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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!!