As detailed in our season preview, Nissan is the ‘known unknown’ in this year’s SUPER GT title battle, having introduced a new base model in the form of the Z to replace the older GT-R. . But there is another factor that makes it even more difficult to predict how things will go this season: the tyres. Specifically, Michelin tires.
Michelin has been ubiquitous in SUPER GT since 2009, winning four titles during that time against the might of former Formula 1 rival Bridgestone, the benchmark tire maker that supplies nine of the 15 cars on the GT500 field. Michelin, meanwhile, only supplies two, namely the pair of factory NISMO Nissan Zs, car #3 and #23.
- Stream every qualifying session and race of 2022 GREAT GT season only on Motorsport.tv.
While Nissan has two other cars using different tyres, Team Impul out of Bridgestones and Kondo Racing out of Yokohamas, nearly all of its recent success has come with Michelin, which in turn hasn’t supplied any other manufacturer since 2015. fortunes of Nissan and Michelin are therefore, to a large extent, intertwined.
There are times when that works in favor of Nissan. A good example would be the Suzuka race last year, where the GT-Rs locked out the podium, helped in large part by Bridgestone bringing in tires that were too hard for the unusually cool August weather. Similarly, there have been many occasions where Nissan drivers have had their races compromised by their Michelins not being in the correct window.
But it 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 incidentally was won by a Michelin-shod Nissan NDDP/B-Max of Kohei Hirate and Frederic Makowiecki. And there’s good reason to think that the next time the rain falls, the French firm could once again be tough to beat.
Last month’s Fuji Speedway pre-season test provided the teams with the first real opportunity to race in the rain for a while, and the timesheets told their own story. On Saturday afternoon and Sunday morning, when the conditions were the worst, the two Nissan NISMOs were well ahead of the timesheets. And not just a little, but a lot.
On Saturday afternoon, Katsumasa Chiyo’s effort in the #3 Nissan NDDP was 1.1 seconds faster than the fastest non-Michelin car, the #38 Cerumo Toyota GR Supra. The next morning, Chiyo was again the leader, with a reduced but still comfortable cushion of seven tenths of a second on the ARTA Honda NSX-GT of Tomoki Nojiri.
Now yes, the conditions for those two sessions were changing and some cars might not be running when the track was fastest. But the sheer margin of the Michelin cars was still a worrying sign for rival tire makers Bridgestone, Dunlop and Yokohama about their chances in the wet this season.
It’s not just the timesheets that have caught the eye. The tires themselves used by Nissan #3 and #23 featured a never-before-seen tread pattern with lateral grooves reminiscent of the mid tires of the tire war era in F1 in the early to mid-1990s. 2000s.
The Japanese edition of Motorsport.com had the chance to meet Hiroaki Odashima, motorsport boss of Michelin Japan, to ask him about the new rubber.
“The tread pattern is based on our Pilot Sport Cup 2 sport tire, which is a simplified version of the tread pattern used in the latest generation of sport tires, starting with the Pilot Sport 4,” Odashima explained. “This model was also previously used in Formula E [which uses all-weather tyres].
“In SUPER GT, we have to use the same tire for both fully wet and semi-dry conditions. So dry performance is important, and above all SUPER GT requires stability. This model was created to be at both durable in intermediate conditions and to improve our performance in full wet.
“It looks like an intermediate tire, but the number of vertical grooves has increased from two to three and the amount of water displacement has increased. There are side grooves near the shoulder, but the block is taller than front, so the rigidity of the block is increased.This makes it more durable and therefore more resistant on a drying track.
“In this ordeal [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 track that is drying out, we were able to show our speed. If it rains [during a race weekend] what we learned from this test will be useful.
While it looks like Okayama’s season opener this weekend will be a dry one, weather forecasts in Japan aren’t known for their accuracy – Sunday’s Fuji test was supposed to be completely dry – and , in any case, the chances of a third consecutive seasons without any wet racing are low.
And while that played no role in the title battles of 2020 or 21, exactly when a wet run occurs may prove crucial. Essentially, the rain favors already heavy hitting teams, as the benefits of having a car (or tires) suited to the conditions massively outweigh the few tenths you lose to having a heavier or less powerful car. Indeed, a heavier car might even be a good thing to help warm up the tires faster.
In 2012, the rain at Autopolis – where the ballast of success was admittedly halved, as it was the penultimate round of the season – helped MOLA Nissan duo Ronnie Quintarelli and Masataka Yanagida overcome their handicap and clinch the title with one round to lose.
Don’t be surprised if Michelin-shod Nissans are once again in a prime position to benefit if the skies open up at some point in the 2022 season.