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Analysis

What’s going on with Nissan and Kiyoto Fujinami?

Nissan may have made no changes to its GT500 driver roster for the 2023 SUPER GT season, but still caused a surprise by making no mention of two-time GT300 champion Kiyoto Fujinami in its recent announcement.

Masahiko Kondo, Kiyoto Fujinami, #56 Realize Nissan Mechanic Challenge GT-R

The manufacturer’s press release arrived last Friday, just days after Fujinami had been spotted behind the wheel of the #24 Kondo Racing Z on the opening day of manufacturer testing at Suzuka.

And yet, when the release dropped, Fujinami’s name was nowhere to be seen, while incumbent Kohei Hirate was listed alongside Daiki Sasaki as the second driver for the #24 car.

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In and of itself, Hirate keeping his drive wasn’t a huge surprise. The feeling over the winter according to those in the Nissan camp was that the driver line-ups were solid and that the two-car works NISMO squad, Team Impul and Kondo would all potentially featured unchanged pairings.

That was despite the marque’s annual shootout test at Fuji Speedway in December in which Fujinami made an outing at the wheel of one of the two NISMO Zs, alongside fellow young hopefuls Riki Okusa, Teppei Natori and Atsushi Miyake.

As a two-time GT300 champion for Kondo Racing alongside Joao Paulo de Oliveira, 27-year-old Fujinami was always the first in line for a promotion, even if the younger Okusa and Natori are also said to have impressed in their first taste of GT500 machinery.

And at one stage, that indeed appeared to be the plan: Fujinami was poised to join Sasaki in the #24 Kondo GT500 car, and indeed he was spotted (and photographed) by eagle-eyed spectators who braved the chilly late-January weather at Suzuka to see the first group test of the year.

 

Nissan had been expected to announce its driver line-ups prior to the test, just as it had done last year, but Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday passed with no official word before confirmation arrived on Friday that Hirate would be keeping his seat after all. 

What’s more, Fujinami was not even listed as part of Nissan’s GT300 line-up, with de Oliveira’s teammate in the #56 car for the upcoming campaign listed as ‘TBA’.

With zero word forthcoming from Nissan on Fujinami’s status, fans were understandably left baffled by the situation, particularly considering the events of Suzuka just days earlier.

Motorsport.com has since discovered that there was a late change of heart within Nissan, with the original plan to promote Fujinami and shift Hirate across to a reserve and development driver role for 2023 understood to have been changed as late as Thursday night.

Clearly, Nissan was not confident enough in signing Fujinami to announce him in advance of the Suzuka test. This led some to speculate that his day behind the wheel of the #24 Kondo car was a kind of final evaluation test.

But this theory appears to be wide of the mark - after all, Nissan already has plenty of data on Fujinami from three audition test appearances since 2020, and a freezing cold day in January when there is a lengthy test menu to be completed is hardly the ideal time to be evaluating drivers.

 

It looks certain that the decision had been made (but not communicated) to promote Fujinami at the expense of Hirate, which was then reversed. But why the change of heart?

Exact details are scarce, but the U-turn appears to be linked to reports that Fujinami has got himself into trouble with one of the drivers racing for his ‘KF Motorsport’ team in the Fuji-based Vita Race series, which runs on the undercard of the Inter Proto series.

NISMO did not wish to elaborate on the decision when contacted for comment by Motorsport.com, also refusing to clarify Fujinami’s current status within Nissan.

That means it’s currently unclear whether Fujinami will keep his seat alongside de Oliveira in the GT300 class, which had been set to be handed to ex-UpGarage Honda man Natori as part of the plan to promote Fujinami and bench Hirate.

Nissan has another announcement planned for February 19, so it’s quite possible that by then we will know whether Fujinami will be given a reprieve in the GT300 class or whether he will be let go by the brand entirely.

If the latter, it would be a sad way to end a fruitful collaboration that has yielded two titles in GT300 as well as two crowns in the top class of Super Taikyu.

 

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