Why Dunlop's breakthrough GT500 season was never repeated

Fifteen years ago, Nakajima Racing was coming off its best-ever SUPER GT season, in which it finished a lofty second in the standings. It's a level of performance that the Honda squad has never been able to replicate since.

Why Dunlop's breakthrough GT500 season was never repeated
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Back in 2007, Loic Duval and Fabio Carbone shared the wheel of Nakajima's #32 Honda NSX, marking the last time that two international drivers have been paired together in SUPER GT's top class for a full season.

Duval was in his second season, having taken victory in 2006 with Hideki Mutoh alongside him in the final round at Fuji. The weight handicap system was much more complex back then, including extra adjustments that were made to try and balance the performance of different tyre makers and cars, and these no doubt helped Nakajima that day.

But a podium in the Suzuka opener in 2007, despite an early spin and a drive-through penalty for a pitlane violation, proved that Duval, Carbone and their Dunlop-shod Honda would be a force to be reckoned with that year.


A second top-three came in the wet at Sugo in the middle of the year, and come the season finale at Fuji, Duval and Carbone were among a pack of cars vying for the runner-up spot in the championship behind ARTA Honda pair Daisuke Ito and Ralph Firman, who wrapped up the crown with a round to spare.

After passing the Impul Nissan of compatriot Benoit Treluyer, Duval built a gap out front before handing over to Carbone. The Brazilian brought home the Nakajima car 16 seconds clear to seal the runner-up spot, matching the team's best championship finishes from when it ran Bridgestone tyres.

For Dunlop, it was by far the highest any of its cars had placed in the GT500 class - its previous best was seventh overall during a short-lived tie-up with Toyota powerhouse team TOM'S in 1998.

"The NSX was mega-quick that year," recalls Duval. "It was the fastest car, we were quicker than Nissan and Lexus. And we pushed the development of the tyres in the right direction. We were performing very well.

"I remember that win [at Fuji], it was super-nice to win that race and secure second in the championship. You always have the chance to at least win a race in SUPER GT with the weight handicap, but finishing second in the championship was a great achievement.

"Since then, Nakajima and Dunlop have never been in the top five in the championship. When you look at the results they have done since, it shows what a great achievement it was to finish second."


For 2008, Duval would be joined by a new teammate in the form of Katsuyuki Hiranaka, as the GT500 manufacturers made a gentleman's agreement not to use all-foreigner line-ups. But Nakajima couldn't replicate its form of the previous year, slumping to ninth with a single podium.

Things were no better for Dunlop's other GT500 car, the SARD Lexus of Andre Couto and Toranosuke Takagi, who finished last.

Hiranaka would be replaced as Duval's teammate by Yuhki Nakayama in 2009, but things went from bad to worse as they dropped to last overall with a best finish of sixth. Duval left to join the works-supported Dome Honda squad for 2010, winning that year's title with Takashi Kogure.

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So why did 2007 prove a flash in the pan? Duval has a relatively simple but compelling explanation.

"I remember in winter testing after that season, I had a big crash at Suzuka because of a tyre failure," says Duval. "Dunlop restarted their development from scratch in terms of the construction and the materials they were using, and this was a big step down.

"We were never able to get back to our previous potential. Sometimes we could perform well in special conditions, but through the year, we were never there, we were never consistent like we were in 2007."


After Duval and Carbone's 2007 win, Nakajima had to wait an agonising 10 years for its next triumph in SUPER GT, finally taking victory in the 2017 Suzuka 1000km with Bertrand Baguette and Kosuke Matsuura as the Dunlop rubber came into its own in the hot conditions.

That remains the team's most recent victory, and since that race there have been only two second place finishes and two poles to keep team morale up.

Duval's relationship with Nakajima may have come to an end after 2009, but he did secure Satoru Nakajima's eponymous squad its fourth and most recent Formula Nippon (now Super Formula) crown in dominant fashion before moving on to Dandelion Racing for 2010. 

The Frenchman is convinced that, without the financial limitations that have firmly bound the team to Dunlop in recent seasons, Nakajima could still be fighting at the sharp end in SUPER GT.

"Nakajima-san gave me the chance to become a professional racing driver, to discover a new culture and a different type of racing, which I love," reflects Duval. "I will always be thankful to him and I’m happy that I rewarded him by winning the championship because the team deserved it.

"They are one of the top teams out there, unfortunately they cannot show it in SUPER GT, but they are great people, and Satoru Nakajima really took care of me here in Japan."



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