Association, Inc.

Issue No. 3, 2012


by Peter Nunn

Motor racing has always been about speed, noise and excitement and that’s not something that’s likely to change anytime soon.  Motor racing today, however, is also becoming more environmentally aware as befits the modern era and that’s one particular formula that’s definitely struck a chord in Japan.  Just as road cars today feature ever more sophisticated eco technologies to cut emissions and improve fuel economy so the same thinking is being applied to the race track. For Japan’s car makers, this is a prime opportunity to showcase bold new thinking and concepts in the heat of competition and in summer 2012, this assuredly reached a new high at the prestigious Le Mans 24 Hours.

Both Toyota and Nissan came to this French endurance classic with two new fascinating hi-tech cars. Toyota entered the elite LMP1 class with a pair of TS030 HYBRIDs powered by Toyota’s own unique petrol-electric hybrid system as a counter to the dominant diesel-powered Audis.  The TS030s HYBRIDs were fast and led Le Mans on their debut. In a follow up 6-hour race at Silverstone in the UK, the car again proved its mettle by leading the race and finishing second. The first hybrid car to win a 24 Hour race, incidentally, was Toyota’s Supra HV‑R at Tokachi in Japan back in 2007.


Nissan’s DeltaWing could not have been more different. A radical, dart-shaped racer which used Nissan’s 1.6-litre turbo engine in a sensational lightweight, aerodynamic shell, the DeltaWing ran in the experimental class and thrilled the crowd. The idea was to show that with around half the weight and power of a conventional car, the DeltaWing with its cutting edge low drag shape could still post competitive times and use much less fuel and tyres. And so it proved.

Mazda, as the only Japanese maker to win Le Mans, still relishes the tough competitive challenge the race represents. Mazda has announced that it will be back at Le Mans in 2013, supplying its clean SKYACTIV diesel to Dempsey Racing in the LMP2 class while race-tuned SKYACTIV diesel engines (that feature in its road cars like the new CX-5) will also be supplied to teams across the USA from next year.  


And it was in the US that Mitsubishi threw a surprise by entering not one but two electrically-powered i models in the historic Pikes Peak International Hillclimb in Colorado in July. The sleek and unique i‑MiEV Evolution came an impressive second in the Electric Car division and although not victorious, critical data collected from the race will be applied to future model development, Mitsubishi says.

In Japan, the Mugen CR-Z GT and Toyota’s Prius GT are two hybrids running in the nations’ hugely popular Super GT race series. The Mugen car, receving technical support from Honda, has proved quick out of the box in the GT300 class and another crowd pleaser. The Prius GT, although privately entered, is also making inroads against competitive conventional machinery.  Lower down the scale, Honda has a local series for CR-Zs called Sport and Eco Programme in Japan. Races are in two flavours: Eco-challenge and 10 liters challenge. The 10 liters challenge in particular can be fun to watch, with lights on the top of the cars to see who was using petrol at what rate.  Fuji Speedway has its own challenge as well along the same lines except that it is open to all kinds of hybrid cars.


Then there is the ALL JAPAN EV-GP Series. At the beginning it was just one race a year but in 2012 there are several races and here you might expect to find such as Nissan’s Leaf Nismo RC, a unique, purpose-built mid-engined racer that’s 100% electric, pretty fast and reputedly pretty keen to drive too.  With talk of a brand new FIA sanctioned Formula E due to start in 2014, exclusively for electric cars, that could yet see major Japanese involvement as interest in environmentally-friendly racing inevitably steps up.  

The challenge, of course, will be to make green motor racing as much as an exciting spectacle as ‘conventional’ racing is now. Meantime, eco-friendly racing is not something for the future. It is definitely here now and Japan’s car manufacturers are assuredly plugged in as developments unfold.