Ronnie Quintarelli and the Nissan GT-R - 14 years of success
Four-time SUPER GT champion Ronnie Quintarelli has been a member of the Nissan stable for 14 seasons now, his arrival in 2008 coinciding with the introduction of the R35-generation GT-R.
One driver spending such a long time with the same manufacturer is a rarity in motorsport, but even less common are those who spend a decade or more racing essentially a single model of car.
Of course, the R35 GT-R has gone through a number of iterations over the years as the GT500 rulebook has changed, and under the surface the current machine - based on a common tub shared with the DTM's old Class One cars and powered by a turbocharged four-cylinder engine - has little to do with the 2008 car, which boasted a bespoke carbon monocoque and a roaring V8.
Nonetheless, Nissan's recent announcement that, after five titles and 41 race wins, the GT-R is being sidelined in favour of the all-new Z for the 2022 season truly marks the end of an era.
In this exclusive Motorsport.com interview, Quintarelli reflects on all the various versions of the GT-R he has driven over the years, picking out his favourite memories and explaining why in certain years the car was dominant and why at other times, including more recently, it has struggled.
2008-09 – Starting out with Hasemi Motorsport
"I can still remember the first time I drove the GT-R in pre-season testing in Sepang. Straight away I had a very good impression of the car – it felt like a formula car, it didn’t feel like a GT car. That made me feel confident that I could do a good job. The car was so nice to drive.
"It was nice to achieve my pole position at Motegi and in the same round the first victory, it was also the first victory for the team, for Hasemi Motorsport. [Masahiro] Hasemi-san really wanted me to drive for him and it was nice to see him so happy and smiling. It was a nice season, and NISMO was able to achieve the title in the first season of the GT-R [with Satoshi Motoyama and Benoit Treluyer].
"Again, it was the Sepang pre-season test [in 2009] that I tried the GT-R on Michelin tyres. I had a new teammate [Hironobu Yasuda] and we were the only GT500 car on Michelins that season. In Sepang I met the French engineers from Michelin for the first time and we started to get to know each other. They said that since they left Formula 1 after 2006 they really wanted to compete again against Bridgestone and they will put a lot of effort in this championship.
"We spent one week together in Malaysia, and they were explaining to me how they would develop the tyres. Straight away we were the fastest car in that test, so the first impression was very nice, and it was clear we would be competitive in hot conditions. It was great to work with engineers who just a few years before had been working with many of the top F1 drivers."
2010 – Paired with Matsuda at Impul
"It was a difficult situation at Nissan, they had just three cars that season and each one had a different tyre manufacturer. Impul stayed with Bridgestone and NISMO switched to Michelin to keep that deal going in place of Hasemi. In the 2009 off-season tests I was preparing to work with Michelin again but then everything changed so suddenly and I was back with Bridgestone at Impul.
"But I started working with another very important person in my racing career, Tsugio Matsuda. It was a nice challenge working with him because he was one of the top drivers in Formula Nippon at the time and I wanted to measure myself against a top driver, this really motivated me.
"It was quite a difficult season, we had a new engine that season as we went from using the 4.5-litre engine to a 3.4-litre one. It was not fully redesigned; it was based on the old engine and we had some reliability issues. But we still won one race and we were the top Nissan crew in the championship."
2011 – The breakthrough season with MOLA
"I think I was told about MOLA while I was in Italy on vacation. I didn’t know the team was stepping up from GT300, I assumed I would be continuing with Impul. I was shocked when Nissan told me there would be one more car in GT500, that NISMO was going back to Bridgestone and that we would use Michelin. I was a bit worried about joining a new team when I went back to Japan.
"Again we tested in Malaysia and I was reunited with the same Michelin engineers as two years before, and they had all the data about what we were testing at the end of 2009. I could also tell that they had improved some weak points and straight away we were the fastest car in the Okayama pre-season test. [Masataka] Yanagida-san was a very nice guy to work with and the atmosphere inside the team was very good. He had driven for MOLA in GT300 in 2009, so he knew the team well.
"At the start of the season we were competitive but still missing something to be able to fight for victories. The turning point was the third race of the season in Malaysia, where we finished second, and then we went to Sugo and we won, which was the team’s first win in GT500 and also for Yanagida-san. After that we led the championship, and everyone was so motivated. We were carrying 100kg of handicap weight and we could still finish second at Suzuka.
"We went into the final race 16 points ahead of NISMO in the championship. They had to win the final race, which they did, and we finished second again. That was our fourth second place of the season, so we scored 60 points just from second places! It was an unbelievable season, and it was the first season for Nissan to win the championship with any team other than the factory team.
"And with what happened that year with the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami… it was a difficult time in Japan. People were calling me and saying I should come back to Italy with my wife and my daughter, who was one year old at the time. From those difficult days to winning in Sugo, which was near the area that was affected by the earthquake… that was something special."
2012 – Proving the first title was no fluke
"Up until the third round of the season at Malaysia, we had just seven points. It was a really difficult start to the season. Then we went to Sepang, historically our best race, and we had a brake failure and crashed. Then there was a one-month summer break. I went back to Italy for two weeks, and people were saying, ‘last year you were lucky, but this season is the reality for a new team’.
"I came back from Italy, we had the GTA test at Suzuka and we had some aerodynamic updates. We were P1 in every session over the two days, and the feeling was good. We went to Sugo, we were not incredibly fast but we fought for the win and finished third. It was our first podium and it gave us confidence, like the season started there. Then it was the Suzuka 1000km, we won the race and got the bonus points and that put us second in the championship.
"At Fuji it was a very hot weekend and we finished P2 and all the other cars fighting for the championship struggled. Then at Autopolis we had two days of rain and in those conditions the Michelins worked well. We started from P10 but on the last lap, Yanagida-san was catching the lead car [the Nakajima Racing Honda of Yuhki Nakayama] and overtook at the second hairpin.
"We won the race and that gave us the title with a round to spare. If it had been a dry race, I don’t think would have been competitive enough, so we had everything on our side. In the space of three months, we went from having just seven points to winning the title, it was incredible."
2013 – Getting the call up to race for NISMO
"Those two seasons at MOLA were special, and when you win the title two years in a row with the same team, you want to go for a third. But just before Christmas NISMO told me they wanted me in car #23, the tyres would be Michelin and my teammate would be Yanagida-san. I said, ‘Oh my God!’
"We had some good races, we were fighting for the championship until the last round, but we didn’t win any races. Toyota came back stronger after losing the title to us last year and we were missing something. But from the middle of the season we knew the rules would change drastically for 2014 and we were already focused on that. So it was nothing dramatic that we didn’t win."
2014-15 - New era, new car, two more titles
"All of us SUPER GT drivers really loved the previous generation of car. The GT-R in 2008 was the first GT500 car I drove that had a carbon monocoque. It was much stiffer, not rolling, you could attack on the brakes. When we saw the new car in 2014, it looked more similar to a conventional touring car and we were worried we wouldn’t be able to carry the same speed in the corners. We also had the turbo engine [two-litre, four-cylinder 'Nippon Race Engine'], which was completely new for me at that time.
"In high-speed corners, the car still felt very nice to drive, but under braking and in low-speed corners, the car was not as stable as the previous generation. The engine also had a lot of turbo lag initially. But the car was technologically a big step forwards. We were four or five seconds a lap faster than the previous car because of the increased downforce, with the side skirts and the rear diffuser, and because the turbo had much more power in the mid-range and top-end."
"Matsuda replaced Yanagida as my teammate and we ended up winning the title again. From the outside it seems like Nissan was dominating during this period, but even during those times it never felt perfect. Especially in 2015 we had some very hard battles with JP [de Oliveira] and [Hironobu] Yasuda in the Impul car, the fight between the 'red car' and the 'blue car'. The last two rounds of the season [in 2015] we were something heart-stopping. The final race at Motegi was crazy, you couldn’t take off your eyes from the monitor for even a second.
"For me, the 2015 title was very special because I became the driver with most titles in SUPER GT. After winning in 2014 I was tied with [Satoshi] Motoyama, [Yuji] Tachikawa and [Juichi] Wakisaka, those three legends who I was watching on TV when I first came to Japan in 2003. To get ahead of them 12 years later was so special. I have to thank Nissan for trusting me and keeping me when they went from five cars to four, and then four cars to three."
2016 – Getting carried away
"In 2016, it was the second time for me to aim for a third title in a row, and also for [Takeshi] Nakajima-san, my engineer from MOLA. In 2013 Nakajima-san was not the track engineer, he was just helping the guy who had been doing it in previous years [Masanobu Yoshida]. But in 2014 he became the track engineer, so it meant in 2015 he still had a 100 percent record of winning the title!
"Usually we become stronger around the middle of the season but this time we started well, we won the first two races of the season and I think perhaps we started to underestimate the opposition. It felt like winning was normal. So we set ourselves the target of not only winning the title, but scoring more than 100 points. In the middle of the season we were still scoring points with a heavy car and leading the championship throughout the season.
"We arrived at Round 6 in Thailand, we were 11 points ahead in the championship, but we had an accident and we didn’t finish the race. After that, we had just two races in Motegi, as we didn’t have Autopolis that year because of the earthquake in Kumamoto. Without success weight we thought it would be easy to fight for the win and fight for the title. We were so confident. But then we realised our competitors had improved a lot and we struggled.
"It was two races in two days and there was no time to react. On Saturday it was wet in qualifying and we struggled a lot with half-success weight, and then on Sunday it was good weather and no more success weight, but we were still not competitive. It was quite a shock – we were really expecting to be able to fight for the championship and we were off the pace."
2017 – No title, but an “unforgettable” year
"In 2017, the GTA decided that the GT500 cars were too fast in the corners. The laptimes were improving every season but we were starting to see more tyre failures because the tyres couldn’t withstand such high cornering loads. They decided to decrease the downforce by about 25 percent, so the diffuser became much shorter at both the front and the rear.
"When we tested the new car, it was very difficult to drive. We had more straight line speed, but in the corners we lost the good feeling we had previously and I was disappointed about that. That year, Lexus introduced a new car [the LC] and they could adapt it perfectly to the new regulations. Even from pre-season testing, we were clearly behind Lexus.
"We thought we had no chance and the season would be a disaster. But NISMO didn’t give up, and around Round 3, we had some new items on the car and it made the car much better to drive, and Michelin was also pushing very hard to try and give us more grip with less downforce, they had a new approach with the casing. So thanks to NISMO and Michelin, in the middle of the season we could close the gap and with two races left, we were leading the championship.
"We were in Thailand for the penultimate round of the season, but it rained and that year we struggled in the wet and the TOM’S Lexus [of Ryo Hirakawa and Nick Cassidy] took the championship lead. We arrived in Motegi for the final round and we went from pole to win, but we needed TOM’S to finish third and they were second. So we missed the championship for just two points.
"Still, to go from being one second behind to there to fight for the championship was an incredible turnaround. Even though we didn’t win it, it was an unforgettable and rewarding season."
2018-19 - The start of Nissan’s decline
"In 2018, from the middle of the season, the competitors improved a lot, and especially Honda on the engine side. They were doing course records every time in qualifying. Even at Motegi, in 2017 I was on pole and nine tenths quicker than P2 and I thought that record would last for a few years, but in 2018 it was ARTA [Tomoki Nojiri] on pole and they were another eight tenths faster. The previous round in Autopolis they did a crazy laptime as well. We were stuck at the same level. From the middle of the season we couldn’t qualify well.
"In 2019 we were strong until Round 2, we had two pole positions and two course records in the first two races, but then there was a regulation change on the engine, which affected all three manufacturers, but we lost the most. We could still fight for the championship in the last round, we finished P3 in the standings. But we were not fast enough in the final two races of the season."
2020-21 – More rule changes, more struggles
"They changed the rules again in 2020 and the car had too much drag. But when I look back on that season, we have to remember that we were only two points behind the leaders going into the final round and for about six laps we were leading the race and in a position to win the championship! At the time we were not satisfied, but now I have some perspective, it’s not so bad.
"We worked hard to close the gap with the new regulations, we had some luck with the second victory at Suzuka. But at least we were there to take the luck. It was a positive season. It was not on the same level as 2017, but as a recovery season and to be motivated until the end, it was a good year.
"This year, it’s still a little bit early… I need to cool down a little bit more to understand the details. But at least we collected important information to be stronger for the next one."
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