When the Z GT500 was revealed late last year, the visual difference compared to the GT-R were immediately obvious. Featuring a much smaller ‘face’ and Supra-esque sleek body, the Z immediately looked like a car that should be much quicker in a straight line than its predecessor.
The bigger question was whether it could do that while also maintaining the kind of performance that the high-downforce, high-drag Class One version of the GT-R was known for at technical circuits like Suzuka.
There was an early hint of what was to come when Nissan dominated the first group test of the year at the Japanese Grand Prix venue back in January, but that was with the proviso that rivals Honda and Toyota were poorly represented, combined with the unreliability of testing times in such cold conditions.
But after Mitsunori Takaboshi’s huge crash at Fuji denied Nissan a potential first win with the Z at the track where the car had been specifically developed to be competitive, confirmation that the new model was definitely the one beat arrived in the following round at Suzuka thanks to a dominant display from Takaboshi and Katsumasa Chiyo in the #3 NDDP Racing car.
“We knew the performance of the car was high, but we couldn’t confirm the suitability of the car at each track until we ran there,” reflected NISMO COO Motohiru Matsumura. “But after the Suzuka race, we knew that we had a car that could deal with both [high-speed and low-speed circuits].”
The track that really mattered in terms of the title battle however was Motegi, and while the Honda NSX-GT (at least the Team Kunimitsu example) had an edge, both the Bridgestone-shod Impuls and Michelin-shod NDDP cars had enough performance to ensure the end of Nissan’s seven-year title drought.
Matsumura said after Impul do Bertrand Baguette and Kazuki Hiramine’s historic title triumph at Motegi that the new car had indeed delivered everything that had been hoped for, not just in terms of outright performance but versatility at different venues and on different types of tire.
“The aerodynamic balance and chassis settings have progressed to the target level,” Matsumura told Motorsport.com. “Especially in terms of top speed and cornering balance, the Z is extremely good compared to the last model. It’s also very consistent, not just strong at Suzuka but several different courses.
“Motegi is a famous ‘stop-and-go’ circuit where there is no handicap weight. It was very unfortunate that the #23 car wasn’t able to get out of Q1, but I think all the cars reached the potential performance level of the car, around Q2 level.
“I am not sure about our competitors’ situation, but in Nissan’s case, even though we are using three different tire suppliers [Michelin, Bridgestone and Yokohama]all the teams performed well and were competitive.”
While the flagship #23 NISMO car was plagued by reliability issues that removed Ronnie Quintarelli and Tsugio Matsuda from title contention even before the Motegi season finale, one of the positive surprises of the season was the performance of traditional Nissan stragglers Kondo Racing.
Boosted by the progress made by tire supplier Yokohama, Kohei Hirate and Daiki Sasaki scored two podium finishes at Fuji and Autopolis, and can count themselves somewhat unfortunate to miss out on a win at the latter track.
“This is what we were aiming for – a system where not only NISMO could win, but all the Nissan teams,” added Matsumura. “Even the #23 car could have won at Sugo [without a bad strategy call that handed victory to the sister NDDP car]so I’m satisfied that every team has improved its results.”
Improvements on the engine side have no doubt helped Nissan get back to the top after two seasons of lagging badly in the speed traps, but more important was the chance permitted by the model change to fix the main flaw of the last iteration of GT-R , which was the fact it had too much drag.
“There’s no doubt that the aerodynamic balance is very important,” Matsumura said. “When we modify the car to take advantage of the [Z’s] appearance, we were able to achieve a certain level of speed. I think that because the ‘face’ is small, we could take full advantage of the flick box.”
The only tracks where Nissan failed to get a car in the top two all year were Okayama and Autopolis, although caveats apply at both venues – and in any case, the marque’s top finisher still came third.
Okayama of course marked the race debut for the Z, and was also a track where Nissan had elected not to test privately during the winter (unlike Toyota and Honda), while the points-leading Impul and NDDP entries were always going to struggle at Autopolis as the only cars in the field running fuel-flow restrictors.
“Of course there are some courses where Toyota or Honda won, so I suppose we have still not reached the perfect level, but I am sure we are much better than the last model,” said Matsumura.
With the aerodynamics of the current crop of GT500 machines frozen for a year now ahead of the introduction of a new generation of car in 2024, Nissan looks like it should be in for another strong season in 2023.
However, Matsumura says that Nissan still has other areas to focus on as it bids for back-to-back titles, while staying wary of the threat of a possible comeback from GT500 rivals Honda and Toyota.
“Even though the aerodynamics and bodywork are frozen, we will continuously work to improve the engine performance and driveability, and also the chassis settings,” he said.
“I am not sure of the cause of the gap to our rivals, whether it’s aero balance, tire matching… but at least I can say we will be competitive. That’s for sure.”
Additional reporting by Kenichiro Ebii
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