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2021 Super GT Field Guide, Part 1: GT500 Class

Written by R.J. O'Connell

It’ll be hard to imagine that any on-track action this year could eclipse the incredible final moments that decided the 2020 GT500 championship, but 2021 is still shaping up to be another incredible season in the GT500 class of the Autobacs Super GT Series.

Super GT will be the only place to see these Class One super silhouette grand tourers – among the fastest categories of sports car racing in competition today. It’s fifteen cars as usual – four Nissan GT-Rs, five Honda NSX-GTs, six Toyota GR Supras, each using a choice of one of four different tyre manufacturers in one of the few open tyre championships remaining anywhere in the world. They’re piloted by thirty elite racing drivers, some of the very best in the world.

As we run through each manufacturer and their representative teams in this 2021 Field Guide, we’ll also go through the various changes that each team has made this season – including some special arrangements for the opening round of the season.

Honda

Under project leader Masahiro Saeki, Honda are enjoying arguably their successful run in GT500. Last year, the new front-engined Honda NSX-GT won the GT500 Championship in stunning fashion, picking up four victories and five pole positions along the way. Now Honda are aiming to do something they’ve not yet accomplished in their 25 years in GT500, and win back-to-back championships.

Their five teams are all loaded with talented drivers, engineers, and mechanics, and the NSX-GT has proven to be a very capable car in its successful debut year. Aerodynamic development has been frozen for 2021, meaning Honda keeps its 2020 “low downforce” kit – it’ll be interesting to see how effective that package is at some of the returning tracks on the calendar.

Honda may be winding down their involvement in Formula 1, but the technology they’ve developed has trickled through the HRD Sakura factory into Super GT over the years – and Super GT will remain a cornerstone of Honda’s involvement of racing now, and seemingly far into the future.

#1 – Team Kunimitsu

  • Vehicle: Stanley NSX-GT
  • Tyres: Bridgestone
  • Drivers: Naoki Yamamoto, Tadasuke Makino, Hideki Mutoh
  • Team Director: Kunimitsu Takahashi
  • Chief Engineer: Satofumi Hoshi

The “Raybrig Era” at Team Kunimitsu ended in Hollywood fashion, with ace driver Naoki Yamamoto passing Ryo Hirakawa in the last 700 metres of the season to win the title at Fuji Speedway just a little more than four months ago. 2021 begins a new chapter for one of Super GT’s most beloved teams, the first year in the new silver, black, and orange colours of Stanley Electric (parent company of the former Raybrig brand). Team Director Kunimitsu Takahashi, the living legend, has also brought in a new Chief Engineer for 2021, as former ARTA Technical Director Satofumi Hoshi succeeds the departing two-time championship-winning engineer, Hitoshi Iyoki.

Two-time GT500 Champion Naoki Yamamoto, at age 32, is already entering the discussion of being one of Japan’s greatest racing drivers of all time. He enters 2021 as the reigning GT500 and Super Formula Champion, the only driver to win both titles in the same calendar year more than once. Yamamoto is already the only driver to win multiple titles as a Honda driver, and a third title would elevate him into the elite company of Super GT legends like Motoyama, Wakisaka, Tachikawa, and Quintarelli. Entering his tenth season as Team Kunimitsu’s ace pilot, and his twelfth season in total, Yamamoto has formed a lasting bond with Kunimitsu Takahashi and the rest of the team.

2020 was also a success for the dynamic and talented 23-year-old Tadasuke Makino, who took his first GT500 race victory and championship. In spite of his amazing pure talent, Makino has had to overcome a number of setbacks throughout his racing career – and this winter dealt an especially terrible blow, when he was hospitalized with meningitis this December. He’s not driven a race car since being hospitalized, and as he continues a long recovery process, Makino will miss the start of the 2021 season.

That’s given Hideki Mutoh an unexpected opportunity to drive for Team Kunimitsu as Makino’s substitute: The 38-year-old veteran had seemingly run his last race in GT500 after the 2020 season, but will now be tasked with supporting Team Kunimitsu and Yamamoto’s bids to repeat as GT500 Champions until Makino is one hundred percent fit to race. Mutoh is a GT300 Champion and GT500 race winner, and drove full-time for Team Kunimitsu in 2014. He’d spent the last four seasons with Team Mugen.

#8 – Autobacs Racing Team Aguri

  • Vehicle: ARTA NSX-GT
  • Tyres: Bridgestone
  • Drivers: Tomoki Nojiri, Nirei Fukuzumi
  • Team Director: Aguri Suzuki
  • Chief Engineer: Ryan Dingle

ARTA had a frustrating start to the 2020 season – but they scored more points than any other team in the second half of the year, and almost completed an incredible championship comeback through a string of three podiums capped by a win at Motegi in November. The goal for 2021? Finding the consistency to compete for their first set of GT500 titles since 2007.

Lead driver Tomoki Nojiri might not be a household name on the level of Honda stablemates Yamamoto and Baguette, but he is a legitimately well-rounded racing driver capable of dominating a race weekend – not to mention, he is also the driver influencing the setup direction alongside Canadian-born engineer Ryan Dingle. The 31-year-old Nojiri begins his seventh season in GT500, all of them with ARTA.

2019 GT300 Champion, Nirei Fukuzumi, broke out in a big way in his first GT500 campaign in 2020. He matched explosive speed with a surprising level of adaptability for a young driver, forming what was described as the “fastest lineup in GT500” alongside his senior teammate Nojiri. With his friend and former F2 classmate Makino already a top-class champion, Fukuzumi will be looking to add his name to the roll of honour as a GT500 Champion.

They had a fairly low-key couple of pre-season tests, but the black and orange ARTA NSX-GT should still be a force to be reckoned with throughout this 2021 season.

#16 – Team Red Bull Mugen

  • Vehicle: Red Bull Motul Mugen NSX-GT
  • Tyres: Dunlop
  • Drivers: Ukyo Sasahara, Toshiki Oyu
  • Team Director: Hirokatsu Tanaka
  • Chief Engineer: Kimitoshi Sugisaki

One of the most storied names in all of Japanese motorsport, Team Red Bull Mugen haven’t come close to matching their former success in GT500 since returning four seasons ago. That’s why the many changes that Mugen have made this off-season have the paddock buzzing. One of the biggest changes was the switch to Dunlop-branded Sumitomo Rubber tyres, giving Dunlop a second GT500 customer for the first time in over a decade, a move that was made in response to a major improvement in pace from Dunlop-clad cars across the board in 2020.

Mugen have also made a change in leadership, Hirokatsu Tanaka has been appointed Team Director in place of Shinji Nakano – but they’ve retained Kimitoshi Sugisaki as Chief Engineer, following his success in 2020 working with Naoki Yamamoto in Super Formula. They’ve also pushed all-in on young talent, fielding the youngest lineup in GT500 with an average age of 23 between sophomore Ukyo Sasahara, and GT500 rookie Toshiki Oyu – two graduates of the 2016 Suzuka Racing School graduating class (which also includes current F1 rookie sensation Yuki Tsunoda!).

Sasahara may have only one year of GT500 experience under his belt, but he has the skill and the maturity to lead this team. Last season, he brought Mugen their first podium finish since their return to the category. His adaptibility is proven with championships in a number of categories – the F3 Asian Championship, Porsche Carrera Cup Japan, even a gold medal in the FIA Motorsport Games for Japan.

22-year-old Oyu recorded the fastest time during the first pre-season test at Okayama, and has many people, including Honda boss Saeki-san, raving about his sheer speed and talent. While he only managed two podiums with ARTA in GT300 last year, Oyu also became Super Formula Rookie of the Year – and after taking blame for a number of on-track incidents across both series earlier on, he’s smoothed out his rough edges and found the consistency to match his raw talent. Oyu could very well be Honda’s next GT500 ace in the making.

#17 – Astemo Real Racing

  • Vehicle: Astemo NSX-GT
  • Tyres: Bridgestone
  • Drivers: Koudai Tsukakoshi, Bertrand Baguette
  • Team Director: Katsutomo Kaneishi
  • Chief Engineer: Yasuhiro Tasaka

Just like Team Kunimitsu, Real Racing have entered 2021 with a new look – as the blue Keihin colours have been retired after twelve years, replaced by the metallic crimson of their successor company Hitachi Astemo. However, underneath the new paintjob, Astemo Real Racing have kept the core of their team intact after a strong 2020 season, which included two wins, and a third-place ranking in the Drivers’ Championship.

Under former Honda works driver Katsutomo Kaneishi’s stewardship, Real Racing have been championship challengers before. They have one of the best all-around driver lineups in the series, featuring two hungry veterans eager to capture their first championships in GT500.

34-year-old Koudai Tsukakoshi has been with Real Racing for his entire GT500 career, and as he begins his thirteenth full season aboard the #17 Honda, Tsukakoshi is still as hungry as ever to take his and Real Racing’s first GT500 Championships. Through all the ups and downs that him and the team have been through, Tsukakoshi has developed into an incredible all-around driver over the passage of time.

The same can be said of his Belgian teammate Bertrand Baguette, who nearly missed out on the 2020 season due to travel restrictions – but managed to arrive in time to enjoy the best season of his Super GT career, highlighted by some impressive drives during the season. Entering his eighth season as a Honda GT500 driver, Baguette is also determined to capture his first GT500 title.

#64 – Modulo Nakajima Racing

  • Vehicle: Modulo NSX-GT
  • Tyres: Dunlop
  • Drivers: Takuya Izawa, Hiroki Otsu
  • Team Director: Satoru Nakajima
  • Chief Engineer: Yuki Kato

Team Mugen’s switch to Dunlop rubber may not have been possible without the amazing form of Modulo Nakajima Racing in 2020, who put the paddock on notice with two pole positions. Their short-run speed was incredible, but their long-run pace is still a work in progress. Still, this is a great improvement from a team that, for a number of years, was struggling to stay out of the bottom of the GT500 Championship table.

All the attention around the Mugen-Dunlop connection has left Nakajima Racing flying under the radar in 2021, though admittedly, it’s been a long time since Satoru Nakajima’s squad has been talked up as potential championship dark horses.

Takuya Izawa’s exceptional aptitude for setups and development drove Dunlop and Nakajima Racing forward, creating a platform to rejuvenate his top-class racing career. At 36, he’s the oldest and most experienced driver of the Honda fleet, but he’s never won a major title in Japan, coming closest when he finished runner-up with ARTA in 2009. Can Izawa finally capture his first crown in his thirteenth full season as a Honda GT500 driver?

Hiroki Otsu is the most underrated of Honda’s new generation drivers – older than the likes of Makino, Fukuzumi, and Oyu, but every bit as talented. Last year, he finally got his first GT500 shot, and performed exceptionally well given the relatively low expectations. He was up near the top of the leaderboards in pre-season testing at Fuji, and a first win doesn’t seem far-fetched for the 26-year-old GT500 sophomore.

Toyota

It was a dream debut for the new Toyota GR Supra in GT500, winning and sweeping the top five positions on its much-anticipated debut race at Fuji Speedway. But the championship painfully slipped from their grasp, as Toyota managed just one more victory over the remaining seven rounds.

Toyota still have a fantastic all-around vehicle with the fifth-generation GR Supra, one that has the potential to be competitive at every round and every venue. With aero development frozen, finding improvements in the engine will be crucial as they begin their fightback against Honda. Their driver lineup is stacked with past champions in Super GT, Super Formula, Formula 3 – several of whom are graduates of the Toyota Gazoo Racing Driver Challenge (TGR-DC) academy.

#14 – TGR Team Eneos ROOKIE

  • Vehicle: Eneos X Prime GR Supra
  • Tyres: Bridgestone
  • Drivers: Kazuya Oshima, Kenta Yamashita
  • Team Director: Toranosuke Takagi
  • Chief Engineer: Kazuya Abe

ROOKIE Racing (operating as TGR Team Eneos ROOKIE) welcome Eneos oil and their vibrant red, orange & gold colours as a new title sponsor, but that’s not all that’s new for the second-year team founded by Toyota Motor Corporation President, Akio Toyoda. The biggest change is that after a year with technical support from Team Cerumo – effectively running as the second Cerumo car – the #14 Eneos X Prime GR Supra will be a fully-independent team with a new factory, and a completely new staff of mechanics preparing the car.

They still have title-winning driver and Team Director Toranosuke Takagi, as well as title-winning Chief Engineer Kazuya Abe, leading the squad. The other change is reuniting the 2019 GT500 Championship-winning duo of drivers Kazuya Oshima and Kenta Yamashita, who won the title with ROOKIE Racing’s predecessor, Team LeMans.

Oshima turns 34 at the end of the month, but already has 120 starts to his name over a career that’s spanned parts of 15 seasons. He’s driven in the Eneos colours during his time at Team LeMans, and he helped drive ROOKIE Racing to three podiums in their first five races. Moreover, Oshima has embraced his role as a veteran mentor to young drivers in recent years, including his teammate Yamashita.

Yamashita made the difficult decision to call time on his WEC endeavours to return to Japan amidst the uncertain state of the world, and he’s eager to pick up where he left off across three spot starts for SARD and TOM’s last year. The highlight of those three races was his stunning pole lap and opening stint in the final round at Fuji. Yamashita’s WEC experience has also given him a greater understanding of providing feedback to the team. Combined with his elite pure talent as a driver and his fearless spirit in battle, the 25-year-old is poised to become GT500 Champion for the second time, and is still destined to be an integral figure in the future of Toyota Gazoo Racing on the world stage.

#19 – TGR Team WedsSport Bandoh

  • Vehicle: WedsSport Advan GR Supra
  • Tyres: Yokohama
  • Drivers: Yuji Kunimoto, Ritomo Miyata
  • Team Director: Masataka Bandoh
  • Chief Engineer: Hiroyuki Hayashi

Racing Project Bandoh (TGR Team WedsSport Bandoh) debuted in GT500 ten years ago after years of success in GT300, but success in the top class has been hard to come by, with just one win during their GT500 tenure.

Part of that is owed to being the only Toyota team using Yokohama Advan tyres, instead of Bridgestones. Yokohama especially struggled last season across all of their teams, leaving the blue and gold #19 WedsSport Supra unable to even fight for podiums. Second-generation Team Director Masataka Bandoh, however, is vowing to transform his team “from losers, to winners” this season and return them to the top step.

Yuji Kunimoto already has 100 starts under his belt at just 30 years of age, as he enters his tenth GT500 campaign and his sixth with Bandoh. A steady, smooth, and level-headed driver, Kunimoto was part of Bandoh’s first GT500 victory back in 2016, the same year where he won the Super Formula Championship.

21-year-old Ritomo Miyata, the top TGR-DC academy prospect, begins his second full season in GT500 with the WedsSport team. Miyata also enters 2021 as the reigning Super Formula Lights champion, and is in search of his first successes in GT500. Though his stints were overshadowed by lacklustre results, Miyata has the speed, focus, and discipline of a future champion – if not with this team, then at his next assignment for Toyota in the near future.

#36 – TGR Team au TOM’s

  • Vehicle: au TOM’s GR Supra
  • Tyres: Bridgestone
  • Drivers: Yuhi Sekiguchi, Sho Tsuboi
  • Team Director: Daisuke Ito
  • Chief Engineer: Satoshi Yoshitake

TOM’s Racing operate two different cars in GT500, including this, their flagship number 36 entry – TGR Team au TOM’s. Last year, the orange and white #36 car scored four podiums, their drivers finishing fourth in the Drivers’ Championship.

This spring, they finished with the fastest time across the two-day preseason test at Fuji Speedway, and the most mileage of any team across both tests. That’s a good foundation to build upon, for Team Director Daisuke Ito – a past champion as a driver – and second-year race engineer Satoshi Yoshitake. They also have a well-balanced lineup of ultra-fast drivers in the mold of many legendary TOM’s drivers of decades past.

Yuhi Sekiguchi’s whirlwind racing journey is well-documented, and it has taken him to his ninth GT500 campaign, his eighth with Toyota, and his fourth at TGR Team au TOM’s. While he may have tempered his ruthless aggression in recent years, Sekiguchi is still one of the most fierce and entertaining drivers to watch in the heat of an on-track battle, and he will still be going at ten-tenths in every stint as he chases his first GT500 Championship.

Moving to his third different team in as many seasons, Sho Tsuboi comes over after three podiums and several jaw-dropping race stints with ROOKIE Racing, and he was lightning-quick in the pre-season test at Fuji. 2020 saw him take his first brace of wins in Super Formula, and Tsuboi has already won in the GT300 class earlier in his career. Logically, a first GT500 win is the next step for the 25-year-old Tsuboi – but a first championship may also come soon after, do not be surprised if it comes this year!

#37 – TGR Team KeePer TOM’s

  • Vehicle: KeePer TOM’s GR Supra
  • Tyres: Bridgestone
  • Drivers: Ryo Hirakawa, Sacha Fenestraz, Sena Sakaguchi
  • Team Director: Jun Yamada
  • Chief Engineer: Masaki Saeki

On the other side of last year’s incredible championship finale, TGR Team KeePer TOM’s have had months to reflect, and prepare, to avenge a gut-wrenching loss that fell upon ace driver Ryo Hirakawa after leading the championship for most of the year, all the way until those last seven hundred metres. Former engineer Jun Yamada has done a fantastic job succeeding the legendary Masanori Sekiya as Team Director after just two seasons, and while race engineer Masaki Saeki bore the responsibility for his car running out of fuel on the last lap, he still has a fantastic track record and is respected as one of the best in the business. And this year, they’ve retooled in their bid to recapture the GT500 titles with the #37 car.

Of course, all of the attention will fall on Ryo Hirakawa, the 2017 GT500 Champion and three-time runner-up beginning his 2021 “revenge tour.” His speed over short bursts and long runs, his consistency and aggression, are seldom rivaled by any other driver. In 2020, he took a massive step forward even by his already incredible standards – and at just 27, Hirakawa is already approaching some astonishing career milestones. But of course, a second GT500 title after three straight near-misses is one of the accolades that he is most eager to accomplish, perhaps even the “Double Championship” that escaped him last year, adding a Super Formula title to his CV.

With Nick Cassidy’s departure, French-Argentine youngster Sacha Fenestraz was brought over from the #36 to the #37 team as his replacement. He had an extraordinary rookie year in GT500, racking up four podiums, marking himself as the next great international star to race in Japan at just 21 years old. Unfortunately, since returning home last Christmas, Fenestraz has been unable to re-enter Japan due to visa issues, and as such, won’t be making his KeePer TOM’s debut until later in the year.

His replacement is Sena Sakaguchi, the reigning Formula Regional Japanese Champion, a GT300 class race winner – in fact, Sakaguchi is going to return to GT300 with K-Tunes Racing once Fenestraz returns. But Sakaguchi, also 21, raced in GT500 in a one-off last season, and with another good substitute race (or races), will all but lock up a move up to full-time GT500 competition next year. He certainly has the talent to do it, based on what little we’ve seen of him in the top classes.

#38 – TGR Team ZENT Cerumo

  • Vehicle: ZENT GR Supra
  • Tyres: Bridgestone
  • Drivers: Yuji Tachikawa, Hiroaki Ishiura
  • Team Director: Yuji Tachikawa
  • Chief Engineer: Kotaro Tanaka

For all of the exciting young talent racing for Toyota in GT500, TGR Team ZENT Cerumo have an intriguing contrast by fielding the oldest lineup in the class – but by no means are they slow or diminished. Cerumo, of course, is an elite team with a successful reputation in Super GT, boasting several wins and championships to their name.

Yuji Tachikawa begins his unprecedented twenty-third season as a Cerumo GT500, and this is also his third season as the lead driver and Team Director of the silver and red #38 ZENT GR Supra. Over the course of a Hall of Fame-worthy career, Tachikawa sits at or near the top of so many statistical leaderboards in GT500 – second in career wins, first in points, podiums, and poles. He is one of only four drivers to win three or more premier class titles, just one short of Ronnie Quintarelli’s record of four. We won’t know yet if this turns out to be Tachikawa’s farewell season, but if it does, what a way it would be for him to end it with his record-equalling fourth championship, before transitioning to managing full-time.

Hiroaki Ishiura, his teammate, may be a sentimental favourite to win it all for the first time in his GT500 career. Ishiura has quietly compiled a solid thirteen-year career in the top class with Toyota, but he’s only finished as high as third in the standings once, in 2012. He recently called time on a Super Formula career that saw him win two championships as a driver – and as he turns 40 in April, Ishiura may not have too many more opportunities left to finally add a GT500 title to his GT300 crown from 2007.

There has been one important change this season, as Kotaro Tanaka becomes the new Chief Engineer of the ZENT GR Supra. Tanaka, of course, won a title in 2016 with SARD, one of a number of accomplished engineering luminaries that have been a part of Toyota’s success in Super GT.

#39 – TGR Team SARD

  • Vehicle: Denso Kobelco SARD GR Supra
  • Tyres: Bridgestone
  • Drivers: Heikki Kovalainen, Yuichi Nakayama
  • Team Director: Juichi Wakisaka
  • Chief Engineer: Shigenori Ara

SARD are one of the oldest, and most significant racing teams in the history of motor racing in Japan – going back to their early years as Sigma Automotive, this is their 50th year of operation. Running in GT500 as TGR Team SARD, the familiar white, red and blue Denso Kobelco SARD GR Supra has such an iconic presence in Super GT over the years, and they’ve been a consistent winner over the last five seasons – which includes a GT500 title in 2016.

In spite of the borders being shut to a number of international drivers, and in spite of him missing two races in 2020 because of travel restrictions, Heikki Kovalainen has decided to stay in Super GT, much to the benefit of SARD. In fact, he’ll have spent as many years in Super GT as he did in F1 by the end of the season, all of them in the #39 Denso Supra. Kovalainen has now won a race in each of the last five seasons, and still has the speed and the drive to add a second GT500 title with SARD to his resumé.

Yuichi Nakayama may have taken a while before he received his first chance to race in GT500 – but he’s proven a worthy addition to Toyota’s roster in the top class, contributing to wins in each of the last two seasons. For his skill and consistency, he may be Toyota’s most underrated driver by a long margin, and he provides much-needed continuity to the team in his third year.

The team will still lean on the championship-winning experience of former driver and Team Director, “Mr. Super GT” himself – Juichi Wakisaka, now in his second year managing SARD. Shigenori Ara has been promoted to Chief Engineer this year, a star on the rise in his field.

Nissan

Nissan have won more championships in GT500 than either of their rivals, Toyota or Honda. But even though they’ve fended off winless seasons, Nissan have been a clear step behind the pack over the last several years. Of course, the challenges facing the entire Nissan corporation are well-documented by now, highlighting a gulf in resources between themselves, Toyota, and Honda.

But when one of four Nissan GT-Rs finished the last day of pre-season testing with the best time, it provided hope to Nissan supporters of better times ahead. Nissan and GT500 project leader Motohiro Matsumura are also hoping that an optimised revision of their NR20B engine will bring them the horsepower they’ve needed to return to championship contention.

#23 – NISMO

  • Vehicle: Motul Autech GT-R
  • Tyres: Michelin
  • Drivers: Tsugio Matsuda, Ronnie Quintarelli
  • Team Director: Yutaka Suzuki
  • Chief Engineer: Takeshi Nakajima

NISMO is another name synonymous with car culture and motorsports in Japan. They are the flagship team representing Nissan, with more championships than any other team in the series, and of course, the NISMO name has a reach beyond the boundaries of Super GT. Over the past seven years, they have formed a modern-day dynasty of drivers Tsugio Matsuda and Ronnie Quintarelli, Team Director Yutaka Suzuki, and Chief Engineer Takeshi Nakajima comprising the “core four” of one of the best teams of a generation.  They’ve also had to bear the weight of being the only Nissan team that’s been able to consistently fight for wins since the start of their current slump.

And of course, the duo of Matsuda and Quintarelli are also racing in the face of the advance of time, both drivers turning 41 and eager to wind back the years once again. Keeping the core together also includes keeping NISMO’s semi-exclusive tyre partnership with Michelin, who have powered NISMO’s brace of back-to-back titles in 2014 and 2015 – the last time that NISMO have won the GT500 Championship.

Matsuda’s focus, consistency, and stellar racecraft has made him the winningest driver in the history of GT500. He sits at 22 victories, one away from a symbolic victory number 23 in car #23. Back-to-back titles in both GT500 and Super Formula, only bolster his incredible career, which is now entering its twenty-second season (21 full seasons) as a GT500 driver – and he, of course, could join that elite bracket of three-time GT500 Champions. He may not light up a leaderboard of average stint times these days, but Matsuda’s racing instincts are undiminished even in his twilight years.

But it’s Quintarelli, the only four-time GT500 Champion in history, and by far the most accomplished international driver to ever race in Super GT, who still sets the tempo for the “red car”. He drove brilliantly throughout last season, carrying the Motul GT-R to an unlikely sweep of the season’s two races at Suzuka Circuit, and pulling off an array of dazzling overtakes. Quintarelli’s importance also rests with his incredible relationship with Michelin in Japan, he’s been driving their success in GT500 for over a decade across a number of teams in the Nissan stable – he knows what NISMO needs of Michelin to return to championship glory.

#3 – NDDP Racing with B-Max

  • Vehicle: CraftSports Motul GT-R
  • Tyres: Michelin
  • Drivers: Kohei Hirate, Katsumasa Chiyo
  • Team Director: Toshikazu Tanaka
  • Chief Engineer: Masashi Miyata

NDDP Racing with B-Max, is effectively the second NISMO car in all but name. After all, this car is registered under the ownership of NISMO, the #3 CraftSports GT-R has an identical livery pattern and sponsors to the #23 Motul GT-R from NISMO, and they also have Michelin tyres just like the NISMO team.

But the structure of this team under third-year director Toshikazu Tanaka is distinct, and they regressed from a win in 2019 to no podiums at all in 2020. Rather than revamp the team and start from scratch, the NDDP/B-Max squad stuck with their current core, featuring two well-liked, well-respected racing drivers eager to find their way back to victory.

Kohei Hirate found new life upon joining Nissan two years ago after spending most of his career under the employment of Toyota. Hirate, 35, is a fearless and aggressive driver, and a successful driver in his own right – a two-time champion in GT500, just like his Nissan stablemate Matsuda. A popular driver in the Super GT paddock, Hirate has been a perfect fit for his new manufacturer, and is looking to rebound from a disappointing 2020 season.

A first victory in GT500 has been eluding original NDDP alumni Katsumasa Chiyo for much of the last five seasons, and his return to full-time GT500 action last year seemed less impressive than one would expect from a driver who is arguably Nissan’s most recognizable driver on the GT500 roster this season. But he still has the speed that made him a Bathurst 12 Hour winner and SRO champion in Europe, and could finally take that first victory if the NDDP/B-Max team takes a step forward with him.

#12 – Team Impul

  • Vehicle: Calsonic Impul GT-R
  • Tyres: Bridgestone
  • Drivers: Kazuki Hiramine, Nobuharu Matsushita
  • Team Director: Kazuyoshi Hoshino
  • Chief Engineer: Toshiomi Oeki

The blue #12 Calsonic Nissan GT-R of Team Impul is one of the most recognizable sports cars anywhere in the world. Which is why Team Impul’s recent run of form over the last handful of seasons has been so unrecognizable – lacking either the pace to compete, or the ability or fortune to finish races once they are in contention for a win. They’ve also lacked continuity, as 2021 will see Impul roll out their sixth different lineup in the last six years.

Something that legendary Impul president Kazuyoshi Hoshino admires above all is a driver who, just as he did in his heyday as a driver, will give 100 percent effort every time they climb into a car. They seem to have found two drivers who got to the Calsonic GT-R in unlikely fashion, but fit the mold of the team well – plus, having championship-winning Chief Engineer Toshiomi Oeki, and Bridgestone tyres, it’s a wonder why they didn’t score more than just a single podium in 2020.

One of the most unlikely GT500 debutants in recent years, Kazuki Hiramine seized an unlikely chance to go from unheralded young GT300 journeyman to a top talent in GT500, arguably as impressive 2020 as fellow GT500 newcomers like Fenestraz or Fukuzumi. His blistering speed was a revelation, and in just his second year in the top class, he is Impul’s most experienced driver in Super GT – but one that is fully capable of ending a long five-year winless drought for the Calsonic GT-R.

Nobuharu Matsushita was the blockbuster signing by Nissan this year, and Formula 2 fans will be well aware that he is a fearless, flat-out racer over his five seasons in the category. Of course, before going to Europe, Matsushita was also a champion in Japan’s single-seater ranks. He has just two starts in a GT300 car to his name in Super GT, though, and how quickly he can come to grips with negotiating GT300 traffic will be critical in determining his success as a GT500 rookie. If he can figure it out quickly, though, he will be a threat for victories right out of the box – exactly what Nissan had in mind by prying him away from Honda this winter.

#24 – Kondo Racing

  • Vehicle: Realize Corporation Advan GT-R
  • Tyres: Yokohama
  • Drivers: Mitsunori Takaboshi, Daiki Sasaki
  • Team Director: Masahiko Kondo
  • Chief Engineer: Takuji Murata

Kondo Racing’s GT500 team languished at the bottom of the standings as their GT300 team won a title in 2020. It was a tough season, one that ended in the cloud of team president Masahiko Kondo’s infidelity scandal blowing up all over the pages of the weekly tabloids.

This offseason, they made some very big changes to the GT500 lineup, pairing two Nissan Driver Development Programme (NDDP) graduates together, and also bringing in a championship-winning race engineer in Takuji Murata to revitalize the team. Of course, Kondo Racing will also be needing improvement from their tyre partners at Yokohama if they’re to return to contending for podiums or wins this season.

At 27, Mitsunori Takaboshi is still highly-regarded by Nissan – serving as not only a GT500 race driver, but also a Formula E reserve driver. But Takaboshi’s last two seasons at Kondo Racing have seen his talents, as well as those of his former teammate Jann Mardenborough, left to waste. 2021 will be a big year for Takaboshi to try and finally find his first successes as a full-time GT500 driver – he hasn’t stood on the podium in the top class since a spot start in 2016, but he has won in GT300 and is a Formula 3 champion in Japan.

Daiki Sasaki’s return to Kondo Racing comes off the back of a frustrating season at Team Impul – but it’s been forgotten in recent years just how successful Sasaki was with this team in his last stint, scoring three wins from 2015 to 2016. The change of squads could be exactly what Sasaki needs to quiet his critics and rediscover his old form.

Images courtesy of the GT Association (GTA)