Racing in Japan is the stuff of legend. I have always heard the legendary tales about their race tracks, fans and general motorsport fever but I never thought I’d get to experience it myself.
Getting to Suzuka wasn’t easy, it involved almost every mode of public transport - taxi, train, plane, boat, taxi - but when I got there I was immediately greeted with a huge sense of excitement.
Driving for HubAuto in a Ferrari 488 GT3 and entered in the Pro-Am category, our weekend got off to a great start when we finished P3 overall in wet practice. I had two awesome team mates, Nick Foster (Silver) and Hiroki Yoshida (Bronze), who both had extensive knowledge of what I now consider the best track in the world.
The following day we had dry conditions with a lot of track time and managed to say in the Top 10 throughout the day. All the teams were suffering from huge degradation and we were one of them but with a lot of work on the car (and our driving technique) we landed up in a pretty good place and ready for Qualifying.
Qualifying - ‘Exciting Attack!’
Qualifying was split into three 15 minute sessions and the average time between the drivers would determine which teams would make it to the Super Pole shootout where one driver from each car would attempt to get Pole Position. Japan being Japan, this session was called 'Exciting Attack’, love it.
Foster went out first and proceeded to obliterate the field by over 7/10ths of a second, posting a barely believable time of 2:02.3. Prior to this no one had broken into the 2:02’s, so he definitely made a big impression. I was up next.
I was more prepared than usual because prior to the event I practiced a specific 5 lap qualifying sequence at Suzuka on my simulator. I knew how much time I had to get the job done and how to manage the traffic.
My first run was on a used tires which shockingly put me on Pole Position overall with a 2/10th advantage, but we knew the other teams would improve so I boxed for a new set of tires and became the second driver to break into the 2:02’s and claim Pole Position in Qualifying 2. Considering I’d never been to Suzuka before, I was incredibly happy.
Our Bronze driver, Yoshida, was next and his lap was good enough to put us through to the Exciting Attack. Foster was nominated for the shootout and he delivered with an astonishing 2:01.7 which gave us overall Pole Position for the event.
The Suzuka 10 Hours was filled with factory entered cars and drivers and two Silver drivers and a brand new team had just out-qualified the lot of them.
The Japanese media went completely crazy and we proceeded to feel like superstars until late into the evening when we had an audience of over 200 spectators who stayed to watch us do driver-change practice, snapping photos and asking for autographs in-between each practice set. Surreal.
Race Day - She Won’t Go
During morning Warm Up we hit a problem with the car not wanting to start.
The Ferrari engineers spotted the problem immediately but there wasn’t enough time to change the part before the start of the race. We were in big trouble.
When the cars were given the 'Engine Start’ signal on the Pre-Race grid Foster was unable to pull away, which meant we were passed by a number of cars on the warm up lap. He quickly made his way back to Pole Position but the infringement resulted in us receiving a heartbreaking drive through penalty within the first hour of racing.
After Nick pulled a 5 second lead over the field I jumped in the car and served the penalty. When I exited the pits I found myself in a lot of traffic which made it difficult but not impossible to make up for lost time, eventually getting back into the Top 10 before the 3 hour mark.
During each pit stop we had to go through a long engine starting procedure that involved multiple buttons and switches. It was costing us precious time and track position, which made it even more intense on track.
The temperatures inside the car got so high that the soles of our shoes were literally melting. Melting. After each one hour stint in the car we were on the physical limit, but there was almost no time to rest before we had to get back in for another big push to catch the leaders.
We fought like crazy in unbearably hot conditions and after 8 hours of racing had clawed our way back into contention with the Pro-Am leaders only 8 seconds ahead. However it proved too little too late when we got stuck behind a Porsche in the final hour and couldn’t pass them to close the the gap on the winning #75 Mercedes.
In the end we finished 2nd in Pro-Am and to be honest, after the pace we showed throughout the weekend, it wasn’t the result we were aiming for. But upon reflection it has become quite clear that Mercedes had an advantage over the field with tire management that no one else could match.
So… Pole Position and a podium in Japan, at one of the most challenging race tracks in the world? I’ll take it!
A big Thank You needs to go to the HubAuto team for selecting me as one of their drivers for this event. It was an incredible experience and one I hope I can repeat again in to the future. Thanks guys!