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Monday, November 12, 2007

Super Taikyu and Japanese Formula Renault races, SEMA Show, and more...

The last few races have been very tough – as they started really well and ended very bad. The Super Taikyu race at Okayama, a circuit I had never seen before, went off to an awesome start when we qualified on pole in our class with a couple of tenths to spare. The qualifying position is determined by the sum of the top lap time of both drivers, each in a 15 minute session, thus requiring that both drivers land a near perfect lap to be on top.

This was our first pole position of the year and the race was ours to lose based on the consistently good setup of the car and fast laps in a variety of conditions that we saw in Friday practices.

Maejima-san started the race off, keeping his position on the start, but in the brake zone going into turn 3, the #113 Z, driven by Ooi, attempted an overzealous pass on the inside, crashing into the right rear of our car at a rather severe speed and further taking out a total of 5 Nissan Zs from the race. We got hit another time in the front by a different Z after the initial collision with #113.

A few weeks ago we had a race at Sugo Circuit. Ichinari-san, our new crew chief is really passionate and unforgiving and is really great – he rebuilt the car from the crash in Okayama better than it was ever before. The weekend started off fine – on Thursday, Maejima-san posted fastest class lap times out of the box, and further refined the car with minor setup adjustments.

Maejima-san even had enough confidence in me not to put me in the car that day. On Friday, he gave me just a few laps on a dry track and I was about 1.5 seconds off of his lighting-fast time – a gap small enough having had only a handful of laps that I relatively easily dissolved by analyzing the data. The last session on Friday was in full wet conditions in a very dense fog at times. I was one of the fastest in the class. The car was hydroplaning on the straights and it was exactly the kind of condition in which I widen the gap with the others, both in production cars and in formula cars. Our scheduled qualifying on Saturday was delayed multiple times due to heavy rain until it was rescheduled for Sunday morning. But due to time constraints, all four classes were combined into a 15-minute qualifying session, whereas usually the groups are split into Class-1/2 and Class 3/4. Maejima-san posted an excellent time in his session and barely missed the top by getting the checkered flag right when he started his final flying lap after a tire pressure adjustment on the wet tires – the track was still wet but drying fast as the sun was beaming hot with some wind helping out. After a 15 minute break, my 15 minute qualifying session began – we put on the dry tires from the get go – the track was still extremely wet in some places, but overall it was dry enough. I conducted two reconnaissance laps and picked up pace on my 3rd lap. With a time in 1:35:xx, I was in 5th place overall, even though we are in Class-3 with Lancer Evolutions and Subaru WRX STIs in Class-2 and Porsche 911s and a BMW Z4 GTR in Class-1 up above. But then we got red-flagged with a crash on the track. After we got back on with 7 minutes to go, I struggled with traffic – since a combined four-class qualifying meant over 30 cars on the track, and then another crash brought us back into the pits. The track continued to dry and we got out with 4 minutes to go – which meant the out lap and two hot laps if the out lap is fast enough. I had to weave through traffic on the out lap to ensure I had an extra final lap. I went into turn-1 too hot the first lap, killing the time completely, made it to the start/finish line in time for the last lap, but then messed up the first SP corner – a high-speed left hand. I ended up with a middle-pack time for our class. The car was behaving really well though, and we knew we still had an excellent chance for the race. Our combined qualifying position was 5th.

The race was 135 laps. Maejima-san moved up to 2nd place in just a few laps, with only an RX7 ahead of us, which we knew would fade out – the RX7s can turn up the boost for qualifying but then they have to lower it back down or risk breaking in the race. Our car could safely go 58 laps on a full tank. We got a full course yellow with a safety car on lap 18 through 20, so we opted to go ahead and pit, effectively taking care of one of the two necessary pits during a yellow. The only other car that pitted was #113 Z, which had a bad start and was well behind positions. But the #113 car pitted when the pits were not yet open, suffering a drive through penalty after the course went green. We were the only car in our class to successfully pit with perfect timing, also due to our good traction position. We didn’t lose a lap, and better yet, came back out to be 4th in class – dropping only two positions, since the tank was still 2/3 full and just needed a quick top-off. This meant that we were running in 4th position on the lead lap and had only one more pit to go in the race, while the rest of the class had two pits to complete. This was a dream position to be in. The tires began to drop away with heat but Maejima-san managed them excellently, getting back into first place after the cars up front made their first pit stops around lap 60. We stayed out until lap 75, at which point I got into the car, refueled to full tank and got new tires to finish off the race. Since Class-3 cars a little slower than Class-1, we end up losing about 3-4 laps over the course of a 500km race, so it was safe to pit at 75 and know that the remaining 58 lap range on the gas tank was going to be enough to finish the race. The strategy was perfect – putting us effectively one lap ahead of everyone in the class. The #74 Z however managed to pick off about 2 seconds a lap during the 2nd half of Maejima-san’s stint, and it did pass him before the pit stop, driven by Yasuda – a go-kart world champion and current NISMO GT up-and-coming driver – but we knew that we had a chance to re-pass during their remaining pit stop, and in worst case we would finish 2nd on the podium. I was running a good comfortable pace and saw the lap count at the start/finish line continue to decrease 57, 56, 55… 45… I was passing the slower cars, and yielding to the higher-class cars. But, when the Class-1 BMW Z4 GTR come up from behind at the 2nd SP and came out to the left at the entrance of the final corner, I made a slight error. The final corner at Sugo is a 10% incline right-hand-turn, which is open enough to run in 4th gear. The car was to the right and behind me right at the entrance of the corner, and I had slight hesitation on whether I should begin the turn and hold my line or let it get the line and tuck in behind the BMW for the uphill. I let the BMW go on the inside, but it did not get ahead of me as fast as I had anticipated, despite my holding off on the gas pedal. During this extra split second of unanticipated waiting, I caught a little bit of the tire marbles on the outside of the regular line, and so the car lost all left-front grip, and continued to go straight, through the area of the track with more marbles, and off of the course, and ended up tagging the wall with the front left of the car. Thus our race ended, while being on top – two in a row. It is completely unbearable to think that my mistake has caused this to our team – we had such a great car and it seemed as though we were finally going to get it done.

The following day, I flew to Las Vegas for the SEMA show – it’s always great to see all the faces again. There are a lot of people that I only get to see at the SEMA show over the year, especially now that I am in Japan most of the time. Tamura-san from Nissan also attended the show, as did our last year’s R34 GT-R, which was displayed at the Toyo Tire booth. Yamachan from Sessions, right nearby me here in Japan, also flew out.

Sakai-san, my manager, was out at SEMA and we had dinner on the first day and reminisced on the last Super Taikyu race – how great it was going and how badly it ended. The car was damaged enough so that repairing it was not possible before the season finale at Motegi, as there was only a 10 day gap.

But with that fact, a new opportunity arose – the Super Street Time Attack at Buttonwillow. It seemed like a perfect chance to get back in the R34 Nissan Skyline GT-R.

Last time I was in the car was at this same event exactly a year ago. However, as Victor, our manager on the U.S. side, began to arrange for an entry into the event, it seemed that some politics began to get in the way. Victor was in touch with Elliot Moran from Super Street and he was told that we could run the car, but they will not provide it any coverage in the magazine because my company, the sponsor of the World Challenge GT-R is their “competition.” When Victor told me I began to laugh since Primedia has no significant automotive message board and AF is the #1 in the world by membership – over 540,000 worldwide. If anything, it seemed that covering our participation on our own website would be great free press for them and their event. Regardless, I still thought it would be great to attend since my friends from here in Japan, like Tarzan Yamada and Daijiro Yoshiahara were going to attend, along with Steve Mitchell and I am sure many other familiar faces. But of course, the biggest reason was to take the ol’ GT-R out on the track and feel the rush of 650 hp.

Then a few days later, Victor calls me while I am in New York city for Ad:Tech, an internet marketing convention, and tells me that now Elliot told him that we cannot attend the event at all because the GT-R is a “race car.” So, I got in touch with Elliot Moran and had him tell me the same thing. His explanation is that race cars entering their time attack have an unfair advantage. Considering the fact that he mentioned that he had just gotten back from the track with his own race car, it seemed absolutely crazy that he would not understand – cars specifically built for the time attack would obviously have an advantage over race cars from series with sanctioning bodies. Our GT-R has been built from the ground up to meet an entire book of regulations to ensure close competition between a variety of cars and to minimize the costs. On the other hand, cars built for the time attack are no less of a race car, but have no rules restricting them – they can have any engine modifications, and chassis structure, any aerodynamic devices, and… you get the point. I let him know that this rule is completely irrational and that their entity is going to loose a lot of credibility for pulling a stunt like this. The winning car of the time attack, which would have been in the same class as our GT-R, unlimited all-wheel-drive, was a purpose-built race car with an appearance of a Lancer Evolution, which ran a 1:44 time at Buttonwillow – about 5 seconds faster than a fully prepared Porsche 911 GT3 Cup racecar with an ace driver behind the wheel. This winning car weighs around 1100kg (2400lbs) and has a better power to weight ratio than the Japanese Super GT500, the fastest GT cars in the world par none. This car is as much a Lancer Evolution as I am a monkey.

I arrived back in Japan on November 9th, and attended the Super Taikyu race at Motegi to apologize to our sponsors for the way our season ended. Everyone I’ve talked to continues to have great confidence in me and my development over the year and are asking whether I am going to be in the GT300 next year. As of right now, I don’t have anything confirmed for next year since it's still a bit too early, so we will see.

I have the season finale race in the Formula Renault at Suzuka this coming weekend.

The last two races which I had not had a chance to report about here on the website were a mix of things. The Sugo race did not go too well, with a spin in each one despite really good starts. In the first race of the weekend, I picked up about 5 cars during the first lap and was running a good pace. But then the last FCJ race at Motegi went pretty well – I was rather consistent and finished about 7 places higher from my starting position with some clean passes. The weekend at Fuji was not bad, especially when I posted a 3rd fastest time during the rain in a practice session, with just a couple of tenths off of the top time.

When I entered the advisor room filled with top Nissan, Honda, and Toyota factory drivers in Japan, Sekiya-san, the director of Toyota’s development program, told me that my improvement this year was significantly more dramatic than any other of the 26 drivers we have in the series and then other advisors in the room all agreed. It was a great pat on the back, especially from someone from Toyota, while I am more associated with Nissan than anyone else.

I have been riding on some bad luck recently, so hopefully the tide has now turned and I will be able to finish the FCJ season strong at Suzuka this weekend to get the momentum building for next year.

Links to photo galleries:
Formula Challenge Japan - Japanese Formula Renault
Super Taikyu - #333 H.I.S. Nissan Fairlady Z