[Through the Finder] #3 Round 2 at SUGO where Morizo Himself Drives the GR Yaris on Its Last Race


This series focuses on ROOKIE Racing's battles as told through photographs by photographer Noriaki Mitsuhashi, with this story covering Round 2 of the 2021 Super Taikyu Series at SUGO.

The focus this time: capturing images of the GR Yaris’ last run and the people involved

“It was before it was announced to the press, so I only found out after the free practice session on Thursday that they would switch cars.”

As Toyota announced officially on April 22, ROOKIE Racing has decided to switch one of its two vehicles to a Corolla Sport installed with a hydrogen-powered engine for the Fuji SUPER TEC 24 Hours Race in Round 3 of the 2021 Super Taikyu Series. The preceding race, Round 2 Sportsland SUGO, would become the GR Yaris’ last race, while development continues on the GR Supra. This helped Mitsuhashi, the team’s exclusive photographer team, to decide on the theme of his photo-documenting: to capture images of the final race of the GR Yaris, which had been at the center of ROOKIE Racing’s activities, and the people involved with it.

The drive shaft bearing, responsible for transmitting the power of the engine to the wheels, was damaged during the free practice session, but this prevented the problem from arising during the qualifying session, and the GR Yaris earned pole position in the ST-2 class. In addition to metal fatigue from repeated racing, the problem was caused by conditions unique to SUGO, whereby the key to winning lies in driving over the rumble strips. However, the team was able to easily overcome this issue by honing the sensor in an effort to “make ever-better cars.”

“The post-qualifying-session meeting was held in a jovial atmosphere. Morizo spoke about how pole position wasn’t earned easily this time either, with Chief Engineer (Naohiko) Saito replying that it was his pleasure to have his car pushed to the limit and broken (because it would lead to further evolution). Morizo’s words, ‘the new trend pioneered by the GR Yaris will lead to the use of hydrogen, and signal the start of a new chapter,’ left a lasting impression.”

Because of the increased number of vehicles, the GR Yaris’ race, the final for Group 1 of Round 2, was held in the morning, while the GR Supra’s Group 2 race was held in the afternoon.

“The GR Yaris entered the first corner in top position. It was the highlight of the race and like witnessing the final leg of the GR Yaris’ long and distinguished track record.”

However, the race took an even more dramatic turn. Originally, the plan was for the GR Yaris to be driven by Masahiro Sasaki, followed by Morizo and then Takuto Iguchi. But the order was changed at the last minute after the deployment of a safety car due to a crash, and also because parts of the track outside the racing line became wet from rain. Iguchi became the second driver, but then the rain stopped, increasing the friction on the tires as the track dried. This led to Morizo driving more laps than was originally intended.

He drove fast, preventing rivals in the same class from overtaking him, and marking his personal best time. He drove for over 50 minutes and covered 12 more laps than was originally planned. It was later revealed that when he entered the cockpit, his earplugs were not inserted properly for some reason, and he had to fight through on his own with no information being conveyed to him over the radio. He was overtaken at the last minute, missing out on the podium, but in the ST-2 class, the GR Yaris of Kobe Toyopet, a separate privateer team, earned its second consecutive win, having won the previous race as well. This was also a major achievement for ROOKIE Racing’s GR Yaris, which had been developed first.

“I managed to capture the invigorated expression on Morizo’s face immediately after crossing the finishing line, testifying to the fact that he had given it his all.”

Round 2 of the 2021 Super Taikyu Series at SUGO as captured by Noriaki Mitsuhashi

sports_007_1.jpgMembers of ROOKIE Racing gather in a room inside the new pit building at SUGO after their test run on Thursday, just before Round 2 of the 2021 Super Taikyu Series. Here, an explanation is being given on the new project at the next round to be held at Fuji 24 Hours Race, and the Corolla Sport with its hydrogen engine.

sports_007_2.jpgThe GR Yaris the team has been driving since the 2020 season opener. This may be its final race. The drivers’ desire to have the GR Yaris finish in style spurred greater kaizen than ever before.

sports_007_3.jpgMorizo also drives the GR Yaris himself, but realizes something is wrong with the steering as soon as soon as he begins. He was able to immediately notice the abnormality thanks to the constant improvements made to the sensor as part of the team’s effort to make ever-better cars.

sports_007_4.jpgThe cause is a fatigue fracture in a part around the drive shaft bearing known commonly as the “bird cage.” It was caused by aging from covering long distances, as well as the stress placed on the machine from driving over rumble strips. The team quickly carries out repairs.

sports_007_5.jpgAt SUGO, the team is newly joined by a privateer team driving a GR Yaris. The owner chats with Morizo after finishing inspections on his vehicle.

sports_007_6.jpgIt starts pouring on Saturday during the free practice session.

sports_007_7.jpgThe qualifying session begins from 12:30 p.m. The road surface is still wet, but the rain is gradually starting to clear. Under these difficult track conditions, A driver, Iguchi, marks one of the fastest times.

sports_007_8.jpgB driver, Sasaki, follows. Other competitors use rain tires just in case, but Sasaki pushes himself to drive with slick tires. To make full use of the time allocated for the qualifying session, the mechanic times Sasaki’s entry into the track.

sports_007_9.jpgThe road surface is still wet and slippery, but he earns the pole position thanks to his fighting spirit, perseverance and the support of his teammates, with a superb lap time of , far surpassing his rivals.

sports_007_10.jpgThe GR Supra too, incorporates a variety of kaizen in taking on the challenges of SUGO. B driver, Daisuke Toyoda, takes on the slippery conditions with rain tires. Keeping a close eye on the state of wear in his tires, he marks his best time of 1 minute 40.987 seconds.

sports_007_11.jpgIn the qualifying session for D drivers, it is decided that the GR Supra of Group 1 and GR Yaris of Group 2 will race together. The two cars race together one last time.

sports_007_12.jpgAfter the qualifying session, the GR Yaris members hold a meeting. Morizo expresses his gratitude for his colleagues as they take on this race together.

sports_007_13.jpgThe final race on Sunday. The stormy weather that lasted until the previous day gives way to beautiful and clear skies.

sports_007_14.jpgThe GR Yaris’ race, the final for Group 2, is held early in the morning.

sports_007_15.jpgMembers of Toyota Motor East Japan responsible for producing the Yaris series cheer the team on from the grandstand with TGR flags.

sports_007_16.jpgOn the grid, all the ROOKIE Racing drivers gather around the GR Yaris for a commemorative photo. Morizo and Daisuke place their hands on the GR Yaris, expressing their gratitude for the vehicle.

sports_007_17.jpgThe final race for Group 2 starts at 8:45 a.m. The GR Yaris, which had earned the pole position, leads the pack as it hurtles into the first corner at SUGO.

sports_007_18.jpgThe ST-3 class machine is faster on the straight, while the GR Yaris has a faster cornering speed. The starting driver, Sasaki, keeps his rivals in check with his pro-level skills.

sports_007_19.jpgForty-three minutes into the race, a safety car is deployed after another team crashes. The original plan was for Morizo to drive after Sasaki. But it is decided at the last minute that Iguchi would drive instead due to the timing of the pit stop and the way things will develop in the latter half of the race.

sports_007_20.jpgIguchi continually shortens his lap times and takes the lead, but his tires wear down faster than he imagined and he is unable to extend his lead on the driver behind him. The end of his run and the start of Morizo’s is approaching fast.

sports_007_21.jpgMorizo had mentioned how fun driving the GR Yaris is and how much more he wants to drive it at the previous day’s meeting. He waits for his GR Yaris with fist bumps and a smile as always.

sports_007_22.jpgIguchi switches with Morizo at 10:54 a.m.

sports_007_23.jpgThe other teams had started catching up during the pit stop, but Morizo extends his lead with every lap.

sports_007_24.jpgMorizo’s wireless earplugs were actually not inserted properly when he switched with Iguchi during the pit stop. His team could hear him, but Morizo could not hear instructions from the pit and had no information to go by. The deployment of a safety car results in him driving longer than was originally planned. The order of drivers is changed too, resulting in him becoming the last driver. Morizo later described this stint as “a lonely 50 minutes,” but it was no doubt a blessing from the racing gods, giving him more time alone with the GR Yaris.

sports_007_25.jpgThe entire ROOKIE Racing team stays riveted to the monitor inside the pit. The GR Yaris is in third place at this stage, but the driver in fourth closes in on the GR Yaris with a lap time that is 2 seconds faster. However, with no wireless earplugs, this information does not get through to Morizo. All they can do is pray.

sports_007_26.jpgUltimately, the GR Yaris finishes fourth. Morizo is close to the checkered flag of his final lap when he is overtaken by the car behind him. However, this doesn’t stop the entire team from standing up to welcome Morizo back as he rounds the final corner.

sports_007_27.jpgThe machine is put in parce fermé (where the cars are parked) and Morizo walks back to the pit looking invigorated.

sports_007_28.jpgBack in the pit, Morizo finds out that he finished fourth and was overtaken by a rival during his final lap but he smiles. He is enveloped in a sense of satisfaction knowing he had done his best as a “master driver.” Seeing this, all the members of ROOKIE Racing naturally break out into smiles too.

sports_007_29.jpgAfter the Group 2 final, the GR Supra’s race, the Group 1 final, is held.

sports_007_30.jpgThe starting driver is the D driver, Yasuhiro Ogura. It’s his first time being the starting driver. This is a break from his usual routine and poses a different kind of challenge, allowing him to handle unexpected situations in preparation for the upcoming Fuji 24 Hours Race.

sports_007_31.jpgThe final race for Group 1 starts at 1:58 p.m.

sports_007_32.jpgMorizo did not take part, but quietly watches over the GR Supra and his team.

sports_007_33.jpgAfter the 38th lap, Ogura switches with Daisuke Toyoda.

sports_007_34.jpgAt 3:25 p.m., race queens stage a PR event at the event venue, surrounded by fans. Two of ROOKIE Racing’s race queens take to the stage for the first time. Upon seeing them, Morizo too, raises both hands and jumps up and down as he enjoys the event with fans.

sports_007_35.jpgOne hour and forty minutes into the race, two machines crash on the circuit. The race is temporarily red-flagged to clean up the scattered debris.

sports_007_36.jpgThe race is restarted at 4:43 p.m. led by a safety car. The last driver, Naoya Gamou, carries out a wear test on his tires in preparation for the next 24H race, making it a difficult stint, but he does a solid job, finishing 15th.

sports_007_37.jpgAt the post-race meeting, Morizo reflects on the achievements of the GR Yaris to date, and expresses his gratitude to all team members, while also stating that “we will now move on to a new chapter”.

sports_007_38.jpgThey will move on to a new chapter, but the members will remain the same. With this sense of solidarity, they close out their battle at SUGO by once again calling out “Jumbo!” with smiles on their faces.

sports_007_39.jpgNext up is the Fuji SUPER TEC 24 Hours Race. They will take on this latest challenge with new car guys.