winning a title, it is not [just] because of your performance. Especially in Super GT or any other top categories, everything has to come together perfectly, from everybody, it’s not just one person. My dream is to thank all of these people.

“And to see the happy faces of all these people, because obviously, it’s not just us drivers that will be happy to achieve this result.”