Kagawa Visits the Nürburgring (Part One)


Toyota Times editor-in-chief Teruyuki Kagawa is off to visit Germany to report on Toyota’s racing activities.

Kagawa had previously questioned why Toyota feels a need to take part in motorsports.

To answer the question, he heads to the Nürburgring circuit in Germany.

With limited time on the ground, only one and a half days, Kagawa did his best to keep up his energy as he worked. With camera in hand, he worked from morning till night, and met with all kinds of people, from fans to mechanics, including reporting from the pits, by the track, and from the stands.

The video report has been edited into the accompanying 10-minute long video. Even then, 10 minutes was not enough to encompass the entire experience.

1. On the Road to Nürburg, Germany!

Many of you may not have heard of the Nürburgring.
So what is the Nürburgring?
1) Jewelry or a ring made in Nürburg, or 2) A ring around Nürburg?

The second one is correct.
It’s a ring—or in other words, a loop road, or a circuit—that goes around the town of Nürburg.
Since “Nürburgring” is a long word, we’ll fall in line with the local vernacular and just call it ‘the Ring’ from here.

Knowing that the Ring is about two hours by car from Frankfurt, Kagawa arranged his flight to arrive at Germany’s Frankfurt Airport.
This is where the video begins, at Frankfurt Airport.

When reporting on the ground from Detroit in January, Kagawa told Akio Toyoda that he sees a risk that sports cars might be seen by many as just a hobby.

After landing at Frankfurt, Kagawa remarked that racing is “a hobby,” just as he had in Detroit.

“Racing is just one of [Akio’s] hobbies, right?”
He was there, though, to go and see what exactly the company is doing on the track, and to learn why this is so important to Toyota. So he set off for Nürburg.

Despite having just arrived, Kagawa was anxious to cover the necessity of racing. As he traveled in the car, he turned on his camera and started to think out loud while recording.

“For most people, they don’t see Toyota as a company that makes fast cars.”

“I wonder if racing is really necessary.”

“If Toyota is just doing this as a hobby, then I might question the president.”

Kagawa genuinely wanted to understand this part of Toyota’s operations so much that he took time from his normally crammed schedule as an actor, teacher, and commentator to fly all the way to Germany.

If this was indeed just a hobby, then he planned to confront Akio Toyoda when they met next. He said: “When I see him, I’ll ask him. I’ll say: ‘Give me an explanation!’”

It was clear that his excitement was growing as he talked into his camera.
Meanwhile, the car just kept heading to Nürburg.

By the time he arrived at the Ring, it was already pitch black.
Checking into the hotel, the only thing visible outside was a glowing sign that said “Nürburgring.”

Fortunately, Kagawa was shown to a room with a view of the track; unfortunately, it was too dark to see anything that first night.

2. What Exactly is the Nürburgring?

It’s time for a brief explanation about the Ring.
You can find a more detailed explanation on the TOYOTA GAZOO Racing site. For now, please find some of that information copied and pasted below.

Even professional drivers fear the Nürburgring.

Popularly known as “The Green Hell,” the Nürburgring is a circuit located in the northwest of Germany.

There are two tracks at the complex: the Grand Prix track is 5.1 km in length, and hosts F1 and WEC races;

the Nordschleife (“North Loop”) is 20.8 km in length, and is combined with the Grand Prix track to form a 25 km-long course.

While the Nordschleife is formally a circuit, its layout resembles typical regional European roads. One loop has a maximum elevation difference of 300 m, and features more than 170 corners of varying lengths.

It is an extremely diverse course, with some sections requiring low speeds, and others extremely high speeds.

A comparison with Japanese circuits reveals the vastness of the Nürburgring:

Fuji Speedway is 4.563 km long, with an elevation difference of 40 m, and 16 corners; Suzuka Circuit is 5.807 km, with an elevation difference of 40 m, and 20 corners.

Racing circuits are typically covered with smooth road surfaces;

however, due to issues with paving technologies when the surface was first laid in 1927, the surface of the Nürburgring is almost entirely uneven. It is enough to make drivers wonder whether any part of the circuit is flat at all.

In addition, there is reduced traction due to dust, the course is narrow, and escape zones are rare.

Given that cars take off at some points, and that there are a number of blind, high-speed corners, it is perhaps more accurate to describe the Nordschleife as a one-way mountain pass than a circuit.

For the above reasons, the Nürburgring is said to be a living course that condenses all the world's roads into a single circuit, and is famed as one of the world's hardest courses.

Not so much a racetrack, it’s more akin to a normal road running through passes.

As the only course in the world where a road as brutal as this stretches for 20.8 km, it is considered a holy site for car development, and automobile manufacturers constantly visit to test and improve their cars.

The course is also known for the danger it presents to drivers.
For example, President Toyoda was once quoted as saying:

I trained for my ‘master driver’ designation driving the Supra a long time ago. I went to the Nürburgring together with Mr. Naruse, who taught me how to drive the car.

“Many cars were driving more than 200 km/h, so it was so scary for me to join the circuit and drive the Supra.”

“One lap is about 10 minutes. I wondered: “10 minutes from now, will I still be alive?!?””

“Will I return alive when the 10 minutes are up?”
What’s the point in going that fast around the Ring if becomes a life-or-death experience?

3. Thick Fog

TOYOTA GAZOO Racing has taken part in the 24 Hours of Nürburgring every year since 2007. This year was no different; the team had already announced that they would take part in the 24 Hours that was to be held in June.

On this occasion, the race which Kagawa would be reporting on was a four-hour endurance race used more as a sort of preparatory battle for the official 24 Hours race.
Today, the heats started at 8:30 in the morning, with the final heats from 12 noon until 4 p.m.

Kagawa, on such a tight schedule, only had one day that he could be there to report on racing.
As such, he intended to head to the track first thing in the morning. He was hoping to interact with fans to see how they enjoyed the races.

He had heard ahead of time that one of the best parts of races in Europe, and especially at the Nürburgring, was how fans enjoyed themselves.

When it was about time to depart, the team went to collect Kagawa for the day.
Kagawa had drawn open the curtains to his room, and was looking outside at the scenery.

From his veranda, overlooking the track, he could definitely see the track’s home straight spreading out.
However, the circuit’s famed red-and-white striped curb blocks were only dimly visible.
There was a thick fog hanging over everything.

“They’re going to race in this?” Kagawa muttered to himself.

“If they don’t race, we’re in trouble. If there’s no race, what will we report on?”

Nevertheless, the group set out to the track to where the fans would be gathered.

4. It’s Like Cherry Blossom Viewing in Japan

The Nordschleife at the Ring is almost all forested.
Even walking through the woods, it was easy to see that a number of fans had already gathered at the side of the course.
The heats had not yet started; there were no cars on the track.
Yet everyone already seemed to be having fun.

Kagawa pointed out the flow of the course, saying: “The cars come down here, then shoot off there!”

From the shot in the video, it is clear that no cars are on the course.
The time was just after 8:30 in the morning.
But a close look at the shot will show you that the fog was lifting.
The viewing spot Kagawa had chosen was more than 6 km from the pits, which were still blanketed in thick fog.

As noted before, one lap of the course is 25 km.
If this was placed over Tokyo, it would cover roughly Shinjuku, Shibuya, Roppongi, Ginza, and Suidobashi.
There are hills as well; weather changes can be abrupt.
Often the case but sometimes when it’s sunny in the pits, the far side of the course might have pouring rain.
There have even been times when it has hailed in just one specific part of the track during a race.

Perhaps because they’ve become accustomed to this sort of thing, the fans did not seem particularly agitated that there were no cars racing. In fact, it was clear that they were just enjoying the moment.

Kagawa started up conversations with some fans.
Some of them were lighting barbecues; some were drinking beer out of large glasses. Others were watching the course from their beds inside campervans. To pass the time, Kagawa went and bought a currywurst (curry sauce on pork sausage) with fries.

It seemed like everyone was enjoying the situation in their own way.
Even without the cars, they were all clearly having fun.
So was the case for the editor who was also starting to have fun.

The culture of the track was reminiscent of a cherry blossom viewing party in Japan, noted Kagawa. At a cherry blossom viewing party, though there to enjoy the beauty of the blossoms, many don’t really spend a lot of time looking at the trees. But it’s still fun. Of course, spending the time with others is the real highlight.

So, even though the race hadn’t started, everyone was already happy. The comparison to a cherry blossom viewing party in Japan seemed accurate enough.

At the track, there weren’t any aids to help fans follow the cars, like huge screens.
As such, even if the race had started, the fans would not be able to follow the progress, cheering or gasping as they watched.
Despite all of that, the culture of coming to simply enjoy the race was refreshing.

5. The “Green Hell” Unleashed Before Our Eyes

At about 11 a.m., the fog finally cleared, and cars started shooting by.
It looked like the race was on.
Kagawa got a look of relief, since he had come to better understand racing, after all.

Watching the footage from the track, the first racecar Kagawa saw was a Nissan GTR.
While it wasn’t a Toyota, the majority of the cars at the Ring were, as expected, local German cars—Porsches, BMWs, Mercedes, Audis, etc.
Normally, the Japanese automakers visible at the track included Toyota and Subaru.
But this year, Masahiko Kondo’s team from Nissan had announced that they would also be taking part.

*Subaru’s participation announcement
*KONDO Racing Team’s participation announcement

The thunder of the racecars passing by on the other side of the chain-link fence echoed off the banks.
Kagawa compared the noise to the roaring of ferocious predators.
It was easy to see his increasing levels of tension and excitement as he watched.

Not long after seeing several racecars go by, something happened that transformed his expression. Several cars had bunched up, and the moment they became visible around the turn, one of the cars lost control. It tumbled over and over, finally ending up caught on the guardrail.

Kagawa’s expression chilled instantly as he watched and waited to make sure the driver was safe.

The driver was able to get out of his crashed car on his own. The watching fans burst out in applause out of sheer relief. Kagawa let out an unconscious “Incredible” as he joined the applause, clapping to celebrate the driver’s safety.

After that, his words just tumbled out:
“He’s risking his life….” “It happened right in front of us, but at least the driver was safe….”
“I wonder if doing something this risky is really necessary.”
“But, conversely, I’d like to know why they want to take these risks.”

Seeing the “Green Hell” exert its toll right in front of his eyes, Kagawa was more determined than ever to find out why Toyota was taking part in races.

Following that feeling, he left the forested North Loop to head to the Grand Prix track, where the pits are.
He was ready to finally talk with the people actually involved in racing.

6. I Didn’t Know This Bit

The current race was halfway around the Grand Prix track and then into the North Loop.
After completing the 20 km section of the North Loop, the cars merged back onto the Grand Prix track for a total length of 25 km per lap.

The Grand Prix track has a different air than the North Loop.
It’s more like tracks in Japan such as the Suzuka Circuit or the Fuji Speedway, and features impressive stadium seating.

When Kagawa arrived, the final race was just about to start.
First, he watched the cars start the race from the spectator seating in the Main Stand, which offered a panoramic view.

More than 150 racecars had lined up on the grid.
They all set off at once, but they didn’t seem to be at full throttle yet.

Endurance races often have what is known as a “rolling start.”
As the phrase suggests, they start the race already under way.
However, they still have to maintain the same order of vehicles, following the pace car.
Then, once the pace car has left the track and the race has started, they all mash their accelerators to the floor.

In the video, the scene shows the spectators watching the cars on the screen just as the drivers all went to full throttle. And thus the race began.

Viewing this, Kagawa turned and said something.
But no one could hear him.

Though he might have said “The cars!” or “They are fast!”, whatever he said was carried by a clear expression of shock on his face.

Finally, his voice came through – he was saying: “The noise!”
Kagawa continued to speak to camera, giving his impressions.

“I didn’t know everything about cars until now. I… didn’t know this bit….”

What is this “bit” that Kagawa didn’t know?
Almost certainly, it was the “racehorse” part that he learned about from Akio Toyoda on a previous occasion.

Back when Kagawa met and interviewed Akio in Detroit, Akio had told him:
“A century ago, there were 15 million horses in the United States.”
“Those 15 million horses have now become [15 million] cars. But we still have horses—racehorses!”
“[It is] so that the cars that will remain will be those that are fun to drive. That’s why I want to make sports cars.”

This was probably the first time Kagawa had seen for himself the spectacle of cars as “racehorses” thundering past.
To get a closer look at these “racehorses,” he headed to the pits next.

7. To the Pits

Before entering the pits, earphones were handed out.
Facing the camera, Kagawa explains: “Through these, we get the live feed from the pits.”

He was referring to the team’s wireless net.
The first thing that could be heard when the earphones were put in was a set of mechanics’ voices.
The chiefs were talking to the crew, instructing them on what to do the next time the car came into the pit.

As imagined, when a car comes into the pit, the whole place is incredibly noisy.
It’s impossible to carry on a normal conversation. So everyone uses the wireless net to give and receive orders.

In the earphones, it was possible to hear both the mechanics and the driver’s conversations. A sample of the conversations was like this:
“Stay alert—we just got word of a crash at a corner and there’s a speed restriction in place.”
“How much fuel do you have left?”
“Do one more lap then head to the pit.”
At the chief’s signal, the car returned to the pit,
At the same time, the mechanics were instructed to replace the tires.

Then the chief mechanic went over to the younger mechanics, and told them directly, without using the wireless, “Are you nervous? Relax, relax!”

In an interview that followed the races, Chief Mechanic Toshiyuki Sekiya described the expression on the faces of the young mechanics as “looking as frozen and expressionless as the Great Buddha.”
He noticed these nervous young mechanics awaiting their first pit work and called out to them to help them relax.

Talking of pit expressions, the scowling faces of the chiefs were more like the fearsome Deva Kings at times.

In particular, the other chief mechanic, Yasuo Hirata, was like a demon sergeant from hell.
His expression in the pit was forbidding, at times even demonic.

But it’s quite obvious why the chief mechanics, the people in charge in the pits, look so forbidding.
It’s because they hold the driver’s life in their hands.
If their mechanical work isn’t perfect, it could cause a disaster.
So it makes sense that they look like the Deva Kings (Nio), who guard temples against evil.

Before long, the young mechanics had finished their first pit job.
The car headed back out to the track, and the old tires were carried into the pit.
There was an impressive amount of heat coming off the tires. Kagawa reaches his hand close, confirming that they were indeed very hot.
He was unaware of how hot tires could be after a race.

The first pit stop completed, Kagawa was allowed to talk with the crew, provided that no major problems cropped up.

While the heat of the race was still around him, Kagawa began asking them, “Why is Toyota involved in racing?” “Why are you here at the Ring?”

(Continued in Kagawa Visits the Nürburgring (Part Two))