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.