Feature: A Test of Time – Escort’s Rise To Supremacy

Three years ago when Yoshiki ‘Fire’ Ando and the expert team at Escort set out to claim the tuning car record at every international circuit in Japan, they knew it was a challenge that would demand perfection in all aspects of their operation.

Not just from a mechanical standpoint, but logistical as well.  Vehicle and crew transportation (most of the time two cars and the support carrier), schedule arrangement, event coordination, parts acquisition, weather and track conditions, and a myriad of other strategic issues.  At this level, with the highest tiered goal, every little nuanced thing has to be taken seriously. If ever there was a team to achieve it, it would be Escort. The significance of scheduling was especially highlight by one course in particular; one that held the least potential for immediate success.

Mobility Resort Motegi, formerly known as Twin Ring Motegi (the course was renamed on the facilities 25th anniversary – also possibly due to the damage the oval portion of the track took during the March 2011 earthquake), despite being amongst the newer circuits in Japan, holds a very small amount, if any, time attack events on the main road course.  Because of this, the team had to think outside of the box to find a solution to getting the clear track they needed to set a record lap.  The answer lied in a somewhat well-known event geared towards beginner drivers named the ‘Shop Circle Run’.  Designed specifically for  tuning shops in the Tochigi area to register, it allows their customers to experience circuit driving without the need for a racing license.  It is a non-competitive event that is meant for fun and exhibition only.  With the run day decided, the team would now have to find a way to get the track to themselves for Ando to put down a flying lap.  Before we get to that, let’s recap on the team’s progress to date.

click the above image for a hi-res edit

 

The Takumi Project

Long after the rumors of Ando’s full carbon, Voltex built R35 chassis had died down (more on that later), the team was still hard at work developing the CT9A they had been supporting since 2015.  Slowly but surely, the crew at Escort developed the car into something on a scale that time attack hadn’t really yet been introduced to – a build capable of country wide supremacy.

We first introduced Escort’s decree of domination on NDF back in 2018 when we were invited out to Sportsland Sugo to witness the team take down the first record of the campaign.  At the Tohoku Attack event, Ando laid down a blistering 1’18.522 around the forested circuit.  A lap time that was akin to a starting gun to their mission.

Shortly after that, in late January the team made their way to Suzuka Circuit for one of my favorite events, Attack Suzuka, where they would be looking to update their already secured record to a time in the 1’56 range.  Ando had set a time of 1’57.035 the day before the event on a practice run fearing inclement weather would hinder their ability to run on the actual event day.  Unfortunately rain throughout the day would prevent them from going faster.  I await the day they return to best the practice run.  For comparison, Ando’s best time in his practice car is a 2’10 second lap time.

Making the most out of the 2020 season, the team traveled South to Kyushu in late March to take on the famed Autopolis Circuit.  Perched high on Mt. Aso, the southern most circuit in Japan has a deep history of time attack, with prestigious teams like Kyushu Danji hosting regular events throughout the season – most notably Autopolis Super Lap.  In his first time ever driving Autopolis in the main car (1’56 in the practice EVO in February), Ando put down 1’44.089 lap time, beating out the previous record by almost 2.5 seconds.  A 1’44 lap is quicker than most GT300 cars during qualifying.  I don’t believe it was the old standing record, but by comparison Hannita in the Kyushu Danji NSX-T ran a 1’47.2 – a time that was set mid-testing.  If anyone can challenge Ando’s time, it will be Hannita when the NSX is running at it’s limit.  The car has undergone quite a bit of aero changes and once the new transmission is setup properly (it broke prior to Attack Tsukuba this year), it is a very real chance this record will fall.

Later in the year, deep in November, at the start of the 20/21 season, the team took the Okayama International Circuit record with a 1’24.477 around the Mimasaka based course.  Again, a time faster than modern GT300 cars set under bad conditions.  The team forecast an easy 1’23 next time they return to area.

In March 2021 at the Attack Fuji event set in the foothills of Shizuoka prefecture, Ando went on to set a lap time of 1’35.615 on the infamous Fuji Speedway.  Ando’s lap time at Fuji in the Escort CT9A all but obliterated the 1’39.044 lap of the Top Fuel S2000-RR and the 1’37.381 of Garage G-Force CT9A, both set in 2018 by Taniguchi.

In testing leading up to Central Time Attack Challenge, Ando and the team reset their Central Circuit course time to a 1’10.623.  The team has extensive data from this circuit as they often times book the entire track for a full week for off-season testing.  Although it is not an international circuit, and thus not included in their campaign, it is most likely a record that will stand a lifetime.

The next record that Escort would claim was one that speaks the loudest.  Tsukuba Circuit’s TC2000; the proving grounds. Despite not being an international circuit, this record arguably means the most in the world of time attack.  On December 23, 2021, Fire Ando reset the TC2000 tuning car lap record with a 50.233 second lap time.  A time that not only dethroned Under Suzuki’s long standing record of 50.366, but also quietly tarnished the controversial 50.259 lap that Taniguchi clocked in the HKS TRB-03 on Advan slicks.  Furthermore, it opened up the possibility of realizing a sub 50 second lap time – something that Escort’s Shiobara says he is certain they’ll achieve this year.

Most recently, this Summer (July 2022), the team made the trek to Hokkaido to run on the Tokachi International Speedway in Takikubo.  The circuit has two courses; the 5.1km Grand Prix, and the 3.4km Clubman Course.  Due to adverse weather conditions, Ando was not able to put a time down on the Grand Prix course.  Reluctantly, he was able to set a new record on the Clubman Course of 1’16.304; a time comparable to 2004 JGTC GT500 cars.  As impressive as that is, Ando says that there is a 1’13 in the car with ideal conditions.  No doubt they’ll be back to conquer the Grand Prix course, and steal the record currently held by Tetsuhiro Kurokawa in his now famous Voltex FD supported by the local shop Car Shop Dream.

image courtesy of Option Web – note the typO on sportsland sugo entry; record was set october 27, 2019.

Up until this month, Escort successfully held records at all international courses in Japan with the exception of the Motegi Road Course (and technically Tokachi Grand Prix).  The Motegi tuning car course record is one that isn’t particularly set in stone, as the course doesn’t lend itself to single lap style events.  From what Haji and I researched, we found that the Sakamoto Engineering FD had ran a best of 1’55.850 about 5 years ago, and in 2019 Bando in the AutoBahn Soarer hit 1’52.585 around Motegi – which was believed to be the record at the time.  I’m awaiting response from Bando!

SETTING THE STAGE AT MOTEGI – The motivation of TOCHIGI

The Shop Circle Run driving event, organized by Motegi itself, has been a popular one for shop owners and enthusiasts for years.  An event that is used to promote motor sports in the area, the significance of Escort taking part in the event was not one to be overlooked.  The impact that Ando and the team has had throughout all of Japan has been very motivational.  While not an actual time attack event, more akin to an HPDE here in the states, the team saw this as their best shot at putting down a record breaking lap on the famous road course.  Doing so required the support and cooperation of every single driver that day.

Aoki of RGN, and Shibata of Arvou chatting it up with the Escort crew.

With the help and influence of Shibata of ARVOU, possibly among the most famous tuning shops in the Tochigi area, Ando discussed his proposition with the organizing shops and course officials.  He would go on to request for two 5 minute run sessions in which he would have the track cleared for himself.  Most likely due to the recognition and esteem both Shibata and Ando have garnered for themselves throughout their career, the shops and drivers obliged to the request, and so Motegi track officials set aside the time for the Escort record lap attempt.  The team would be given exclusive track access for 5 minutes in the morning, and again at 13:00 in the afternoon.  The stage was set for the final record.

With Ando not having driven the course in the race car yet save for a simulator, he relied heavily on Shibata’s advice on gearing around the 4.8km road course.  The Super GT driver has extensive knowledge on Motegi’s nuances and which gear is best for corner entry and exit.  With time of the essence, the team got the car and Ando set to go out for his first session.  In the true spirit of time attack, a single lap is all he would be allotted between his warm up and cool down laps.

Unfortunately, on the first run in the morning, when conditions were most ideal, the car had an issue with a set of new plug wires the team had changed to for this season and Ando was unable to set a competitive lap down.  The team quickly fixed the issue by swapping back the old wires, and in the time before heading out for their second and last attempt, gave the car another once over to ensure no problems.

At 13:00, when the track and ambient temperatures were much warmer and unfavorable than the morning, with no choice left, Ando set out to track once again.  The CT9A, on a fresh set of 315/30/18 Hoosier A7 Compound, the DOT radial variation, was set for it’s most high pressure performance to date.

Watching the in-car video of the lap, the EVO looks as stable as ever around the circuit.  Having had the pleasure of driving at Motegi twice in my life, I have an idea of how the track flows.  It’s a track that has many hard braking sections, and tight turns that favor high horsepower cars.  The one part of the course that was always exciting was braking downhill into the 90 degree right hand turn 11, and I can’t imagine what it felt like in the Escort EVO.  Clearly we can see the carbon brakes working overtime.

Shibata and Aoki have a very similar stance walking to the front straight to view the lap.

Everyone was in high spirits with the potential of the record being broken.

Hiroshi Shiobara; I like to describe as Escort’s leader.

Shogo Takahashi; Motec tuning guru that travels with the Escort team.

Even after just a single hot lap, the carbon brake dust was extremely visible against the outside of the fenders.

The A7 compound is quick, but the effect of grip does not last long!

click the above image for a hi-res edit

When Ando crossed the finish line on Motegi’s front straight, he had clocked a 1’47.05; the new tuning car course record.  He had done it.  There were mixed feelings from Escort, as they had been hoping for a lap time in the 1’45 range.  It goes to show that just getting the record isn’t enough for this team, they have an entirely different standard they hold themselves to.  However, any record is definitely worth celebrating and as Ando exited the car, the feeling of accomplishment made it’s appearance.

Celebrations with Shinichi Miyano and the rest of the Escort team.

To claim the tuning car course record at every international racing course in your home country is a masterclass in dedication.  It’s something that we can confidently say will not be broken soon, or at all for that matter.  It puts Escort on a pedestal so far above the competition it is hard to fathom anyone besting them.

As the Takumi Project comes to a close, the team now sets their sights on the sub-50 lap at Tsukuba Circuit.  To do that, Shiobara and the Escort team have put together an entirely new engine setup that he has all but guaranteed success.  We’ll work to get our walkthrough of Escort’s two locations up soon.  Until then, thanks for reading.

You can check out the in-car lap at Motegi here:

 

As usual, a big thank you to Haji for the images from Motegi.  Haji often shoots for NDF as a freelance agent and we are very appreciative of his skill.

いつものように、もてぎからの画像を提供してくれた ハジさんに感謝します。 ハジさんはフリーランス エージェントとして NDF をよく利用しており、私たちは彼のスキルに非常に感謝しています。