SAYONARA F1

... kon­nichiwa Su­per GT, where the crazine of the grid spec­ta­cle is only beaten by the in­ten­sity of the rac­ing it­self

Top Gear (UK) - - SUPER GT - WORDS: / TOM FORD PHO­TOG­RA­PHY: MARK RICCIONI

There is shot­gun neon, and pur­pose­ful bus­tle. There are hud­dles of shops, strid­ing peo­ple and the pulse of commerce, in­dus­tri­ous swarms of taxis and more neon, lay­ered upon each other in a del­uge of in­for­ma­tion that ar­rives in a rush, breath­less and un­apolo­getic. A mil­lion lit­tle sto­ries played out in sec­onds, like any mod­ern city in the world.

But there’s a sub­tle flavour of wrong. The small­est of in­con­sis­ten­cies, as shock­ing as an un­ex­pected grain of sand caught be­tween your teeth. The neon is in kanji, lo­go­graphic sym­bols in­stead of letters, the shops un­fa­mil­iar and of­ten in­scrutable, be­cause I’m sure that the store called sim­ply ‘Green Peas’ sells other things, too. The peo­ple are com­pact and – gen­er­ally – more pre­cise in their steps, beau­ti­ful and in­ter­est­ing and for­eign. I may be driv­ing on the left, from the right-hand side of the car, but the taxis are blocky Toy­ota Crowns and Nis­san Cedrics, two-toned and fen­der-mir­rored, heaved from a styling book of 30 years past.

I just stare for a bit. Be­cause even in 2018, Tokyo, from a west­erner’s per­spec­tive, is so bril­liantly other, you never get bored of it. The dis­con­nec­tion of the lan­guage, the slip­pery no­tions of sub­tly dis­sim­i­lar man­ners and cus­toms; it makes it ex­cit­ing in a way that feels like learn­ing some­thing new. I cruise past the Park Hy­att and re­alise that I’m be­com­ing Bill Mur­ray in Lost in Trans­la­tion. Ex­cept my Scar­lett Jo­hans­son has mor­phed into a hairy pho­tog­ra­pher called Mark. Bum­mer.

I do have some good-look­ing com­pany, mind you. And al­though it is show­ing me the late-night sights, it still has its own flavour of dif­fer­ence. The for­mat might be known; a big, front-en­gined V8 coupe of the two-plus-no va­ri­ety (the rear seats suit­able only for shelv­ing) and there’s a 10spd proper auto, rear drive and a long bon­net. Yet it is styled in such a way that it could be noth­ing but Ja­panese, the com­plex weave of an­gles that no one else man­ages quite so ef­fec­tively. It is a Lexus LC500. And it is at home.

There’s another rea­son we’re here, though. This is a big lux­ury grand tourer, woofly and ac­com­mo­dat­ing, yet

EV­ERY­THING IS FA­MIL­IAR, EX­CEPT IT ISN’T. NOT QUITE.

in Ja­pan, it leads a Bat­man-es­que dou­ble life in the best race series you’ve prob­a­bly never heard of. It’s called Su­per GT, a hotly con­tested hard­core series with wing-heavy GT500 rac­ers that run eight to 10 sec­onds a lap faster than cur­rent GT3 cars. The cur­rent cham­pion is the KeePer TOM’S LC, pi­loted by two of the youngest driv­ers in the en­tire series, and we’re here to fol­low their progress at this week­end’s race at Mount Fuji Speedway. But first we have to get there, and I’m tak­ing the scenic route.

Fun stuff: if you’re in Tokyo and a car fan, all you re­ally need to do is get out and about and you’ll see in­ter­est­ing things. Take another step and hit up one of the park­ing-slashrest ar­eas off the ex­press­way at night, and you’ll as­cend to the next level, be­cause pretty much any even­ing with good weather sees the au­to­mo­tive un­der­belly of Tokyo ex­posed in flashes of chrome and neon. We head up to the Tat­sumi park­ing area se­creted away on the on-ramp of Route 9 on the Shutoko on a Thurs­day even­ing, and prove it. Sud­denly, I feel like I’m liv­ing a cliche, and it is surreal. Tat­sumi is on a raised area

of the ex­press­way some five or six storeys up, and it has views of the Ari­ake area and down­town Tokyo be­hind it. It is also – and some­what dis­con­cert­ingly – mo­bile. De­posited on flex­i­ble foun­da­tions de­signed to cope with Tokyo’s not­in­fre­quent earth­quakes, Tat­sumi wob­bles about quite a bit, even when ar­tics rum­ble past. It’s weird.

It’s also odd that it is full of in­ter­est­ing cars on a ran­dom even­ing. And I do mean full. A fi­nesse of taste­fully mod­i­fied Lexi – GS-Fs and IS-Fs – sit gleam­ing in sev­eral spots, a cou­ple of FD RX-7s, a pair of R34 Sky­lines, a vi­o­lently green – but oth­er­wise stan­dard – Lam­borgh­ini Gal­lardo. There are mod­i­fied GT86s, Golfs and even a brand-new Alpine A110. Ev­ery­one swarms the LC500, in­ter­ested de­spite the qual­ity of the other cars here, right up un­til a blue Aven­ta­dor drip­ping lu­di­crous neon rolls up the en­trance road, revs the hell out of its V12, spurts flames like a mis­fir­ing af­ter­burner and then leaves at full chat. I just sort of stand with my mouth open. It’s hellishly hot and hu­mid, 37 de­grees and 80 per cent, even at night, I have crush­ing jet­lag and don’t re­ally un­der­stand what’s go­ing on. But it’s bril­liant, Ja­pan liv­ing up to ev­ery ex­pec­ta­tion.

Next day, we go and visit a few places, meet a few peo­ple, have a nose around Tokyo and its en­vi­rons. The LC is docile and com­fort­able, al­beit low and wide and not en­tirely suited to town work. So we head out to the Hakone Turn­pike for a bit of a drive. Es­sen­tially a scenic toll road, Hakone is bril­liant for get­ting out of the city, and the LC laps up ev­ery sin­gle sweep­ing curve. It’s not pretty at the top, the moun­tains aus­tere, and with­drawn, and grumpy. The cloud a man­tle of grey drawn about the tops like a cloak of dis­ap­point­ment. But the LC feels prop­erly old-school, and happy to play. It’s strange, but de­spite the tech ob­vi­ously loaded into the LC, the V8 ver­sion feels sur­pris­ingly nat­u­ral. With a lot of mod­ern per­for­mance cars, the art of driv­ing be­comes boiled down into the process of de­ci­pher­ing acronyms to fig­ure out why a car is do­ing what. You don’t feel any more, you trans­late. Not so with the LC; it may have adap­tive damp­ing and se­lectable modes via the stumpy an­tenna on the side of the in­stru­ment bin­na­cle, but when you get down to it, it just feels like a nicely sorted, big V8-en­gined GT. It’s not whip-smart and dev­il­ish, but it is lithe and long-legged, with plenty of edge to keep you in­ter­ested. And it makes a noise that pushes back the mist, the en­gine the river from which the ex­pe­ri­ence floods. It’s flow rather than force, not a car that goes light­ning-fast, as such. It just col­lects all the verbs you can think of, and con­denses them into one di­a­mond-hard sense of do­ing.

It is not, how­ever, what you might con­sider to be the per­fect base for a race­car. It’s too lux­u­ri­ous, too ur­bane, too suited to its aes­thetic pitch. But when we even­tu­ally roll up to Fuji the next day af­ter a glo­ri­ous three-hour wan­der through the moun­tains, we glide into the pit­lane to find the mo­tor­sport Hyde to the road­go­ing LC’s Dr Jekyll. The sun only winched it­self in the sky and started chuck­ing around day­light about an hour ago, and al­ready it’s 40 de­grees, but see­ing the rac­ing LC ratch­ets up the heat a lit­tle more. The KeePer TOM’S LC is Manga made real, swollen with vented car­bon arches, flat­tened to the floor, shaded by its own enor­mous wings. And it looks like it’s go­ing to bite some­one’s head off. You can see the re­sem­blance, that this is an LC, but once you dig a lit­tle deeper, you find that the Su­per GT cars are fa­mil­iar skins draped over a skele­ton of hard­core mo­tor­sport. The tub is car­bon, the pan­els are car­bon, the wings are car­bon. The mo­tor is the class-stan­dard 2.0-litre

“We glide into the pit­lane to find the mo­tor­sport Hyde to the road­go­ing LC’s Dr Jekyll”

four-cylin­der with a Gar­rett blower, sup­pos­edly pro­duc­ing around 550bhp – though we later find out it’s prob­a­bly nearer to 680. And al­though it’s a shame it’s not a V8, the raw and gut­tural edge to the noise makes up for the lack of cylin­ders. There’s a six-speed se­quen­tial pad­dle shift, car­bon brakes, and the whole thing weighs in at just over a tonne. Get­ting on for half the weight of the road car.

Six LC out­fits fight tooth-and-nail in the Su­per GT500 cham­pi­onship with main ri­vals from Nis­san (GT-R) and Honda (NSX), all with the ‘same’ en­gine. And they go fast. Rac­ing on the same cir­cuit as GT300 class cars (es­sen­tially semipro­duc­tion GT3), they cir­cu­late at Fuji so quickly that they lap the GT300s ev­ery fourth lap. It’s like Le Mans con­densed into a vi­o­lently short track, each 500-mile race a bat­tle royale of over­tak­ing, tac­tics and en­durance, pitched against a back­ground of loads of dif­fer­ent cars: there are GT-Rs and NSXs, Audi R8s and Lam­borgh­ini Hu­racáns, AMG GT Rs and a Bent­ley Con­ti­nen­tal. There’s even a GT3-spec Toy­ota Prius. Re­ally. Ex­cit­ing doesn’t quite cover it, and al­though it also means that it can be quite con­fus­ing – es­pe­cially with Ja­panese-only com­men­tary – you get more over­tak­ing in the first 10 min­utes of rac­ing than you do in an en­tire sea­son of For­mula One. Jen­son But­ton de­camped here af­ter emerg­ing from F1 (see panel) to race the Ray­brig NSX-GT for Team Ku­nim­itsu, and you can see why – this is un­doubt­edly a racer’s series.

My first im­pres­sions of the KeePer TOM’S crew are that they are… young. Both born in 1994, Ja­panese lo­cal Ryo Hi­rakawa and New Zealand’s Nick Cas­sidy are boy­band fresh and dis­turbingly fo­cused. Reign­ing cham­pi­ons in the series, they both grad­u­ated from var­i­ous for­mu­lae be­fore end­ing up in Su­per GT, and they both patently love rac­ing these cars – cit­ing the on­go­ing tyre war, close­ness of rac­ing and sheer speed of the Su­per GT cars as the things that keep them en­gaged. The rac­ing is close – close enough to war­rant weight penal­ties for bal­ance-of-power – and there’s a Ru­bik’s Cube of strate­gies to con­tend with when plan­ning race ver­sus cham­pi­onship strat­egy. Qual­i­fi­ca­tion takes place, and frankly, I still have no idea what’s go­ing on, and leave the cir­cuit know­ing only two things: our KeePer TOM’S car qual­i­fies sev­enth, and the fe­roc­ity of the rac­ing and over­tak­ing leaves you with an el­e­vated heart­beat and a slight mi­graine.

Race day, and Fuji is a cir­cus. There are peo­ple dressed in mas­cot cos­tumes who will ob­vi­ously die when the sun reaches its peak, grid girls dressed in plas­tic shorts and tow­er­ing heels, drag­ging with them at­ten­dant gag­gles of mid­dle-aged men who

“They don’t so much brake as delete speed, turn­ing in at aero-as­sisted triple-digit mph”

treat them like roy­alty. One set of driv­ers faces the TV cam­eras wear­ing cat ears and paw gloves (I’m not kid­ding), and there’s an aerial ac­ro­batic dis­play which con­cludes with the stunt plane fly­ing down the main straight at just 20ft of el­e­va­tion. I’m ac­costed by a man dressed as a blue devil who in­sists I take his pic­ture and asked po­litely by a tiny Ja­panese wo­man if she can take mine. I’m still not sure why.

We de­camp to the first cor­ner to await the start, and when the flag drops, the bull­shit stops. The Su­per GT cars have a rolling start half a lap ahead of the GT3s, and I swear I thought not a sin­gle one would get around the first right­hand bend, such was the speed at which they ap­proached the cor­ner. They don’t so much brake as delete speed, still

“There sim­ply is no letup, no place to catch your breath, no respite. And they do this for 500 miles. It’s berserk”

turn­ing in at aero-as­sisted triple-digit mph. KeePer TOM’S gets through, and I watch aghast as an an­gry swarm of GT3s fusses through the first cor­ner a mo­ment later. How they don’t all im­me­di­ately crash is be­yond me. Within two or three laps, the Su­per GTs are lap­ping the GT3s and I lose track com­pletely, be­fud­dled by a con­fu­sion of GT3s be­ing ab­so­lutely scythed by the Su­per GT cars. This has to be one of the most in­tense forms of rac­ing any­where – for driv­ers of both classes. Not only do you have to con­stantly bat­tle with your peers, you have to watch for ve­hi­cles ei­ther go­ing much, much slower, or ten sec­onds a lap faster. There sim­ply is no let-up, no place to catch your breath, no respite. And they do this for 500 miles. It’s berserk.

Cars crash, things ex­plode, driv­ers are ex­changed. When the whole thing shakes down, our KeePer TOM’S car has fin­ished an ab­so­lutely storm­ing sec­ond place, be­hind the au TOM’S LC of Kazuki Naka­jima and Yuhi Sekiguchi, with a pair of NSX GTs just be­hind. It’s been a fre­netic, hyper­ac­tive and slightly bonkers race, and by the end it’s a re­lief to sink into the road­go­ing LC500 and just… breathe. On the jour­ney back to Tokyo, the main thought is that it’s sur­pris­ing that Su­per GT isn’t more pop­u­lar glob­ally. Set against a back­drop of overly man­aged mo­tor­sport like F1, this is an adrenaline­fu­elled delve into the dark side, where driv­ers are forced to re­ally drive. It’s char­ac­ter­ful, and ex­cit­ing and a bit weird.

Which is pretty much the con­clu­sion I’ve also come to with the LC500. Lexus has an image of pro­duc­ing well­made but slightly bor­ing ma­chines gen­er­ally, punc­tu­ated by mo­ments of pure bril­liance. And the LC500 feels like a blue-col­lar LFA; styled like a space­ship, but with the kind of driv­ing ex­pe­ri­ence that puts a hard-to-shift grin on your face. In a world where the hege­mony feels like it’s clos­ing in, Lexus has made a state­ment, and it’s a strong one. We track back to­wards the glit­ter­ing lights of the city buzzing from the day’s rac­ing, V8 sooth­ing away the miles, and smile. Like I said, ev­ery­thing is fa­mil­iar, ex­cept it isn’t. And that’s what makes it so ut­terly spe­cial.

Forget the Tokyo sky­line, just check out the fit and fin­ish of the head­lin­ing!

“Yeah, I hear what you’re say­ing, but my one’s painted red so it’s ob­vi­ously bet­ter” The su­perb Hakone Turn­pike. Which, in­ci­den­tally, is Wook’s Ja­panese wrestler name

Turns out Tom Ford would do lit­er­ally any­thing to gain ac­cess to the pit­lane

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