In the season opener, the focus is on tracing ROOKIE Racing’s development in images
The opening round of the 2021 Super Taikyu season was held at Motegi in Tochigi Prefecture from March 18 to 21. Now in its third year, the ROOKIE Racing team entered its second season fielding two cars, the GR Supra and GR Yaris.
Photographer Noriaki Mitsuhashi, who accompanies the team, sets out his theme for shooting the first race as follows.
“What’s different this season is that there are two new professional drivers, along with several privateers also using the same Toyota machines (four GR Supras, one GR Yaris). I want to capture what ROOKIE Racing will do differently and how it will develop as a team.”
Unlike last year, ROOKIE Racing's GR Supra will be competing in the ST-Q class for prototype vehicles. Given the competition’s role in leading development, the team chose this category for its greater flexibility in regulations, such as allowing for parts to be changed as necessary. This decision meant that, from the outset, the Supra was out of the running for the championship.
At the first morning meeting of the season on Saturday, March 20, Morizo (Akio Toyoda) summed up ROOKIE Racing’s new challenge as “creating both a professional team and a family”. While the core concept of making ever-better cars through motorsports remains unchanged, ROOKIE Racing’s role is also to hone the performance and reliability that allow the cars to be used in races by other teams; that is, as customer racing vehicles. With a six-round season, Super Taikyu offers teams greater opportunity to run through the feedback-response cycle than the annual Nürburgring 24 Hours endurance race.
Meanwhile, a challenge awaited the GR Yaris in its second year in the form of power-restricting regulations. Strengthening the flow of information between drivers of different machines helped the team put the GR Yaris in pole position after Saturday’s qualifying session and, at 2 minutes 8 seconds, Morizo’s solid lap time also matched the race performance of professional drivers. In the final stages of qualifying, however, the GR Yaris suffered engine trouble. An analysis of the driving data immediately confirmed a phenomenon that had not been visible during preparations in the factory.
“As the evening rain came down, the team was forced to replace the engine,” recalls Mitsuhashi. “Using a different engine meant losing pole position.”
Nevertheless, Chief Engineer Naohiko Saito and the team of mechanics pressed on, backed by engineers linked virtually from the headquarters. Just before 10 p.m., the engine fired up again. To support the mechanics working late into the night, the drivers who had returned to the hotel showed up with evening refreshments. For Mitsuhashi, the scene demonstrated ROOKIE Racing’s solidarity. In the end, the clock had ticked well past midnight by the time the Yaris was ready to run again.
As Sunday brought rain for the main race, the many uncertainties surrounding the new wet-weather tires supplied for this season by Hankook made for a difficult start. As the showers intensified, the GR Yaris was assailed by a succession of problems, including wet air cleaners and ABS abnormalities, which had not cropped up during rainy races in Fuji and Sugo last year. Worsening conditions eventually led to the race being stopped, with the red flag coming down at 3:25 p.m.
In their quest to ‘make ever-better cars’, ROOKIE Racing fought hard until the last minute to gain as many laps as possible. Mitsuhashi’s work, seen below, captures the journey – from the heated moments to the calm and collected – of the drivers, engineers, mechanics and staff who used every setback to push themselves further.
Round 1 of the 2021 Super Taikyu Series at Twin Ring Motegi, as captured by Noriaki Mitsuhashi
ROOKIE Racing’s 2021 season begins. Under Morizo’s theme of ‘making ever-better cars’, the GR Supra enters in the ST-Q class, which permits manufacturer prototype vehicles, while the GR Yaris will continue on from last year in the ST-2 class.
This season sees the addition of two new drivers. The first is GR Yaris D driver Takamitsu Matsui.
The other new addition is Kenta Yamashita, D driver of the GR Supra.
After Friday's test run, Morizo shows his gratitude by personally placing sponsor stickers on the machines.
On Saturday, the entire ROOKIE Racing team assembles for a morning meeting. Morizo shares his vision of “creating both a professional team and a family”.
ROOKIE Racing’s 2021 season begins with everyone focused on a single purpose.
In the afternoon qualifying session, GR Yaris drivers Takuto Iguchi (A driver) and Masahiro Sasaki (B driver) exchange smiles and high fives with teammates in the pits after their super lap.
Next up: GR Yaris C driver Morizo, who shows his enthusiasm with a thumbs-up for the camera right before the time attack.
Team Manager Tatsuya Kataoka gives Morizo all the necessary information, including precise machine settings, track conditions and timing.
Morizo sets a lap time of 2 minutes 8 seconds, matching the race pace of professional drivers. Teammates congratulate him warmly upon his return to the pits.
Just as the opening round qualifying seemed to be going smoothly, trouble strikes during the run of D driver Takamitsu Matsui. Without warning, the engine blows. Morizo sets about solving the problem from the front lines.
Once back in the pits, the GR Yaris is immediately readied for an engine change.
In the small, dimly lit tent next door, engineers work on analyzing the data
Just past 9:00 p.m.: After learning about the plight of the mechanics working late into the night, ROOKIE Racing drivers who had returned to the hotel rush over with meals for the entire crew.
Sasaki, Iguchi, and Yamashita heat up meals in the microwave, while the other drivers set up tables and chairs to give the mechanics at least a spot of comfort while eating.
ROOKIE Racing’s warm consideration for its mechanics. Getting enough food for everyone at this time of night would have required running around to a fair number of convenience stores.
To express their gratitude, the drivers also dropped by the tent where the data analysis was underway. The four engineers in the tent were connected via Teams on their smartphones to many other members at the headquarters. Everyone was surprised and delighted by the drivers’ sudden late-night visit.
The mechanics went about their work carefully and thoroughly. With all the necessary bypasses hooked up, it was time to start the engine. Chief Engineer Saito prays in the moment of truth.
After four hours of replacing the engine, the GR Yaris finally comes back to life.
The clock reads 9:52 p.m.
Even with the engine running, there is still work to be done. It is past midnight by the time the car is back to racing condition. In a dark and deserted Motegi, only the ROOKIE Racing pit blazes with light.
Sunday. The final race arrives with rainy weather. Despite Iguchi and Sasaki’s super lap in the qualifying, which had earned the GR Yaris pole position in the ST-2 class, the engine change penalty forces the team to start from the pits, at the back of the pack.
With the race underway from midday, the GR Supra battles against the top cars in other classes as it racks up the lap count.
The rain falling since the start of the race continues to get heavier.
On lap 37, starting driver Sasaki pits in after sensing something wrong with the car. This gives Iguchi a chance to take over as the second driver.
The mechanics quickly identify the root of the problem.
The trouble stemmed from the air filter and the adjoining duct.
The GR Yaris returns to the pits time and again, as Morizo keeps a close eye on the situation.
“We’re not giving up”. This determination gets the GR Yaris back out onto the track.
In the GR Supra, the baton is passed from Gamo to Daisuke, Yamashita, and finally Ogura.
At 3:24 p.m., the GR Yaris runs into new difficulties. Matsui, the driver at the time, gets out from behind the wheel on lap 66.
This time the fault lays with the ABS (Anti-lock Braking System). The team immediately analyzes and diagnoses the cause as a problem with the wheel speed sensor. With no spare parts available, the issue is resolved by removing the sensor from a GR Yaris owned by one of the ROOKIE Racing team members, which had been parked in the crew parking area.
As the rain continues to intensify, the race is finally red-flagged at 3:25 p.m. With little prospect of improved weather, the organizers decide to bring the race to a close.
Ogura, the fourth driver to get behind the wheel of the GR Supra, had completed only four laps when the race was terminated. Even so, despite the poor weather the GR Supra completed 76 laps, finishing the opening round in 17th place overall.
ROOKIE Racing’s goal is to continue ‘making ever-better cars’. The key is to chalk up as many laps as possible, find problems, and make improvements. In face of many different challenges and realities. With Round 2 just around the corner, ROOKIE Racing continues its tireless pursuit of kaizen.