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Thursday, December 11, 2008

Super Taikyu finale at Motegi - A Dream Win

After going back to the United States for over a month, I came back to Japan for the season finale of the Super Taikyu series at Twin Ring Motegi. Actually, I should date myself a couple of weeks back to when I was still in America - I had a dream. I dreamed in vivid detail the exact way that our team was going to win the race at Motegi. Here it is: Kazuomi Komatsu would start the race and I would get the second stint. Then, our team owner and driver would keep me in the car for the third and final stint to save time on the pit-stop since it would be a splash-and-go after two full-tank stints. In my dream, we won the race with a huge margin - something over one lap.

Now back to reality -

I had not been back in the Z for about 2 months since Okayama, and our first outing was on the Twin Ring Motegi oval just for the fun of it it seemed... The sanctioning body setup 2 chicanes at the end of each straight to keep the speeds down. I had never driven on an oval before, it was a lot of fun - almost feeling the extra push forward from the low-pressure area created between the car and the wall inches away. I did a few laps and then my team mates got in the car. Out of my 8 flying sub-one-minute laps, my best was my last lap and it was over 1.5 seconds faster than anybody else from our class over that practice and the Thursday practice, which we did not even attend. It was pretty cool.

On to business. The next practice was on the road course. I immediately get right to setting up the car for the track. The car as it came out of the rig was just bad - the front too soft, rear too stiff, plowing at corner-entry, no traction at exits, and pretty bad on brakes. One by one I ticked off the deficiencies starting with the shocks adjusting bound and rebound to where my final touch was just one click on the front bound and 2 clicks on the rear bound - in return direction since I overdid it. Then I moved on to the wing since Motegi has many long straights, but I also wanted to get turn 4 just right, since it's full throttle in 3rd gear in a well-setup Z even on old tires and an empty tank. With that done, the car also gained about 3km/h on the straights in top speed. The proper posture in turn 4 also translates to great balance at the exit of the esses, which is crucial for the endurance race since any understeer there would kill the speed not to mention the tires over the four-hour duration. I also dropped hot tire pressures by 0.1 bar to 1.85 to help with the front grip.

The race format for the weekend was different than usual, with the race to be held on the Saturday afternoon after morning qualifying. The qualifying was not spectacular, with us in 6th place after an NSX, an M3, an RX7, and two Zs. The race setup was coming together though, but I still did not like the corner-entry-understeer after the initial steering input in slow corners. For the race, I had the team change to stronger-biting rear pads to keep the rear down on entry and prevent too much weight-transfer to the front.
Without my input at all, Kazuomi Komatsu was selected to start the race and I was to take over the reins for the 2nd stint. Exactly as in my dream. Then as the race got under way, our car was just great - very quick pace and in no time Komatsu passed the leading car of our class. He pitted a few laps earlier than planned and I got in the car at lap 39. I got a full tank of gas and four new tires. Since we were one of the first teams to pit, we had to wait for the others to finish their pit-work before we could gauge our position on the track. Several laps later, with everyone done with their pits, I was radioed that I was in 3rd place with about 30 seconds to the leader - both of the cars in front opted not to change all four tires - with one changing just the rears and the other keeping all four from the previous stint. This just meant that we would get our position back after the 2nd pit-stop, since we would not need new tires and the other teams would. I slowly reeled them in, then passed them during this stint even before the 2nd pit and was getting away at something like 1 second per lap. It all felt just right, and slightly surreal - everything was going just as it happened in my dream.

The car balance was just awesome - I could see the cars that I passed were strugling in various corners as their tires wore off, but I was driving with a very subtle oversteer at the exits and great neutral balance into the corners, so my rears were actually getting just slightly worn more than the fronts. In a front-engine car like the Z, the opposite is the norm, with front tires going away and understeer increasing with wear. As my stint was coming to an end, the lightness of the rear without the fuel was causing a little more oversteer. After my initial full tank stint, I am getting ready for the pit and I learn that I will be staying in the car for the final stint - about 20 laps out of the 100 lap race.

The chief asks me if I want new tires, and I consider it for part of the lap - we had a margin of something close to one lap - 2 minutes - compared to the second place car which had already finished its final pit earlier. I finally decide that making up the 15-20 seconds it takes to change the rear tires in 20 laps would be difficult, and so I stick with my current set of tires. The pitstop goes without a glitch and I am back out on the track - with close to a half-tank of gas again, the car was perfect through all the corners, just as I had hoped, with the rear nice and settled. Gap to second place - over 30 seconds and growing by the lap. Easy cruise to the finish - 18 laps to go, 17 laps to go, 16... and that is when reality and my dream diverged.

As I hit the brakes going into turn 1, the car just does not decelerate at its normal rate. Then turn 2 - same thing, and worse... now I am braking way sooner than usual to make sure I can stop for each corner, but it just gets worse with every turn. The pedal goes to the floor everytime and pumping it does no good. I radio the pits and tell them that we have a brake problem. They ask to me keep on top of it for now and see if I can manage it since we have 15 laps to go and have a margin of over 30 seconds. The next lap, I have to brake at 2.5 times the usual distance from the corner and still am barely slowing down in time. I report back to the pits again and tell them I am coming in - the brakes are just not there anymore. I pit and the team swaps out the front pads on both sides and get me back out - we finish 6th.

The feeling was just surreal - both when it all was going exactly according to my dream and then after the brake problem began. I just thought it was not real. After the race ended, I found out that the pads were completely worn on the front and that the master cylinder in use actually cannot push enough fluid to get the pistons extended enough to allow the pad backplate to hit the rotor. I literally drove without brakes for 2 laps.

With this, my 2008 race season has ended, although the final race result was disappointing, the performance was great throughout the year, and I am very fortunate to have been with Okabe Jidosha race team this year - the entire team was awesome. Altough we did have mechanical troubles exactly when we were leading and most likely going to win the race at both Tokachi 24hr and the season finale at Motegi, that's how it happens in racing.

With the year over, I am now looking for a Super GT GT300 seat. I will probably race in the Formula Challenge Japan series again next year. And Super Taikyu? Racing in three series within one season has been done before, so I have my fingers crossed - sponsors needed - if anyone has any leads please do contact me.

I feel like I am living a dream afterall!!

Motegi Formula Challenge Japan race and Hokkaido

Igor Sushko in Formula Renault

I traveled to Motegi in Tochigi prefecture for the 11th/12th races in Formula Challenge Japan. The track is about an hour and forty minutes away from my house, and I left at 8:30 am for a 12:00 meeting time. Our first on-track test session was scheduled for 1:00pm. Things did not go well however, as I left the house and saw multiple traffic jam warnings on the freeway, one was 20km long, and another was 30km long – both segments I had to pass. I ended up having to wade through Tokyo traffic on city streets and was late for the first session by about 10 minutes, arriving at 1:10pm!

Igor Sushko in Formula Renault

JRP, our sanctioning body, changed the rear-wing setting to generate less downforce, which made the car slightly faster than before due to an ability to eliminate more understeer on corner-entry, especially for the fast corners, and also yield a faster straight-line speed. The wing-change also generated a lot of spins, which was not something I had seen in this series in a while. The heat over the entire weekend was incredible – air temp at over 35 Celsius and track temp near 60. That’s 95 and 140 Fahrenheit, respectively! I recall I was 0.6 seconds from the top time during a practice session and was 19th out of 26 cars. The time gap in the series further diminished, which is incredible. A difference of 0.2 seconds was a difference of 10 positions, and this on a long track with near-2-minute lap times. This has got to be one of the most competitive Formula Renault series in the world right now. I botched Saturday qualifying – worst result yet this season of 22nd/23rd for the two races. I set the initial tire pressure too low and was unable to get the right set on the tires for the few laps when the fresh tires are fastest. Both of the races were an entirely different story however – I was catching and passing people left and right, finishing 9 positions up in 13th the first race and 7 positions up in 16th the second race. In the second race I passed more cars than anyone else (5), despite the track being known for its difficulty to pass, just like Suzuka.

My race lap times were also near the top of the field – less than 4 tenths from the top in the first race and less than 3 tenths from the top in the second race. My fastest lap in race 12 was identical to Kunimoto Yuji’s, the current points leader for the championship, who finished both races on the podium. Despite a poor overall result, the progress is considerable, and my next point of improvement is qualifying – if I can qualify near the top, I can finish at or near the top. I have not had any misses or lapses of concentration or any problems in recent races, and that in itself is a great confidence booster. Also, back in Suzuka, I had captured some fastest sectors during the rain qualifying, so I know I can compete in any condition at any track now. There are only 2 weekends and 4 races left in the season – next at Fuji and the finale at Sugo.

After the race I finally got a few days to travel with a friend of mine from back in high-school, Kim Meyer. Her stay was only for 10 days, and the Motegi race took 5 out, leaving just 3 before her departure back to Kentucky. On Monday, on the way to Tsukuba, the city I grew up in while living in Japan as a child, I mentioned to her that the Tokyo Disney Land is nearby, and our destination immediately changed accordingly.

We actually went to Disney Sea; a separate new park from the Disney Land geared more towards adults, with things like BEER! In the evening we got to Tsukuba and spent the next morning there, and then we traveled to Nikko, an old Japanese capital and also the city where Tokgawa Ieyasu, the first Japanese Shogun, was imprisoned, although he had some freedom of movement within a temple he himself built.

Nikko Temple

On the same day Kim flew back home to Kentucky I had to fly to Hokkaido for a grassroots endurance race. Kubo-san, a friend of a good friend of mine, invited me to race with him in one of his cars. The 135 minute race was a blast – I was in a modified Mazda RX7 and Kubo-san drove an S13 Silvia race car (supposedly over 500hp!).

This endurance race has been known to favor fuel-efficient naturally aspirated cars since we have to literally drive over to the regular gas station within the track complex for refueling, and the regulations only allow refueling up to the full gas tank. So, one loses a few minutes just by having a gas tank that’s a bit bigger for every time one refuels, and everyone has to refuel at least twice. On a track with 1:30.00 lap times, those few minutes lost for every refuel cost many laps. Kubo-san and I started the race in our respective cars and battled through a few corners but then the Silvia experienced a throttle-body failure - it became open full-time, forcing Kubo-san to drive an entire lap with full-throttle, even in braking. In the RX7, I drove for two stints and after having finished the second and last pit stop, we were still in the lead, and my co-driver, a Hokkaido local and a Sunday racer, had some trouble and we finished in 5th place overall, behind some Honda S2000s. The race was really a lot of fun and the absence of pressure that I usually feel in Super Taikyu and FCJ was great. Driving a Mazda RX7 on the track for the first time was very cool – this is a production car that most resembles the movement of a formula car in my experience so far.

Kubo-san, himself a highly-regarded animal doctor, owns a chain of animal hospitals in Hokkaido, called Hokuai Animal Hospital (北愛動物病院). As a huge car enthusiast, he owns an entire stable of race-cars, including a copy of the infamous R34 Nissan Skyline GT-R raced at the Nurburgring 24 hours, Toyota Supra (old and new), Honda S2000, and many many others. Some of his doctors and nurses also race and go to track days in his cars. Saito-san, a veteran doctor at his hospital has been racing for a few years now, and her first race was actually with two nurses, and they won!

After the endurance race, we packed up and drove back to Sapporo in a mini-bus. For the following few days, I was thoroughly pampered by being shown around the beautiful scenery, such as a huge lake next to a volcano in the mountains, and to finish the trip off, a company barbeque in a very nice park.

Kubo-san’s story is incredible: He started from zero after graduating from Tokyo University. He had a friend with a breeding business, so in exchange for a little bit of space in the corner of the building, he provided free examinations to the breeder’s stock. From there, as the number of clients grew, he was able to continue to purchase equipment that he needed and expand the services he offered. Now, Kubo-san employs around 35 people in his three hospitals and a research laboratory. He is 42.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Best finish yet in FCJ and Tokachi 24 hr endurance race

Igor Sushko at Suzuka

A few weeks ago was the FCJ race in Suzuka. On Thursday practice, my engine failed with nearly no load when a red flag came out due to a crash and I was cruising back to the pits. The time to change the engine limited my track time to less than an hour for that day, although we had three 1-hour sessions. Friday practice passed without any further issues. For qualifying on Saturday, the temperature was already around 35 Celsius at 9:30 AM, which posed a lot of challenges for tire pressure setups. The extreme track heat mandated that we run a lower-than-usual pressure, but needed to ensure that we could get the temps up in time during the 15 minute qualifying. I gradually worked the tires for 3 laps as the cold pressures were so low there was risk of damaging the actual construction of the tires. As I got on for my first flying lap, a yellow came out in one of the turns, forcing me to abandon the attack. Then the following lap, again, the same thing happened with another car off of the track in a dangerous area. Finally on the third flying lap I got a clear lap but encountered debris and lost time. My position for Q1 was 20th. Then for the 2nd qualifying, I easily beat my Q1 time despite the tires already having gone off and secured a 10th position start for the Sunday race. My best qualifying yet in FCJ. Gap from the top was 0.6 seconds.

The Saturday race was a throwaway anyway due to my qualifying position, but the engine ignition failed on the first lap and I became a spectator for the next 11 laps.
Igor Sushko in Japanese Formula Renault

Sunday was incredible however. I got a great start off of the line into turn 1 and passed 2 cars, but then was pushed nearly off of the track out of turn 2 and had to lift off. This brought me back to 9th. Over the next 17 laps, I managed a very fast pace and passed the car for 8th position, a 3rd-year FCJ veteran from Honda who has even been testing for F3. I was catching up to the 7th place car by nearly a second per lap but ran out of laps, finishing in 8th place. My top time was around 2nd best in the race and looking at the pace, the qualifying position was the largest determinant of the finishing position. If I can qualify somewhere around the top in the next race I am confident I will have a chance to finally get on the podium.

Igor Sushko at Suzuka

Up next was the Tokachi 24-hour endurance race in the #15 Okabe Jidosha Dixcel Nissan Fairlady Z. Our team flew in on Friday morning. For this race, the team added a 4th driver, who we gave lots of practice time to get used to the car and the track. I coached him throughout and he was able to make the necessary changes pretty quickly.
Since I had raced at Tokachi in a Z last year, I only made a few laps before the race just to setup the car - a little tweaking of shocks and a small wing adjustment and the car was perfect. It was an incredibly easy car to drive with no understeer at any of the corners. Most corners at Tokachi are mid-speed (3rd gear) 90 degree turns and the track is rather bumpy. Having watched in-car videos of other cars in other classes, our car was definitely hooked up.

Igor Sushko at Tokachi

The strategy for the 24-hour race is all about speed and fuel efficiency. I tested a variety of driving styles, including driving a gear up and short-shifting at several different RPMs. By short-shifting several hundred RPM sooner than usual, we were able to extent a single stint from 42 laps to 47 laps, thus eliminating one pitstop at the end of the race.

The race started on Sunday at 3PM to finish at 3PM on Monday. Komatsu-san and I split the night-time racing with Nagashima-san and Furuta-san driving during daylight. When I got into the car at the 2nd pitstop (3rd stint), we were right there with the #333 Z driving in 1st/2nd positions. I drove a double stint as the sun went down, with a full course yellow in the middle, which extended my drive to over 4 hours. By the time I was done, I opened up a gap of over 1.5 laps to the 2nd place car. At 2:18 per lap, this was a great cushion to have.

Then Komatsu-san maintained the lead with a double stint and I got back in around 2 AM. Another 1:50 later we were comfortably ahead by over 2 laps.
Nissan 350Z Z33 pitstop at Tokachi 24

Then Nagashima-san got back in when the it began to get slightly lighter and began his stint. Shortly after we got into the 13th hour, with 5 points already under our belt for leading the class at the 12-hour mark and with a huge lead to the 2nd place car, left-front wheel bolts failed between turns 1 and 2, forcing a pitstop for repair. The cause is not yet known, but over-torquing is suspected, since no other Zs experienced this problem over the course of the race.

Essentially, this ended our race for 1st place, since by the time that car got out of the pits we were down by 6 laps. Then during the next stint, the same thing happened to our left-rear wheel bolts, and we got further down in laps.

At this point I decided getting some sleep was the best remedy to such an unfortunate event.

I finished the race off in the final stint, with a huge margin to 4th place, so I cruised more than anything to ensure nothing else failed.

We took the checkered flag in 3rd place, another podium finish, but having been so close to running away with the win, we were all quite distraught.

I was able to demonstrate my extraordinarily fast pace for over 4 hours in a row, and without any errors, so I am extremely content with my personal performance, and will aim to win the next race in Super Taikyu at Okayama next month.

Sakai Mizuho-san and myself before the 24-hour race.

Another podium - three podiums out of four races so far this year in Super Taikyu.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Super Taikyu Round 3 - Fuji Speedway

Onboard video (Part 1):

Onboard video (Part 2):

Both of these videos are available in high-quality (perfect for full screen viewing) at these links:

Super Taikyu Fuji Speedway Nissan Fairlady Z race onboard view (Part 1)

Super Taikyu Fuji Speedway Nissan Fairlady Z race onboard view (Part 2)

These videos only show the start and the 5 passes.

Igor Sushko, Masaaki Nagashima, and Kazuomi Komatsu on the podium at Fuji

Last weekend was the third round of Super Taikyu at Fuji Speedway. It's a rather different setting compared to last race's Sendai Hiland track, which is a decades-old track in the middle of a mountain range. As a Formula-One host track, Fuji Speedway is all that a driver can want - the smoothest surface, good track width, challenging configuration, and safe run-offs. The garage facilities are also more than twice the size of any other track, allotting each team plenty of room with private offices, lots of TV monitors, and even a private-use restroom. Shower rooms are also scattered around every 100 meters through the pits.

Due to the proximity of the track to my house in Yokohama (only about an hour), I arrived on Friday morning and got on with the car setup. The car was pretty good from the get-go as it remained unchanged from the Hiland race, but I knew that we would have to minimize rear drag to take advantage of Fuji's long straights.

Between the three test sessions on Friday, I was able to come up with a pretty good setup. But for the Saturday qualifying, I wanted to go a bit further, which meant lowering the car 2mm F/R and lowering the rear wing even more.
This backfired however, with the car losing its good over-steering characteristics. I was really surprised, but there could be no mistake that the lowered rear-wing was actually generating more downforce/drag. 100R, a very long right-hander in 4th gear around 140-160km/h made me struggle with an impossible understeer (too much rear-traction and not enough front traction). When the rear generates a lot of downforce compared to the front, all that force actually pushes downward on the rear so much that it unloads the front a bit, making the balance problem even more severe. A bare 2mm lowering of the ride height in the front and rear also had very bad side-effects. The suspension was no longer able to function properly with a lot of bouncing and severe understeer in slow corners.
Some of our race queens

The reason that one can make both suspension and aerodynamic adjustments (to an extent of course) and still distinguish the cause-and-effect of each is actually pretty simple - downforce only comes into play at high speeds, and is rather significant in the balance of the car, but in lower speeds (2nd gear/3 gear corners) the effect of downforce is nearly null, so at lower speeds, one can safely attribute the balance of the car to the suspension.

Of course, this is not the case in formula cars and prototypes, as they generate significantly more downforce (even at low speeds) and are much more sensitive to all adjustments.

So, I ended up butching the qualifying with a time of 1:54.2, around 1.5 seconds slower than the top car in the class. I made four attack laps in hopes of getting some kind of miracle time despite the poor balance of the car, but all four were within 0.2 seconds of the above top time, so it was pretty clear this was near the limit for this setup.

I looked over the data and saw that we lost over 6 km/h of speed on the straights, and combined with my feeling of strong rear downforce and the front lifting up, there could be no mistake that the lowered rear wing was not working as intended.
Fuji Speedway Track Map

I used our third driver's qualifying session as a test since the C-driver only needs to pass a standard lap time and the actual time does not count for position, not that I could do any worse than I had already done. So we raised the car back up 2mm front/rear and tried 2 wing configurations - just raising the front of the wing which makes the distance the air travels above the plane and below the plane more equal, and also reverting to Friday's wing configuration.

Sure enough even on old tires and a full tank of gas, Komatsu-san easily drove in the mid-1:53s. The data also showed a regaining of 7km/h with the new adjustment, while the Friday's configuration did not show that gain in speed.

Although our qualifying was horrible, we finally found the right setup for Fuji.

Igor Sushko before the race at Fuji Speedway

We decided that I will be the starting driver, followed by Nagashima-san, and Komatsu-san the anchor.

With an 8th place start, I had to make up lots of positions for us to get on the podium again.
Start of the Super Taikyu race at Fuji Speedway

I did. My stint was 42 laps, and I passed 5 cars to pit in 3rd place.

After the pass of the #113 Nissan Fairlady Z for 3rd place

After my stint, Nagashima-san and Komatsu-san maintained the position and we finished the 4-hour race in 3rd place.

The Super Taikyu podium for #15 Nissan Fairlady Z

Next race is this coming weekend at Fuji in Formula Renault.
The next Super Taikyu race is on 7/20 in Hokkaido, the northern-most island, and is a 24-hour endurance race.

Visit the photo gallery for: 2008 Super Taikyu Rd.3 at Fuji Speedway (#15 Okabe Jidosha Dixcel Nissan Fairlady Z)

Monday, June 02, 2008

Super Taikyu Round 2 and FCJ Rounds 5 and 6

I was on the track for 8 days within a 10 day period which ended last week.

#15 Okabe Jidosha Nissan Fairlady Z at Sendai Hiland

May 17th/18th was the second round of the Super Taikyu series, held at Sendai Hiland. With pure luck, we managed to qualify in 2nd position despite Nagashima-san's qualifying performance of 5th. The qualifying position is determined by the sum of the two drivers, and when my 15 minute qualifying session came around, all of the sudden the rain came down, immediate and hard. I always like to be the first car out of the pits for qualifying, and it certainly paid off this time. As the track was getting wet but everyone of course starting on dry tires, I had to amend my original plan of gradually warming up the tires for 2 laps before going for the attack. I immediately decided to attack on the first lap out, to hopefully still get a time in before the track got completely wet. I was slipping and sliding warming up the tires during my out lap but there was some heat in them by the start of the second lap. The conditions were severe, with some parts of the track near complete-dry and others seeing tons of rain.
The decision to stay out on dry tires and get a lap in before the track got too wet paid off, with a 2:03 lap time, good enough for 2nd overall combined time behind a BMW M3.

The team has the in-car footage of the qualifying, which I will be sure to upload in the near future.

Nissan Fairlady Z racecar at Sendai Hiland
The race was not nearly as spectacular though. Nagashima-san was the starting driver with the longest stint, but the car ran out of fuel going into turn 1 on the 52nd lap forcing an early pit but more crucially losing a lot of time during his in-lap, which Nagashima-san was forced to cruise in neutral as much as possible to at least get back to the pits. After the pit-stop, we were in 5th place. I drove for a 30+ lap stint and held a great pace, actually topping the fastest in-race lap time of the winning team's driver - Maejima Shuji, who also happens to be my teammate from last year.

Igor Sushko at Sendai Hiland for Super Taikyu
I was able to continue with the setup adjustments on the car during the Friday practice sessions and feel very confident going into the next race at Fuji. Fuji is a track I am very familiar with, having had many races in FCJ there this past season.
The three drivers and their countries' flags

The race ended on Sunday and I quickly returned to Yokohama to attend a meeting with my sponsor, H.I.S. travel, the following day in Tokyo. After the Monday meeting, I drove to Twin Ring Motegi for a 1-week test-and-race with FCJ.
Between Tuesday and Wednesday, we tested for 7 hours.
#24 H.I.S. Travel FCJ (Formula Renault), driven by Igor Sushko

My quickness continued into FCJ, with only 0.8 seconds separating me from the top driver on fresh tires and barely 0.6 seconds on used tires in Wednesday's final session.
We had a break on Thursday, which I used to go to nearby Mito and went to an art museum in downtown.

The two Friday practices were okay, but I could not get the kind of result I had in testing earlier in the week. The qualifying was quite wild though - on my first hot lap, still on the straight before hitting the brakes for turn 1, I heard a very clear *snap*, but couldn't really feel anything beyond the sound at that point. But then going into turn 3, my rear almost came out under brakes, and the straightaway speed seemed a bit low, even unable to get into 6th gear where I usually do on the back-straight. The qualifying session is only 15 minutes though, so not enough time to fix the car and get back out, since we run a near 2 minute lap time at Motegi. All I could do was push to get the best time out of the situation, which was only good for 23rd place. On the final lap, I noticed in my rear view mirror that the flare in front of the left rear tire was actually digging into the tire itself. The flare is supported by one metal rod, and it seems that for some reason it failed during the heavy downforce condition at the end of the front straight. After the failure, the incoming wind was hitting the flare into the tire rather than creating downforce.

#24 H.I.S. Travel FCJ (Driver: Igor Sushko)

During the 10 minute interval between Q1 and Q2, the team repaired the area as best as they could and replaced the left rear tire with a used one from the previous day, as per the FCJ rules. In Q2, it took good 2 laps to finally warm this tire up, but the balance was all over the place and my best time was good for 23rd again, although a full second faster than in Q1.

After the qualifying ended, I got a chance to check out the damage, and it was pretty severe - the tire was actually eaten to the metal wire.
Broken FCJ rear tire flare
Damaged tire from a component failure due to downforce/debris

I soldiered on for the afternoon race but could not race to satisfaction, finishing 19th or so.

Then the Sunday race was a different story - it was raining from the previous night and our morning race was in complete wet with more rain coming down. We got our shiny new wet tires. My starting position was unfortunately 23rd, so I had to make up lots of ground and fast. The start went according to plan. I passed exactly 10 cars during the first lap. Then I picked off a few more to get to 10th. But then a slight miscalculation - going into the braking zone at turn 3, the car in front of me, which was rather far, broke way too early, and I had no choice but to avoid front-to-rear collision and dove inside. Fortunately, our tires touched without any body damage and we were both able to continue on. The slowdown cost me at least 3 positions though. After that, even though the surface conditions began to improve, the car was rather difficult to handle, and it seemed possible that I bent some of the suspension arms on the right side of the car during the collision. I struggled with rear tires locking under brakes while even at high-speed, which was abnormal. I had to take the brake balance much to the front and brake significantly sooner for each corner. I finished 15th, but knowing that I could have gotten plenty of points had I been a bit more aware and calculating to have avoided the contact. After the race ended, I saw that one of the right-rear arms was indeed severely bent.

The entire weekend was a great experience in that I was able to manage a few different unusual detrimental conditions (broken aero and damaged tire, bent arms in the rain) without crashing or spinning off the road.

After the Fuji race for Super Taikyu, I will be back to the same track in FCJ, so I look forward to racking up more points. Onwards!
FCJ car from the rear

View the Sendai Hiland Super Taikyu Gallery

View the Motegi FCJ Gallery

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

FCJ Rounds 3 and 4 at Suzuka

Igor Sushko on the grid at Suzuka - FCJ May 11th, 2008.
I am finally picking up momentum. Following the 3rd place podium finish in the Super Taikyu Series 2 weeks ago, this last weekend's race at Suzuka also went quite well. Heavy rain was an excellent opportunity for me in qualifying and race on Saturday. I qualified 15th and 12th for the 2 rounds and finished 12th (15th start) for the Rd.3 race. The rain was so heavy that it was serious near zero visibility when following other cars. I unfortunately put myself in a position of being stuck behind 2 slower cars for almost the entire race, and the rooster tails from 2 cars combined in front of me really gave me no choice but to follow and hope for an error from either of them to safely pass. In the final lap, I managed to pass one of the cars and the race ended. I have never raced in conditions these bad before, and it was an awesome experience. It's difficult to imagine that one can actually drive at over 200km/h without being able to see 20ft ahead and actually hit his brake points and turn-in in the blind. I really did feel a sort of sixth sense taking over to feel the traction and guess at the current location on the track and timing the steering inputs correctly.
Igor Sushko at Suzuka - #24 H.I.S. Travel FCJ, May 11th, 2008.

Sunday's Rd.4 saw the track begin to dry right before the race. My start was 12th - best so far in my year of racing in FCJ. I was on the inside grid, which was still wet, putting me at a disadvantage for the standing start. I pulled it off quite well though, passing 2 cars into turn 1, but then didn't close the door fast enough between turns 1 and 2, and got effectively re-passed. The race was 17 laps, which, at Suzuka, is 35+ minutes. All of my lap times ranged from 2:05.518 to 2:06.456, even while defending my position for the last 5 laps.
Igor Sushko at Suzuka - #24 H.I.S. Travel FCJ, May 11th, 2008.
My pulse for the entire race demonstrated a near-perfect level of concentration, and especially a very mentally strong finish. It was crucial to ensure zero misses, so I drove the entire race at a very low risk level, especially by avoiding the rumble strips on the exits and clips as they were still drying in some places.
I finished 10th, the last points-paying position, to finally put me up on the scoreboard in FCJ.

My pulse rate tracked over the period of the race (blue underline segment):
Igor Sushko at Suzuka - #24 H.I.S. Travel FCJ, May 11th, 2008.

View the Suzuka FCJ Rd.3/Rd.4 Photo Gallery

This weekend I am back to Super Taikyu and will be racing at Sendai Hiland in the #15 Okabe Jidosha Dixcel Nissan Z. Following the Sunday race, I go straight to Motegi on Monday for Tuesday/Wednesday tests and the rounds 5 and 6 for FCJ over the following weekend.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Finally - a podium finish!

#15 Okabe Jidosha Dixcel Nissan Z at Suzuka, 2008
This past weekend was the season opening race at Suzuka for the Super Taikyu endurance series. This year, I am with a new team - #15 Okabe Jidosha Dixcel Nissan Z.
My co-drivers are Nagashima Masaaki 長島 正明 and Komatsu Kazuomi 小松 一臣 .

Working with the engineer and the mechanics is a breeze and the team is just a pleasure to be a part of. Nagashima-san is running a two-car team - our Z and a Mazda RX7.

Through Friday practice and Saturday qualifying, we struggled with the setup of the car. This put us in a tight spot as only a very dramatic setup change could give us a chance for the race. After detailed discussions with the engineer, we decided to do just that, significantly adjusting the shock bump/rebound settings on the front and rear and augmenting the change by changing the rear-wing angle at the same time. We got one chance to try this setup on Sunday morning warm-up and sure enough, got the same time on used tires with a full gas tank as we had the previous day on new tires with an empty tank during qualifying. It was a completely different car.
Igor Sushko

Although we qualified in 6th for our class, we finished the 500km race in 3rd - my maiden podium in my Japanese racing career! The setup worked splendidly - our car did not lose any pace as the tires got worn out during each stint, perfectly compensated by the loss of weight at the rear as 100 liters of gasoline was being burned little by little with each lap.

It was awesome. Next weekend, I go to Super GT at Fuji to hopefully find a ride for the Suzuka Pokka 1000km endurance race this summer in a GT300 car to continue to build on this success and fatten up my resume a little. The following week, I will be racing at Suzuka in FCJ Formula Renault, and then a week later we have Rd. 2 of Super Taikyu at Sendai Hiland. This is going to be a busy month!

Suzuka 500KM Super Taikyu Photo Gallery
Okabe Jidosha Motorsports
Okabe Jidosha Dealership and Tuning Shop

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

April 10th-20th : Fully immersed in Japanese motorsports

On April 10th, I left Yokohama for Okayama - a city 680km south-west, beyond Oasaka and Kyoto. There I watched the Super GT race and spent time primarily with the Bandoh Toyota Celica and interviewed Manabu Orido.

The Bandoh team has a long legacy in motorsports in Japan and Manabu Orido actually began has racing career around 15 years ago at this same company. For the next race, the team will debut a brand-new GT300 Lexus IS racecar - a car that is said to even have some Toyota F1's resources vested in it. But, more on that later.

The Bando website:

The GT300 #666 Bomex Avanzza Vemac team's Junichiro Yamashita is one of my sponsors for the FCJ series this year, as you can see the Bomex and Avanzza signage on the formula-car.
The #666 Team:

After spending the weekend in Okayama, I left for Osaka to visit the 5Zigen facility and met with Kinoshita-san (木下 正治) and also had a chance to sit down with his business development team to discuss internet strategy. 5Zigen looked to be an incredibly tightly-run operation with very smart people, and they are significantly more aware of the value of the internet than most companies in Japan.

I then briefly stopped by Kyoto, as it was the city I lived in at age 6 in 1992, and drove straight to Suzuka for our FCJ two-day test. The first day was in the dry and the second day was in a creek/lake. The rain was so severe that many turns had rivers and puddles at apexes and braking zones. Our times in these conditions were 25 seconds slower than in the dry. Driving a formula-car with an expectation to aqua-plane at 125mph at 130R was an experience. In some parts of the track, I had to zig-zag through a straight in order to avoid the big lakes. For this day, I was 13th out of 26 in overall lap time. Our race is on May 8th at Suzuka.

I got back to Yokohama on Thursday evening and then left for Motegi for the Japan Indy 300 IRL race to watch Danica Patrick win her first-ever race in IRL. The race was canceled on Saturday due to rain and moved to Sunday.

IRL #23 William Rast car driven by Townsend Bell.

A friend of mine, Mike Fink, works for the #23 William Rast car, which gave me an opportunity to really experience the event from within. They even let me sit in the car. I'd love to race an IRL car one day.

Here is a video of a pitstop I took:

Being immersed in motorsports this way sure is a great way to live.

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

FCJ Rd.1/2 at Fuji Speedway

I have been extremely focused during the pre-season on mental imagery training. As a precursor to the FCJ season opener, I took it a step further on April 1st and attended a meditation session at a temple in Kita-Kamakura, about 40 minutes from where I live. In Japanese, it's called "Zazen," and the temple, Engakuji, is extremely historic and renown in Japan. One man I met has been attending the temple services for close to 20 years and has lineage to the Japanese Shogun - Tokugawa Ieyasu, his last name also being Tokugawa, and his wife actually buried in this temple. The Zazen service took place from 5:30 am to 6:30 am, and I found it to be very useful and interesting.

The race week started on Thursday with two qualifying sessions along with the first race on Saturday and the second race on Sunday. I was struggling with getting a consistent lap, with difficulty in sector 2, which is from A-Corner through Hairpin, with 100R in-between. However, depending on the session, I was able to eliminate the sector 2 time loss only to see it appear in sector 3 - the very slow, uphill technical section of the track.

Doing this series now for the 2nd year, I have a good amount of experience with the car and the tracks on the schedule, and the data demonstrated my quickness during this weekend as well as last month's Fuji test, where I was able to post 12th-fastest time, with only a few hundreds-of-a-second loss to our professional series test driver - Hattori Naoki-san, who has even had a stint in Formula 1 in the past.

The FCJ field this year appears to be even more competitive than in 2007. Honda and Toyota drivers especially have enjoyed thousands of kilometers of testing during the off-season.

My qualifying did not go great - with 21st and 23rd for the two races. One extreme positive out of the weekend was my improved ability to drive fast on cold tires and pulling off very good standing starts - I passed around 6 cars in the first lap of the first race and 9 cars in the second race.

In race 1 however, I had very minor contact with a car in front of me in the slowest corner of the track - the Dunlop complex, and I had to limp for the remainder of the race without the right half of the front wing. All in all, I finished 22nd in Round 1 and 18th in Round 2 out of the 26 car field.

Next objective is to manage mental pressure more effectively by turning it into focus but ensuring that my body is relaxed while doing so - I could feel the tightness in my muscles and was not able to get into the appropriate mental zone.

Now, I have changed gears to prepare for the FCJ test coming up in a week at Suzuka.

FCJ Fuji 第一戦/第二戦 4/6/08

先月のFujiのFCJ公式テストではトップから1秒以内で非常に気持ちよく走れたんですが、このレースウィークは自分にかけたプレッシャーをうまく扱うことができなく、余分な緊張感で自分なりな走りができませんでした。木曜日からのテストをはじめ、金曜日もサーキットのA-コーナーやヘアピンの問題を解決出来れば、Dunlopコーナー以降のテクニカルセクターがうまく走れなくなったり、とても苦労しました。 今の問題は何よりも精神的であり、頭をきちんとまとめて落ち着いた走りを出来ればどんどん上に上がれると思います。
一回目の予選は21番手、二回目は0.2秒落ちて23番手でした。 土曜日の決勝は15週のレースで、一週目のコールドタイヤでよいスタートも決めてどんどん抜きにいったんですが、Dunlopコーナーの進入で中に入ったところで前にいた車が思う通りの加速をせずちょっとだけフロントウィングが当たってしまって、そのまま右側の半分が取れてしまいました。コックピットからはそんな低いところのダメージは見えないため、完全になくなっていたとはびっくりですが、レース中の高速コーナーのダウンフォースの減少のためのアンダーステアははっきり感じていました。そのためA-コーナーからヘアピンの出口までに1.2~1.5秒のそんが出てて、一週目で稼いだ位置を少しずつとなくしてなんとか22番手でフィニッシュ。

日曜日のレースは前の日よりも後ろの23番スタートでしたが、うまいスタートを切って、事件なく、一週目で14番まで上がりました。21週で数台と激しいレースをしましたが、一コーナーの侵入でほかの車と争っていた千代勝正がリアミラーに非常に高い速度で一番インからブレーキを仕切れてないところが見えた為、僕はクリップをつかないラインど普通以上に減速をして彼が中のスペースをそのままコーナーの出口まで直線でオーバランしてもらいたかったんですが、彼の左前のホイールが僕の右後ろのホイールに強いいきよいであたってかなりスピンしそうでしたが、それを押さえてそのまま問題なく走り続くことができました。 しかしなかなかよいペースで走れず18番でゴールでした。

今年の僕の担当のアドバイザーである田中哲也さんが木曜日に5Zigenの木下社長に紹介してくれて、それ以降レースのグリッドウォークの時に木下さんが両回とも応援しに来てくれました。 今年は確実にFCJで納得できる成績を出しますので、皆様の応援もお願いします。

FCJ Fuji Photo Gallery