Originally, the 2012 IZOD IndyCar Series schedule included a nicely balanced nine road/street courses and eight ovals. However, when the devastating earthquake hit Japan last spring, the oval track at Twin Ring Motegi sustained significant damage. With repairs too extensive to complete by the time of this year’s race, the last one scheduled in Japan, the event was moved to the adjacent Twin Ring Motegi road course, part of which is in the infield of the oval.
For many drivers, it will be first the time they have raced on the road circuit. Some may even be seeing it in person for the first time. Though it will be a new track to navigate, that’s not to say the drivers and teams enter the weekend completely blindfolded. “It compares quite well to Mid Ohio, as it is very smooth. However we will also use our Sonoma knowledge, as it is hard on the brakes, and has a lot of slow corners," said Bruno Couprie, Oriol Servia’s engineer with Newman/Haas.
Couprie added the circuit’s status as a permanent road course is a major help in gathering knowledge ahead of the weekend and that some information from Baltimore may carry over as well. “This track is not like a new street course, it is permanent, already existing, so we can do a lot more than just simulate the track. On the topic of simulation it was very close to real car data in Baltimore, so that is very helpful. There is a lot about Motegi on the web, Google Earth, YouTube videos which nicely completes our simulation work. We have also spoken with some drivers who have raced on the Motegi course, so we got some good line and setup advice."
In terms of on-track action, the layout appears racy. Turns one, three, five, ten, and eleven all proceed long straightaways, allowing drivers the chance to slipstream and outbreak each other going into each corner. Turns six, seven, eight, and nine offer a twisty “S” section that will be a technical challenge.
Service Central Chip Ganassi’s Graham Rahal is excited to drive the course. “I’m really looking forward to racing on the Twin Ring Motegi road course for the first time,” said Rahal. “The track layout looks like it’s going to be a lot of fun and it’s going to be new for a lot of the drivers. I know there’s been a lot of concerns about racing in Japan after the earthquake, but we just need to put it behind us. The support we get when we’re there is incredible, so we should focus on putting on a great show for the fans.”
Andretti Autosport’s Ryan Hunter-Reay admits that driving the road circuit will be a thrill for him and is something he has always wanted to do. "For each of the past three years I have had the opportunity to race on the Motegi oval, I've always had an aspiration to give the road course a try and now that opportunity is here. I've really enjoyed racing in Japan and now that we have a new challenge on a first class road course, I'm really looking forward to it.” He also hopes that they can bring a little bit of relief to a country that is still trying to recover March’s disaster. “Japan has endured unthinkable tragedies lately and we all hope the IndyCar event brings some relief in these tough times. I want to thank Honda for all of their support and for giving us the opportunity to race this amazing road course.”
Teammate Danica Patrick, who won here in 2008, is also intrigued at the idea of racing on the road course. She is hopeful that her run of success on the oval will cross over. “We've always done pretty well at Motegi, so it will be interesting to see if any of our success on the oval transfers to the road course,” she said. “The key for the GoDaddy.com team is to use our practice time wisely to get a good sense of the setup we need for the race, since the course is new to us. The IndyCar fans in Japan are very passionate about the sport, so it will be a good boost to see all of them for the final race at Motegi."
Of course, this will be the final time the series is scheduled to visit Japan, which has been a mainstay of Open Wheel Racing since 1998, the first year CART raced the 1.5-mile egg-shaped oval. That much makes this weekend’s event even more bittersweet. “I am very sad that next year we are not coming back to Japan," said Servia, who first raced on the oval back in 2000, his rookie year in CART. "I love the country and I think it has been very important for the IndyCar Series to come all these years to race in Japan. Japan has always been a sign of the future with technology and it is a great society to be a part of. Japan has been a huge influence in racing all around the world and I think it is important that this year we show support to Japan by coming to race even with the troubles that the country is facing."
He continued, “For many years, I have used the race for an excuse to spend some extra time and visit different areas of Japan. I have been many times to Tokyo, Kyoto, and two years ago I went to Mount Koya, which was a great experience. It always feels too short of a trip to Japan and I want to stay longer. During the year I am addicted to sushi and it is always great to go to the fish market. I will miss not coming to Japan to race next year and I truly hope that Japan again becomes part of the schedule in the future.”
Watch a virtual lap of the Twin Ring Motegi Road Course.
Hear Takuma Sato talk about the race and atmosphere in Japan.
View the weekend’s schedule here.
Changes to the grid will come in the form of Hideki Mutoh and Joao Paulo de Oliveira. Mutoh will pilot the No. 17. AFS/Sam Schmidt Motorsports entry while de Oliveira, a veteran of Japan’s Super GT and Formula Nippon series, will drive Conquest’s No. 34 machine, replacing incumbent Sebastian Saavedra.
Gorgio Pantano once again will occupy Justin Wilson’s seat with Dreyer and Reinbold Racing. This is his third race for the team.
Several cars will sport different liveries this week. The Team Penske cars of Ryan Briscoe and Helio Castroneves will both carry Hitachi sponsorship, Mutoh will fly the colors of Honda Formula Dream, and de Oliveira’s effort will carry Ceremony on the sidepods.