This series focuses on ROOKIE Racing's battles as told through photographs by photographer Noriaki Mitsuhashi, with this story covering Round 3 of the 2021 Super Taikyu Series at Fuji Speedway.
The hydrogen-powered engine endeavor is linked to the 5.5 million people in Japan’s automotive industry
Mitsuhashi set out to capture all the historic moments of the hydrogen-powered engine’s debut in the world of motorsports, from its start to finish in the 24-hour race. As he recalls, however, that was not his only mission.
“As Morizo has said, amid differing opinions the best way to demonstrate the safety of the hydrogen-powered engine technology is to actually get behind the wheel of the car himself. The drivers put their bodies and lives on the line to shave off milliseconds, but they are supported by engineers, mechanics, crew members, and the team manning the hydrogen refueling station set up in the paddock. The truth is that ROOKIE Racing’s new hydrogen-powered engine endeavor is linked to the future of the 5.5 million people working in Japan’s automotive industry. Thinking that I myself am one of those 5.5 million, I wanted to convey this reality through my work.”
Mitsuhashi has selected 550 symbolic photos from his vast range of captured stills. The image at the top of this article shows them as a collage, superimposed over the moment when the hydrogen-powered Corolla and the GR Supra finished the 24-hour race.
“The finish line shot had to include the GR Supra, which is also a development model in the same ST-Q class.”
Starting behind the wheel of the hydrogen-powered Corolla was Kamui Kobayashi, a veteran driver who has competed in F1 and the 24 Hours of Le Mans at France’s Circuit de la Sarthe, where he holds the lap record. Even with such a wealth of experience, this would be Kamui’s first time to race in a hydrogen-powered car. It was also the first time for race organizers to set up a hydrogen station in a corner of the paddock, and the first time to witness a refueling crew sending the hydrogen-powered Corolla off with a bow, day and night, heads bent as though in prayer for the car’s safety.
“As Morizo has said, these efforts bring together the people who make, transport and use hydrogen, as well as the people who watch the race. Even though they were not at the track, I could feel the presence of those 5.5 million people watching.”
Through the hydrogen-powered Corolla’s race debut, anyone could be a part of ROOKIE Racing’s first step towards a decarbonized society driven by hydrogen technology. These momentous 24 hours spurred a great deal of excitement and attention.
“Having said that, people can’t maintain the same state of tension for an entire 24 hours. That’s why there were moments like Hiroaki Ishiura sharing a laugh with Morizo in the middle of the night, after the electrical system issue occurred.”
Along with the mission of getting the hydrogen-powered Corolla safely across the finish line, the team also shared a family-like atmosphere that grew naturally out of the 24 hours spent together alongside hydrogen.
“I realized anew that safety and reliability are created by human hands, born from the buildup of mutual trust.”
Surveying the work he had captured over more than 24 hours, that is how Mitsuhashi summed up his experience.
2021 Super Taikyu Series Round 3, Fuji Speedway 24 Hours, as captured by Noriaki Mitsuhashi
United in purpose
Morizo takes the wheel with the hopes of 5.5 million on his shoulders
As Toyota President, JAMA Chairman, and ROOKIE Racing driver, Morizo got behind the wheel of the hydrogen-powered Corolla with the hopes of 5.5 million people riding on his shoulders.
Through motorsports, Morizo embodied his idea of purposeful passion and action for the future. The checkered flag that he and his teammates claimed at two minutes past 3 p.m. also signaled the start of a journey towards that future.
Takuto Iguchi carries out his A-driver duties
Takuto Iguchi's usual carefree smile contrasts sharply with the "zone" he enters upon donning his helmet. He has the air of one taking a big step towards the future, keen eyes focused on a world decades from now.
It was with this mindset that Iguchi carried out his duties as A driver of the hydrogen-powered Corolla.
With experience and a keen sense, Masahiro Sasaki pursues a high-level racing car
Driver Masahiro Sasaki is like the big brother on the team.
He uses his own experience and a finely-honed sense to help set up the hydrogen-powered Corolla.
Among the first to test the vehicle in the development stage, Sasaki has continually sought to create a high-level racing car, identifying improvements that range from relocating auxiliary meters for better visibility to dealing with windshield fogging and water leaks through the roof air inlet.
Gratitude for teammates accompanied Takamitsu Matsui throughout the 24-hour race
With his long-limbed frame, Takamitsu Matsui bends racing cars to his will.
When electrical trouble struck just before midnight, Matsui joined the mechanics to help with repairs. The work ended up taking more than four hours and was not completed until 3:30 a.m.
Matsui was full of gratitude for his teammates as he put on his helmet. The polite, kind-natured 34-year-old bowed to mechanics and engineers as he climbed into the machine.
Hiroaki Ishiura leads the hydrogen-powered Corolla toward the checkered flag
His stint spanned from 4:30 to 6:30 a.m., a particularly challenging leg of the 24-hour race.
During his last run, Ishiura also noticed something wrong with the rear suspension mounting point.
The mechanics made a quick repair, and the baton was safely passed to the final driver, Morizo.
With the keen sense of a veteran Super GT and Super Formula champion, Ishiura led the hydrogen-powered Corolla toward the checkered flag.
Kamui Kobayashi exemplifies the manner of a world-renowned driver
Despite making his first appearance for ROOKIE Racing, Kamui looked more at home than anyone in the team’s colors.
Taking the initiative to speak up, working with mechanics and engineers to repair the broken machine, and being first at the finish line to greet both cars – such is the manner of a global driver who knows how to compete in 24-hour races better than anyone else.
Team Manager Tatsuya Kataoka delivers two outstanding vehicles without a wink of sleep
This year, both machines encountered various troubles, day and night.
Calmly assessing each situation, Tatsuya Kataoka issued instructions to the mechanics and engineers. While the drivers cycled through their six-man rotation, there was only one team manager.
Without a wink of sleep, Kataoka put together two outstanding vehicles in the hydrogen-powered Corolla and the GR Supra.
Project General Manager Yoji Kanie sees the hydrogen-powered Corolla safely on its way
Over the race’s 24 hours, the hydrogen was refueled 35 times.
Each time the freshly-refilled hydrogen-powered Corolla returned to the track, Project General Manager Yoji Kanie from GR Project Operation Division could be found seeing the car off with head bowed, wishing for its safe return.
With all eyes on the hydrogen-powered engine’s performance, behind the scenes the team quietly looked out for each other.
A sincere “thank you” to all those who kept the car running and made it better
Viewed another way, the hydrogen-powered Corolla was made stronger by eight hours of motorsports experience.
During this time, the car was improved by all the mechanics, engineers, and other staff working across company lines to support the project.
To all those involved, a sincere “thank you” for your efforts.
To “make ever-better cars”, the GR Supra also completed the 24-hour race
While the hydrogen-powered Corolla stole the spotlight in this 24-hour race, another ROOKIE Racing car also competed alongside it in the ST-Q class – the #28 GR Supra.
Behind the wheel, the regular team was joined by two professional drivers, Kazuya Oshima and Kenta Yamashita.
Over the 24 hours, all six drivers had four equal stints on the track.
In doing so, each driver played their role in the car’s development.
Despite unforeseeable problems with equipment to illuminate the car number provided by race organizers, the GR Supra itself ran a trouble-free race.
While driving the same circuit in the ST-Q field, the two cars traced very different development paths. Yet they shared a common goal: making ever-better cars.
The smiling faces of 132 people who came together across company and organizational lines to journey forth into the future.
Of course, there are many more members who are not pictured here.
As representatives of 5.5 million people in the automotive industry, their gratitude goes out to all those colleagues united in purpose.