On the rare occasion I’m invited to compete in a race using a vehicle that doesn’t belong to me, I try to follow some rules: At least keep pace; don’t crash; go in with no expectations.
They seem pretty self explanatory, but the third one is actually the trickiest.
In a perfect scenario, you go in with no expectations, which makes it easier to adjust on the fly and be flexible as time goes on. But Tokuda-san, who invited me to join his small team for the recent 2020 Wako’s 7-Hour Endurance Race at Tokachi International Speedway in Hokkaido, wasn’t big on detail. In fact, all he divulged was that we’d be using a Suzuki Alto Works kei car, and that his team had finished in second place in class at this event last year.
The few weeks leading up to me boarding a plane bound for Japan’s second largest island (something I didn’t think I would be doing so soon in COVID-19 times), my mind was full of questions. I didn’t even know if I’d physically fit in the miniature Suzuki.
Upon arriving at Tokuda’s home away from home, I was finally able to come face to face with the ‘Team Dragon H.R.D Racing’ Suzuki Alto Works.
As it is with race cars, everything that was deemed not necessary was thrown out in an effort to cut weight. Seeing that the Alto Works left the Suzuki factory at under 800kg, it’s hard to imagine it weighing much more than 600kg dry now.
Any extensive engine modifications would see the car having to compete in the Unlimited class, but Tokuda didn’t want that, hence the 660cc motor’s close-to-stock state of tune. The only notable upgrades are a rebuilt turbo and a higher boost setting, although none of the team members could remember exactly how much boost is being produced.
It’s a similar story with the basic coilover suspension upgrade; there are camber adjustable top plates on the front end, but Tokuda has no idea what they’re set to. He just told me not to worry.
These details really didn’t matter though, as there was a serious problem that needed addressing before we’d even make it to the start line.
Takeshi Tajima, the second driver of our three-man team, was hard at work trying to remedy an issue that had occurred during last year’s race. The gasket between the exhaust manifold and the turbo had blown apart, and one of the bolts that mate the two together was seized up and at risk of being snapped off.
With some careful effort we were able to remove the bolt without destroying the threads, but we still didn’t have a replacement gasket on hand to solve the core issue. There would likely be a replacement bolt in Tokuda’s workshop, but for extra insurance we picked up exactly what we needed at a local hardware store.
With no chance of finding a replacement gasket ahead of the following day’s practice session, a rather hasty silicone fix was the only option. We changed the oil, thought about changing the transmission fluid until we realized we didn’t have any, loaded the Alto on the trailer, and got some rest.Tokachi International Circuit Practice
Created during the midst of the Japanese bubble era, Tokachi International Speedway has played host to a number of national Japanese motor racing series including Formula Nippon, the Japanese Touring Car Championship (JTCC), and the Japanese GT Championship.
The circuit can be run in three different configurations with the longest – aptly named the Grand Prix – being 5.09km (3.16 miles) in length and FIA Grade 2 rated. This is the course we’d be using for the Wako’s 7-Hour. For a little perspective on track length, Fuji Speedway is 4.56km (2.83 miles) long.
Despite being built in good economic times, hard times in the years since have taken their toll on the facility. There are visual reminders of this everywhere; some of the original grandstands have even been swallowed up by mother nature.
Stuff that really matters – the track itself and the pit areas – are still maintained, so Tokachi International Speedway sees regular use.
With Saturday being slated for practice only, I used the day to scout decent vantage points to shoot photos from, and at the same time try to get a feel for the track layout.
I can’t remember the last time I walked a pit lane and saw a such a wide variety of cars present.
There were a few in particular that piqued my interest, and I shot those for spotlights. You might have already seen the Suzuki Cappuccino that has me thinking about a new project car…
If there was a winner for the craziest entry in the 2020 Wako’s 7-Hour at Tokachi, then it would have to be this Subaru Sambar.
Even though Subaru placed the Sanbar’s engine out back for better weight distribution, the naturally aspirated mill only makes around 50hp, so this was going to be the slowest thing on track. Not that it mattered; these guys were out to have fun.
For the practise session, Tokuda’s plan was to send me out first; that way I’d have plenty of time to get a feel for the Alto and the circuit. Not having any prior experience behind the wheel of the Suzuki, nor even making a single lap of the track before, I wasn’t keen though. It would have been impossible for me to give feedback on the setup, and the rushed car prep was still weighing heavily on my mind.
Tokuda agreed and set out first on a stint where nothing went pop and the makeshift silicone gasket seemed to hold up fine. He was particularly happy with the Performance Friction (PFC) race pads he had managed to fit in the Alto’s front discs.
Takeshi went out second with no problems either, and returned to the pit early so my extended session behind the wheel could begin. I carefully folded myself into the Alto and set off.Keep Pace But Don’t Crash
Any time I jump on track, my heart rate elevates as I slowly drive down pit lane. Although it takes only a few seconds to get on track, it feels like an eternity as my mind races at a million miles per hour trying to absorb as much feedback I can. In this case, the clutch pedal felt hilariously light in comparison to what I run in Project Rough, meaning that it would take some time to get used to heel and toe shifting.
Just as I was about to cross the circuit entry line, I reminded myself to keep pace with Tokuda and Takeshi, but to not crash doing so.
Although it doesn’t have a lot of power on tap, the Alto accelerates quickly because of its light weight. On the flip-side, this acceleration was no match for Tokachi’s long straights, where the turbo 660cc quickly ran out of puff.
Since we were practicing on cheap tires, it was hard to judge exactly how well the turn in was going to be, but even on budget rubber the front-wheel drive style of ‘point and drag your way out’ still applied.
At first the Alto felt alarmingly loose. I expected it to push and understeer, but the back end constantly wanted to step out, which caught me a little off guard. After realizing that the car was more than likely setup to do so, I quickly adapted and let the rotation help point the front in the right direction, as you do in a rear-wheel drive car.
As for the brakes, while Tokuda had praised their performance, I thought they felt rather normal; perhaps not even as good as my ER34, which didn’t really make any sense seeing that the Alto is half the weight. After a few laps, I pitted and told Tokuda; he wasn’t pleased. We decided that we should check the brake system for air, and discovered that indeed it was present. The lack of preparation was starting to bite.
With time running out we quickly bled the brakes, and I went back out on track to see if they had improved – which they had. But now engine power seemed to be an issue; the Alto’s acceleration was seriously lacking. I pitted again, and we checked to see if the silicone gasket was still in one piece. It wasn’t. Undeterred, Tokuda was able to get a few extra hands to help separate the manifold from the turbo housing to make sure he got complete coverage with some new silicone, something we couldn’t do the day before.
Tomorrow was going to be another interesting day. On a positive note though, I hadn’t crashed and I was within a second of Tokuda and Takeshi’s best lap times.Wako’s Endurance Day
Come race day, the atmosphere was completely different. The pits were electric as 49 teams made the final touches to their cars.
In light of the current COVID-19 pandemic, everyone’s temperature was checked before the driver’s briefing, which itself was held outside on the track. Besides going over the rules and safety procedures, the day’s agenda was explained.
A time attack shootout to determine grid position was first up. We decided to keep the same driving order, not only so I would have enough time to take pictures and get back to the pits for my stint, but so Tokuda or Takeshi could pinpoint any new faults with the car.
Tokuda suited up and headed out for a couple of laps before returning to the pits. We had a feeling he would though, as both Takeshi and I had heard what sounded like an engine misfire as he came down the main straight.
The exhaust manifold gasket was our first check, but that looked to be in one piece so we moved on to the spark plugs. As it transpired, one of the plugs was completely covered in build-up. Was this really going to make it seven hours?
With all three plugs replaced, I was sent out to get a feel for the Alto on its grippier tires. All the fixes seemed to work as the car pulled up to its 9,000rpm redline without any hesitation. The new grip also meant that the braking performance had improved too.A Lap Around Tokachi Circuit
Even with all our drama, we still were able to place 27th on the grid, beating out many more powerful cars.
We even placed higher than a brand new Alto Works, which was the icing on the cake. If, as a team, we could make it to the end of the race, we’d surely have a chance at a podium finish. Game on!
Since I don’t have any onboard footage of the race, I’ll try to explain the circuit in words and pictures:
You fly down the main straight at an unknown maximum speed (the speedo only reads to 140km/h) before braking hard for the first turn. Snatching fourth gear, you can late apex and run wide to set yourself up for Turn 2, a slightly tighter right-hand corner. This turn can also be run in fourth gear.
Turn 3 and Turn 4 are a right and left sequence with a short straight between them. Nailing the fourth corner is critical, as driving the Alto you can blend the two corners to form one large left-hand turn. I downshifted into third gear and late apexed again to run wide in order to set up the perfect line for Turn 5. This is flat-out in the Alto, and one of the main sections on the track where the little car really shone.
Turn 6 is a lot like Turn 2 in its approach. The trick came with Turn 7, which at first seems like a carbon copy of Turn 3, but is actually significantly tighter. Overcook it and you will understeer wide and lose precious momentum that you need to carry into Turn 8 and the back straight. Braking hard and grabbing third gear seemed to work best.
The back straight serves only as a painful reminder of how much power is lacking in the kei, and all the hard work put in passing higher-classed cars is reversed in an instant. Making matters worse, the Alto seemed to develop yet another misfire issue that occurred above 7,500rpm as the day went on, hampering the top speed.
At the end of back straight was a vicious left-hand hairpin turn. The many skid marks mixed with dirt showed how many drivers got it wrong and end up off track.
Turn 10 is two right-hand bends of similar radius combined. In third gear, I hit the first apex early, allowing allow the car to rotate to help point the front at the second apex, before applying full throttle.
Turn 11 and Turn 12 are medium speed right-handers with a tight chicane at the end of the small straight. The chicane is the final corner, so carrying as much speed onto the main straight is key.
That is one lap around Tokachi International Speedway in a Suzuki Alto Works.Seven Hours Later…
We repeated this dance over and over while constantly adjusting for the changing track conditions and degradation of the Alto (read: the tires and brakes) for the next seven hours straight. To my shock and utter amazement, the Alto survived the ordeal, faults and all. We even placed third in class with a best lap time of 2:45.675.
The Suzuki may have just finished the race, but that doesn’t matter. Nor did it matter that in the beginning of the weekend I had expected us to not finish at all given the little preparation and back-to-back issues we experienced.
I had become so worried about preparation and wanting to be competitive that I had forgotten the most important thing in an event like this: To have fun. It’s good to be prepared and have the drive to perform, but at the end of the day we aren’t racing for a huge check (or a check at all). We should be racing to have fun.
Get out on track in whatever car you can. Learn how it handles at the limits in a safe environment. Improve your techniques while spotting areas you can improve on, and simply have fun.
That is what this Suzuki Alto Works taught me and I’m truly grateful for it. Now, how can we add a bit more power for the straights for next year?