Many things are done differently in Japan, including the way track days are organised. Rather than sign up for an event with a third-party organiser, Japanese petrolheads tend to become a member of a race track. It could be a local circuit like Tsukuba or Sodegaura, or a full-on FIA-certified facility such as the internationally renowned Suzuka, Motegi or Fuji Speedway.
Just 80km from central Tokyo, Fuji is especially popular and, compared with similar circuits overseas, surprisingly affordable. Having paid an annual fee of 30,000 Yen (£200), members can purchase 30-minute sessions on track for 6,700 Yen (£45).
To keep speed differences between drivers to a minimum, these sessions are split into two – those who typically lap at 2 mins 10 secs or slower, and those who are faster. However, there is another unwritten marker that every Fuji regular is aware of. Going ‘sub two’ is typically attained only by dedicated race cars on semi-slick rubber.
Tipo is one of Japan’s most popular car magazines, and editor-in-chief Takahiro Sato is a Lotus fan of long-standing and talented driver. He challenged himself to join the exclusive ‘sub-two’ club driving an unmodified Exige Sport 350 on factory-fit tyres.
So, on a sunny but chilly February morning, Sato-san found a suitably empty slot and gave it his all… only to come within a whisker at 2:00.38. However, just after midday as the track temperature became more accommodating; he ventured out again and nailed it: 1:58.65.
It will be the lead story in the next edition of Tipo, to be published later this week – great news for Lotus in Japan, which is already one of the largest markets in the world for the brand.
For Lotus owners wishing to take things to the next level, Japan hosts no less than three dedicated single-marque race series. The 111 Cup is open to four-cylinder versions of the Elise and Exige, divided in to four classes by power-to-weight ratio. This is very much a ‘gentleman driver’ series, with low entry fees and gifts rather than cash prizes for the victors. When they’re at Fuji these cars typically lap at around 2:06.
Few 111 Cup cars are modified beyond fitting high-grip tyres and free-flowing exhausts, but entrants in the Super Tec series show no such restraint. Highly tuned 2-Elevens battle with monster Exige V6 cars at the front of the grid, lapping Fuji at 1:55 and faster, while all-carbon versions of the Elise S1 take weight-saving to extremes further back. Anything goes so long as it’s a Lotus.
That is certainly not the case with the FIA-sanctioned Lotus Cup Japan, a series organised by LCI, the official Lotus importer for Japan. Engines and gearboxes are sealed, and the only changes allowed to showroom stock cars are the addition of certified roll cages and associated safety equipment. Only one type of tyre is allowed, the Yokohama AO52, but competitors are permitted to change springs and dampers. While there are nominally three classes, the entrants have recently distilled the action down to Class 1, with competitors in an Exige Sport 350 trying to crack 1:57 at Fuji, and Class 2 Elise Sport 220s, roughly eight seconds adrift.
There is one other Lotus car racing in Japan that is, quite literally, in a class of its own. The Lotus Evora S-GT competes in Super GT’s GT300 class and, thanks to outlandish aerodynamics, an engine whose origins are secret and slick tyres, it will complete a lap of Fuji a full 20 seconds faster than any Lotus road car.
Super GT is Asia’s premier race series, based in Japan but also visiting circuits in Malaysia and Thailand. Akin to the Deutsche Tourenwagen Masters series, Super GT cars retain the shape of the road car on which they are based but are heavily modified under the skin. The Lotus scored its first win at Suzuka last year but, thanks to a change of sponsor and associated swap to Bridgestone tyres, we are hopeful of more visits to the podium this season. This season’s action kicks off on 11 April at Okayama International Circuit.
To find out more about Lotus motorsport in Japan:
Super GT: The race schedule is at https://supergt.net/?ln=en
and all races are streamed live on www.the-race.com
Elise SuperTec: http://www.elise-rc.com/
Lotus 111 Cup: http://111cup.elise-exige.net/