Monday, May 20, 2019

Finding Inspiration - Zonda 760 Kiryu

So, what else happened over Golden Week? Besides picking up my GT-R (post coming up on June 1st) I just had to get up and close with what I consider the ultimate expression of automotive craftsmanship: the Pagani Zonda.

The R34 might have stolen my heart forever, but putting sentimental value aside for a moment, nothing quite compares to the share presence and sculpture of this car.

Long term readers of this blog will be familiar with my passion/obsession for hand-made, and the ethos behind Pagani is the perfect embodiment of all the things I love when it comes craftsmanship and attention to detail.

The imperceptible irregularities, the hand stitching, the small variations on one-off parts never produced before are not to be mistaken with flaws in any way. Quite the opposite, they blow life into what would otherwise be a rather unanimated object.

Cars like these exude an aura of their own and they have to be seen in real life to be truly appreciated.

Owned by Pagani Japan, this particular model is the Zonda Kiryu (“Kiryu - 希竜” roughly translates as “rare dragon” in Japanese); a complete bespoke project based on the 760 series, which is the final, most extreme evolution of the Zonda. The car was unveiled during a special event at Fuji Speedway in 2016.

It’s said that Horacio Pagani personally specced this car himself, choosing a combination of naked and blue tinted carbon highlighted by matte anodized details all over the body. 

At a time when everybody seems to endlessly chase Nürburgring lap times and claims for the title of “fastest this” and “lightest that”, Pagani preferred to take a less travelled route, and a way more fascinating one in my opinion.

While these cars are incredibly sound from an engineering and mechanical point of view, Pagani was never interested by outright performances. However, he was rather intrigued by Leonardo Da Vinci’s quote that say “Art and science can walk hand in hand”. The smallest part, down to every single nut and bolt had to be not only functional to the highest standard, but also beautiful.

Today the Zonda is a 20 years old car that, even in 760 spec, is likely outperformed by entry-level supercars at a fraction of the (multi-million dollar) cost. However, owners appreciate them for delivering the ultimate driving and ownership experience. Numbers are not everything after all.

In 2016 I was able to meet the Mr. Pagani himself during the very first owner’s meeting in Japan. The event culminated with his birthday party held at Gonpachi in Nishiazabu and, believe it or not, we are born on the same day! How many people can say that they crashed Horacio Pagani’s birthday on their own birthday? That was actually the line I used to introduce myself.

My interest for the Zonda dates as back as my passion for the R34, and while many might laugh at the comparison, I think they share a few things in common. Albeit in their own distinct universes they are both cars that, 20 years on, just seem to keep endlessly evolving and living on.

Sure, you won’t find any blue ostrich-leather in the interior, or tinted carbon fiber air snorkel on the roof of my GT-R, but the Zonda was that one car that more then others inspired and influenced the ethos behind my build. Actually, now that I think about it, they do share one very similar component: can you guess which one?

Until next time.

Sunday, May 12, 2019

Golden Week - Super GT Round 2

Golden Week is a period of consecutive holidays that falls between late April and early May, allowing people to enjoy one of the longest breaks of the year. 2019 is actually even longer than normal thanks to the new Imperial transition. As per motorsport tradition, it’s during this week that round 2 of the Super GT series takes place at Fuji Speedway.

To some of my friend’s amusement, attending this event is a small tradition of mine: a day spent trackside watching the best GT racing in the world, enjoying spring weather and Mount Fuji - I’ll take it! The problem with this year’s race is that the weather wasn’t very nice. At all.

I arrived at the circuit in the morning, greeted by clear skies and a nice breeze, grabbed some tempura soba at the restaurant and enjoyed the Porsche Cup sprint race that leads to the main event; everything seemed to go according to plans. 

However, by the time the cars were lined up on the grid, clouds had arrived and rain started to drizzle on the track. Fuji tends to be quite unpredictable when it comes to weather, but the main takeaway here is that things can get nasty very quickly. 

Few minutes into the race a full blown storm was upon the circuit and, after a few laps under safety car, officials eventually decided to call for a red flag and a temporary stop. Talk about timing. Eventually the race resumed, but strong wind combined with a significant drop in temperature made the whole event a lot less enjoyable.

So I decided to move to the more sheltered area behind the main stands, where a few cool cars were on display, starting with this McLaren 720S GT3. 

Very impressive piece of machinery and this particular model was chassis nr.3 that left the customer racing division in Woking. A sister model is currently competing in the GT300 class.

Nissan and Nismo were obviously also present, but there wasn’t much worth to look at besides the new 2019 GT-R in Wangan Blue, this time without the horrendous white stripe: definitely a much better look.

The Lexus stand definitely had the most impressive cars on display. 

The LC500 test mule car is incredible to look at, especially in naked carbon. I am no composite material expert, but the construction on these cars seems to be on the same level as Le Mans prototypes and Formula 1 machines.

The true surprise though, was the LFA parked next to it; and not just “any” LFA, but on of the 50 final Nürburgring Edition in existence.

Finished in the signature orange bespoke for this model the car features a series of upgrades compared to the standard model: 10 extra hp, improved aero, a carbon fixed wing and lighter, race-spec forged Enkei wheels.

It is said that, despite the $375,000 sticker price, the LFA was sold at a loss by Lexus and it’s not difficult to see why. The quality of the carbon construction, the materials and overall finish is a perfect representation of the finest Japanese craftsmanship.

And so, after roaming around the track for a bit longer, I decided to beat the traffic (or at least try to) and left a bit earlier, but not without picking up a few magazines.

Not the day that I hoped for, but sometime you just have to make the most out of it.

Until next time.

Monday, May 6, 2019

New Project Car

Four years ago, shortly after buying my BNR34, the desire for a second car kicked in pretty much right away. I am not going to adventure into the eternal debate of “should you drive the wheels off of your dream car or not”, but I have always looked at the GT-R as that old bottle of Japanese whisky that you open on special occasions. The second car project is something I mentioned about a few times in the past and, along with finishing up the GT-R at Omori Factory, was one of my resolutions for 2019. 

My search started about two years ago, when I began to play with the (short lived) idea of buying another BNR34. I thought this would be a cool choice for somebody who runs a blog named after the model, but quickly realized that it wouldn’t really add anything new to what I have already experienced. The BNR32 and BCNR33 are also too similar and too old to be enjoyed with peace of mind, while the mighty R35 lacks that third pedal and shift lever that I love so much. Other JDM classics like Supra, Evo, Impreza, S2000, etc. haven’t really aged too well in my opinion and, while I always appreciated them, were never cars that I truly desired to own.

Personally I tend to become attached to things: I’d rather own a few selected items that are truly mine and bespoke than flipping through a lot of stuff and never build a real connection with it. This is something that I have found especially true with cars, which is why buying a model that I truly wanted was my single number one priority as, like with the GT-R, it will be a car that I’ll keep forever. Decent power, a manual transmission and reliability were the three other “must” items on my list, which further narrowed the search to very few cars available today.

There is one car, however, that back in 2002 caught my imagination more than others. On the same year when Nissan announced the end of production of my beloved BNR34, they launched a two-seater with captivating, modern lines, a torquey 300ps V6 and, most importantly, a very reasonable price point and a global market release: the Fairlady Z (or 350Z for us Europeans). The Z quickly became my realistic “dream” car at that time, as I spent the next 2-3 years reading favorable reviews on Evo Magazine and watched it capturing two series title in JGTC and Super GT. Priced around €30,000 and with a design that clearly broke away from the late 90’s boxy Japanese looks, it was something that normal kids like me could really see themselves owning one day.

Today the standard Fairlady Z looks a bit dated and rough around the edges, but in 2007/2008, Nismo (through Autech) grabbed a few hundred models, stiffened the chassis with extra spot welding, fitted the newest and better performing VQ-HR engine, a set of Yamaha dampers, Nismo suspensions and an aero kit with a generous front splitter and rear wing that, when matched with a nice set of wheels, makes the car look incredibly good.

The Fairlady Z Nismo Version was released in limited numbers only in Japan and US; being built at the very end of the Z33 lifecycle it was basically the most refined version of the model and, besides the extra tuning, contained all the improvements made over the years. I know, some of you might be disappointed for it being “just a Z”, but reality is that the Nismo Version is probably faster than a stock BNR34 on most circuits. Besides, I do really like it and it has all the qualities to become the perfect Japan tourer and occasional track-day companion.

Being naturally aspirated and rear wheel drive the Z also offers a fairly different experience from the BNR34 and, from a design point of view, I think it looks fantastic: definitely better than the 370Z or - here I dare saying it - the new Supra. It’s also a robust car that given its production numbers is very easy to maintain. And while it might have ended up as a cheap “beater” overseas, in Japan the Z enjoys a good following, so much so that Omori Factory is still releasing parts and tuning menus for it, as well as supporting a one-make series named “Z Challenge”. 

I ran into a few models at Nismo Festival and Omori Factory and had the opportunity to check the car up and close before making up my mind. The final bit of news is that, after months of looking around, few weeks ago I ran into the perfect example: an unmolested, 19,000km model and pulled the trigger right away. A quick drive around the block confirmed my suspicion that, as always, the internet experts have been too harsh in slamming it as “old and unrefined”: sure, it’s not a modern 911, but it delivers a nice lower torque range punch, looks great and it’s a ton of fun! More importantly, it’s a car that can be enjoyed with peace of mind and looks like the perfect match for my GT-R. The only question is: will I resist the temptation and leave it stock, or should I add my own touch as I did with the R34? Let me know your thoughts and stay tuned!

Until next time.

Tuesday, April 30, 2019

2020 GT-R Nismo

It’s been a while and a few busy weeks since my last post, but hopefully I’ll be able to share soon what I’ve been up to. In the meantime I thought I’d share a few shots of the new 2020 GT-R Nismo that I took at Nissan Crossing on the very day of its launch in New York.

The car is an absolute piece of kit and a showcase of how skillful Nissan has become in the carbon composite department. The aero upgrades start with the new vented carbon fenders: derived from GT3 racing they are designed to eliminate some of the aerodynamic lift, but look a bit too add-on-ish in their design. Personally I prefer the N-attack package ones.

The carbon treatment has been carried on to  the bonnet, too. In line with modern standards, the construction of the NACA duct is absolutely perfect and while it obviously holds no comparison, it makes the old carbon bonnet of the R34 V-spec II even more impressive for its era.

In what is possibly a first for Nissan, the car also sports a carbon roof. I am no engineer, but I’m not sure what the performance gains will be on a car that is so tall and heavy by design.

Besides the new turbos (buried in the engine bay) that allegedly provide 30% more response, the biggest performance upgrade has to be the massive Brembo carbon-ceramic setup (410mm up front and 390mm at the rear).

They will surely come handy on track, but the bright yellow color of the calipers (apparently chosen for its heat resistance) doesn’t really match the overall look of the car in my eyes.

You might have already guessed it by the tone of the post, but I have to confess that this is the first “new” GT-R model that leaves me a bit dubious: as impressive as it is also shows how badly Nissan needs to retire a car that has done everything it could for the brand and the fans, and then some.

In my opinion a model can be face-lifted so many times before it starts to detract from the its original ethos and the R35 has really started to see one too many variations. Between pre and post MY17 face-lift, I lost count of the number of limited edition released for the R35, so much so that I’m not anymore sure what the really special ones are. And this is something that should never happen.

To further add to this point, this is probably not even the last iteration of the model as Nissan will surely release one final edition before ending its production sometimes after 2020.

The 50th Anniversary model was on display on the first floor and while the Wangan Blue color is a nice nostalgic move and a nod to the original Bayside Blue (not the same color code though), everything else is a bit of a disaster.

The quality of the stripe is simply poor, the huge font decal on the back is horrible and the overall design is something that looks carried straight from a Hot Wheels model car. The GT-R is undoubtedly Nissan’s most iconic car and to think that this was the best product they could realize to commemorate a once in a century milestone like its 50th anniversary is a bit sad. What a missed opportunity.

If you are a GT-R fan you probably are also a Nissan fan, and being attached to a brand often means forgiving it a few missteps, but also being a harsh critic as you want to see it doing well. Nissan is going through its toughest time since the bankruptcy woes of the lates 90’s and I look forward to seeing the brand returning to its former splendor soon.

Until next time.

Saturday, April 6, 2019

Patience & Sakura

One thing I learned about car restoration and tuning projects is that patience is the name of the game: they will inevitably take longer than expected. A couple weeks delay has turned in almost a month and now my GT-R should be ready before Golden Week. It’s really 95% finished and awaiting just a few final touches, but the good news are that it turned even better than I originally imagined.

No car means more killing time around and sakura season has helped with that as I spent a couple of afternoons enjoying one of the most famous Japanese traditions.

Today I headed to Odaiba for some car spotting at Motorsport Japan.

Nothing too different from the previous editions, but great weather, cool cars and coffee always make it for a good morning.

It was cool to see one of the most iconic Italian rally heroes receiving much love from Japanese enthusiast. It does make me wonder what would have taken in the 80’s to import one of these from Italy, but Japan is renowned for being home of some very passionate collectors.

The event is divided in two parts: a sort of concourse d’elegance for vintage JDM metal and rally cars replicas and some promotional booths and small events to promote sports cars and motorsport to the general public. Nothin earth shattering, but it was cool to see the old JGTC Fairlady Z on display.

I have a soft spot for this racecar and I think it looks as good as the BNR34 that it replaced in 2004.

I love the vintage Nismo stickers and Super Coppermix mascotte!

And, of course, if cars are not enough you can always count on Japan being Japan and nonchalantly place a real-life sized Gundam next to a shopping mall.

Bonus points: I scored a very old 1:43 scale model of the old Nissan Prince BNR34 that competed in Super Taikyu N1 back in 1999 for a mere ¥2,000! Some of the staff that now works at Nismo Performance Centre in Setagaya, like Yamada-san, used to work as race mechanics of this very team and honed their skills on track before start taking care of road going customer cars.

Thanks for stopping by today.

Until next time.