Nissan Motor Corporation and Nissan Motorsports International Co. Ltd. (NISMO) announced their GT500 class driver lineups for the upcoming 2021 Autobacs Super GT Series in a press release on Monday.
There are no changes in the management structure, with Motohiro Matsumura remaining as Executive Director of the Nissan GT500 programme, and all four of their team principals retained for 2021: Yutaka Suzuki at the flagship NISMO team, Toshikazu Tanaka at NDDP Racing with B-Max, the legendary Kazuyoshi Hoshino at Team Impul – and Masahiko Kondo will stay in the racing game, with his Kondo Racing team completing the four-car entry.
NISMO retains the most successful duo in the history of the Super GT premier category, three-time GT500 Drivers’ Champion and all-time GT500 wins leader Tsugio Matsuda, alongside the record-setting four-time GT500 Champion Ronnie Quintarelli – who ranks third all-time in career GT500 victories (16), which ranks as the most of all foreign drivers.
Their sister car, the #3 NDDP Racing with B-Max car, will be driven by two-time GT500 Champion Kohei Hirate, joined for a second season by original NDDP (Nissan Driver Development Programme) graduate, Katsumasa Chiyo – the 2015 GT World Challenge Endurance Cup Champion, and Bathurst 12 Hour Race winner.
Meanwhile, Team Impul and the famous #12 Calsonic Nissan GT-R will have a new face in the cockpit – as former Honda single-seater prodigy Nobuharu Matsushita has secured a blockbuster transfer to Nissan, driving alongside second-year GT500 driver Kazuki Hiramine.
With Honda’s backing, 27-year-old Matsushita won the 2012 Formula Challenge Japan and 2014 All-Japan Formula Three Championships, and spent four seasons in the GP2/FIA Formula 2 Championship between 2015 to 2019 – and became only the second Japanese driver to win a feature race in Formula 1’s top feeder category. In 2020, Matsushita became a freelance driver in his fifth F2 season, before a sudden mid-season withdrawal. Upon his return, Matsushita replaced an injured Shinichi Takagi in Autobacs Racing Team Aguri (ARTA)’s GT300 entry for the last two races of the season – not at the request of Honda, but of the ARTA team specifically.
It is understood that Matsushita saw off difficult competition in a driver audition at Fuji Speedway in December to secure the drive – an audition which also included reigning GT300 Champion Kiyoto Fujinami, as well as fellow GT300 drivers Keishi Ishikawa, and Hironobu Yasuda, the latter of whom previously drove in GT500 from 2009 to 2017.
With Hiramine and Matsushita driving at Team Impul, Daiki Sasaki moves back to Kondo Racing – with whom he drove from 2014 to 2017 – and will partner incumbent driver Mitsunori Takaboshi, the final graduate of the NDDP academy to date, in their #24 GT-R.
These transfers also bring with it the end of an era at Nissan, as they confirm that 2011 Nissan GT Academy champion Jann Mardenborough will no longer race in GT500 after four seasons. The Welshman was the was the most prolific graduate of the GT Academy programme – as well as the last remaining graduate of that programme still contracted to Nissan.
Upon his arrival in Japan in 2016, Mardenborough won in just his second Super GT race in the GT300 class, and finished runner-up in the All-Japan F3 Championship to Toyota prodigy Kenta Yamashita. From there, Mardenborough secured a step up to GT500, first driving for Team Impul in the Calsonic GT-R for two seasons, followed by two more seasons at Kondo Racing. Mardenborough, like his fellow GT Academy graduates, helped blaze a trail for aspiring sim racers to break into real-world motorsport. The spirit of the GT Academy continues through the spiritual successor series, World’s Fastest Gamer, where Mardenborough is now a driving coach. He is also the first, and only, Black British driver to compete in both Super GT and Super Formula.
Nissan will host an online fan festival event on 13 February, by which time additional details of their GT500 programmes (sponsors, tyre suppliers, etc) should be confirmed, as well as their customer racing efforts in GT300.