Commentary: Pondering that Red Bull rumour

By the time you read this, the latest issue of auto sport Magazine will have released in Japan. The one that breaks the developing story that Red Bull, one of the most powerful brands and promoters in the present-day sporting landscape, is thinking about entering the Autobacs Super GT Series as a title sponsor for a GT500 team next year.

Right now, I cannot stress enough that this is all rumour for now. All there is to the story is a short article in a magazine, and an artists’ rendering of a Nissan GT-R painted up in Red Bull livery. For now. Perhaps this is all that becomes of this story, or perhaps it becomes reality – and if it does, there is no way to over-embellish or exaggerate that this would become the single biggest sponsorship deal in Super GT’s history.

Where do I even start with this one.

First of all, the magnitude of Red Bull potentially becoming involved in Super GT would be a game-changer for the series. There are sponsors, like Calsonic and Raybrig, which have become popular in the west because of their long-term commitment to Super GT.

The Goodsmile Company (which sponsors the Hatsune Miku cars in GT300) and EVA Racing carry crossover appeal to large sectors of geek culture whom might otherwise not be that interested in racing without their involvement.

And of course, high-profile automotive brands such as Castrol, Denso, and Pennzoil which have gone on to great success in GT500.

But there are no other brands outside of the automotive industry that carry as much global mainstream appeal and stature as Red Bull, a company whose involvement in Formula 1, MotoGP, WRC, DTM, Australian Supercars, Rallycross, and countless other sports beyond the world of racing has dramatically re-shaped the landscape in a span of twenty years.

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It’s a match made in heaven, Red Bull – a brand that promotes to the young adult audience better than anybody else, and Super GT – whose popularity outside its country of origin owes itself to video games and the boom of Japanese car tuning in the states.

And as they do with any other sporting venture they’re involved in, Red Bull would do an outstanding job of going above and beyond promoting not only their own involvement in Super GT, but the series as a whole – and they’ll find the people to allow that to happen.

But beyond the promotional value of this potential deal, make no mistake – any time Red Bull gets involved with a new team in a new motorsport series, their goal is to win, now and in large volume.

It’s why, when they launched out of the ashes of a floundering Jaguar Racing team in 2005, Red Bull Racing immediately went out and got F1 designing legend Adrian Newey to form the foundation of a team that went on to win four World Championships in a row.

It’s why, when they got involved with Aussie Supercars a few years ago, they joined up with the powerhouse organization Triple Eight Engineering – in the same year that they decided to sponsor the Volkswagen Motorsports’ WRC programme in the first year of an incredible run. It’s why their Red Bull Junior Team is equal parts famous and infamous for its stratosphericaly high standards that every young driver is expected to meet in order to stay within the organization.

Which is why I feel inclined to say that NISMO seems like the most likely fit for Red Bull – and that inclination, that gut feeling, is aided by a key visual clue shown in the artists’ rendering: The number 22.

From 1994 to 2008, NISMO were a two-car effort in GT500. And traditionally, their primary entry carried their preferred racing number 23 (“ni-san”), while the second car carried the number 22. Nissan uses this same number system for their factory-backed Blancpain GT Series team, and they used it in their most recent efforts at Le Mans and the World Endurance Championship – in the late 1990s, and again with the ill-fated LMP1 programme of a year ago.

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When the recession hit in 2009, NISMO scaled back to a single-car team – but seven years later, Nissan’s roster of factory drivers in GT500, or that could make the jump to GT500 right now, is at a surplus – and adding Red Bull as a title sponsor would more than justify NISMO’s re-expansion on the business side of things.

And in keeping with Red Bull’s theme of striving for outright success in all of their motorsport endeavors, there would be no better team for Red Bull to align themselves with than the two-time and defending GT500 champions, and the all-time winningest Super GT team in history – that would just so happen to be NISMO.

As for the driver lineup, an educated guess for one of the drivers of a theoretical #22 Red Bull NISMO GT-R points to one man: Jann Mardenborough, the series’ top rookie in the GT300 class.

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Of every GT Academy graduate that has stepped into the arena of real-life motorsport, 2011 champion Mardenborough might be the finest of them all. Already a race winner in Super GT’s GT300 class, a championship contender in Japanese Formula 3, a dynamite performer in his first two runs at Le Mans, and one of the most marketable racing drivers on the planet today.

When Mardenborough was racing in GP3 in 2014 and 2015, he had a working relationship with Red Bull – not a full blown Red Bull Junior Team member, but still, he received a small amount of backing from the company, while also working under an exclusive driver development programme. That working relationship could easily be re-ignited in a big way if Red Bull gives “Jann tha Man” the GT500 chance with NISMO that his talents so richly deserve.

Between Katsumasa Chiyo, Daiki Sasaki, Mitsunori Takaboshi, or even an outsider candidate like Lucas Ordoñez, or even Renault Sport Trophy champion Andrea Pizzitola (who won a Nissan GT500 test as his prize last year), Red Bull NISMO would then have quite the choice of strong candidates they could pair with Mardenborough.

My inclination is that if Red Bull do get involved with Super GT, it will be with NISMO – but there’s a slim chance that Lexus could get the deal also.

This is another educated guess, almost bordering on wild-eyed speculation – but Toyota’s young star driver Ryo Hirakawa (now of Lexus Team KeePer TOM’s) has been a guest of the Red Bull Racing F1 Team on a couple of occasions – most recently, at the F1 Young Driver Tests at Silverstone Circuit this July.

Like Mardenborough, Hirakawa fits the billing as a young, dynamic driver on the rise, with plenty of untapped “star power” still ahead of him – and would be another great fit to be the face of Red Bull in Super GT.

There are also the whispers of Red Bull being the vehicle for Audi or BMW finally launching a GT500 programme, but neither manufacturer seems anywhere close to getting into GT500 at all – let alone with Red Bull at their side.

We still have eight months to go until the start of the 2017 Super GT Season, by which time we will know if Red Bull’s Super GT ambitions are just the brainchild of speculative fantasy, or if we’re thinking about the very real Red Bull NISMO Racing as a championship contender in GT500. But the potential for success with Red Bull getting involved in Super GT is limitless. It’s more than worth following this rumour for a bit.

-R.J.

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