crankandpiston heads to Autopolis for an eye-opening look at Super GT and Japanese motorsport.[Not a valid template]
Unless you are reading this from Japan or are a big Super GT fan, Autopolis may well be the best track you’ve never heard of. Ironically, the reason for its failure to achieve international fame is also what makes it so special.
Situated 800m above sea level in the mountains of Japan’s Kyushu island (southernmost of the four main islands), the remote location of Autopolis endows it with a very special character, whilst at the same time making it a somewhat unsuitable venue for hosting major international events despite being built to F1 standards. Not only is it quite a distance from any major cities with only winding mountain roads for access, it also seems to have its own micro-climate (as we found out the hard way). It’s not at all surprising then that the eighteen corner circuit – with it’s generous 50m of elevation change and stunning backdrops – is dubbed ‘the Spa of Japan’ by those in the know.
But while it may have struggled to attract top-level international motorsport, Autopolis has featured in the biggest and most popular tin-top series in Asia for the last decade bar a one-year hiatus in 2010: Super GT.
All is going well as we leave our hotel for the circuit on qualifying day for round seven of the 2013 Super GT season. But as we near the top of the mountain, we hit a wall of the thickest fog I’ve ever seen. As it turns out, it’s not fog: we have literally driven into a cloud. More specifically, a rain cloud that just happens to be engulfing the top of the entire mountain. This cloud was the big story of the weekend, the relentless rain and poor visibility causing the free practice session to be cut short after just a couple of laps. After a tense five-hour wait, the track officials confirmed the unfortunate, inevitable reality: qualifying would also be abandoned for the day.
The washout was extremely disappointing for everyone involved, but in that dark cloud glinted a silver lining, namely the remarkable passion and commitment shown by the fans, the teams and the organisers. We were suddenly hit with a realisation that this is where Japanese motorsport is really different. I’ve never seen such a long queue for a pit walk (it started more than an hour before the gates opened, and snaked it’s way back at least 300m despite the continuing rain), nor have I experienced the kind of show indicative of Super GT. Look around the paddocks and grandstands and you’ll find not only guys dragging reluctant girlfriends and wives around but families with toddlers, older couples, teenage guys and girls, and even groups of young women enjoying the event. It seems every demographic is represented here in surprisingly balanced proportions.
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