This new Toyota Times series introduces how photographer Noriaki Mitsuhashi captures the battles of ROOKIE Racing. This installment zooms in on the action of Round 5 of the Super Taikyu Series, which was held at Autopolis (Oita, Japan) in December.
The theme this season: Capturing and showing how the GR Yaris and GR Supra came to be fast and strong
“More than anything, I wanted to capture a shot in the last race of the year that symbolized ROOKIE Racing’s journey in 2020. As a photographer, I was thrilled to snap the perfect moment.”
So said photographer Noriaki Mitsuhashi. The scene: Round 5 of the 2020 Super Taikyu Series at Autopolis International Racing Course in Oita Prefecture, Japan. Akio Toyoda, or “Morizo”, behind the wheel of the GR Yaris, and Daisuke Toyoda, commanding the GR Supra, take the checkered flag side by side with other team members.
With this victory, the GR Yaris—Car No. 32—and drivers Takuto Iguchi, Masahiro Sasaki, and Morizo snatched the championship in the ST-2 class (4WD vehicles with a maximum engine displacement of 3,500 cc), with the series final at Suzuka still to go in January.
But Mitsuhashi, shooting ROOKIE Racing throughout the season as a team member himself, has been eyeing through his viewfinder not only the drivers but also the team’s staff members, mechanics, and engineers.
What he has seen has shown him that ROOKIE Racing is a team in which all members unite to push every element of their cars to the limit as they frequent Super Taikyu genba (where the work takes place) in an incessant quest for kaizen (continuous improvement).
The theme of this season’s photo-documenting was not only the evolutionary process of the GR Yaris and GR Supra but also the amount of heat, so to speak, that the team put into that process. As such, the spirit leading up to the checkered-flag scene and a significance that is weightier than just winning the championship are reflected in this single photo.
“To tell the truth, I wanted to capture that moment so much that I asked Team Manager Tatsuya Kataoka to radio Morizo and tell him to control his pace,” Mitsuhashi said.
With only 15 minutes left, the two cars were running at the farthest intervals on the course.
The only way to get the ideal shot was to have Morizo control his pace and slow down.
However, slowing down inevitably increases the number of times other cars can pass by, not to mention an increased risk of vehicle-to-vehicle contact.
That’s especially true in a race’s final stages, when the road surface can be rough.
Even so, Morizo beautifully conceded racing lines to other racers and demonstrated deft pace control, enabling the two cars to line up just when they entered the final lap.
It was “photo-taking mission accomplished”, due to Morizo's skill as a master driver and the lead he had built by then.
This is how ROOKIE Racing was able to conclude Round 5 of the Super Taikyu Series at Autopolis, which was the final race of 2020, and deliver the best photo-taking opportunity possible—the GR Yaris and GR Supra taking the checkered flag side by side.
Below are photos and comments by Mitsuhashi, who witnessed the battle firsthand as the team’s exclusive photographer.
Round 5 of the 2020 Super Taikyu Series at Autopolis, as captured by Noriaki Mitsuhashi
ROOKIE Racing’s final race in 2020 was Round 5 of the Super Taikyu Series, held at the Autopolis race track.
Mechanics rush to investigate the cause of an abnormality sensed in the rear of the GR Supra after the start of driving Friday afternoon.
The culprit was discovered to be the wearing of the hub bearings (part of the assembly that transmits driving force from the driveshaft to the wheels).
The entire ROOKIE Racing team gathers for a morning assembly on Saturday.
Morizo, voicing his appreciation of everyone’s hard efforts this season, reaffirms that ROOKIE Racing is both a team and a family. Thinking about and reaching out to one another—although doing so is natural in ordinary circumstances, at the genba of the circuit, where every second counts, people are overwhelmed by their tasks and tend to even neglect their health. At a frigid Autopolis in December, ROOKIE Racing was able to take in the warmth of Morizo’s feelings. For a moment, stern faces softened.
Morizo hand-delivers a birthday cake to a ROOKIE Racing staff member during the weekend at Autopolis in a surprise celebration in which everyone sings “Happy Birthday”.
Taking good care of others and not letting one’s job title dictate one’s work—that’s what ROOKIE Racing is all about.
All of the team’s drivers gather around the GR Yaris on the grid for ROOKIE Racing’s last race of 2020.
Autopolis in December means low road surface temperatures and more time needed to warm up the tires. So, after a thrice-around formation lap, the final race started at 10:40 a.m., with Sasaki in the GR Yaris and Daisuke Toyoda in the GR Supra.
At last year’s drivers meeting, concerns were voiced about the danger of the guardrail at the far edge of an escape zone at an acceleration section midway through the course circuit. So, spurred by Morizo, and with the cooperation of such parties as Kawasaki Heavy Industries, which manages Autopolis, and Yokohama Tire, a shock-absorbing tire barrier was installed. Here, Morizo himself takes on the related 100R curve there at full throttle.
The GR Supra was driven for one-hour stints rotated by Daisuke Toyoda, Naoya Gamou, Yasuhiro Ogura, and Shunsuke Kohno, in that order. The car completed 142 laps problem-free in the five-hour endurance race.
The GR Yaris also ran for five hours without mishap. Demonstrating it had the strength to continue driving until the end, it chalked up 140 laps.
The driver order for the GR Yaris was Sasaki, Morizo, and then Iguchi. Morizo gave it another go for the last 20 minutes. “Boss” Fumio Kitagawa (“father” to all the team members) sees Morizo off with a fist bump. Words are but a few, as feelings are mutually conveyed through touched fists.
At 3:51 p.m., two cars—the GR Yaris and GR Supra—take the checkered flag together. A fist raised high and illuminated by the sun to the west conveys Morizo’s joy.
A pair of checkered-flag winners walk side by side from parc fermé (post-race vehicle storage). They are Morizo and Daisuke Toyoda—teammates, as well as father and son. Although difficult to come by during a race, they find time for just the two of them.
Seeing the two walking toward them, Sasaki and Iguchi call out. Morizo notices, smiles, and runs over to us at full speed.
High fives of joy with Sasaki and Iguchi. It is here that Morizo learns that the GR Yaris and its drivers have become champions in their class.
From the podium, Sasaki, Morizo, and Iguchi send their joy to team members.
ROOKIE Racing’s 2020 races have all been run. At the end of 2019, Morizo reflected on the season, saying: “It was a tough year, with major accidents in three out of five races.” Without giving up, ROOKIE Racing faced forward and became stronger. As a result, the GR Yaris driven by Morizo won the championship in its class this year. Morizo and ROOKIE Racing never look back.