Everything that could have gone wrong in Team Impul’s bid to end a 21-year championship drought, seemingly did go wrong. But they did at least get redemption for one of the cruelest defeats in Super GT history.
#12 Calsonic Impul Nissan GT-R
Drivers: Hironobu Yasuda / João Paulo Lima de Oliveira
GT500 Drivers’ Championship: 8th Place (43 points)
GT500 Teams’ Championship: 8th Place (57 points)
Wins: 1 (Fuji 300km)
Podiums: 1 (Fuji 300km)
Fastest Laps: 1 (Fuji 300km)
Pole Positions: 2 (Fuji 500km, Fuji 300km)
Calsonic Team Impul and the combination of Yasuda and Oliveira have endured their share of bitter disappointment in the last few years of pursuing an elusive GT500 title for team boss Kazuyoshi Hoshino, the “Fastest Man in Japan”.
Yasuda was criticized for driving too conservative in the final few laps of last year’s championship finale at Motegi, failing to break through with the podium finish they needed to clinch the title. Oliveira, Super GT’s hardest of chargers, threw away the title with a first-lap collision at Motegi the year before.
It’s that synergy of Yasuda’s measured, smooth driving and Oliveira’s ruthless, hard-charging aggression – reminiscent of another famous Brazilian racer who was quite big in Japan in his heyday – that makes them an effective combination. They started the year with a close fifth-place finish at Okayama, and then took pole position for the Fuji 500km.
Oliveira and Yasuda controlled most of the 110-lap race, and even when the Brazilian had to fight off Ronnie Quintarelli in the closing laps of the race, it seemed like the Calsonic GT-R would triumph with a victory in the Golden Week classic.
Then, as Oliveira rounded the 100R corner with four laps to go, the left-rear tyre exploded. Quintarelli drove the Motul NISMO GT-R to victory, Oliveira was left to hold his head in his hands.
It wasn’t the only bout of ill fortune that Team Impul suffered in 2016. At Sugo, their driveshaft broke just an hour before the race, the mechanics pulled off a minor miracle to get the car ready to start, then Oliveira got tripped up in traffic and crashed at the S-Curves. At the Suzuka 1000km, a top-five finish went up in flames – literally – when an oil spill caused a small fire inside the cockpit.
They could have had a chance to win at Buriram, but the team earned a drive-through penalty when Oliveira reached in to remove a tear-off from the windshield, a pit work violation – all they could manage was fourth place. Then at Motegi, they got caught up in a late racing incident on Saturday, and drove to finishes of seventh and eighth in the final weekend of the season.
But for their heartbreak in Fuji in May, they returned three months later in August, and avenged their defeat. Oliveira accomplished a personal “grand slam” by taking pole position, the fastest lap, and leading every lap of his opening stint – then Yasuda drove the car home to victory, the record-setting fourth consecutive victory for Nissan to open the 2016 season.
It was an incredible performance for the team and its drivers, who demonstrated what the team was capable of when the breaks finally went their way for a change. That they were championship-eligible going into the final day of the season, in spite of all their bad beats, was quite astonishing.
Still, it’s another year without a championship for Hoshino’s team, who haven’t won the championship in GT500 since 1995. 2017 could see a major shakeup in the driver lineup, as Hoshino is a strong proponent of GT300 rookie standout Jann Mardenborough, who could likely displace Oliveira after six seasons with Impul.
But perhaps the biggest change that seems imminent for 2017, after nearly 35 years, Calsonic Kansei may not return as the title sponsor of Impul’s Nissan GT-R, and one of the most iconic cars in racing history may be consigned to the history books. Things may be very, very different at Impul next year, that’s for certain.