Opinion: Nissan dropping Jann Mardenborough makes no sense

Nissan dropping Jann Mardenborough from its GT500 line-up for the 2021 SUPER GT season is not only puzzling from a performance point of view – it’s also symbolic of the company’s withdrawal from most forms of international motorsport, believes Jamie Klein.

And so, the news is now official: Mardenborough has been axed from Nissan’s GT500 roster for the 2021 season, potentially signalling the end of the British driver’s long-standing association with the Yokohama marque and his tenure in SUPER GT.

While not without its highlights, the story of Mardenborough’s time in SUPER GT’s top class is largely one of frustration and unfulfilled promise for a driver who, on sheer speed alone, had done more than enough to secure his place on the grid this year.

Perhaps, looking back, the 29-year-old could be said to have been on borrowed time from the point he was ‘demoted’ from the Bridgestone-shod Impul team, for which he raced in 2017 and ‘18, to Kondo Racing, which with its Yokohama tyres has frequently been the least competitive of the four Nissan GT500 entries in the past few seasons.

#12 Team Impul Nissan GT-R Nismo GT3: Jann Mardenborough, Daiki Sasaki

Photo by: Masahide Kamio

The introduction of a revised GT-R last year made that performance gulf even more noticeable. While Mardenborough and teammate Mitsunori Takaboshi were just half a point shy of Impul pair Daiki Sasaki and James Rossiter in 2019, the gap between the two car crews (with Kazuki Hiramine replacing Rossiter) stretched to 20 points last year.

In the only race of the 2020 season in which Mardenborough and Takaboshi were truly competitive, Round 5 at Fuji (which, it has to be said, was assisted heavily by success ballast approaching its peak), a gear selection problem denied the pair a possible podium finish. That was just the most painful of many niggling problems that marred their campaign.

Certainly, it was no fault of Mardenborough or Takaboshi that Kondo ended up bottom of the GT500 pile with just four points, and of the two Mardenborough was frequently the quicker. Blaming the Yokohama tyres would be too simplistic an explanation as well, given that the Mugen Honda outscored the Impul Nissan while using the unfavoured rubber.

Mardenborough had proved his class at Impul in 2018, losing two victory chances through no fault of his own. That he was batted aside to make way for Toyota convert Rossiter – who lasted just one season before being axed himself – in itself came as a surprise.

#24 Kondo Racing Nissan GT-R: Mitsunori Takaboshi, Jann Mardenborough

Photo by: Masahide Kamio

Even more perplexing is the fact that Mardenborough’s seat at Kondo has been handed to none other than Sasaki, who was totally outshone by rookie teammate Hiramine at Impul last year and cost the team a hatful of points with a succession of errors that belied his status as Nissan’s third-longest serving GT500 driver.

With Nobuharu Matsushita joining the Nissan camp in 2021, it was clear that at least one of Nissan’s existing drivers would have to make way. But on sheer performance alone, Mardenborough certainly did not deserve that fate.

But it’s not just for on-track reasons that axing Mardenborough makes little sense. In the context of Nissan’s steady retreat from international motorsport, it’s even more baffling.

Of last year’s Nissan GT500 roster, Mardenborough was arguably the only name that would have been familiar to the bulk of SUPER GT’s international audience. He was the last man standing of that group of drivers that made the leap from GT Academy winner to factory Nissan driver, and by far the most recognisable product of the PlayStation competition.

#123 Nissan GT Academy Team RJN Nissan 370Z GT4: Jann Mardenborough

Photo by: Alexander Trienitz

In letting go Mardenborough, Nissan is not only weakening its final remaining links to the GT Academy days, and the positive PR that went with the genuinely ground-breaking contest, but it is making its exploits in SUPER GT that much harder to access for overseas fans.

That said, NISMO in Japan has every right to decide which drivers it wants piloting its quartet of GT-Rs without having to consider the marque’s international marketing aims, which seem to be increasingly slipping down the priority list.

Last year, Nissan essentially ended its commitment to GT3 customer racing outside of the domestic SUPER GT and Super Taikyu series. That move followed the end of its engine supply programme in the FIA World Endurance Championship and its (admittedly, fairly tenuous) involvement in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship’s DPi class.

It means Nissan’s only real non-Japanese motorsport activity is its Formula E programme, and even this doesn’t appear to be 100 percent secure in the wake of Audi and BMW’s quick-fire announcements that they are exiting the electric series after 2021.

Sebastien Buemi, Nissan e.Dams, Nissan IMO2

Photo by: Andrew Ferraro / Motorsport Images

Of course, nobody would blame Nissan for wanting to save money in the current economic climate. But if SUPER GT was to become the brand’s only top-level motorsport activity, it would surely make sense for its driver line-up to be as high-profile as possible, at least within the constraints of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. It’s hard to see how axing Mardenborough helps in that regard, or in Nissan’s quest to earn its first GT500 title since 2015.

Contacted by Motorsport.com for comment, a NISMO spokesperson said that Nissan and Mardenborough remain in discussions regarding their future relationship – which could  involve a step down to the GT300 ranks in SUPER GT, or perhaps a bigger role in the Formula E project (which is guaranteed to run at least through the 2021 season). 

Even if Nissan does choose to keep Mardenborough after taking away his GT500 seat, it would certainly not be making the best use of the 29-year-old’s talents – and that’s to say nothing of the impact on his motivation of a potential ‘demotion’ to GT300.

Whether or not this is the end of the road for Mardenborough and Nissan should become clear next month at the latest. But in light of Monday’s news, it’s hard to see how the Briton still has a long-term future with the brand that gave him his big break all those years ago.

Jann Mardenborough, Team Impul

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