Why Honda and Nissan’s SUPER GT driver ‘swap’ is a win-win
How Baguette and Matsushita fare with their respective new teams, Impul and Real Racing, is sure to be one of the biggest talking points when the new SUPER GT campaign gets underway in Okayama in just over two months’ time.
Such direct swaps between manufacturers are relatively rare in the GT500 ranks, given how Japanese drivers tend to stay loyal to one manufacturer for most, or in some cases all, of their careers. But seeing how well this one seems to suit both parties, it’s almost a wonder that they don’t occur more often.
- Baguette aims to complete “unfinished business” with Nissan
- Matsushita ‘surprised but happy’ about Honda SUPER GT offer
Let’s start with Matsushita, who has come ‘home’ to Honda and Real Racing – the team with which he won the 2014 All-Japan Formula 3 title, let’s not forget – after spending his rookie SUPER GT season driving for Nissan and Impul.
Considering that just one year ago, Honda was not prepared to allow Matsushita to use one of its engines to race in the opening round of Super Formula with B-Max Racing, it’s quite the turnaround.
Whatever lingering ill-feeling there may have been towards Matsushita among the Honda hierarchy stemming from him turning down the chance to become a full Honda factory driver in 2020 with seats in SUPER GT (at Mugen) and Super Formula (at Drago Corse) has been seemingly overcome by a series of excellent performances in both championships last year.
With starring drives at Sugo and the second Motegi race in SUPER GT, Matsushita was arguably the most impressive driver on Nissan’s roster last year. Combine that with his long-standing links to Honda and it’s arguably only natural that the Sakura marque would want to bring him back into the fold properly, and also deny its rival a key asset.
Matsushita also formed an excellent combination with Real Racing engineer Yasuhiro Tasuka at B-Max Racing in Super Formula last year, culminating in pole position for the Suzuka finale. It was around this time that Honda is understood to have made its offer.
Given Matsushita’s pre-existing links with Tasuka, and the recent success of the two other Bridgestone Honda teams, Team Kunimitsu and ARTA, it made sense for him to be offered a drive at Real Racing. And Tsukakoshi – one of Honda’s current development drivers and a member of the Real stable since 2009 – wasn’t realistically ever likely to leave.
That left just one driver left that Matsushita could replace within the Honda/Bridgestone stable. Considering Baguette’s performance over the last three seasons, he could be forgiven for feeling hard done by, but he was simply the odd one out once Honda decided it needed to bring back Matsushita.
On the surface, a move to Nissan and Impul may seem like a backwards step for Baguette, who along with his teammate Tsukakoshi has won three races in the past two years and has fought for the championship in both of those seasons. But there are several reasons to be optimistic.
Firstly, Impul is a team much more used to working with foreign drivers than Real, where Baguette was the first ever non-Japanese driver and very much the ‘B’ driver of the squad.
The Belgian will be paired with a teammate who speaks near-fluent English in the form of Kazuki Hiramine, and like Matsushita he is reunited with an engineer he knows well, as Toshiomi Oeki ran him back in 2016 in Super Formula. The presence of the now-retired Kazuki Hoshino (son of legendary team owner Kazuyoshi) in the team will only help Baguette find his feet even more quickly.
Secondly, the new ‘Z’ that Nissan will campaign this year promises to be a step forward from the old GT-R, which was potent at some circuits but struggled at others. By joining in the first year of this new era, Baguette has the chance to help guide development of the new car, especially as part of the only Nissan team that uses Bridgestone tyres.
Thirdly, there’s the chance for Baguette to be considered for a future promotion to the works NISMO team. Ronnie Quintarelli and Tsugio Matsuda are both getting towards the end of their careers, and if NISMO wishes to keep an international presence in its #23 car once Quintarelli steps down, Baguette would be a good fit as a replacement.
Such a move would carry echoes of another French-speaker, Benoit Treluyer, stepping up to partner Satoshi Motoyama at NISMO in 2008 after several seasons of proving himself at Impul.
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While Baguette always maintained that he worked well with Tsukakoshi owing to their similar driving styles and set-up preferences, it wasn’t always plain sailing at Real Racing for the 35-year-old, and he became increasingly frustrated with the team’s strategy calls last year.
Switching to Impul and Nissan offers him a fresh start, arguably with less expectations on his shoulders, as well as the chance to become a long-term fixture in the NISMO camp.
For Matsushita, besides the obvious competitive benefits of the move, there is another major positive: as a full Honda factory driver, he no longer needs to scrape together a budget as he did last year to race in Super Formula, which he has admitted in the past is his main priority.
There’s also more chance of him being able to race overseas in the future as part of the Honda stable than there ever was for Nissan, which had already ruled out Matsushita for a drive in its only other major motorsport programme, Formula E.
Assessing other recent manufacturer moves
Kohei Hirate, Toyota to Nissan (2019)
Toyota’s inexplicable decision to demote Hirate to a GT300 ride in 2018 opened the door for Nissan to swoop in and sign up the two-time champion for 2019, pairing him with Frederic Makowiecki at NDDP Racing in 2019. That combination proved a hit, while Hirate and Katsumasa Chiyo also impressed last year, albeit with Hirate being shuffled over to Kondo Racing for the 2022 season.
James Rossiter, Toyota to Nissan (2019)
Rossiter was another member of Nissan’s 2019 intake, replacing fellow Briton Jann Mardenborough at Impul. But despite a promising start for Rossiter and teammate Sasaki the season turned out to be a major disappointment. Rossiter blamed the underperformance on a damaged chassis, but was nonetheless given the boot in 2020 to make way for promising newcomer Kazuki Hiramine.
Yuhi Sekiguchi, Nissan to Toyota (2014)
Sekiguchi was hired by Nissan in 2012 following his title success in All-Japan Formula 3 in 2011, but their partnership ended following a poor title defence for MOLA in 2013 (albeit in a year all the GT-R crews struggled). Nissan’s loss was Toyota’s gain as Sekiguchi slotted in at the Bandoh squad in 2014, graduating to TOM’S in 2018 and scoring last year’s title alongside young gun Sho Tsuboi.
Loic Duval, Honda to Toyota (2012)
Just a year on from helping Honda to championship glory with the front-engined HSV-010 GT, Duval was picked up by Toyota to replace Andre Lotterer, who vacated his seat in the TOM’S Lexus to focus on his new FIA World Endurance Championship duties for Audi. But the alliance lasted just a year as Duval also became a full-time member of the Audi WEC stable in 2013.