The recent increase in interest surrounding motorsport in Japan, more specifically Super GT, has been refreshing to see. The once unknown and largely ignored face of Japanese motorsport is finally breaking through the masses, but it is very much just the tip of the iceberg. After Stef stumbled across the very wonderful Mirage Cup, I thought it would be good to delve a little deeper into a very important era of motorsport in Japan, and shed light upon some lost gems.
As we left the 1980s, we left behind a decade of great growth and increasing international presence. Japanese teams were beginning to find their feet in Europe, and manufacturers were looking to make a name for themselves. The number of one-make championships was rapidly increasing nationally, and established series were experiencing influxes of growth. As we entered the year of 1990, we did so on a slightly disappointing note. The longstanding Grand Champion series folded at the end of 1989, something that was somewhat inevitable - but a hugely important part of national motorsport was gone for good.
The single seater scene has always fluctuated in Japan, with a variety of championships coming and going.
The flagship series, as always, was the Japanese F3000 Series. The death of GC did end up doing good, in actually boosting the F3000 grid slightly - over the years, more international drivers dipped their toes in the action, and it proved as a very useful tool in the ladder to F1. In 1996, F3000 was renamed Formula Nippon - which, of course, is now known as Super Formula.
The next obvious championship to look at is Formula 3 - just as Formula Nippon did, it provided a key stepping stone for aspiring drivers of all disciplines. If this can highlight anything, it would be how Japanese motorsport was perceived back then - it was a true growing force to be reckoned with, and the progress made was an incredibly enticing prospect to a young hopeful.
Open wheel racing in Japan has long been characterised by the unique smaller series. By far and away the most successful championship was Formula Toyota, starting in 1990 and lasting for a further 16 seasons. Not to be outdone, Mitsubishi partnered with the JAF to run Formula Mirage, running Van Diemen and Reynard FF2000 cars fitted with the 4G63 DOHC unit. This ultimately proved less successful, folding after just 6 seasons. Formula Crane 45 was altogether a more offbeat prospect, however - and it proved a flop. 30 Sabre FC45s were ordered to compete solely at the Autopolis circuit, pitting American drivers against Japanese drivers. The grand opening proved a hit, and a series was then commissioned. There was such a lack of interest that it only lasted 2 short seasons, with all assets subsequently sold off when Autopolis went bankrupt.
To end on a positive note, however, 1999 saw the start of Formula Dream, which led to Formula Challenge Japan - backed heavily by the Japanese big three. The formula was well planned and viable, which gave a solid life. Eventually, it spawned the now booming Japanese F4 series.
The early 1990s was dominated by the final flourish of the JEC, then called Long Distance Series, sanctioned by the Fuji-based FISCO group. Beginning life as a mix of Group 6 and touring cars, it gradually opened itself up to the obvious choice of Group C and IMSA GTP. Naturally, the series vanished around the same time as Group C did on an international level. The most memorable series however was the JSPC, which also collapsed in 1992 - this meant that 1993 could see a new dawn in sportscar racing.
The JAF and its subsidiary, the GT-A, picked up the pieces to form the Zen Nihon GT Senshuken - commonly known as JGTC. Even though the first season was an odd mix of exhibition races, the eye on parity and providing a sustainable environment for competition proved invaluable. The big three were quickly involved with full factory efforts, which formed the basis for Super GT.
Finally, the impact that Super Taikyu has had on Japanese motorsport can’t be overlooked. Running strongly since 1991, it gave Group N and production-based racing the kick it needed to become truly successful.
Touring cars are a staple for any country heavily involved in motorsport. However, the 1990s saw something rather odd happen in Japan - whilst Super Touring reinvigorated most championships, the costs it presented to the teams forced manufacturers into an easy decision on switching to JGTC. The final few years of Super Touring were also quite interesting, since the lack of competition actually forced rule changes which had been pressured by fans - something that can be considered a very recent phenomenon. The series couldn’t recover once Toyota’s remaining factory effort began to dominate proceedings, and ever since then, Japan has struggled to rekindle a passion for touring cars.
Finally, a mention needs to be given to the many great one-make championships that graced the support packages of many events during the 1990s.
Fuji Freshman Series is largely forgotten, yet it’s hard to see why - the AE86 formed the basis of the championship for several years, with the W20 MR2 taking over from 1993, and it provided consistently good action.
Nissan fielded three strong championships - the March Cup and Super Silvia Series providing a stepping stone for the JGTC or JTCC, and the Saurus Cup, from which many cars are still used today for motorsport tuition.
The Corolla Sprinter cup was an arguably more successful platform for AE86 competition, with Toyota also starting a Net’z cup in 1999 - the latter proving moderately successful too, continuing for a further 11 years.
Last but not least, the Mistubishi Mirage cup provided a similar stepping stone to JTCC as the March Cup. The series was dropped in 1993, having had most of its success during the 1980s, but it was highly entertaining nevertheless.
Hopefully, that explains some of the series that helped motorsport in Japan boom during the 1990s. Whilst some faltered, others managed to push Japanese national motorsport to international acclaim - firmly marking them as a true force to be reckoned with in motorsport.