Nismo Festival 2007

by Fuggles
6 years ago

What happened when NMGB invited two GTROC members to the Nismo Fesival in 2007?

Nismo Festival 2007

 As is always the way with these types of opportunities, we only had 10 days notice that the GTROC had received invites from Nissan GB for two Board Members to attend the 2007 Nismo Festival at Fuji Raceway in Japan.   John Fuggles has negotiated the deal only to find he’d be unable to make it due to work commitments, plus he’d only just returned from the Tokyo Motor show 3 weeks before.  So Fuggles offered it up to the rest of the Board and after everyone checked their diaries, jostled for position it was decided that Jason and Scott would be attending.

Here is Scott’s account of what happened next;

We would be travelling to Japan on Thursday 29th of November with two of the 350Z Owners Club guys

Once we arrived at Tokyo airport on Friday afternoon we were met by Terry Steeden, Nissan Motor GB’s Product Communications Manager, who escorted us to an awaiting coach that transported us around a wet and congested C ring to our hotel the Keio Plaza Hotel right in the heart of Tokyo.  By this time it was 7pm and we all agreed to have a quick freshen up and get back down to the lobby in 30 minutes.  Once Jason, Terry and myself had reconvened then waited a further 15 minutes for the 350Z guys to arrive we headed down to Roppongi, an area kind of like Soho with bars and restaurants, for a few beers and a traditional Japanese meal. Over dinner the 350Z guys were full of 350Z this, 350Z that, new GT-R this, new GT-R that, “what are the service intervals going to be like?”, “how longs the warranty?”, the whole time Jason and myself sat there largely silent waiting the slightest pause.  Even at this initial meal it had become apparent that there was a distinct difference between the two clubs. They were not interested and had no real knowledge of the GT-R’s or Z’s heritage nor the Japanese scene, and were just treating the new GT-R as any other UK supplier vehicle with full dealer warranty and back up etc. After an hour or so of relentless name-dropping of who they had met in the Japanese cars scene  Jason and I decided to just chat among ourselves and let the 350Z guys chat up Terry to their hearts content who himself was glazing over by now. After the meal, several beers and a glass of Saki for good measure we all turned in at 2am, for a long over due sleep after being up for the past day and a half.

8am Saturday morning. I opened my curtains of my 22nd floor hotel room to find a slightly over cast but clear Tokyo skyline complete with 50+ story skyscrapers towering over us.  Excitedly I packed my bag, showered and was downstairs for breakfast in 15 minutes where we all had a full breakfast not knowing when and where the next meal would be coming from. By this time our bus was back outside ready to take the 5 of us, a posse of Chinese Auto press and two Russians over to the festival some 2 hours drive away.

The Nismo Festival is held on Sunday, but with our VIP access all areas passes and press bibs we were going to be spending all of Saturday as well at Fuji speedway watching the preparations. All the traders were setting up their stands, and Nismo were shaking down their race cars ready for Sunday’s events. As the coach pulled into the race circuit, the first thing we saw out of the coach window was the ultimate Skyline collection; R31 Tomica silhouette race car, R31 Reebok race car, R32 Zexel Group N racer, R33 LM wide bodied race car that took part in the 1995 LeMans 24hrs, 2002 Castrol R34 GT500 race car, Yellow R33 400R and One of the 20 Z-Tune R34’s.  Even our very own Tim Webster would be green with envy at such a collection.

The coach pulled up behind the pits and we were all led to our base for the weekend; a large hospitality suite above the pit garages with free food and drink and a full floor to ceiling window the whole length of the room with views over the pit lane, start finish straight and the grand stand the other side.  Nice!!!

The first couple of hours of the day were all ours to roam around the whole site and soak up the atmosphere, so grabbing a few bottles of Coke, Jason and I headed straight out fully armed with 10Gb of storage on three cameras and a video camera.  Not 50 yards from our hospitality room we spotted three KPGC10’s, the first of the GT-R’s, and spent a good 10 minutes photographing them from every angle.  All of the tuners had arrived by this point and were all busy erecting their stands ready for Sunday.  One of the surprising things was how modestly sized these tuners seemed to be.  With companies line Mines, MCR, ARC & C West etc, I would have expected huge liveried up trucks, but everyone had the same modest sized stand to show their wares.  As we ventured down to the far end of the pit garages, I spotted a GTROC winter jacket going into a pit garage, so we went over to introduce ourselves and found it was Piers, helping out his tuner Mr. Yamada of ‘Sun Line’ with their 350Z track. Piers explained how they had an 8 hour journey to the festival through the night only to arrive and find the track car that was experiencing problems and wouldn’t start.

Wandering back up the pit lane to where we had first seen the KPCG10’s we were attracted to one of the garages housing 6 KPGC10 race cars all warming up ready for their test session.

The sound of 6 straight six non silenced engines all revving up in such a confined space was absolutely unbelievable, you could actually feel it, the hairs on the back of my neck were all standing to attention as I battled up stream into this barrage of beautiful sound.  As we wandered in and over the rope barriers, (the wonders of Press passes ), I was greeted by an old friend of mine Alan, who was at the festival with Japanese friends of his and their recently restored KPGC10 race car.  I spent half an hour or so catching up with Alan while Jason feverishly snapped the cars from every angle.

By this time we were due back at the hospitality suit for our 3:30pm presentation by Nismo’s Yuichi Sanada who explained the new roll of Nismo.  Apparently Nismo will no longer be producing the tune up parts we have all become accustomed too, instead they will be purely concentrating on Nissan’s race efforts, leaving tune ups parts, if any, to Nissan themselves to produce.  The over all message was that Nissan are not happy with the ‘back street tuning’ culture and wish to distance itself from it, either that or they have had to take this stance in order to get a 470bhp car past the Japanese government what with the 276bhp gentleman’s agreement.  Either way, as far as Nissan is concerned with the release of the new GT-R things are going to change.  Fortunately nobody had told the tuners this , and chatting to several of them, namely Mines and MCR, they were all too happy to reveal that their modified GT-R’s were currently being worked on ready for the TAS 2008.  So business as usual for the tuners then.

After Sanada-san’s presentation we were introduced to the two drivers of next years GT-R GT500, Satoshi Motoyama & Michael Krumm, then Nismo’s Senior Manager, Hideki Takahashi explained the spec of the 2008 GT500 car.  The rules are quite flexible in the GT500 class, so much so that the cars themselves have little in common with the production variants and are for all-intense and purposes silhouette cars.  Where the R35 is a 4WD force induction V6, the race car is a rear wheel drive normally aspirated 4.5L V8 for greater low speed torque and more linear response through out the rev range it was explained.  The manufacturers are free to use any engine in their model range for racing, the only restriction is they must run air restrictors, which in the GT-R’s case are twin 29.6mm.

The next item on our day’s agenda after the presentations was one that had been intriguing Jason and I ever since we were asked the week before we left, what size race suits and helmet we take.  Due to the fact the R35 had just been launched a couple of weeks before at the Tokyo Motor Show, the whole of Japan and so to some extent the global motoring press were buzzing. We had thought we were being lined up for a passenger ride around Fuji’s circuit in one.  Obviously to be one of the first people in the new car after all the hype we’d been hearing was very exciting.

All 5 of us in the UK party squeezed into our race suites, and when I say squeezed I mean squeezed. Obviously there’s a big difference between a UK Large and a Japanese Large as we all looked ridiculous as we were led down to the pit garaged like NASA astronauts but in Lycra jump suits!! Think, ‘Cool Runnings’.

So we entered the garages, strange we thought, no GT-R here, just GT racecars. All of a sudden it dawned on us; we were going to be going out in race cars!!! Something that Nismo has never done before. All 5 of us were lead up to a rather mean looking silver GT300 350Z where our Nismo guide read off of her clip board, “Giles, Kevin and Terry this is your car, Scott and Jason, can you follow me please?”. She then headed off towards the only other car out of its garage, a 2003 Motul sponsored GT500 R34!!!!!! Jason and I just looked at each other and screamed like schoolgirls. This was no ~350bhp modified Z car, this was a full on 600+bhp, light weight, slammed to the ground, last of the line of the ultimate Skyline, running on 13 inch wide slicks all around, with sequential ‘box and carbon fibre everything!! It was at this point both Jason and I grabbed for our mobiles to tell anyone we could back home what we were about to do, unfortunately my wife and brother weren’t overly impressed at being woken at 3:30am by a babbling idiot, and didn’t fully share my enthusiasm.

I was going out first, so was beckoned over by the race engineer.  These 2003 cars are so low the top of the front wheels are actually higher than the bonnet, and the roof line is just above waist height, so I found it a real struggle just to lift my leg over the roll cage to get in due to the spandex race suit over my jeans. On the third attempt I think the engineer actually took pity on me and grabbed my ankle and lifted it in for me. Wiggling down into the temporary passenger seat the engineer grabbed at the 5 point harnesses, tugged them really tight and the told me just to hold the shoulder straps to keep my arms in, as flailing arms could be dangerous to the driver. With that he gave the driver, Tsugio Matsuda, the thumbs up then slammed the flimsy carbon fibre and Perspex door shut, leaving the two of us in an eerily silence with just the sound of my breathing keeping me company. At least I was in good hands, Tsugio is the 2007 Formula Nippon champion and driver of the two Nismo factory cars in the Super GT series. The bucket seat is virtually mounted straight on the floor and you sit with your legs straight out in front of you joggled over to the right because the exhaust exits just by your left ankle. Both of us are sitting far back in the car with our heads just behind the B pillar, Tsugio’s steering wheel covered in red LCD displays was a good 18 inches from where you’d find it in a regular R34. The side impact bars dig into to your ribs just below your left arm pit and an elaborate wrap around carbon fibre centre console covered in toggle switches and fuses presses into your right side.  The view ahead is dominated by the roll cage coming down the A pillar and across the roof header rail with a large diagonal corner brace obscuring most of my view, next to it is a carbon fibre brace running down the centre of the screen to stop the Perspex from blowing in at speed. Tsugio looks over at me and gave me the thumbs up, I nod back then he thumbed the starter button on his console.  There are a few clicks, a whine from the fuel pumps and starter motor then an almighty explosion as the car burst into life. Jesus! Even though I was expecting it, it still makes me jump.  Tsugio blips the throttle a few times, the engine responding instantly with a metallic rasp of an exhaust note, then as we’re waved out of his pit by the engineer there is a jolt and a clonk as he pulls back on the large centre mounted gear lever, he dials up 5000 revs, releases the clutch and in an undignified lurch we are away.

Tsugio holds the pit lane rev limiter button on the steering wheel and the car bucks and bobs, popping and farting down the pit lane, straight cut transmission whining, and as we are flagged onto the circuit and cross the line marking end of the pit road Tsugio releases the button and just floors it! The Number 22 Motul R34 explodes into life. The car is already warm so there is no need to take it easy here, just a full on race mode.  Now, it’s not the most ferocious acceleration I have ever felt, but very strong and completely linear for the few seconds that it spends in each gear. Wharp, wharrp, wharrrp, we are in third gear already as we enter the circuit, joining at the end of the main straight as we select 4th then 5th and we pull over to the left ready to take the 150 degree tight right hander (27R). [At this point I must explain the corners at Fuji, some are named, mainly after sponsors, but all are also known by their radius in metres, e.g. 50R]. Rather than start to turn in when the corner is at the 1 o’clock position on the horizon as you or I would on a track day, he leaves it until the turn is at the 2 o’clock position before standing on the brakes as I have never ever experienced before. My chin hits my chest as, bang, bang, bang, he knocks it down into second and then turns in, he’s back on half throttle before the apex, inside wheels over the curb and then just before we are straight he mashes the throttle again, the car slips sideways through the second apex, (75R), he keeps it pinned and adds a touch of corrective lock then, wharp, wharrp, wharrrp, wharrrrp, 5th gear down the short rear straight convincingly over taking the R32 Calsonic giving its best. The vibrations coming through the seat of my pant almost send my ass numb as it hits upon a resonant frequency, the transmission next to me is screaming with its straight cut gears fighting for my attention over the howling exhaust note.

Next is a medium 90 left, (Coco-Cola 80R), there’s a quick 1 second jab of the brakes before he turns in, running wide of the apex this time due to the ‘Track Safari’ coach plodding around the outside of the track ladened with press photographing the lapping cars. Because of the coach we run wide on the exit, onto the curb then full throttle managing two more gear changes before the long open 180 bend (100R). A slight lift, as we enter, then ¾ throttle, and due to the increasing down force accelerate all the way around, the G forces rapidly building eventually pulling my head, which thankfully come to rest on the roll cage as we exit the bend with a subtle 4 wheel drift. Then full throttle again for a second or two before, bang, bang, bang, bang, as Tsugio punched the upright gear lever back down into second while attempting to put me through the screen once again with the brakes. We have a clear line this time for the tight 120 degree left, (Hairpin 30R), and take a huge amount of curb, the outside wheels barely on the track, the insides over the grass as the car bucks, bounces and slides, then as soon as possible full throttle, wharrp, wharrrp, wharrrrp, flat through two open 30 degree right handers (120R & 300R), past the wide bodied R33 LM giving its best.  It’s at this point that I can’t resist any more and give Tsugio the thumbs up, he smiles and give me the thumbs up back as we power down a 300m straight before violently slowing ready for a 120 degree right and the chicane, (Dunlop 15R & 30R).  Boldly Tsugio throws the car into the chicane with total commitment.

The chicane is dispatched incredibly quickly using every inch of curb available before a quick squirt, two gear changes before changing back down 1 second later for a open 3rd gear 90 right, (13th 45R), exiting there is just enough room for 1/2 second of full throttle before a tightening 180 left, (Netz 25R), during which we almost clip the rear bumper of another coach just after the apex, but with out batting an eyelid he’s on it again. Final bend is a reasonably tight 180 right in second, (Panasonic 33R), then, wharp, wharrp, wharrrp, wharrrrp, wharrrrrrp, 6th gear down the start finish straight we comfortably past the 350 Z guys GT300 car. Fuji has the longest straight of any circuit in the F1 championship at 1.5 km and we cross the line midway at probably ~150mph accelerating onto 170-180mph before the most violent braking manoeuvre from top speed down to around 40mph in just 2-3 seconds, ready for the first corner again, (27R).

In all I had three manic laps of relentless G forces onslaught, never relaxing for a second. The GT500 R34 shrank the Fuji 2.5 mile Grand Prix circuit into a series of short full throttle bursts rather like being on a Go-Cart track, but I sensed Tsugio was out to impress, playing rather than set the fastest lap possible. Incidentally, the current lap record for a GT500 car is 1’23.1, (1’31.3 for GT300). The most surprising thing was the way the car moved around while cornering despite pulling around 2 G’s. From the outside these cars seem to cornering like slot cars, but inside they’re like a giant Go-Cart incredibly playful in the right hands and relishing being taken by the scruff of the neck and hurled down the track.  Back in the pits, and extracting myself from the confines of the car in my Spandex suit, I was absolutely buzzing.  All I could come up with to describe the experience to Jason while he was strapping on his helmet preparing for his go was a long list of profanities.

All in all, the GT500 R34 is understandably my new lifetime automotive high-light. For the next hour or so we explored the rest of the Fuji circuit Jason and I kept reliving our experience, trying not to let the feeling dwindle.

Late that afternoon Jason and I were talking to Piers while over looking the circuit when a silver R35 went flying past, and I really mean flying.  Now, after a day like the one we were experiencing, seeing an R35 tear down the main straight of Fuji Speedway wasn’t anything special, we had seen a few through the day. But unlike the other whisper quite cars we had seen swishing past, this thing was considerably quicker and a hell of a lot louder.  On first glances we thought it may have been the new GT500 GT-R which we knew was here somewhere. At the time I was taking a photo and managed to catch a blurred shot of it just in frame over Jason’s shoulder.  While it was completing its lap we looked at the photo only to see a R35 with a difference.

Apart from the speed and exhaust note differences, this car had a welded in roll cage just visible through the front screen with braces welded down A pillar, a recessed fuel filler on the drivers side behind the drivers door and a red towing eye protruding through the bonnet. After talking to others the census was it was either a GT500 mule testing the engine and transmission etc, (but it did have rear exit exhausts where the racers are side exit), or it was some sort of V-Spec/Nismo being tested.  Either way, the jury was out on this one.

At 5pm we all got back on the coach and headed off to our hotel, the Prince Lakeside Hotel in Hakone for the night. Saturday’s hotel room was slightly less lofty, 2nd floor, but high up in the foot hills of Mt. Hakone-yama, some 50 minutes drive from Fuji. After checking in, we all convened early for dinner after a quick freshen up, and over the meal Jason and I could not help but rib the 350 Z guys about their passenger ride in an underpowered over weight GT300 Z car. After dinner I went back to Jason’s room with him to check in on the Register and post a few pictures of the day while clearing out his mini bar.  Eventually we turned in at 2:30am.

7am I was up and out, fed, watered and on the coach by 7:30.  This morning there was a difference in the traffic on the way to Fuji, namely Skylines!!  The closer we got the more there were, and by the time we reached the circuit entrance they were every other car. Our coach was flagged straight past the gate and all the way to behind the pits again.  We dropped our bags off at our hospitality suite collect our Press bibs and headed straight out as the place was already starting to fill out and buzz.  At the back of the pits just below our suite was a stage area with all of the Race Queens being introduced to the hundreds of waiting fans.  The fans all have their own favourites and were going mad, shouting and waving,  as the girls address them and then did their own little dance routine.

The first stop was to try and hook up with some of our Japanese members, and as both Jason and I were wearing our GTROC shirts complete with R35 graphic on the rear, it wasn’t long before we were spotted.  The first people we met were Aki and Nick, and their other halves.  Aki had recently volunteered to be the GTROC Japan Rep, so I had a few bits of merchandising to hand, but more importantly greet him and welcome him to ‘the team’. While we were standing there in front of the mighty Mines R34, others started arriving until there must have been at least 15 of us GTROC’ers, unfortunately most of their names I have forgotten such was the rate we were being introduced, but it was so good to be among friends despite being over 6000 miles from home.  One person I did remember was the bubbly character of Miguel who came bounding over like ‘Tigger’ and introduced himself. We all stood there chatting for 20 minutes or so before we all went our own ways, Jason, Miguel and I headed off to find an R35 and spend a bit of time pouring over it and checking out every detail with the full access our Press Passes gave us. Unfortunately the rest of the festival goers had to be content with viewing two 35’s in a roped off area behind the pits.

There was a red GT-R in one of the garages, wearing the registration plate 23, (Later featured in EVO magazine).  We spent an hour or so photographing it inside and out, literally climbing all over it.  One thing we did notice was unlike the Skyline it really is just a 2+2, and with a ~5”10’ Jason in the front I had no room to move my feet in the back and barely enough room for my ankles to fit behind the front seat.  The fit and finish was to a much higher standard that we Skyline owners are used to, and even the dash, which has been met with mixed opinions, was quite a pleasant place to be behind. The alloy gear change paddles operated with a nice smooth positive action but I found the instruments a little cluttered with lots of coloured LCD displays and lights. Overall, I can see the new GT-R being a huge hit world wide, especially considering its rave reviews it’s receiving about its Porsche baiting performance.

Despite having total access to the R35, what we found more interesting was the totally carbon fibre bodied GT500 GT-R under wraps next to it.  We weren’t allowed to photograph it, but we did manage a few shots when its Nismo ‘guard’ was not looking. Later in the day it did venture out onto the track for a few quick laps before is went back into its guarded garage and under wraps once again.

While checking out the R35’s we bumped into Dino, and his brother.  Dino told us about his test drives earlier in the week and how some of the hacks in the press conference had been pressing Nissan about the rumours regarding any subsequent model of the R35 that may be in the pipeline. Apparently they were very tight lipped, but there were a few masked smirks being given off. I guess we can take this as a good sign of even better still to come.

All R35’d out for the time being Jason, Miguel and I headed back down the pit lane to see what else was happening.  While we were in one of the garages photographing the R33 LM race car I saw the two Xanvai Race Queens outside, so I went over  for a chat.  One of the girls asked me if I was cold, as I was only wearing my GTROC short sleeved shirt, to which I answered, “not at all it’s a lovely day”.  She said she was cold, so seeing an opportunity I took my GTROC Summer Jacket from my bag and asked if she wouldn’t mind modelling it for me, she smiled took it then asked for my cap too.   So there we were, having our photo taken with the Xanvai Race Queens all in GTROC clothing, when about half a dozen other photographers came over to take our photos too including the two 350Z guys, who later admitted that was a great publicity move, “I know”, I replied .

Slightly further down the pit lane we saw Kazuyoshi HOSHINO, Takao WADA, and Masahiro HASEMI. All three have a long history on Nissan-connected driving, but Hoshino and Hasemi are probably Japan’s longest-established famous “star” drivers.

Toshio Suzuki also had a very GT-R-connected career and has been instrumental in the development driving of the R35 GT-R

They were standing around talking to each other about their morning’s track experiences, and being so famous in Japan they were surrounded by photographers and fans every time they stood still.

Our next port of call was the tuners stands. All of the big tuners were present, Mines, HKS, MCR, ARC etc etc, and most had brought their demonstrator vehicles and latest parts, but from what we saw most of the sales were on smaller cheaper items, with kids buying stickers from the tuners as if they were going out of fashion. I was quite tempted to buy a brand new set of genuine R32 GTR seats, but rather than being the usual two tone grey these were Black Alcantara, something I have never seen before nor knew existed.  But as none of the tuners were able to take a Visa card, my account was safe.

One thing Jason and I found strange walking around was despite being in Japan, and at a Nissan base car event, people were all pointing at the GT-R logo’s on our clothes, and both of us were stopped several times and asked to pose for photo’s as if we were famous.

Wandering back to the circuit, we arrived just in time to see an R35 performance demonstration.  The track was empty bar the partially disguised R35, that appeared at Goodwood Festival this year, and a 350 Z race car, presumably in a Group N type of spec.  Bollards were quickly laid out down the centre of Fuji’s Start/Finish straight, and in front of a packed grandstand the two cars went head to head.  The first event was a drag race which was won not surprisingly by the R35 whispering away from the line effortlessly while the Z sat there spinning.  Then there was a slalom test and the final was a breaking test with both cars at ~100mph hitting the brakes as the crossed the line.  Obviously the R35 won each discipline with ease, but the Z did seem to be handicapped or driven by my granny as I am sure it could have done better, either way the R35 was impressive making everything look effortless.

By this point it was coming up for 4 o’clock,  so Jason and I went to check out the rest of the stands and attractions that we had yet to see.  The best of which was the ‘ultimate Skyline collection’ we had seen from the coach window when we arrived Saturday.  But after a weekend like we were having, standing in between the only yellow 400R and a Z Tune, (the only examples of each I have ever seen), didn’t even register on our Skyline excitement metre, which was a shame really.  By this point both of my digital camera batteries had died and I was resorted to having to use my phone to take snaps just like 99% of the rest of the festival attendees.

It was now coming up for 5pm and the end. Nismo’s finale for the event was having all 50 or 60 or cars, all the race drivers and race queens line up along the start finish straight facing the crowded grandstand. Yuichi Sanada stood in the centre on a red carpet and addressed the grandstand, presumably thanking everyone for coming.  While this was going on, Jason, myself and all of the other photographers who were also on the track were frantically mingling among the cars snapping away.  The sun was setting casting a wonderful orangey red light and long shadows over the cars. Jason captured amazing shots, some of which we hope to share with you in the ’08 GTROC membership pack. The new GT500 GT-R was also in the line up, but it was the only car surrounded by race engineers presumably guarding any aerodynamic secrets as the season had yet to start.  But good old Jason still managed to worm his way in and took a few wonderful unobscured shots in full 10 mega pixel glory while I filmed the who finale on my video camera. Between us we managed to take 2000+ photos, (9Gb), and around an hour of video footage in the two days.

As the crowds drained out of the grandstand and Fuji once again fell silent, we spent the last half hour alone with the Nismo mechanics as they packed away the 8 or so GT500 race cars, including our new found love; the Motul R34. We watched as the mechanics changing tyres, removing lap time transponders, wiping down the cars and generally getting them ready to be moth-balled until the next time. All this without anyone at all getting in our way or trying to remove us, we were made to feel at home. It was wonderful to spend such intimate time with these Skyline legends, and a perfect ending to the most amazing weekend.