Similar to how an equine thoroughbred is hand-picked for derby greatness or an unhugged daughter matures to master gravity-defying brass pole acts, racecar drivers are raised a certain way. Starting at a young age they're molded, shaped and trained to take lines and learn the mechanics of a car. While we're struggling with training wheels, these kids are training in open wheel go-karts. Ryo Michigami is no exception.
Born in 1973 in the Nara prefecture of Japan, by the time Michigami-san reached a pubescent 14 years of age, he had already won two Kart National AS Class series championships. Ryo would go on to win a multitude of series' including an All Japan F3 Championships ('94), Best Driver of the Season award in Formula Nippon ('99), JGTC GT 500 Championship ('00) among many other top five finishes.
Flush with modesty and politeness, rare qualities in a person with so much talent, Michigami-san was reserved about his very respectable Third Overall this past Super GT season. Days after his last race of the year, 5Zigen flew their Formula Nippon Team driver out to Los Angeles to drive their Accord Euro-R in our Super Street Time Attack finals in Buttonwillow. A real live, 5Zigen Formula Nippon/Super GT driver competing in our Time Attack? You better believe it.
How Did You Become Involved In Racing? Do You Come From Racing Blood?
My father raced as well, and he used to take me to Suzuka Circuit a lot to watch the races. That's where my interest came from.
And you started driving in karts?
Yes, when I was 12.
You've driven several types of racecars throughout your career: open-wheel, formula-style cars; touring cars; Super GT cars. Which is your favorite?
Because I started in karting, I always wanted to be a formula driver. When I was very young, I wanted to be an F1 driver. My priority now is still with formula driving, but how Honda works I drive both in Formula Nippon and Super GT. I view them both the same-both have advantages and disadvantages.
Is it difficult to go from driving one type of vehicle to another?There's not really that much of a difference these days because the technology in Super GT is very close to that of formula racing. Additionally, because I drive a mid-engined NSX in Super GT, the vehicle dynamics are almost the same as the mid-engine formula cars. And the driving styles are similar. In the [Takata Dome] NSX, it's sort of like getting the engine of a formula car into the body of an NSX-essentially a formula car with no aero.
How about a favorite circuit?
Favorite or least favorite driver to compete against?
As far as drivers, my least favorites are those who have no road manners.
What are your impressions of Super Aguri's F1 efforts? As a Japanese driver, do the hometown fans rally behind Super Aguri out of national pride? Or are the Japanese just huge fans of F1?
I'm just glad they finished the 2006 season without too many problems. According to Aguri-san himself, he will be able to do much better next season, and I'm looking forward to that. But I think the main reason they love him so much in Japan is because it is a national team.
How did you become involved with 5Zigen?
They first sponsored me in 2002 in Formula Nippon; they asked me to drive for them. Then again in 2003 and in 2006. In 2002 I had a big crash at Fuji and was hospitalized for four months. I partially broke my back in the accident.
And how did you get mixed up in 5Zigen's Time Attack campaign?
5Zigen invited me. I am very interested in showing the American audience how fast I am. There are a lot of drivers in Japan who have become famous because they are characters, but many of them aren't very fast. As far as this car goes, it was originally involved in the Super Taikyu series in 2003 and I was driving it for 5Zigen, so I know this car very well. That was part of the reason they asked me to drive it.
You've had limited time to shakedown the car before the event, do you have any worries?
The car is very easy to drive, very neutral. You'll be surprised at how fast it is.
You have had a very long relationship with Honda. If they gave you a car tomorrow, which would you pick?
I would like a NSX Type R, but right now I'm driving an Odyssey.
Do you have a day job, or is racing full-time?
Racing is my profession, but I've also started a karting school. I'm a coach for that.
Where do you see racing taking you?
At first my priorities were getting to Formula 1, but honestly I think it's a little too late in my life for that now. So my priority now is to be number one in Formula Nippon, which is the top category racing in Japan. I also want to race internationally and maybe become a Le Mans driver.
Any interest in GP2?
GP2 is very expensive. They require the drivers to bring a lot of sponsorship.
What did you think of our Time Attack?
Compared to Streets of Willow from the previous day's testing session, Buttonwillow was much more difficult and it took some time getting used to it. In the morning session the transmission in my car had problems shifting and I went off course and broke the front spoiler. Our mechanic was able to fix the transmission problem and by the end of the day I ran my target times.
How was the track compared to some of the Japanese tracks you've raced?
The first thing I noticed about the track was the elevation changes combined with turning which made it hard to see the turn exit.
Compared to Tsukuba, how was Buttonwillow?
It was more difficult.
What did you think of the competitors?There were interesting cars at the event. In our unlimited FF class there were big power differences between cars. If I could try the course again I would like to bring a higher horsepower engine. Cornering speed is paramount and I would need more power.
Most importantly, did you have fun at our Time Attack?
Yes, I had fun. I want to try again next year!