Daytona meets Suzuka: The Mooncraft Shiden RT-16

This weekend marks the end of an era for American sports car racing, as after thirteen years of service in IMSA, and its predecessor Grand-Am, the Daytona Prototype category will be retired following this weekend’s Petit Le Mans endurance race at Road Atlanta. Some will look back at these tubeframe, V8-engined prototypes with less fond memories than others, but to deny their historical significance in the highest levels of North American road racing would be a great disservice.

It is the pending farewell to the Daytona Prototypes that brings us to look back at a car that was, in essence, a Daytona Prototype repurposed for Super GT – and a car that became one of the most controversial, yet revered challengers in GT300 history: The Mooncraft Shiden RT-16.

The Shiden was the brainchild of Mooncraft Engineering’s Takuya Yura, one of the most respected designers in Japanese motorsport. The car took its name from one of Yura’s earliest prototype designs, the Shiden 77, which raced in the Fuji Grand Championship Series – one of the earliest organized sports car racing championships in Japan.

Mooncraft initially entered the All-Japan Grand Touring Car Championship in 1997, designing and maintaining the Raybrig Honda NSX for Team Kunimitsu. The partnership ran through 2004, and left Mooncraft open to tackle a new challenge thereafter.

Having already designed winning cars in the Japanese Touring Car Championship, and what is now Super Formula, expectations were high for Mooncraft’s new Shiden.

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At its core, the Shiden was largely based upon the first-generation Riley Technologies Daytona Prototype, the Mark XI – hence the chassis code, RT-16.

Daytona Prototypes came about in America with safety in mind, and that’s precisely why Yura and his design team at Mooncraft chose the Mk. XI, and all of its safety advancements as a base for the next-generation Shiden. But they didn’t stop there, adding additional carbon shock absorbing structures to the front and sides to further reinforce the car’s integrity.

They also chose the Mk. XI because it was a damn fine machine, crude as it was at its heart. Arguably the greatest of the first-generation Daytona Prototypes, the Mk. XI won four consecutive Grand-Am Daytona Prototype titles (2004-07), four consecutive Watkins Glen 6 hour races (’04-’07), and six consecutive Daytona 24 Hour races (2005-2010) during its service.

The Mk. XI was successful with a number of different engines in Grand-Am, from General Motors, Ford, Lexus, and even Porsche. Mooncraft went with none of those, instead using the 1UZ-FE powerplant, a 4.4 liter V8 used in Toyota and Lexus’ high-end luxury sedans.

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The Shiden was a fusion of American and Japanese ingenuity, and when it was revealed in 2006, it immediately turned heads. And it raised the ire of a few of its rivals along the way, even in a GT300 class that was sort of the “wild west” of striking and genuinely unique concepts and designs – like the turbo rotary-engined Kageisen Mazda Roadster, the Kraft Toyota Sprinter Trueno AE86 built fifteen years after the production “Hachiroku” was retired, and the DHG Ford GT, with its ex-Formula 1 V8 engine, another debuting entry in 2006.

To field the new Mooncraft Shiden in its maiden season, were the Verno Tokai Dream28 team, founded by Kazuho Takahashi. Takahashi had been a successful car dealer for over 25 years, and in his late 40s, began racing competitively. At the age of 53, Takahashi entrusted himself to serve as both the owner and driver of the new car.

He signed Hiroki Katoh as his co-driver, a rapid wheelman who had gone to Le Mans five times, scoring an overall podium in 1999. But at home in the JGTC/Super GT, Katoh had bounced between the GT500 and GT300 categories over the last nine years, without winning a race in either class.

The blue and gold Privee Zurich Shiden showed its potential by going fastest in its first ever practice session at Suzuka, finishing its debut race in sixth. The car took back-to-back poles in the 2006 Fuji 500km, and in Malaysia – where Katoh took pole at Sepang by a whopping 1.4 seconds in the final session.

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© Mooncraft Cars

In the penultimate round of the season at Autopolis, the Shiden’s lofty potential was finally realized as Takahashi and Katoh took a pole-to-checker victory, the first of their driving careers. The win gave them a five-point lead over the RE Amemiya RX-7 of Tetsuya Yamano and Hiroyuki Iiri going into the final round at Fuji Speedway.

Their race at Fuji was a wash, compromised by a pitwall gamble for front tyres only that backfired. The Shiden was going to finish outside the points, but with the RE Amemiya RX-7 running in seventh on the final lap, and struggling to make up any further positions, Takahashi and Katoh still had the championship won by a single point.

Then, on the final lap, the GT300 class-leading #62 R&D Sport Vemac of Shinsuke Shibahara and Haruki Kurosawa ran out of fuel on the final corner, promoting the RX-7 to sixth place at the very last moment – good enough to tie the Shiden’s driver duo in points, which is all they needed to win the title.

With two victories to 1 on the season, Yamano and Iiri won the championship on the tie-breaker over Takahashi and Katoh, in one of the most dramatic championship finales in Super GT history.

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With the early-season growing pains no longer a factor in 2007, the Shiden was consistently the quickest car in the 2007 GT300 field. They racked up five top-five finishes in the first six rounds, but their moment of triumph in ’07 came at the Suzuka 1000km in a race affected by the elements.

Takahashi, Katoh, and ex-GP2 Series driver Hiroki Yoshimoto drove a brilliant race and hung on as the rains intensified in the final laps, to win the GT300 class at Suzuka from pole position. The win gave them the championship lead, but the cruel laugh of fate would deny them the title again in 2007.

Under the points system at the time, only the top four results from the first six races counted towards the final championship standings. That effectively took their fifth-place finish at the Fuji 500km off the board, giving the apr Racing Toyota MR2 of young Kazuya Oshima and Hiroaki Ishiura a one-point lead.

Takahashi and Katoh were able to close the margin down in the final three races, but once again, they tied for the lead in points at the end of the year, and once again, they lost the championship-deciding tiebreaker, with one win compared to Oshima & Ishiura’s two.

Had all results been counted towards the final championship standings, Takahashi, Katoh, and the Shiden would have won the championship by seven points, but like Alain Prost in 1988 and 1990, it wasn’t to be. The Teams’ Championship usually feels like an empty cup without winning the Drivers’ title along with it, and that was exactly the case for the Shiden in 2007.

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After the first two seasons, the Shiden never got as close to winning the title again, as their rivals gradually found a way to surpass the controversial prototype. Their four podiums in 2008 were enough to keep their title hopes alive going into the final race, but they failed to finish in the points in the finale at Fuji – and went winless for the first time.

2009 saw a dramatic change as Takahashi stood down from full-time driving and let the much younger Yoshimoto take his place after the first race of the season. The move seemed to pay off, with Katoh and Yoshimoto winning at Sepang, then adding another second place at Sugo.

They looked set to win the Suzuka 1000km for the second time in three years, before a dramatic and opportunistic pass on the penultimate lap by Masataka Yanagida denied them the victory – eventually they had to settle for third place.

With two races left, they held a three-way tie for the lead with the WedsSport Toyota Celica of Manabu Orido & Tatsuya Kataoka, and the ARTA Garaiya of Shinichi Takagi & Morio Nitta. And with a revised scoring system, they would not have results taken off their final tally like in 2007.

But two straight races with serious mechanical gremlins snuffed out any hope the Shiden had of winning the title in ’09, and Katoh crashed all the way down to sixth in the championship by the end of the year.

In 2010, the Shiden scored what turned out to be its very last victory at Sportsland Sugo, and two more second-places at Okayama and Motegi. But with two retirements and no other points finishes, Katoh and new co-driver Hiroshi Hamaguchi could not mount a consistent championship challenge.

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© Hirohiko Okugawa / Car Watch

In 2011, the Shiden adopted the familiar colours of EVA Unit-01 from the popular anime, Neon Genesis Evangelion – and Takahashi returned to full-time driving. But the Shiden would never again be a serious title contender, scoring only two podium finishes in its final two seasons, both at Fuji Speedway.

Those final two seasons coincided with the wave of FIA GT3 cars coming over from Europe with immediate success. The Shiden had raced in GT300 for seven years, and its age had begun to show by the end of its run. Perhaps the spiritual death knell for the Shiden came when the car shockingly failed to qualify for the penultimate round of the 2012 season at Autopolis.

And for much of those seven years that it raced, the Shiden often drew the ire of its rivals for being a purpose built prototype race car, with no road-going variant, in a field meant for privateer tuners and production-based sports cars. They firmly felt as if the Shiden’s presence was against the spirit of the category. They may have had a valid complaint.

In 2013, the GT Association revised the rules of engagement in GT300, and the Shiden, as well as other ultra-low production specials like the Vemac and the Autobacs Garaiya, were legislated out of the series, and consigned to history. Even if they had been allowed to keep racing, their success would have been marginal to non-existent without significant development.

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© Hirohiko Okugawa / Car Watch

In seven years, the Mooncraft Shiden won four races, eight pole positions, and recorded nine fastest laps. It won the crown jewel of Super GT, the Suzuka 1000km, and finished runner-up in the GT300 championship twice – and missed out on being crowned champions by the slimmest of margins.

In the three years since the Shiden was retired, Mooncraft have reunited with the Cars Tokai Dream28 team, and now run the Lotus Evora MC, based on the Mother Chassis platform – a platform established with similar goals in mind to that of the original Daytona Prototypes in the states. Takahashi and Katoh are still together as a driver duo, one of the last true Pro-Am combinations in a GT300 category which is becoming decidedly more All-Pro every year.

The Mooncraft Shiden was the most striking combination of old-fashioned American innovation and new-age Japanese design that Super GT had ever seen. It was unrelentingly swift, it was controversial, and it was instantly memorable from the moment it first hit the track in anger. It was a little bit of Trans-Am, a little bit of Group C, and a whole lot of the intrepid spirit of classic GT300.

IMSA fans will either bid fond farewells or good riddances to the Daytona Prototypes this weekend, but for fans of Super GT, there are much more happy memories of the one-of-a-kind, Daytona Prototype-derived Mooncraft Shiden RT-16, a car whose likes we will never see again.

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