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The Japan Grand Prix at Fuji, Chapter I: 1966

The first chapter of a four-part series chronicling the history of the 1960s Japan Grand Prix Car Races at Fuji Speedway, beginning with the 3rd running of the Japan Grand Prix at Fuji.

Fuji Speedway would host its first races in March 1966, and Formula 1 World Champion Jim Clark was invited to drive the circuit in a Lotus Formula 2 car. But the 3rd running of the Japan Grand Prix Car Race would be Fuji Speedway’s true grand opening.

Unlike the two previous Japan Grands Prix at Suzuka, which consisted of separate sprint races for different classes of cars, the ’66 Japan Grand Prix would be a single 360 kilometer, 60 lap feature race.

Sixteen cars were entered for the main race. Among them were the very first Japanese-built prototype sports cars.

In the early ’60s, the Prince Motor Company were the manufacturers of the popular Skyline 2000GT sports saloon, the car that nearly defeated a rogue Porsche 904 prototype sports car during the famous GT-II race in the ’64 Japan Grand Prix. Using their defeat in 1964 as inspiration, Prince engineers, led by assistant manager Shinichiro Sakurai, would construct the R380, the first Japanese prototype, built to the FIA Group 6 prototype sports car regulations.

Based on a Brabham BT8A chassis, the R380 was powered by a twin-cam version of the Skyline 2000GT’s inline-six engine, appropriately named the GR-8. The Prince R380 was originally set to debut in 1965, but with the cancellation of the Japan Grand Prix that year, Prince would give the car an additional year of development, testing, and speed trials in the buildup to its 1966 Japan Grand Prix debut.

At the 1965 Tokyo Motor Show, Toyota stunned the Japanese automotive world with the unveiling of the elegant 2000GT, Japan’s first true road-going supercar. The 2000GT was co-developed by Toyota and Yamaha, with Toyota’s head of motorsports, Jiro Kawano, in charge of the project.

For the 1966 Japan Grand Prix, a purpose-built racing version of the 2000GT was built, known as the 311S. The 311S featured an upgraded version of the MF10 engine: A twin-cam, two-litre straight-six engine specially tuned by Yamaha.

Daihatsu Motor Company, meanwhile, used their popular Compagno compact passenger car as the base for the front-engined P-3 prototype, powered by their 1.3 litre inline-four engine, the R92A.

Several foreign cars also turned up on the entry list. The new Porsche 906 (Carrera 6) was the successor to the 904. Ferdinand Piëch’s new mid-engined, fibreglass-bodied prototype sports car had scored class victories in its first three races in the FIA World Sportscar Championship (Daytona, Sebring, Monza) prior to its Japan Grand Prix debut, where the car would now challenge for overall victory after being imported to Japan by Tokyo dealership Mitsuwa Motors.

There was also the burly Jaguar XK-E and the flyweight Lotus Elite from Britain, the rear-engined Abarth Simca 1300 from Italy, and the World Championship-winning Shelby Daytona Coupé, a powerful, cutting-edge car designed by young American designer and racer Pete Brock – who had since left Shelby American in order to start his own design firm, Brock Racing Enterprises. The Shelby Daytona was imported to Japan thanks to another American racer, Don Nichols, who had become Japan’s liaison to the rest of the racing world and was involved in the planning of Fuji Speedway from the beginning.

But on Monday during time trials, not one of these landmark cars would capture pole position.

Qualifying was held during a heavy rainstorm. The rain was so heavy that several drivers were hydroplaning along the 1.7 kilometer front stretch. A day later, this would cause problems for spectators who would find their cars bogged down when the dirt parking lots turned to mud. Problems with traffic congestion coming into and leaving the circuit, didn’t help either.

In these wretched conditions, the surprise pole sitter was ex-Honda World Grand Prix motorcycle rider Moto Kitano, driving his bright red number 12 Datsun Fairlady S prepared by Nissan Sports Car Club owner Genichiro Tahara. Kitano clocked in with a lap time of 2’37.70, nearly 15 seconds faster than the second-placed car. Kitano had one of two Datsun Fairlady convertibles in the race – the other was fielded by aging privateer Yoshio Yamaguchi.

But unlike the four-cylinder engine in the stock Fairlady, Kitano’s Datsun was powered by a special twin-cam straight-six engine similar to the ones in the R380 and the 2000GT. This was the B680X, originally developed by Yamaha for an abandoned Nissan concept car called the A680X.

One theorized reason for the A680X’s premature demise was the announced merger of Nissan Motor Company and Prince Motor Company in May 1965. In August 1966, months after the conclusion of this Japan Grand Prix, the merger of Prince into Nissan would be finalized. Thus, this event was the last major automobile race for the Prince name and badge. Their performance cars including the Skyline and R380 would become a part of Nissan, thus making the A680X redundant.

The two Toyota 2000GTs qualified 2nd and 10th. Mitsuo Tamura, in the Thunder Silver number 17 2000GT, was called up to drive the car after Sachio Fukuzawa, who was originally slated to drive, suffered moderate burns in a pit lane testing fire in late March. Shihomi Hosoya, the captain of the works Team Toyota – and leading development driver for the 2000GT, was in the Solar Red number 15 car.

Prince’s quartet of R380s qualified third through sixth. Former Yamaha World GP motorcycle racer Yoshikazu Sunako (3rd) drove the cherry red number 11, Tatsu Yokoyama (4th) drove the seafoam green number 9, Tetsu Ikuzawa (5th) drove the yellow number 8, and Hideo Oishi (6th) drove the cobalt blue number 10. Sunako and Ikuzawa were Prince’s main protagonists in the ’64 Japan GP at Suzuka, and Ikuzawa, Yokoyama, and Oishi had each won races in the first two Japan GP race meetings.

Hiroyuki Kukidome, the youngest driver in the field at 22, qualified 7th in his yellow & black Daihatsu P-3, two-tenths up on teammate Takao Yoshida, driving the yellow & green number 5 Daihatsu. The best of the non-Japanese cars, in 9th, was a white number 1 Lotus Elite, driven by the only non-Japanese driver on the grid. Bob Hathaway was an Englishman who relocated to Japan as a university student. His name on the entry list was written in kanji as “波嵯栄菩武”, which was meant to be read as “Bob Hathaway” (or at least something that sounded like it).

Shintaro Taki, a businessman turned racing driver with an affinity towards European sports cars like the Lotus Elan, qualified 12th in the white number 6 Porsche 906 (chassis 906/120). This was a great surprise for the car many expected to be the favourite to win. Taki wasn’t able to test at Fuji prior to the race, however, and his confidence was surely dented by the awful conditions.

Instead, Taki would qualify between the two Jaguar XK-Es: The #19 of Ginji Yasuda in 11th – another previous Japan GP race winner in the same car – and the #20 of Seiichiro Yokoyama in 13th.

Kiyoto Sato was 14th on the grid in his red #2 Abarth Simca 1300, Yoshio Yamaguchi was 15th in his #7 Datsun Fairlady, and 16th on the grid – a whopping one full minute off the pace of Kitano in monsoon conditions – was the blue and white #21 Shelby Daytona, driven by Tadashi Sakai. Sakai’s Shelby Daytona was imported to Japan thanks to an American military veteran, who had since become a driver and a liaison from Japan to the rest of the racing world, Don Nichols.

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