Made In Japan

Photos by Regis Lefebure
GALLERY HERE] When the Automobile Club de l’Ouest, organizers of the 24 Hours of Le Mans and European-based Le Mans Series, took another stab at bringing Le Mans racing to Asia, there were some skeptics. After all, you only needed to look back in the history books to see the rocky road European-style sportscar racing has taken in the Far East over the past 10 years.

At the dawn of the decade, the ACO had visions of launching a Le Mans-branded series in Japan, following the lead of Dr. Don Panoz’s newborn American Le Mans Series. In 1999, it held a 1000km exhibition race in Mt. Fuji Japan, hoping that one-off experiment, which awarded automatic invitations to the following year’s 24 Hours of Le Mans, would generate enough interest for a full-blown Japanese championship in 2000. If the formula worked in America, why couldn’t it in Japan?

Twenty-three cars showed up at Fuji Speedway for the race, including a half-dozen non-ACO compliant JGTC machines to help fill the field. Many European prototype teams which had initially appeared on the entry list later backed out for various reasons. It left a prototype grid predominately made up of Japanese entries from Nissan, Toyota and Dome plus a fleet of Weissach-built Porsches and a pair of Dodge Vipers in the GT ranks.

Nissan Motorsports took the home win with its R391, which would never be seen again, following the automaker’s withdrawal from sportscar racing at the end of the year. Second place finisher Toyota, which ran its closed-top GT-One in the 1000km race, would also pull the plug on its GTP program, moving its resources to Formula One. With no major Japanese manufacturer involvement and very little European interest, the proposed championship never got off the ground.

Fast forward ten years, and the ACO is again trying to make Japan work. Following two further failed attempts after Fuji, with the stillborn Asian-Pacific Le Mans Series and disastrous SERO-run Japan Le Mans Challenge in 2006-07, one would think it would be time to give up. But not in the eyes of the ACO.

Despite the global economic meltdown and the cancellation of the planned second leg of the championship in Shanghai, the Asian Le Mans Series forged ahead with a single two-race weekend at Okayama International Circuit. It wasn’t the best of worlds, especially with only 23 entries, the exact same number that showed up to the ill-fated Fuji 1000km.

There was even a sense of concern from the organizers, mostly made up of the same team that runs the Le Mans Series in Europe, that they would fall flat on their face. Nobody dared talk about 2010, especially with the LMS calendar having announced a late November date of its own, indicating there’d be no Asian Series next year, period.

But reason for optimism started to grow throughout the weekend. Practice and qualifying went without a hitch, despite the fact European and American teams were still adjusting to the new environment of working out of shipping containers instead of their usual luxurious transporters. Race one turned out to be a thriller, with a three-way battle for LMP1 honors going down to the wire, and and a German vs. American team duel in GT2 that was a clean, fair battle.

From a journalist’s perspective, there were many positive story lines, but a few disappointments from from the amenities side. While ALMS races regularly offer lap-by-lap pit notes and radio feeds, there was none of that in Japan. In fact, it took close to four hours following race two for the organizers to publish the final championship standings. A trip to the ACO office in efforts to verbally confirm the standings ended in vain. While the event may have been a challenge to properly cover given a reporter’s tight deadlines, we all had to give a bit of leeway since it was the organizers first time doing it too.

By the end of the weekend, the ACO started talking about prospects for a 2010 Asian Le Mans Series. While it admittedly hadn’t even explored the possibilities for next year yet, there is hope for at least one or two rounds in Japan and another attempt in creating a Chinese leg of the championship. With 33,000 fans in attendance over the three-day shared weekend with the World Touring Car Championship, it appears sportscar racing may be back on the rise.

The key for success in Asia, though, will hinge on manufacturer involvement. As soon as Nissan and Toyota pulled the plug on their sportscar programs following the Fuji 1000km, the ACO’s then-proposed Japanese series was no more. While next year’s planned Asian Le Mans Series will likely again be dependent on European and American squads making the end-of-year trip to the Far East, a new breed of home-grown teams will need to emerge to make it a long-term success.

And what is Formula One’s loss could be Le Mans’ gain. With Toyota and Bridgestone pulling out of F1, coupled with Honda’s withdrawal from the premier open-wheel series last year, the time could be now for a rejuvenation of Japanese automakers in sportscar racing. Mazda already has a strong presence in the ALMS, while NISMO recently built a Nissan GT-R for GT1 competition. Could the tides slowly be turning?

Last weekend at Okayama, the ACO met with the JAF Commission, an organization made up of Japanese automakers, to discuss possible future involvement and new sporting regulations. Toyota has allegedly been in serious talks of bringing hybrid technology to the racetrack, possibly by 2011 with a factory prototype entry. A high-profile manufacturer such as Toyota would not only bring increased exposure to sportscar racing worldwide, but could also help kick start a long, prosperous future of Le Mans racing in Asia.

It may be that one glimmer of hope that the ACO was wishing for, just 10 years late.

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