Association, Inc.

Issue No. 2, 2014

Japan’s New Era in Motorsport

by Peter Nunn

Manufacturers have long recognised the value of top-level motor sport.  To win a major race or championship sends out a signal to buyers and the market that you are on top of the game.  That is precisely why Toyota, Nissan, Honda and other Japanese automakers have entered prestigious, world-famous events such as the Le Mans 24 Hours and, ultimately, Formula One.

These days, however, there is a twist.  When Toyota took pole position and dominated much of the early part of this year’s Le Mans 24 Hours, it wasn’t just about racecraft and looking for that first, coveted win.  Toyota was putting its own, unique hybrid technology out on show in front of a global audience—that was the appeal—while testing team and drivers to the limit in this classic endurance race.

Nissan, in turn, entered the Zedoc RC, a wild, dart-shaped prototype which recorded the highest-ever speed by an electric vehicle at Le Mans, reaching 300 km/h on the famed Mulsanne straight during qualifying.  Again, the message was clear: Here’s our new ‘green technology’ tested in the heat of battle, which reflects back on our latest-generation road cars and company DNA.

Honda, which achieved spectacular success in Formula One in the past, is returning to the top level in 2015 with McLaren.  Honda has long cited the training of engineers and competitive challenge of F1 but the latest 2014 regulations go further, calling for 1.6-litre V6 turbo engines to be twinned with hi-tech energy recovery systems.  It is this new art of eco technology, leading directly to fuel efficiency gains, that’s attracted Honda back.

In the US, Pikes Peak is a nationally famous hill climb in Colorado and there Mitsubishi mounted its own spirited challenge, entering two tiny MiEV Evolution III all-electric racecars in this year’s climb.  Tapping into two of Mitsubishi’s core technologies—electric vehicles and four-wheel-drive—in a fresh and enterprising way, these special-build EVs won class honours on the legendary hill this year.

Mazda has been campaigning its latest ‘clean’ SKYACTIV diesel engine on the track, primarily in the US in a race version of its Mazda6 sedan.  But at this year’s prestigious Rolex Daytona 24 Hours race in the US, Mazda stepped up with a full SKYACTIV-D prototype which used a production-based 2.2-litre engine, albeit re-tuned to produce 450 bhp.  Once again, competing but also in a responsibly ‘green’ way is seen as the way forward.

Back in Europe, Germany’s Nürburgring 24 Hours is arguably the most famous touring car race in the world and it’s an event that, from Japan, Lexus has been keen to compete in over recent years.  In this year’s race, Lexus entered a highly specialised version of its LFA supercar, the LFA Code X, with full carbon-frame body to boost body rigidity.  While undeniably exotic, it’s this kind of weight-saving formula that can eventually make its way through to tomorrow’s generation of road cars, thus boosting all-round efficiency.

So, in the modern world, racing to win is one goal.  But regulators and society now demand something extra, a level of environmental saving as part of the package.  Japan’s manufacturers, clearly, are well poised to race towards that target.