Tuesday, July 30, 2019

VR. G2 Omori Factory Spec

Back in Japan, finally! Traveling is great, but after two weeks on the road nothing feels quite like being back home. This time I had an extra reason to be excited as something special was awaiting at Nismo Performance Center in Setagaya. My Fairlady Z Ver. Nismo is back, with a twist!

Some of you might be familiar with my tire-fiasco earlier in June, when the old Bridgestone Potenza literally crumbled under the weight of the car. The Z was at Nismo for the whole duration of my trip, which gave the guys plenty of time to perform a through health check, change all fluids, renew the shaken and, obviously, fit some new rubber (Michelin PS4). What I hadn’t anticipated was being able to find a set of VR. G2 Omori Factory Spec. This was a Japan-only limited release for the Fairlady Z and featured dedicated offset, extra knurling, a gloss black finish and the Nismo logo machined on one of the spokes. I think they look fantastic and give the car a whole new look!

More good news come from the weather front, as the rainy season is over and it finally feels like proper summer - time to drive! I clocked over 800km in the past two weekends alone, mostly running around the Shutoku Expressway.

This also included a 4 hours Saturday night session where I hit the holy trinity of Wangan parking areas Tatsumi/Daikoku/Umihotaru twice in a row. Running the Tokyo Bay Aqua Line (an underwater, 24 kilometers tunnel with no speed cameras connecting Chiba to Kanagawa) I also realized that the Z is still electronically limited to 180km/h. Time to do something about it?

Clear weather also means busier parking areas, and Tatsumi never disappoints. I remember seeing this group of R34s parked at Omori Factory on the very day I took delivery of my CRS. Small world, uh? 

Besides my Fairlady there was also another Nissan in the parking lot, a rather nice R35 Nismo finished in silver. 

You could be forgiven to think this was a car meet of sort, but no, it’s just a standard Sunday afternoon in Tokyo on a nice, hot summer day.

After a few days of consecutive driving the Z feels less grumpy and the engine revs more smoothly. It probably had been sitting for quite a while and it’s getting better after each drive, almost as I’m breaking it in again. I even went to extreme lengths to test the drink-holding capabilities of the spoiler with this limited edition “Shonan Coke” that tastes exactly like standard Coke!

Driving the Fairlady on the super smooth Tokyo expressway is fantastic, however, now that is fitted with fresh new tires, isn’t it time to take it for a proper shakedown somewhere more appropriate? I think so. 

Until next time.

Thursday, July 25, 2019

Italy’s Dream Factories

Second and final destination of my European trip was Italy, where I planned to visit my family. I go back every couple of years, but, while I usually tend to stay local, this time I decided to carry on with the car-themed vibe of my holiday. After all, is there a better place when it comes to explore automotive culture?

So, after three very stressful hours on the Italian expressways we finally reached our first stop: Pagani factory in San Cesario sul Panaro.

I guess by now most long time readers will be well aware of my fascination for this brand, but fear not, this blog is not turning into “Pagani-Zonda.com” anytime soon. However, these cars are so unique and rare that it would be a crime not to feature them. 

Admission to the Pagani Museum is not cheap, but this is the only opportunity that most of us mere mortals will ever have to see so many of these cars in one place. With roughly 300 units produced over 20 years and an average price tag of several million dollars, what are the chances of running into one?

The museum is really nothing more than a large gallery hosting a small collection of the most iconic variations of the Zonda and Huayra.

Most of them are cars that Mr. Pagani had to buy back from their original customers, while others are bit more special

Like the Zonda development mule, nicknamed “La Nonna” (grandmother in Italian), this car served as the development rig for most parts and upgrades of the successive evolutions and, after covering over 500,000km, it was meticulously restored before being retired.

Having known the brand for years I didn’t find any big surprise, yet it was cool to to see in person some of the things that really set Pagani apart. Look at this set of A/C unit control covers, made of ivory and mother of pearl! I can’t imagine this working well on any other car, but for some reason they would fit beautifully in a Zonda.

Talk about rare, they even had one of the only five Zonda Cinque Roadsters in the world.

This car was bought back and added to the collection for an impressive 11 million Euros.

After exploring the museum we headed inside the factory for a 30 minutes tour. As you can imagine no cameras were allowed in, but the place really lives up to the expectations. This factory takes the meaning of “handbuilt” to a whole different level.

After leaving Pagani we headed to Bologna for a night out and some food.

I couldn’t quite understand back then, but after 12 years living in Japan I now get it why Italy is such a popular country for tourism. Nothing quite matches the vibe you’ll get exploring restaurants and bars on a hot summer night.

The next day we headed to Maranello for a mandatory visit to Ferrari.

Ferraris are a fairly common sight in Tokyo and I believe I’ve been lucky enough to see in person pretty much all the most iconic models. Nonetheless, the museum is definitely worth a visit.

The selection of cars exhibited was fantastic and included both road and race cars from all eras.

I know some might be outraged by this, but after Pagani even the hyper-exclusive LaFerrari looked like a normal production car.

The trophy hall with the F1 World Championship winning machines was definitely special.

I just recently started to follow the sport back again, but in the early 2000s I remember witnessing the absolute Ferrari dominance in F1 during the Schumacher era.

Despite being the only car guy in my family I was glad to see them enjoying the trip and getting up and close with cars that otherwise would be a rare sight in Italy.

As a final verdict looks like my dad became a bit of a Pagani fan and my mom declared the new Ferrari Portofino the most beautiful car she’d ever seen.

We then headed back home for a few days filled with pasta and way too many espressos.

Going back is always enjoyable and nothing is as special as family time. On the other hand, having moved to Tokyo at 21 I now consider Japan home when it comes to daily life.

Overall this trip was absolutely fantastic and I managed to tick quite a few boxes off my list of must-try car related experiences. Now time to head back to Japan for more adventures!

Until next time.

Monday, July 15, 2019

Exploring the Nürburgring

The morning after the race felt a bit surreal as, in an incredible logistic effort, all the teams along with the thousands of spectators had left the circuit overnight. Besides a few trucks still leaving the paddock and some minor cleaning ongoing you would have never guessed that the biggest GT race in the word had taken place on this very circuit just 12 hours prior.

This was an ideal scenario as it allowed me to enjoy life at the Nürburgring without having to deal with lines and crowds. As you can imagine the whole surrounding area revolves around the circuit and there is plenty to do and see. First stop was the iconic Nürburg Castle. Easily accessible from the the track it offers a great aerial view of the region and its calm atmosphere was a welcome change after two intese days trackside.

Walking around town you are reminded at every corner how deeply motorsport history is rooted in this place.

The circuit also hosts a very well curated museum where you can explore the history of the track and German motorsport.

You would find a great variety of racecars, memorabilia and small attractions and I would definitely recommend a visit.

Another must-stop is the famous ED Tankstelle service area, down the Döttoinger Höhe main straight. This is an iconic place renown for being the go-to service area during track days as well as a great food spot and souvenir shop.

The Döttoinger Höhe area is also home of what could be easily described as “motorsport-land”: a long boulevard where some of the major car makers, racing teams and parts manufacturers run their R&D facilities, taking advantage of being conveniently located next to the best test track in the world.

My first stop was at Manthey Racing, Porsche backed racing team and possibly the equivalent of Omori Factory in the Porsche universe. The staff was very friendly and besides picking up a few souvenirs I also had the chance to get up and close with their Nordschleife record holder GT2 RS MR democar.

Most of the other facilities, like Öhlins, weren’t really open to public; nonetheless it was cool to see some of the most famous names in the world co-existing so close to each other.

I wonder if the staff ever feel the urge of peeping inside their neighbor’s yard from time to time.

Of course, no Nürburgring trip would make much sense without a few laps on the Nordschleife. 

I drove 5 laps in a VW Polo GTi fitted with upgraded brakes and Michelin Pilot Sport 4. As a Nordschleife first-timer with very limited driving ability and track experience I can best sum up those laps as one of the best adrenaline rushes of my life. I also booked a passenger lap on a McLaren 600LT on sport tires, definitely the fastest (and most expensive) taxi ride I’ve ever had. 

The famous parking area in front of the gates was a fantastic place to cool off in between laps and enjoy the atmosphere trackside. From lightweight beaters to some of the finest track-ready machines on sale today, the diversity of cars lapping the ‘Ring during these sessions is just incredible.

The famous Devil’s Diner in the middle of the parking quickly became my go-to afternoon coffee spot.

Speaking of food, German cuisine might not be the lightest, but a good schnitzel is hard to resist!

The 4 days I spent after the race were absolutely fantastic. I have been to a few circuits, but nothing quite matches the blend of history, passion, tradition and technology that you would find at the 'Ring.

The local hospitality was great and there is so much to do and discover both on and off the track. As somebody who is lucky to live in a country with a very distinct and unique automotive culture I really enjoyed exploring such an iconic place and I’m sure I’ll visit again.

Danke, Nürburgring.

Until next time.

Sunday, July 7, 2019

Nürburgring 24 Hours 2019

The short summary of this post would be that visiting the Nürburgring and attending the 24h race is possibly one of the best experiences I’ve ever done as a car enthusiast. If you have the chance I would absolutely recommend doing it. 

Like many of us my fascination for this place started with magazines, followed by countless virtual laps on Gran Turismo and hours spent on Best Motoring videos. I’m also the lucky owner of a Nür spec BNR34, a car with racing competition pedigree on the ‘Ring and named after course itself. So, after a year of procrastination I thought it was time to pay a visit to what is regarded as the ultimate circuit on the planet. My trip consisted of the full 24h race weekend, followed by four more days spent driving on track and exploring the Eifel area surrounding the circuit.

I arrived on Friday morning, a full day before the race start, and quickly reached my hotel in Müllenbach (a small town five minutes away from the track) after an effortless two hours drive from Frankfurt. The German Autobahn really does live up to its reputation: the tarmac surface was smooth, the scenery incredible and German drivers have impeccable manners. What’s even better is that it’s completely toll free! 

After dropping my luggage I headed straight to the circuit where I couldn’t help but marvel at the size of the facility, especially the hospitality area: the ‘Ring really is a juggernaut of a track!

The second thing that struck me is the German efficiency and how everything was easily accessible despite the thousands of people attending. Two effortlessly purchased standard tickets granted me both parking and full access to all areas of the track for the whole three days of the race (except the private VIP lounges, of course). Easy and simple! Maybe Japanese organizers should take note?

To my surprise this also included access to the paddock area: you could easily peep inside top teams garages minutes after they finished battling in the super lap qualifying session. Something unheard of in Japan and proof that when manners and common sense meet a well organized event there is no need for crazy restrictions.

The Nürburgring 24h is often regarded as the biggest GT race in the world and it’s not hard to understand why. Up to 7 teams in different classes would share a single garage and with over 100 cars entering the race it makes for the most diverse field you can imagine, from top level factory backed GT3 cars to amateur and ladies-only teams!

The qualifying laps went by very quickly, with Mercedes taking the top spot, followed by a fleet of Porsches.

After the qualifying session all cars were taken to the parc fermé for technical inspection. At the time that I'm publishing this post, looks like the second place finisher (the Porsche #911 entered by Manthey Racing) has been disqualified to a post race penalty concerning the car's power output.

Having full access to the track really allowed me to take in all the details and follow the race events as they unfolded. It was cool to see the procedures that take place behind the scene and how much work is required to field one of these machines.

The day of the race I woke up nice and early and secured a spot on the famous M-Power tribune on the main straight where all the cars were lining up for the formation lap. Again, pictures just don’t do justice to the sheer size of the event and palpable tension in the atmosphere ahead of the start.

After enjoying the first hour from the main stand I started to make my way around the track, pretty much following the layout of the course. 

There are several spots from where race action can be enjoyed. I started from the iconic Hatzenbach, which is pretty much the first corner of the Nord course.

One of the most unique aspect of this race are definitely the fans camping trackside, with some of them spending a full week at the Nürburgring just enjoying barbecues, beers and some of the best racing in the world.

The creativity of some set-ups was quite impressive. German racing enthusiasts do go hard and surely take the N24 very seriously when it comes to party!

Few hours in and the sun started to set over the mountains. This was easily my favorite part of the race, with cars appearing from uphill and blasting down the track at full speed, diving into the sunset. Driving a racecar at full speed and in complete control at this time of the day must be incredible.

The diversity of the circuit and the views it offers are something also that is quite unique to the Nürburgring. You can enjoy the fancy hospitality of the main stands, the parties in the camping zone or just detach yourself for a minute and take the moment in. I walked down to Schwedenkreuz and watched the sky turn from dark orange to night blue while GT3 cars were blasting down at over 250km/h; it was a bit surreal and offered a moment of just pure calm, enjoyment and a bit of self reflection.

If straight and cornering speed wasn’t enough, watching the cars blasting down the Fuchsröhre was something else. Think about nose diving from the highest point in a rollercoaster, but in a racecar. I’ll touch on this in a different post, but while games do a very good job in reproducing the track layout they absolutely won’t prepare you for the extreme changes of elevation. 

The night scene was worth the trip alone: the camaraderie between fans, camp fires, neon lights, fireworks, barbecues, music, raves (somehow the Germans seem to be pretty much still into late 90’s tech house) and just some of the most outrageous camping set-ups you can imagine. 

I was also impressed by the manners and respect of the fans both towards the event and fellow enthusiasts. Despite the industrial amount of beer and alcohol that had been flowing from early morning I couldn’t witness a single brawl or act of vandalism. 

After a brief stop back to my hotel for some sleep and food I returned to the track for the last hours of the race. People asleep in the stands, early morning schnitzels and large coffees were the tell tale signs of a night spent partying and watching some of the best racing in the world. 

Audi took home the overall victory, followed by Manthey Racing in their iconic “Grello” livery Porsche GT3 R.

Other teams weren’t as fortunate and came back to the pits showing serious battle scars. It might be a cliché, but photos really don’t do justice to this event, it’s something that must be seen and experienced in person to truly be appreciated. 

Professional and amateur racing meet in an event of massive proportion while drivers, manufactures and fans from all over the planet come together for the biggest race in the world surrounded by a scenery that could be out of a movie. 

Those 20 kilometers of tarmac and the mountains around them are everything that is right about motorsport. I’ll be back.

Until next time.