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Thursday, December 11, 2008

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.