After thirteen previous editions of the Indy Japan 300, indycar will descend upon the land of the rising sun one final time before saying goodbye to Twin Ring Motegi and Japan. The sour world financial climate was cited as the reason for the split. Just to make the final trip a bit more exciting, the race will be contested on the road course. The oval, where CART has raced from 1998 through 2002 before relinquishing the date to the IRL, was damaged during the March 11 earthquake necessitating a switch to the road course. None of the series regulars have ever driven the Honda test track so it will be a new experience for everyone. The oval race was originally scheduled for 300 miles, but with the move to the road course the total will come out to a little under 190 miles, or 63 circuits around the 2.98 mile course.
Five Things to Watch
Road Course –Motegi should be very complimentary in terms of on track action to indycars. Medium to long straights broken up by tight hairpins and sweeping rhythm sections punctuate the track design. The start/stop layout features three hairpin turns, with two being double apex turns; mechanical grip and aero stability will both be at a premium this weekend. Elevation change is nearly 100 feet, with the noticeably downhill backstretch leading into the best passing zone on the track. Designed as a motorcycle course, the Twin Ring should prove a formidable track to master, but one that could be very conducive to indycar racing.
Pit Lane – The setup for this weekend is peculiar. The indycar garages are located on a shared pit lane between the front stretches of the oval and road course. Drivers will exit left after T14, outside the confines of the road course. Pit exit dumps the drivers directly into the braking zone for T1. The unusual setup creates new hazards that teams and drivers have never faced. I hope that teams will have access to all equipment hauled to Japan, as they will be set up on an island of sorts with the front straight behind the pits and have no obvious access to the infield during the race.
Takuma Sato – Honda’s favorite local child is set to continue the huge roll he has been on. Two lack luster finishes at Sonoma and Baltimore have dampened his momentum a bit, but a return to his homeland should be just what he needs. Having never raced at the Motegi road circuit, Taku doesn’t bring a wealth of track knowledge, but the hometown guys always seem to do well in their races. Considering the momentum Taku and KV as a whole have gained this year, he could be primed for his first indycar victory.
Red Flag – Race control could be in for its hardest weekend it has ever experienced. There is a very real possibility of an earthquake interrupting one of the many sessions throughout the course of the weekend. Mike Conway informed us that his hotel has an earthquake plan; I am curious how much thought the series has put into the situation. Worst case scenario is a large scale quake during the race. The event would surely be red flagged, but what happens next? It would be a really tough way to crown the road champ and an unusual swan song for the Japan Indy 300.
Championship Hunt – After the inaugural year triple sweep of the championships by Dario Franchitti we are primed for three different winners this year. The first championship will be clenched this weekend after the checkers drop in Motegi. Will Power holds a comfortable 14 point lead in the road standings, but considering his five point deficit in the overall championship, nothing less than a win will do. Barring a DNF, power should easily come out on top in the Mario Andretti Road Championship. I would really like to see all three trophies won by three different drivers; it demonstrates the challenges of winning the overall championship and the multitude of skills needed to end the season victorious.
Pole – Will Power – I cannot doubt Powers qualifying ability at this point in the season. In such closely matched equipment, some weeks he is able to cover the field by three tenths of a second. He is a proven quick learner when it comes to new situations and will make the most of it this weekend.
Winner – Takuma Sato – Taku absolutely has the ability to be victorious in his home race. Finally winning a race is exactly what his crew and the rest of KV need. They have all the pieces and information to be a major competitor in the series, the teams just is just searching for that breakthrough moment to propel them into the battle at the front.
Biggest loser – Japan – It seems the country really rallies around this event. I do have problems with the local broadcast time of the event here in the eastern time zone, but I really like events that have a large local following. Indycar is going to give these guys one heck of a going away party, and I will personally miss the event next year.
Epic Performer – Joao Paulo de Oliveira – Champion in three different formula three championships and last year’s Formula Nippon, Oliveira is making his indycar debut. The Brazilian has most recently won at Motegi in this year’s very competitive Formula Nippon. He knows how to get around this place and could make a big splash in his debut race.
This event seems to thrive in controversy, from its late start time, changing sanctioning body, perceived poor design, and the logistical challenges that have arisen this year. I say, thank you Japan. I always enjoy this event. A Saturday night race is every fans favorite kind, right? I am sure living on the west coast is more conducive to watching the event. Honda and Bridgestone/Firestone have shown nothing but unwavering support for our favorite series and the local fans and employees attend in thongs, we have only seen this kind of local support for an event outside the 500 in the US only recently. I know TV ratings often drive scheduling decisions, but I can always appreciate a strategy race a bit more when I know the stands are filled with excited fans there to actually watch the race. The same thing can’t be said for events over here.