Lest there be any doubt, Japan is car crazy. With an extensive number of racing series to choose from, there's something for everyone here. However, as the motorsport calendar draws to a close at the end of each year, there's very little offered to keep the most die-hard fans content. So events like the Toyota Motorsports Festival (TMF) are a godsend, as they help bridge the gap during the cold winter months. As soon as we heard what the guys at Toyota had in store for this year's event we got ourselves down to the legendary Fuji Speedway nice and early, ready to take in all of the day's action.
An amazing 29,200 people turned up, impressive considering the dismal weather. The mere sight of some of the cars on display was enough to get your average car guy salivating! The lineup included everything from your entry-level Vitz (Yaris) all the way up to the 2006 TF106 Toyota F1 car. And if this wasn't enough, Toyota made sure their loyal fans got their money's worth by bringing in some of the most well-known racing drivers in Japan, as well as high-profile personalities like F1 star Ralf Schumacher. And in celebration of the long partnership between Yamaha and Toyota, Valentino Rossi's Yamaha YZR-M1 Moto GP bike was brought in for a special demonstration run. Taking the Yamaha works machine out on the track was Japanese Moto GP rider Norifumi Abe, who put the high-powered bike against some of Toyota's better known historical and modern race cars, including the F1 car.
The day kicked off with the Altezza and Vitz cup races where spectators were treated to some extremely exciting bumper-to-bumper racing-a perfect way to wet the appetite before the serious machinery was warmed up and taken out for the demonstration runs. As the drivers battled it out on track we took an opportunity to walk around the main pit area where people crowded around the machines that have brought fame to Toyota on and off the racetrack, including the V-8-powered 2006 Supras; the new Lexus LS430s that compete in the Super GT race series; and the GT300 cars like the Celica and MR-S. It's always great taking a close look at modern GT race cars like these. It brings home the amount of work and engineering that go into them-like the extensive use of carbon fiber; the superbly arranged pushrod suspension layout; and the extremely powerful braking systems. Making our way up toward the top part of the pit area we hit a mouthwatering array of Formula Nippon cars. But what really got us salivating was the engineering masterpiece parked in the Esso-Ultron sponsored pit. We are, of course, talking about the Toyota TS020 GT1 Le Mans racer-a car that took second place in 1999 at the infamous French 24-hour race. The attention to detail in its engine bay is simply outstanding. It may look cluttered from a distance, but as you begin to take in all of the individual components-like the piping, cooling systems and wiring-it all begins to make sense. The interior is equally impressive. Everything revolves around the driver. Opening the doors reveals the complex carbon-chassis and bodywork designed to take advantage of the aerodynamic flow at high speeds.
Toyota has totally embraced the cult following that the drifting scene is currently enjoying by inviting six top-level drift cars and drivers for a short exhibition run on the main straight. Drivers like Orido, Ueno, Imamura and Kunny showed off their skills in their Toyota drift cars by slaloming around parked cars and showing what 600 hp can do to tires! On the main paddock area an impressive number of 2000GT owners brought their immaculate historic cars to show off and drive on a special parade lap along with the numerous Sports 800 micro cars on show. To mourn the fact that Toyota is killing off yet another popular sports car, the MR-S, a special stand was dedicated to its long history both on and off the road. A final limited edition celebratory model was presented. It will be on sale until the end of the year.
The main track action got under way as Ralf Schumacher took the F1 car for a few hot laps, even under the wet weather conditions. Special mention has to go to the traction control and launch control systems these cars run that allows them to use optimal grip from a standstill, even with over 700 hp coming from a compact 600-kg curb weight! Ukyo Katayama took the TS020 for a few fast laps, showing off the amazing power of the Le Mans racer as he spun the rear wheels in almost all gears on the wet track. To give spectators a good indication of the difference of speed between cars of different classes, a Super GT LS was lined up against a Formula Nippon racer on a quarter mile where it proceeded to be beaten by the lighter machine. The Formula Nippon car was then crushed by the TS020, which was in turn completely eaten up by the Moto GP Yamaha. Abe, on the bike, then went against Ralf Schumacher who managed to show what an F1 can do by winning the challenge hands down. As a surprise, Toyota invited the Williams F1 team with their new 2007 F1 car, which runs a Toyota engine, to parade around the circuit with Nakajima (son of the famous F1 driver) at the wheel. The relatively inexperienced driver proved just how hard it is to handle one of these beasts in the wet, as he kept locking up and overshooting corners and ended his lap by spinning and almost stalling the engine. We hope this is not a prelude to his rookie year in the 2007 F1 season! Yet another surprise was in store for the crowds: the 2007 Super GT works LS430 was taken out for a quick lap. The car, still under development, was wearing a bare carbon-fiber body and had been redesigned since the 2006 version.
All in all, Toyota put on a great show for its fans. It was a well-organized event with plenty of action and entertainment for the whole family. After seeing so much tasty machinery on show, we can't wait for the 2007 racing season to get started!