The '09 racing season is here. A lot of things got decided quite late this year but in the end it all came together. For this year, I will be in Formula Challenge Japan (Formula Renault) again, in #6 Avanzza x Bomex car and finally - Super GT GT300!
In GT, I am with Ishimatsu / Arktech Motorsports #111 Porsche 911 GT3 RSR.
This last weekend was the season opener at Okayama International Circuit. This is the first Porsche racecar I had ever been in and have been excited about it ever since the ride was confirmed in early March. The week preceding the weekend was a heavy schedule -
Sunday - Super Taikyu test at Motegi with Sequential Endless Mitsubishi Lancer Evo VIIII - last year's Class-2 champions. The test ended prematurely since there was a burning Porsche GT3 Cup in the tunnel at turn 5 (sector 2) during my first flying lap, with me having to return to the pits and ending the run. Despite that, my Sector 1 was rather good and hopefully I will get a chance to drive the car for the team sometime this year. Maybe Tokachi 24hr?
Tuesday - Karting at New Tokyo Circuit with Manabu Orido-san in a 125cc shifter kart - over 2 hours of clean driving time made my body ache for the next couple of days. The new engine was so fast we hit over 100mph on this short track's straightaway.
Wednesday - Fuji test in the GT300 Porsche RSR - due to some trouble only got to drive the car for 8 laps but I felt pretty comfortable and was not far off the veteran driver Tsubobayashi-san. On the final lap of my session in the car, I continued to push the car into large slides in entries and exits of slow corners to get more feel of the weight balance of a rear-engined vehicle and how it behaves. As I was incrementally increasing the drift angle, I finally spun at turn 13 - a slow and safe corner.
Thursday - Drove Kubo-san's Super Taikyu-spec Honda S2000 at the Tsukuba 1000 track the entire day. Thank you so much Kubo-san! This was a private event with Kageyama Masami-san, my FCJ advisor and also NISMO's GT500 Champion, instructing just a handful of people - way cool.
Friday - Left for Okayama in my car at 3 am.
Sat/Sun - My first-ever GT race weekend!
Our team does development for Kumho tires, which is really exciting as I have not yet been involved in tire testing.
With the new schedule format in Super GT, we barely have any test time before qualifying - 90 minutes, so after Tsubobayashi-san tried out a couple of tire compounds and did basic setup changes I finally got a chance to drive the car a bit more - 7 more laps.
Then qualifying came and I got about 8 more laps in on used tires after Tsubobayashi-san went for the time attack on new tires and qualified for 17th on the grid.
The weather forecast looked rainy for Sunday, which was a good turn for us since Kumho had not yet had a chance to develop the right tires for the 911's weight balance, giving us a very small chance in dry conditions for this race.
On Sunday morning, we had time for a few laps and final setup tweaks for the wet race. This was my first time driving the car in the wet, and it actually felt pretty good and stable.
Tsubobayashi-san was the starting driver for the 77 lap race. He continued to gain positions before the pitstop and we were in 12th when I got in the car after the pitstop. The driver-change is actually relatively easy in the Porsche compared to many cars so we only needed to run through it several times beforehand on Saturday to get it down to under 20 seconds.
I got a new set of wets for my stint and got on my way. The radio line somehow got pulled out of my helmet plug during the pitstop so my radio did not work from the get go. I tried to plug it back in but with gloves on and in race conditions it was impossible - not enough time even on the straights with the short gearing. The drinking water pump did not seem to work . With the heavy rain, it was pretty low visibility. The environment was pretty extreme - all this on cold tires in a car I had driven 15 laps to this point. The GT500 cars are ridiculously fast and in low visibility especially, they show up seemingly out of nowhere.
I just buckled down and focused on my driving. It went great - my pace continued to pick up for the first 5 laps while I got the tires warm and then stuck to it. I was overly cautious with letting the GT500 cars pass making my time loss a bit more than necessary, but with this being my first GT race, it was important to ensure I did not get into any accidents.
Up until about 10 laps to go, my times continued to go up into the 1:49:xx as the rain weakened and we were in 11th position.
While on the front straightaway in 5th gear, the transmission buckled before the braking zone putting me in neutral, at which point I got into a car-saving mode and tried to get the car back to the pits, but the location of the failure was pretty bad - one entire lap to go to actually get back to the pits. As I was cautiously cruising back, I was left with nothing but neutral by the time I got to the uphill Atwood turn, and the car came to a stop.
Despite this, because we reached the lap threshold for race completion, we still placed 17th. My times were actually only about 0.5 second off of the Lexus IS350 on Kumho tires and the pace at the end of the race was pretty similar to the Taisan #26 Porsche 911 GT3 RSR on Yokohama tires.
Although we did have a mechanical failure, with this kind of grip levels and toque, sometimes it is just unavoidable. I definitely feel comfortable in the car and am looking forward to round two at Suzuka next month.
Super GT is a different level of racing and I feel like the preparation over the last few years has definitely paid off. The necessity to hold narrow and wide focus in low visibility situation in an unfamiliar racecar on an unforgiving race track was paramount - and I pulled it off.
Congratulations to Bandoh Masataka (坂東正敬), Orido Manabu (織戸 学), and Kataoka Tatsuya (片岡 龍也) for winning the GT300 race in the WedsSport Bandoh Lexus IS350.
Visit Racing Project Bandoh and Orido.jp.
Next up is Formula Challenge Japan season opener at Fuji Speedway - going to the track on Tuesday night and will be there through Sunday.
Satoshi and his girlfriend made this awesome banner to commemorate my entry into Super GT GT300. Thank you Satoshi!!