Travel | ON THE ROAD

Japan's most jam-packed year at the track

Atitan in the field of car manufacturing, Japan has also long been a magnet for international-level motor racing.

Back in 1966, American open-wheel racers known as Indy cars were the first international speedsters to visit Japan — for a landmark event at Fuji Speedway (won by none other than three-time Formula One World Champion Jackie Stewart). But never before 2008 will all three championships run by motorsport’s worldwide governing body, the Federation Internationale de l’Automobile, have been here in the same season. This year brings the chance to see Formula One (F1), the World Rally Championship (WRC) and the World Touring Car Championship (WTCC). In addition to these, the IndyCar World Series, the top open-wheel category from the United States, makes its fifth annual visit this year.

Why are so many championships now coming to Japan?

It’s partly coincidence and partly because of Japan’s importance in the automotive world; Toyota currently manufactures nearly a million vehicles a month, and manufacturer-led motorsport relies heavily on the adage “Win on Sunday, sell on Monday.”

Also, the racing scene in Japan is a thriving one. The country boasts four internationally recognized domestic categories: SUPER GT, Formula Nippon, All-Japan F3 and Super Taikyu. These sit atop their respective trees, with many lower formulas also playing an active part in the overall motorsport scene. As you might expect, motor racing fans tend to be men, though many families and women attend events too.

The biggest championships globally, F1 and the WRC, have each been here before. F1 first arrived in Japan in 1976; this year marks the championship’s 24th visit. The WRC, meanwhile, made its Japan debut in Obihiro, Hokkaido, in 2004. This, its fifth rip through Japan, takes place in a new location, Sapporo. The third of the FIA-governed world championships, the WTCC, is the youngest of the three (the current format was settled upon in 2005), and it is making its maiden visit to Japan.

From the States, IndyCars are back at their usual home: Japan’s only super-high-speed oval, Twin Ring Motegi, in Tochigi Prefecture. This year is a special event because the series has recently gobbled up an old nemesis, known as ChampCar. Having united the fan base, IndyCar is now embarking on the long road back to the success that open-wheel racing in the States once enjoyed. If it’s pure speed that’s your kick, this is the event to attend — cars reach 350 kph on the banked turns and straights.

Indy Japan 300 Mile — Twin Ring Motegi, April 17-19

If you’ve never been to an oval race on a Super Speedway, Motegi is a spectacular place to see one. The venue, 2 hours north of Tokyo, is amazing because the 1.5-mile (2.4-km) oval allows fans to see all the action from any seat in the venue. Bigger ovals such as Indianapolis, Indiana, are just too large (2.5 miles, 4 km) for all the spectators to be able to see the cars battle it out on the far side of the circuit. Remember that you will need a hat and dark glasses if it is a sunny day, and it can also get very windy because the grandstands form a natural bowl around the track. A huge amount of information in English can be found at www.mobilityland.co.jp/english/events/indyjapan/event.html, including where to find accommodation, parking, etc. For those stuck at home, SkyPerfecTV’s channel 300 — J-Sports’ ESPN — will show a delayed telecast of the event.

F1 — Fuji Speedway, Oct. 10-12

The greatest spectacle in motorsport returns to Fuji Speedway for its second visit to the newly renovated track at the base of the great mountain. Because of its location, weather is a constant factor: the circuit seems to have its own microclimate, with heavy fog and torrential rain (as on race day last year) playing a major role in the outcome of the event and your outing as well. Information in English for this year’s race can be found at www.fsw.tv/english/press/080220-4.html#04, with press updates tucked behind a link in the top right-hand corner of the page. Fuji TV’s digital channels 721 and 739 on SkyPerfecTV will show the race live. A delayed broadcast is scheduled for late that evening on Fuji TV’s terrestrial Channel 8.

World Touring Car Championship — Okayama International Circuit, Oct. 26

The WTCC is made up of 2-liter, four-door cars just like you’d see in the high street — except that these are heavily modified versions, with hugely talented and fearless drivers behind their wheels. Some of the cars won’t be spotted on Japan’s streets, including Spanish manufacturer SEAT’s Leon TDI, seven examples of which compete in this championship. Another car not sold here is the Chevrolet Lacetti (actually a Daewoo built in South Korea for the American giant), up to four of which could make the trip to Japan. By far the most popular car in the WTCC, the globally familiar BMW 320si will have no fewer than 11 examples taking part. There’s also a lone Honda Accord competing. The circuit’s Web site is in Japanese only, though the series’ Web site does include English: www.fiawtcc.com. More specific details will be posted as the race gets closer. SkyperfecTV’s Gaora channel will show a delayed telecast of the event.

Rally Japan — Sapporo — Oct. 31-Nov. 2

The “mud and guts” of racing, rallying is the motorsport discipline in which commercially available vehicles battle the elements. The format involves a number of “stages” run on gravel forest roads (in Rally Japan’s case). There is a central Service Park where cars are repaired twice a day. Over the course of the three days, competitors cover approximately 350 km, with an additional 1,000 km on “road sections” that run between the stages and the central Service Park. The competing machines all have to be road-legal, and they carry license plates just like your regular car. The uniquely demanding conditions and length of WRC events are a major attraction for rally fans. Also, the “stamina” of the cars plays an important role in results. It is not uncommon for cars to “go out” on the penultimate or even last stage of an event. Thrilling stuff!

TV coverage is on J-Sports’ ESPN channel 300. Find event info at www.rallyjapan.jp/e/040info/calender.html.

Armed with this information, it’s time to make your way to some of the world’s best racing — all conveniently coming to Japan this year.

Photojournalist Len Clarke specializes in Japanese racing. He can be contacted at racenow@mac.com

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