Over a three week period, the big three Japanese auto manufacturers – Toyota, Honda, and Nissan – held their year-end manufacturer fan festivals: The 2016 Toyota Gazoo Racing Festival on November 27, the 2016 Honda Racing Thanks Day on December 4, and the 2016 NISMO Festival at Fuji Speedway on November 11.
The stars and cars of the Autobacs Super GT Series headlined each of the three festivals for their respective manufacturers, which also featured a stunning array of cars from all forms of motorsport – from rallying, drift, Formula 1, endurance racing, and many incredible vintage racing machines of yesteryear.
Here is a brief recap of all three festivals.
Toyota Gazoo Racing Festival – November 27, Fuji Speedway
First of the big three festivals was the Toyota Gazoo Racing Festival, held under somewhat inclement conditions at Fuji Speedway, home circuit of Toyota’s global motorsports programme for nearly fifteen years and counting.
Despite the conditions, over 40,000 fans turned out to check out the festivities, which were kicked off by Toyota president/CEO, Akio Toyoda, himself a racing driver.
It was at this event where newly-crowned GT500 champions, Lexus Team SARD, and their drivers Heikki Kovalainen and Kohei Hirate, were formally presented the champions’ number 1 for the first time in the team’s Super GT history.
Also presented with his champions’ number 1 was Yuji Kunimoto, the 2016 Japanese Super Formula Champion with P.MU/Cerumo-INGING Motorsport. It’s the first time since 2006 that Toyota-powered drivers have captured both major Japanese national racing series championships in the same year.
Newly-crowned GT300 champions VivaC Team Tsuchiya, along with drivers Takeshi Tsuchiya and Takamitsu Matsui, were also on hand in the Dome-built Toyota MC 86. Also invited to the party were several prolific Subaru race and rally cars, symbolic of the bond between Toyota and Subaru.
TGRF ambassador, Lexus Team Wako’s LeMans director, and former three-time GT500 champion Juichi Wakisaka hosted a six-segment talk show that included interviews with every prolific Toyota racing driver on hand, from Super GT, to Super Formula, and even the WEC.
During the talk show, Lexus Team ZENT Cerumo driver Yuji Tachikawa made some remarks about the upcoming Super GT season, as Lexus prepares to launch the new LC 500: “While I am anxious to some extent, because I am in the dark as to where our rivals stand, I think the new Lexus machine is fast, and will become even faster. We want to get back-to-back titles next season.”
Tachikawa, another three-time GT500 champion, has been involved in the development of the new LC 500 Super GT. Here he is, meeting some young aspiring journalists. There’s a successor to Jiro Takahashi or Amie Izawa somewhere in that crowd, surely.
With Toyota set to make their return to the World Rally Championship, Toyota Gazoo Racing team principal, and former quadruple World Champion driver Tommi Mäkinen was on hand to demonstrate the 2017 Toyota Yaris WRC prototype, just months before its debut in Monte Carlo.
There was also a celebration of Toyota’s rallying past with the legendary Celica GT-Four (ST185) from the Group A era of the WRC, which won three consecutive championships from 1992 to 1994. This was one of many rally cars that took part in a special three-stage rally at the circuit grounds.
One incredibly lucky young man was Lexus Team Wako’s LeMans driver, Kazuya Oshima, who got to take a few parade laps in the mythical 1970 Toyota 7 Turbo racer, the only one of its kind ever built.
Veterans of the more recent Gran Turismo games will recognize this car, but to see it in the flesh, in all its five-litre, twin-turbocharged, V8 Can-Am glory, is truly astounding.
Toyota’s one-make racing series, the 86/BRZ Race Series, held a special one-off exhibition event at the festival, with the professional category won by the #97 car of Tsubasa Kondo, the 2016 Porsche Carrera Cup Japan champion. Heading into 2017, 27-year-old Kondo is a young driver whose stock is rapidly climbing in Japan.
A tradition of Japanese motorsport, the Circuit Safari was a big hit at the 2016 TGRF, as fans toured Fuji Speedway while Toyota’s best cars from Super GT, Super Formula, and the Nürburgring 24 Hour race lapped the circuit at speed.
This year’s N24 class-winning Lexus RC F GT3 was one of several Toyota/Lexus Nürburgring challengers on hand for demonstration runs, along with all of their drivers, mostly Super GT drivers past and present.
The main event of the day was scheduled to be a Super GT versus Super Formula “special battle”, pitting the fastest GT racing cars in the world against the fastest spec-formula single-seaters in the world.
But as the rain intensified, the race was ultimately called off due to the poor conditions. Hopefully 2017’s festival will allow this event to go ahead as scheduled.
Honda Racing Thanks Day – December 4, Twin Ring Motegi
Second of the festivals, and the only one held outside of Fuji Speedway, was Honda’s Thanks Day, held at their second home circuit, Twin Ring Motegi.
This festival had more of a global focus, with the stars of Honda’s Formula 1 and MotoGP teams on hand to headline the festivities, but Super GT was still a big part of the show.
The potential crossover man of F1 and Super GT, Jenson Button, retiring 2009 World Champion, was on hand not only to represent McLaren Honda, but also to take his first test laps of the Honda NSX Concept-GT.
Button drove the #15 Drago Modulo NSX around the Motegi circuit in what could be a glimpse of his racing future after F1.
Behind him in the Keihin Real Racing NSX was another familiar face to Honda fans – that would be Dani Pedrosa, former MotoGP premier class vice-champion.
As it was with Toyota’s festival, Honda’s Super GT and Super Formula cars clashed on track.
Honda gathered all their big racing stars from F1, MotoGP, Super GT, Super Formula (plus one Takuma Sato from IndyCar) together for the Honda Racing Dream Kart Cup. Look at how much fun fourth-in-line Fernando Alonso is having!
An all-Belgian super team of Bertrand Baguette and Stoffel Vandoorne took the overall victory in the karting classic, one in which Vandoorne raced hard with former Dandelion Racing teammate Tomoki Nojiri for the win.
Some lucky fans got some hands-on experience, changing the tyres on the old Raybrig Honda HSV-010 of Team Kunimitsu as part of a “fastest pit stop” challenge for the fans, and receiving coaching from Super GT mechanics.
Honda had a one-make production race of its own, this one for the Honda CR-Z hot hatch. Up front, Takuya Izawa led his former GP2 Series teammate Vandoorne in this tight pack.
Vandoorne, headed full-time to McLaren Honda next season, got to sample the last of that alliance’s championship winners at Motegi – that being the V12-engined MP4/6 that won the 1991 World Championship with Ayrton Senna.
On two wheels, two-time F1 champion Alonso went sidepod-to-sidepod with three-time and defending MotoGP champion Marc Márquez…
…while Márquez himself sampled a Honda racing classic – the 1959 Honda RC142, the first of Honda’s grand prix motorcycle racers which debuted in that year’s Isle of Man Tourist Trophy.
With all of Honda’s major racing drivers, riders, legends and team principals on hand for the festivities, over 20,000 spectators came to Motegi to send off a trying year in festive fashion for Honda.
NISMO Festival – December 11, Fuji Speedway
Back to Fuji-san for the last of the three major festivals, and this one the most accessible, the NISMO Festival by Nissan is always a hit – the one festival where sports cars take centre stage above all else.
An estimated 30,000 fans came to Fuji on a cold December day, with many more around the world watching the event live via YouTube.
The Circuit Safari is always taken up a notch for the NISMO Festival, featuring not only contemporary Nissan racing sports cars, but also historic Nissan racers from the ’60s, ’70s, ’80s, ’90s, and early 2000s on track at once.
In addition, several NISMO-tuned production vehicles served as Circuit Taxis for the fans to get a closer vantage point of the action.
The Historic Car Exhibition Race was a throwback to the touring cars of the late ’60s and early ’70s – the likes of the old “Hasuoka” Skyline GT-R and the Sunny were on hand to relive the glory years of Super GT’s earliest predecessors.
I can’t use enough images from Nissan’s awesome photo gallery of the festival to do justice to just how many awesome classics were on hand – and this was just the cars that were able to run this year, there were many more hidden gems tucked away in dormancy in the paddock!
The old master himself, Kazuyoshi Hoshino, took no time at all to get re-acquainted with the original Calsonic Skyline GT-R – the one he drove to the 1990 All-Japan Touring Car Championship…
…while his old running mate, Toshio Suzuki, took to the track in the R92CP Group C prototype – the same one driven to the final All-Japan Sports Prototype Championship in ’92.
But the main event of the day was the NISMO Grand Prix, a special twelve-lap exhibition race featuring Nissan’s challengers from both classes of Super GT, two different Super Taikyu classes, and even special entries such as their Bathurst 12 Hour-winning car and their 2016 Blancpain GT Series entry.
It was a true Nissan All-Star event, headlined by the 2016 GT500 cars in their swansong race. Due to their outright speed, the GT500s would have to pit for a mandatory driver change and a mock four-tyre exchange.
In the end, it was the #12 Calsonic Impul GT-R of Hironobu Yasuda and João Paulo de Oliveira who won from third on the grid ahead of the #1 Motul Autech GT-R of Tsugio Matsuda and Ronnie Quintarelli. Kazuki Hoshino was the best of the GT3 entries in his #3 B-Max NDDP Racing GT-R, fourth overall.
As part of the closing ceremonies, four-time GT500 champion Ronnie Quintarelli was honoured for his work in starting the Pray For Italy charity, in support of relief efforts for the comune of Amatrice and other Italian communities devastated by the recent Central Italy earthquakes.
Kondo Racing were also honoured for their first racing championship in the 2016 Super Taikyu Endurance Series, represented by drivers Yudai Uchida and Tomonobu Fujii, and team principal Masahiko “Matchy” Kondo.
With the 2017 Nissan GT-R NISMO GT500 on hand at the closing ceremonies, NISMO president and CEO, Takao Katagiri, closed the NISMO Festival, and the 2016 festival season with it, with his closing remarks:
“I want to apologize to all the fans who cheered for us this year for our disappointing result in our efforts to win a third consecutive GT500 title. But next year, we are going to do our best next season with our new machine now in development, so that at next year’s event, I can stand here and report that we have won back the title.”
All photos © Toyota, Nissan, Honda, and GT Association.