In Japan, the JGTC, or All-Japan Grand Touring Championships, is like NASCAR but without the rednecks. Favorite drivers and favorite teams compete against each other driving silhouettes of the cars that you can see on the street every day. They drive their hearts out for cash, prestige, and fame on some of the toughest circuits in the world. Sounds like good times to us. Luckily for one brief December weekend, we stateside homies can get a taste of what real racing is like when the JGTC comes to the good ol' US of A. That's right, you heard it. The JGTC All-Star race is heading to California Speedway the weekend of December 17-19 (www.jgtcusa.net) and we're all tingly and excited about it. In the meantime, we're here to give you the low down on what happened at the JGTC season opener in front of 58,000-plus screaming fans at the newly resurfaced TI Circuit Aida in Japan.
Because this is the first race of the season, the weight penalties normally awarded to winning cars as the season goes on were not in effect, leaving the drivers in the GT500 class to lay the full-throttle smack down at this race. During the First Round of qualifying, it was apparent that the teams worked nonstop during the off-season to get the race cars in top form. Michael Krumm pushed to reach pole position in his early morning qualifying session. His time of 1:22.920 netted him the track record in the Motul Pitwork Fairlady Z (350). Juichi Wakisaka wasn't about to let Krumm walk away with all the honors, but try as he might, he could clock only a 1:23.060 run in his Esso Ultraflo Supra. Yuji Ide and his Calsonic Impul Z stepped up and scored an impressive 1:22.968 to squeeze in between. Satoshi Motoyama, the '03 Season winner, came to the table and snatched the pole away from Krumm with a screaming 1:22.676, but Krumm wasn't going to stand idly by and let his first pole of the season slip away, so he hit the track and laid down a 1:22.404 to take back his position as pole sitter. Round 2 qualifying later in the afternoon saw some improvement in lap times. Jeremie Dufour, Erik Comas, and James Courtney scored 1:23.205, 1:23.262, and 1:23.650, respectively. The Yellow Hat YMS team Supra, driven by Naoki Hattori and his teammate Shigekazu Wakisaka and the only car rolling on Dunlops, scored a 1:23.675, but Hattori came in just short of overtaking his previous lap time recorded in the morning session. Meanwhile, things looked a little brighter for the Team Advan Tsuchiya Supra, one of the cars using Yokohama Tires. Dominik Schwager improved his position by scoring 1:24.104. When all was said and done, teammates Krumm and Masami Kageyama were the ones who took the pole position.
The race started unusually as the safety car circled the track four times instead of the usual one lap in order to make sure the overnight rain didn't leave any nasty surprises for the drivers before the start of the race. The fans waited anxiously as the cars circled to complete the rolling start. Pole sitter Kageyama in the number 22 Fairlady Z and number 12 Z driven by Ide started out on slick tires, but because the track conditions weren't conducive to that kind of rubber, they quickly dropped several positions in the field, as most of the other cars picked intermediate rubber as their starting tire choice. Seiji Ara in the number 38 Supra wasted no time and moved from the second row on the grid into First Place. Dufour, piloting the number 39 Denso Sard Supra, showed his confidence under the slippery conditions and moved in to challenge Ara in the opening laps. Dufour passed Ara on the 10th lap to take the lead. Comas and Akira Iida were having a Nissan-versus-Toyota battle royal of their own right. Comas tried to squeeze by but Iida held him off, slamming the door closed lap after lap. Around lap 15 the clouds gave way to a little sun, allowing the track surface to dry up a tad. It was then that the teams began preparing to come in for tire changes. Dufour, who was leading the race, went into the pit during lap 19 to throw on some slick gummies. A bunch of the other drivers thought this might be a good idea and came in during lap 20 to do the same. On lap 46, Dufour chose to pit again to switch places with his Portuguese co-driver, Andre Couto, who continued the team's fast pace with the number 39 Toyota, maintaining control of the field.
The Xanavi Nismo team's Fairlady Z started off the race with what is called a "drive-through" penalty for changing tires on the grid just before the race started. Even after losing positions due to the stop-and-go penalty, '03 champion Motoyama did an excellent job of recovering throughout the first half of the race, moving up to Fourth Place before handing the reigns to teammate Richard Lyons, who continued the charge. By lap 53, he had moved into Second Place and within 15 seconds of Couto's pace in the lead car.
During a yellow flag, and with four laps to go, Couto overtook another car and picked up a stop-and-go penalty, leaving the Sard team speechless. How could he give up the team's victory by doing something like that? Couto commented after the race, "The car was awesome today, and Jeremie played his part very well. I was confident that we were going to win the race. But all of the sudden I was told on the radio that we'd just been penalized and I had to come back in for a stop-and-go. I did so without knowing what was going on. It's definitely a huge heartbreak for me." Lyons cruised by the horrified Couto and took the checkered flag, giving the Nismo team its first victory in the new Fairlady Z. Wakisaka came in Second and Couto came in Third, still managing to make the podium. Winner Lyons stated, "When the crew radioed in and told me about the penalty, I didn't know how to react. I was thinking that it might be a mistake, and even if it was valid, you never know until the very end how things may change. Our car was really awesome this weekend."
Second Place winner Wakisaka had these comments. "In the beginning we were taking it easy to save our tires, but we ended up not being able to break out of that pace until the very end. We were going for a lap time in the 1:25 range toward the end but there was no way we could keep up. We went with softer compound [tires] today but that ended up being a mistake. I guess we're pretty lucky that we were still able to come in Second."
In the GT300 class, the cars may have less horsepower, fewer sponsors, and newer drivers, but that doesn't mean the action is any less exciting. During Round One qualifying, Hiroki Yoshimoto tried to maintain his lead for much of the morning session, but Tetsuya Yamano wasn't hearing it. Yamano snatched the lead with a more than satisfactory 1:29.506 lap time in the M-Tec Honda NSX . Driver Takayuki Aoki, piloting the number 19 Weds Sport Celica, scored the third-quickest lap and laid a good foundation for the main race. Mitsuhiro Kinoshita, the '03 champion, came out to impress as well, putting out a 1:30.610 qualifying time and placing Fourth.
There were two Ferrari F360s on the track, and they were something to be on the lookout for during qualifying as both cars showed last season that they can run as strong as the best of them. Tetsuya Tanaka, in the Jim Gainer Advan F360, punched the clock with a 1:30.731 time, giving him the Sixth position. Hideshi Matsuda, piloting the Jim Rodeo Drive Advan F360, finished up in Eighth place. For the Round Two session, many of the top qualifying teams waited it out until the very last moment to see what the competition was going to do. Kota Sasaki, driving the number 30 Reckless MR-S, was in Fifth Place after the morning session but later smashed his morning lap time with a 1:29.640 and took over Third. Meanwhile, Yamano and the M-Tec NSX came through like a steamroller and polished off a 1:29.019 just before the end of the session and took the pole. Yamano said, "Honestly, I'm super stoked to be starting from the pole. Both of us [Yamano and his teammate Hiroyuki Yagi] started out driving closed-wheel cars, and in my estimation the NSX is the pinnacle. So being able to compete in an NSX, and the fact that I was able to secure the pole, excites me."
During the first laps, Yamano took advantage of his pole start and held off the Team Leyjun Dunlop 320R piloted by Osamu, the Reckless Toyota MR-S with Sasaki behind the wheel, Aoki in the Weds Sport Celica, and Tanaka in his Ferrari. A wet track claimed the Honda's position and allowed the ARTA Garaiya driven by Morio Nitta and the Endless Daishin Advan Fairlady Z driven by Kinoshita to sneak their way to the head of the group and fight it out for First. Halfway through the first drivers' session, the rain-free track began to demoisturize and Yamano was able to pilot his NSX back into the lead pack.
After the driver change, Atsushi Yogo in the number 10 Ferrari lead the field, with Shinichi Takagi in the number 43 Garaiya and Nobuteru "NOB" Taniguchi in the number 19 Celica following close behind. Yogo drove solidly and kept his Ferrari in the lead for the rest of the race, repeating last year's TI Aida victory, but this time in a new car. Takagi came in Second place with the ARTA Garaiya, and Yagi in his NSX was able to squeeze past "NOB" in the final lap to steal Third. An elated Yogo commented, "Tanaka opened up the gap [between the Second Place car] quite a bit during the first half. When it was my turn to go out, the crew only replaced the rear tires in order to save time, so I had a lot of difficulty figuring out the balance of the car. I ended up driving without using much of the front tires. Actually, I've only driven Porsches in GT. I've won three times at TI." He finished off by saying, "Winning a race on my very first time out with a entirely new team definitely feels amazing. I'd like to thank our team owner, our crewchief, and our staff for making things happen. It was evident that our owner had a great deal of expectations going into the season opener, so it feels good knowing we were able to meet those."