As detailed in our season preview, Nissan is the ‘known unknown’ of this year’s SUPER GT title battle, having brought in a new base model in the form of the Z to replace the old GT-R. But there’s another factor that makes it even hard to predict how things will go this season: tyres. More specifically, Michelin tyres.
Michelin has been ever-present in SUPER GT since 2009, winning four titles in that time against the might of its old Formula 1 arch-rival Bridgestone, the benchmark tyre maker that supplies nine of the 15 cars in the GT500 field. Michelin on the other hand supplies just two, namely the pair of factory NISMO-operated Nissan Zs, the #3 car and the #23.
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While Nissan has two other cars using different tyres, Team Impul on Bridgestones and Kondo Racing on Yokohamas, almost all of its recent successes have come with Michelin, which in turn has not supplied any other manufacturers since 2015. The fortunes of Nissan and Michelin are therefore, to a large degree, bound up with one another.
There are times when this works in Nissan’s favour. A good example would be last year’s Suzuka race, where the GT-Rs locked out the podium, helped in no small part by Bridgestone bringing tyres that were too hard for the unusually cool August weather. Equally, there have been plenty of occasions on which the Nissan drivers have had their races compromised by their Michelins not being in the correct window.
But there looks like there will be one major advantage for the two Michelin-shod Nissans this year – in the wet.
Incredibly, SUPER GT has now gone two full seasons without a single wet race. The last time we had one was at Sugo in 2019, which was incidentally won by a Michelin-shod NDDP/B-Max Nissan of Kohei Hirate and Frederic Makowiecki. And there’s good to reason the next time the rain falls, the French firm could again be tough to beat.
Last month’s Fuji Speedway pre-season test provided the first proper opportunity for teams to run in the wet for quite some time, and the timesheets told their own story. On both Saturday afternoon and Sunday morning, when conditions were at their worst, both of the NISMO-run Nissans sat pretty atop the timesheets. And not just by a little, but by a lot.
On Saturday afternoon, Katsumasa Chiyo’s effort in the #3 NDDP Nissan was a massive 1.1 seconds faster than the fastest non-Michelin car, the #38 Cerumo Toyota GR Supra. The next morning, Chiyo was again the pacesetter, with a reduced but still comfortable cushion of seven tenths of a second over the ARTA Honda NSX-GT of Tomoki Nojiri.
Now yes, conditions in both of these sessions were changing and some cars may not have been circulating when the track was at its quickest. But the sheer margin by which the Michelin cars were ahead was still a worrying sign for rival tyre makers Bridgestone, Dunlop and Yokohama for their chances in the wet this season.
It wasn’t just the timesheets that attracted attention either. The tyres themselves being used by the #3 and #23 Nissans featured a never-previously seen tread pattern with lateral grooves reminiscent of intermediate tyres from F1’s tyre war era in the early-to-mid 2000s.
Motorsport.com’s Japanese edition had the chance to catch up with Hiroaki Odashima, Michelin Japan’s motorsport boss, to ask him about the new rubber.
“The tread pattern is based on our Pilot Sport Cup 2 sports tyre, which is a simplified version of the pattern used in the latest generation of sports tyres, starting with the Pilot Sport 4,” explained Odashima. “That pattern was also used before in Formula E [which uses all-weather tyres].
“In SUPER GT, we have to use the same tyre for both full wet conditions and half-dry conditions. Dry performance is therefore important, and especially SUPER GT requires stability. This pattern was created to be both durable in intermediate conditions and to improve our performance in full wet.
“It looks like an intermediate tyre, but the number of vertical grooves has increased from two to three and the amount of water displacement has increased. There are lateral grooves near the shoulder, but the block is larger than before, so the block rigidity is increased. This makes it more durable and therefore stronger on a drying track.
“In this test [at Fuji] we were able to establish that it has a wide range. From rain that is so heavy it leads to a red flag to a drying track, we were able to show our speed. If it rains [during a race weekend] what we learned from this test will come in useful.”
While it appears that this weekend’s Okayama season opener will be held in the dry, weather forecasts in Japan are not renowned for their accuracy – Sunday at the Fuji test was supposed to be fully dry – and, in any case, the chances of a third season in a row passing with no wet races at all are low.
And while it hasn’t played a factor in either the 2020 or ’21 title battles, when exactly a wet race occurs can prove pivotal. Essentially, rain favours the teams already heavy with success ballast, as the advantages of having a car (or tyres) matching the conditions massively outweigh the few tenths you lose from having a heavier car, or less power. Indeed, a heavier car might even be a good thing to help warm the tyres faster.
In 2012, rain at Autopolis – where the success ballast was admittedly halved, it being the penultimate round of the season – helped points-leading MOLA Nissan pair Ronnie Quintarelli and Masataka Yanagida to overcome their handicap and nab the title with a round to spare.
Don’t be surprised if the Michelin-shod Nissans are once again in prime position to benefit if the heavens open at some point during the 2022 season.