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Special feature

The Super GT champion shaped by two Toyota rejections

Once seemingly destined for Formula 1, two-time SUPER GT champion Kohei Hirate is determined to prove his worth with Nissan after ending up on the receiving end of not one but two career-changing Toyota rejections.

#3 B-Max Racing team Nissan GT-R: Kohei Hirate

Masahide Kamio

Rejection is an inevitable part of almost every racing driver’s career, whether it’s from sponsors, teams or manufacturers. Few are the drivers that are blessed with the backing and prodigious talent needed to ascend the single-seater ladder all the way from karting to Formula 1 (or their desired career destination) without ever being told ‘no’.

But for two-time SUPER GT champion Kohei Hirate, rejection by the same organisation on two occasions – a decade apart – has pretty much defined a career which can be neatly split into three chapters, each separated by some puzzling Toyota decision-making.

Now racing for Nissan, Hirate is one of those rare animals in the world of top-level Japanese motorsport: a driver that has represented more than one of the ‘big three’ manufacturers. Indeed, of the 30 full-time racers in SUPER GT’s top GT500 class in 2021, only four have spent a full season with a marque other than their current employer.

If crossing the floor in SUPER GT is rare, it’s practically unheard of for a driver to win the championship and, just a year later, be told there’s no space for him. But that’s precisely the indignity Hirate suffered in 2017, after scoring his second GT500 crown in ’16.

But perhaps it was 10 years prior that the bigger of the two disappointments came, and that was certainly the one that had the bigger impact on Hirate’s career trajectory – which at one point seemed like it could very well take him all the way to Formula 1.

Kohei Hirate (JPN, Trident Racing)

Kohei Hirate (JPN, Trident Racing)

Photo by: GP2 Series Media Service

The 2006 Formula 3 Euroseries season is fondly remembered for the title battle between two future F1 drivers, Paul di Resta and Sebastian Vettel. What’s often forgotten is that Hirate finished ‘best of the rest’ behind that pair in the standings, not to mention the best-placed of three Japanese Toyota proteges competing in the series that year.

Of the other two, one was Hirate’s Manor teammate Kazuki Nakajima, and the other was Kamui Kobayashi, who had been placed at the crack ASM squad. Both would later get their chances in F1, while Hirate never progressed beyond some test outings for Toyota.

Recalls Manor boss John Booth: “Kohei had two tough teammates in Esteban Guerrieri and Nakajima, and he was the quickest of the three – but he had some terrible luck. He should have won a lot more races [he only won the season opener at Hockenheim].

“He was leading at Barcelona in heavy rain and started running on a different part of the circuit because he thought it was drier, but it was actually water and he kept getting slowed down on the straights and he eventually got passed [by Vettel, finishing second].

“He was leading in Zandvoort and his engine cover came adrift. And he would have won easily at Macau, but he started changing his brake balance the wrong way; he was trying to save his front brakes, but he overheated his brakes and it totally knackered him.”

Indeed, after a first-corner mishap for qualifying race winner Kobayashi, Hirate was running a strong second in Macau and pressuring leader and eventual winner Mike Conway before fading dramatically with his brake woes in the closing stages and crashing out.

Hirate (1) leads Kobayashi (6) and Marko Asmer (18) at the start of the 2006 Macau GP qualifying race

Hirate (1) leads Kobayashi (6) and Marko Asmer (18) at the start of the 2006 Macau GP qualifying race

Toyota policy at the time would usually dictate that the highest-placed driver in the series would be first to secure a step up the ladder. But by the time Macau rolled around, Nakajima had already been guaranteed his promotion to GP2 for 2007 with the DAMS team, despite only finishing seventh in the Euroseries standings, one place ahead of Kobayashi.

Hirate would likewise make the step up to the second tier in ‘07, but with the decidedly less-fancied Trident squad in what would prove to be his final season in Europe, while Kobayashi stayed on for another season in F3 with ASM.

A mitigating factor is that 2006 was Nakajima’s rookie season in F3 Euroseries, while Hirate had raced there for Team Rosberg in ‘05. But Nakajima had been second in the All-Japan F3 Series the year before, so both drivers were in their second seasons at that level.

“Kazuki was always the ‘chosen one’, it would be fair to say,” reckons Booth. “He was an equally good driver, but his dad [Satoru] was a big star in Japan and that had an influence.

“I think basically all of the top drivers in European F3 in those days were capable of going to F1, the standard was extremely high. But Kohei was one of the best drivers we ran. He was very talented, and when things went wrong, he was never down or bad-tempered.”

Despite his good results in 2006, Hirate was viewed as the least favoured of the three Toyota proteges in F3. Insiders believe Kobayashi was the driver earmarked by the manufacturer’s Japanese bosses as having the biggest potential early on, while Nakajima’s main asset (besides his name!) was considered to be his professionalism and intelligence.

Kohei Hirate

Kohei Hirate

Photo by: GP2 Series Media Service

At DAMS, Nakajima was a regular podium visitor in GP2, earning himself a promotion to F1 with Williams at the end of 2007. Hirate meanwhile struggled at Trident, his only points of the whole season coming in the two Nurburgring races, with fifth in race one and second behind reverse-grid sprint race specialist Javier Villa in race two.

Hirate had expected to get a second chance to prove himself in GP2 in 2008, just as he had in F3 and Formula Renault. Instead, the rug was pulled from under his feet as Kobayashi got the DAMS seat vacated by Nakajima, and Hirate was sent back to Japan.

And so began the second phase of Hirate’s career, one in which he reinvented himself as Toyota’s top driver in SUPER GT. After a year driving for the apr team in the GT300 class, Toranosuke Takagi’s retirement opened up a vacancy at SARD that Hirate would fill for two seasons before switching to join Yuji Tachikawa at Cerumo for 2011.

That partnership yielded five victories and the 2013 title, but in 2015 Hirate was moved back over to SARD, where he would partner ex-F1 star and SUPER GT novice Heikki Kovalainen.

The first year was a struggle as the team went the wrong way on set-up and Kovalainen had to come to terms with the much heavier GT500 car after years campaigning grand prix machinery, and the art of negotiating slower traffic. But things came together in 2016 as Hirate and Kovalainen scored SARD’s first ever title and the only one for the Lexus RC F.

#39 Team Sard Lexus RC F: Heikki Kovalainen, Kohei Hirate

#39 Team Sard Lexus RC F: Heikki Kovalainen, Kohei Hirate

The following year heralded the start of a sustained slump for SARD as the RC was replaced by the LC 500, a car which the team never fully came to grips with. But Hirate and Kovalainen’s title defence was far from a disaster: they still won a race at Sugo en route to seventh in the standings, and they could well have won at Autopolis without a coming together between Hirate and Nakajima’s TOM’S Lexus while the pair battled for the lead.

At the end of the season, Hirate was given the news that there was no space for him in the Toyota GT500 stable, forcing him to drop back down to the GT300 ranks with apr.

“I was surprised,” Kovalainen says regarding the circumstances of Hirate’s departure. “I only heard about the decision after the last race, and I think he only found out around then too. I think he’s a good driver, he was fast and consistent when he was my partner.

“I have the feeling something happened between him and Toyota, I don’t think it can be justified by results or pace. We didn’t get great results in 2017 but we still won a race, we didn’t have any massive issues. I don’t know if it was between him and Toyota, or him and SARD, but something has to have gone wrong with one of those relationships.”

One theory for the sudden exit is that Hirate may have been too aggressive in his dealings with the SARD engineers and mechanics in his bid to rediscover the team’s 2016 form. But whatever the exact reason, Kobayashi was parachuted into the seat alongside Kovalainen for the 2018 season, although the ex-F1 driver would only last a season before bowing out to focus on his LMP1 commitments, making way for the Finn's current partner Yuichi Nakayama.

“The team never really asked for my opinion,” Kovalainen adds. “I always support what the team decides, I can work with anyone. They told me at the end of 2017, ‘Next year, Kamui will be your teammate’, and I said, ‘Great!’ And when Nakayama came [in 2019] I knew he had been strong in GT300. I trust the team and Toyota to make the right decisions.”

#39 Team Sard Lexus RC F:  Kohei Hirate

#39 Team Sard Lexus RC F: Kohei Hirate

Around this time, Hirate started to reach out to Honda and Nissan to establish whether there might be any space for the 2018 season, and of the two it was Nissan – and especially B-Max Racing team boss Toshikazu Tanaka – that expressed the keener interest. That led to an invitation to take part in a shootout test at the end of ’18, where Hirate would be joined by fellow Toyota SUPER GT refugee James Rossiter, Frederic Makowiecki and Daniel Juncadella.

Hirate himself reflects of that time: “Nissan offered me the chance to test the GT-R, but I didn’t have a deal at that stage; I had to show myself well in the test to get selected. I had a one-year ‘blank’ in GT500 but I was confident I could still do a good job and be fast. I don’t know their exact opinion, but my laptimes were good, and here I am now!”

Amid a major overhaul of Nissan’s GT500 line-up, in which triple champion Satoshi Motoyama was shuffled into retirement and long-time marque servant Joao Paulo de Oliveira was on the receiving end of the axe, Hirate was paired up with Makowiecki at the wheel of the Michelin-shod B-Max GT-R, a pseudo-second factory NISMO car.

The pair scored what would be Nissan’s only victory of a relatively forgettable year as well in dreadful conditions at Sugo, but Makowiecki would depart at the end of the season to take up a larger role with Porsche. In the French veteran’s place came Katsumasa Chiyo, who was returning to action after a year out of the Nissan GT500 stable. That in itself would been disruption enough alone, but then the coronavirus pandemic struck, making the schedule much less favourable to the high-downforce, high-drag GT-R.

#3 NDDP Racing Nissan GT-R: Kohei Hirate, Katsumasa Chiyo

#3 NDDP Racing Nissan GT-R: Kohei Hirate, Katsumasa Chiyo

Photo by: Masahide Kamio

The upshot was Hirate and Chiyo ended up a lowly 11th of 15 GT500 crews in the championship with a single top-five finish.

“When you get a new teammate it’s like starting from zero,” says Hirate. “Chiyo-san and I have quite different styles and it took a while to adjust to each other. In car 23 [the official NISMO car] their drivers [Ronnie Quintarelli and Tsugio Matsuda] have been together for eight years, so they are in a different situation. Everything is more settled for them.

“The season was very compact [because of the pandemic], which meant the time for preparing between races was quite short. When we had a bad race there was not enough time to prepare for the following one. Also, there were four races at Fuji and the GT-R didn’t suit Fuji very well. This is another reason we didn’t get the results we wanted.”

This season is only Hirate’s third as a Nissan driver, after 15 years under the wing of Toyota. But it’s clear the 35-year-old is relishing the more close-knit atmosphere at the Yokohama marque, and that he sees himself campaigning GT-Rs (or whatever car Nissan decides to field in future) for some years to come yet.

In fact, after the 2019 season there were rumblings that Nissan was considering breaking up the Quintarelli-Matsuda axis in favour of promoting Hirate to a coveted seat in the ‘red car’. While that eventuality didn’t come to pass, considering the two NISMO drivers are both now in their 40s, it doesn’t take too much imagination to picture Hirate in the #23 car in future.

“I was always a big fan of the GT-R when I was 14 or 15 years old, so I always dreamed of working with Nissan and driving the GT-R in the future,” says Hirate. “Nissan feels like we are all working closely together as one team – all four cars working together to win the championship. Nissan is different [to Toyota] in that respect.

“Also, because the 23 [NISMO] and 3 [B-Max] cars both use Michelin tyres and many of the same things, if things go well in car 3, I might have a chance to drive for the 23 in future. That is another big motivating factor for me.”

Hirate also points out that in both of his title-winning years in SUPER GT for Toyota, 2013 and 2016, he ended a run of two titles for Quintarelli and stopped Nissan from scoring a hat-trick. He jokes: “Ronnie always reminds me about that, so now it’s time to pay back Nissan!”

It’s clear that the sting of rejection – not once, but twice – by Toyota still hurts for Hirate. But those experiences are only acting as fuel for a driver determined to prove himself to the world all over again, and perhaps even make his former employer feel an ounce of regret.

#3 B-Max Racing team Nissan GT-R: Kohei Hirate, #23 Nismo Nissan GT-R: Tsugio Matsuda

#3 B-Max Racing team Nissan GT-R: Kohei Hirate, #23 Nismo Nissan GT-R: Tsugio Matsuda

Photo by: Masahide Kamio

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