Ticking an item off the bucket list: the Fuji 500km

The crew over at Speedhunters recently included the Fuji 500 in a ‘bucket list’ of must-see motoring events alongside things like the Macau Grand Prix, Le Mans 24 Hours and Geneva Motor Show. That, coupled with the fact this year’s Fuji 500 took place just last weekend, makes this a good time to re-post an article I wrote over on the 205 Ecosse Challenge site back in 2009 when I was doing weekly features for them. It’s a little on the long side so you may wish to make yourself a coffee…

 

If you’ve ever been to a rock concert, you’ll know the sensation I’m about to attempt to describe. The encore finishes, the cheering from the crowd subsides and you start to walk out of the venue. Everything seems normal until someone says something to you. That’s when you realise all sound has been reduced to a tinny murmur, playing away in the background behind a dull, low whistling that just won’t go away. And then when you try to respond to what your mate has just said, the words come wheezing out because you’ve just spent the last two hours screaming at the top of your lungs to produce simple statements like offering a bit of chewing gum or asking for a swig of water.

That was exactly how I felt leaving the grandstand at Fuji Circuit last weekend after my ears had taken a two-and-a-half-hour battering at the third round of the 2009 Japanese Super GT Championship. It wasn’t just my ears that hurt either. The entire left side of my face, my jaw and bizarrely my ribcage all ached as a result of two football matches’ worth of flat out racing unfolding before my eyes. What made it worse was that the cars didn’t look like they were going to be all that noisy. When you look at an F1 car, a Le Mans prototype racer or even a Metro 6R4, something about it just tells you it’s going to be loud. Perhaps it’s the fact a single-seater is so removed from what we think of as an ordinary road car that our ears prepare themselves as they would for a Tornado fighter jet flying overhead, but for whatever reason I quite simply did not think Lexuses, Hondas and Nissans were capable of making such a racket.

From the outside, a Super GT car looks reasonably like its road-going counterpart. Even with the addition of a few wings, a set of side skirts and some widened arches, it’s still very easy to tell that the thing out on the track is supposed to be a Nissan GT-R, Lexus SC430 or Honda NSX. Under the skin, however, the engine stays in the same place and that’s about it. Think Colin McRae’s Mark 2 Ford Escort and you won’t be far wrong. Normally-aspirated or turbocharged V8 engines are fitted in place of the roadgoing lumps, and most of the front and back comes off in one big carbon piece. But with Super GT being the series where Japan’s big three car manufacturers duke it out on the country’s racetracks for bragging rights, it’s probably important to make sure the car winning the races looks like something the owners can identify with.

Famous badge

Famous badge

When I arrive at Fuji circuit, it’s a Scotsman-melting 30 degrees and it takes me a good few minutes to get over the fact that the big, snow-covered mountain looming on the horizon is a volcano. I don’t care if it’s been dormant for thousands of years. It’s four times the size of Ben Nevis, and it’s a volcano. The scene behind the grandstands could pass as any racetrack in the Western hemisphere – there are big merchandising tents for all the teams selling t-shirts, models, baseball caps and so on, owners’ clubs running static displays of supercars, tyre manufacturers deploying scantily-clad women and racing simulators to get folk interested, and catering outlets simulating an armed robbery in return for a coffee and a burger. In fact, only the lack of rain reminded me I wasn’t at a big European circuit.

The first culture shock comes when I try to get a grandstand seat. The main stand at Fuji is a big, angular, concrete thing with a white roof and runs down the main straight of the track for a good eight hundred metres. There is no reserved seating as such, but the half of the grandstand at the bottom end of the straight appears to be closed off with uniformed men guarding the entrances – the kind of men who look so officiously polite you are guilt-tripped into not trying to blag your way past them (if you ever want to visit the Land of the Rising Sun, I’ll warn you: Japan’s good at that kind of thing). There is no indication as to why that end of the stand is closed off, but next to the gate a couple of Nissan-clad ladies are running a desk where you can get a big goodie bag if you can prove you own a GT-R, and a hundred meters further along two living Toyota advertising hoardings offer the same deal for Lexus SC430 drivers. Funny.

At major sporting events, the Japanese method of bagging a seat for the day is to put something on it and then wander off and do whatever the heck you want safe in the knowledge nobody will nab your spot or touch your stuff. The grandstand may look empty while the support races are running, but practically every seat is reserved with objects ranging from a bottle of water to a neatly folded raincoat right up to a full-blown suitcase. It’s because of this trust that Japanese tourists are apparently such an easy target for thieves abroad, and makes me wonder what would happen if I tried the same at Silverstone.

Relaxed grid- and pitwalk

Relaxed grid- and pitwalk

Eventually a seat is found and secured with a rucksack, just in time to see forty Micras being shepherded onto the track for the final support race before the main event. Perhaps the only race in history where the pace car is faster than the racers, the Nissan GT-R at the front peels off into the pits at the end of the formation lap and carnage ensues. Forty Micras zip past the pit straight and disappear behind the paddock at a tight right-hander. Five seconds later I see a cloud of dust rising behind the opposite stand. A further eight seconds later a Micra appears in the section of track visible between the race control tower and a big hill, still travelling in the right direction at race speed but facing the wrong way. Someone else runs wide and bumps across the grass, and then from behind the hill another big cloud of dust rises. When the compact field returns to the pit straight, the previously immaculate machines are in all states of disrepair. Bumpers, wings and windows are hanging off at crazy angles, and some of the more badly damaged cars limp back to the pits and into retirement.

The Micra mayhem continues for a further nine laps, and as soon as the junior drivers have been rounded up and sent back to the paddock the big cars are pushed out of the garage for a warm up. The various machines line up at the pit exit in no particular order, and when the light goes green they head out in single file onto the track with cold engines and cold tyres. Just over a minute and later I get a massive shock as two Toyotas slipstream each other down the main straight, producing a metallic rasp that resonates more in my throat than in my eardrums. For the next five minutes everyone zooms past at regular intervals, each car firing out what is probably the sonic equivalent of being hit with a paintball gun.

Calsonic Impul #12 being fettled

Calsonic Impul #12 being fettled

The cars then briefly return to the pits for refettling, and the circus that is grid formation begins. In a scene not viewed since the embarkation of Noah’s Ark (or the last Super GT race, whichever I saw more recently in a past life) the grid girls are led out two by two onto the tarmac and take up their spots in front of their respective cars. A gate is then opened and two hundred or so press photographers who had been pressed up against a metal gate in the paddock in a manner akin to zombies in an ITV drama are released onto the track. Nearly every one of them makes a beeline for the ladies (when I saw race pictures on the internet the next day, nearly all the photos of the racing itself were awful but the grid girls appeared in portraits David Bailey would be proud of) whilst the race engineers get on with the job of preparing the cars on the grid. The upshot of this is a strange situation where hundreds of people occupy the grid but there is not a racing car in sight. One by one the cars then start to poke their noses out of the pit garages, do a slow lap of the circuit at low revs and then try to find their slot on the grid without mowing down any one of the hoards of people occupying the tarmac.

Last to leave the pit is the reigning champion and pole-sitting Nissan GT-R, which warbles round the track at little more than walking pace, the sun beaming back off its reflective silver trim. As it turns back onto the home straight at the end of its out lap, some chanting picks up to my left. ‘NI-SSAN! BOOM BOOM BOOM! NI-SSAN! BOOM BOOM BOOM!’ it continues. The bottom tier of the stand, the area I couldn’t access previously, appears to have been transformed into a massive blob of red jelly that someone has randomly stuck flags into. Closer inspection reveals this is not some kind of large-scale corporate hospitality effort, but rather it is a sea of super-loyal Nissan supporters whose job is to chant for the duration of the race and wave their flags energetically back and fore every time a car sporting the familiar circle-and-oblong badge belts past. This is the area you are allowed into if you own a GT-R, and also seemingly the area Nissan employees are given free tickets to sit in and cheer their company’s charges on. How very Japanese. Instead of drowning their rivals out, the Toyota tifosi – given an area slightly further up the straight and joined by Lexus drivers – wait for the Nissan choir to take a break and then ring out a slightly more subdued ‘To-yo-ta! Clap clap clap! To-yo-ta! Clap-clap-clap!’ Short of Ferrari fans, I’ve never seen such well-organised groups of team followers.

Nissan fans tune up their vocal cords and drums

Nissan fans tune up their vocal cords and drums

Eventually, the grid clears and the cars prepare to start. One by one the GTs fire up, creating the ultimate Mexican wave of sound as each engine shrieks into life. The Nissan pace car leads the field away for the installation lap, the carbonfibre spoilers weaving from left to right through the heat haze as the drivers frantically try to warm their tyres. The formation lap is punctuated by squeals and pops as the pilots try, F1-style, to dump some rubber on the track at key points and back the field up. It’s a rolling start, so once the safety car switches its orange lights off and scurries off down a gap in the Armco, it’s down to the leading red and silver Nissan to decide when to floor it and get the 400 kilometre race underway.

I’m just starting to get my head round explaining this process in broken Japanese to the motor sport novice sitting next to me when the power of speech is stolen from me by something totalling 160 cylinders, 180,000 rpm and 10,000 bhp. Motoyama-san, the lead driver for the pole-sitting car, has dropped the loud pedal and with it a further nineteen Nissans, Toyotas and Hondas are sprinting down to the first corner in short order. It doesn’t take long before the first piece of drama. The famous Calsonic Nissan – which for me had until now been the stuff of PlayStation games and Tamiya model kits – tries a heroic lunge from fourth to first with a late braking manoeuvre. But ambition exceeds both talent and the basic laws of physics, and under cold tyres the car veers sharply to the right and biffs the back end of an orange NSX. A disheartened groan rises in the crowd as the dust clears on the big screen to reveal a blue GT-R sheepishly making its way back on track and a rather miffed Honda spinning its wheels furiously as it tries to exit the gravel trap it’s been punted into.

Meanwhile, the leaders come thundering back round at a relentless pace, the reigning champion being pursued by an angry swarm of Lexuses. To give you an idea of how quick these machines are, there’s an Aston Martin DBR9 – identical to the one that’s been taking class wins at Le Mans in recent years – being run in the Super GT class by a gallant privateer team. Having qualified in last spot and been mashed off the line, it’s about ten seconds down on the leaders after just one lap. To keep the racing level, successful cars are given up to 50 kilograms of success ballast depending on where they have finished in previous races and also the lap times they have been setting – and if the organisers still think your engine is a bit too good they reserve the right to open it up and turn the wick down. I have to admit I never agree with penalising people for doing well, but the result of this is that the champions rarely win more than two or three races in the year and the title race always goes down to the wire.

Each has two drivers and must stop twice during the 400-kilometre race, so usually what happens is that one driver does the opening and closing stints whereas the other one drives in-between the stops. As drivers have to clamber in and out of the cars and tyres have to be changed by a team of only four guys, pit stops aren’t quite as frantic as the things you might see in Formula 1. Still, given the closeness of the racing a quick turnaround is imperative, and so the tyre guys chuck the used rims over their shoulders with reckless abandon and proceed to slam the new wheel onto the hub while their co-worker does their best to catch the hot round debris that’s been lobbed in their direction.

Famous number

Famous number

The number 36 Lexus – PlayStation geeks like me will know that number 36 holds special significance for Toyota and, don’t ask me why, is always assigned to their lead car – leapfrogs the Nissan at the first round of stops and for the next hour or so the two cars proceed round the track at identical pace, never more than one or two seconds apart as they pick their way through the backmarkers. The battle for the lead at this stage is more of a pub argument than a full-blown assault, but the more eagle-eyed fans have noticed something else and leap to their feet as a few sets of headlights turn onto the pit straight. In a moment of utter madness a Nissan, two Hondas and a Toyota come hurtling past four-abreast, using the full width of the track as well as the dirty tarmac right under the pit wall and forcing the guys holding the pit boards to dive for cover. This is the battle for third place. Nobody wants to back off, but the Hondas eventually chicken out and with the GT-R holding the inside line, polite applause breaks out as the Lexus locks up and runs onto the grass in a puff of smoke.

There is further polite applause minutes later when the Nissan pit crew redeem themselves for their earlier tardiness and get their car back out on track ten seconds ahead of the Toyota. But with the SC430 running less ballast it quickly sets about reeling the leader in, the two lead cars weaving in and out of the traffic. On the final lap the gap shrinks dramatically as the GT-R backs off and takes it easy through traffic, and furious flag-waving from the hardcore support ensues as the camera cuts to show the white and pastel green Lexus right up the leader’s backside. The Toyota jinks left and then right as it tries to squeeze past at the death, but the gasps turn to more clapping as the Nissan holds its own. The entire stand rises to its feet and cheers as the number one car roars over the line with the Lexus right up its chuff.

This guy is, as Jonathan Legard would say, on a charge.

This guy is, as Jonathan Legard would say, on a charge.

Podium celebrations duly follow, and it’s interesting to note that each of the top three cars features a Japanese driver paired with a European single-seater refugee. Japanese GT legend Satoshi Motoyama and Frenchman Benoit Treluyer take the win and kickstart their title defence (they hadn’t done too well in the opening round due to being forced to carry a big sack of tatties in the passenger seat as punishment for winning last year), appearing on the top step with big Nissan flags and Bridgestone baseball caps. The very successful and intense-looking Juichi Wakisaka is next up in the Lexus with German Andre Lotterer, and former Jordan F1 driver Ralph Firman recovers from being blatted into the sand on the opening lap to take third with Takuya Izawa. Around twenty grid girls appear, each carrying a different piece of silverware or champagne, and lengthy humbling speeches precede the spraying of the bubbly.

Parc fermé under the podium

Parc fermé under the podium

It’s about this point I realise I am feeling the strange sensation I normally only get on the odd occasions Raith Rovers win a football match. I don’t drive a Nissan now and never have, and yet somehow I feel that ‘my’ team has won something. Maybe it has something to do with the Nissan hat I had to buy to keep the sun off me before the race. Maybe it’s the result of a youth spent racing digital Skylines round fictional circuits on Gran Turismo. Or perhaps it’s because I’ve spent the best part of three hours surrounded by people with a fanatical devotion to their team or their company. Whatever the reason, a whole day’s entertainment – and a grandstand seat – for a ticket that cost the equivalent of fifteen quid is pretty damn good value.

I can hear only a faint squealing in my right ear and absolutely nothing in my left. Two and a bit hours of competition with twenty GTs for audial supremacy means that raising my voice to anything beyond an inaudible whisper requires serious effort and a breaching of the pain barrier. And very oddly the vibrations of the passing cars have hurt my bones. But I can’t remember the last time I’ve enjoyed being a spectator at a motor race this much.

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