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Thread: Article: Japan Group 7

  1. #1

    Article: Japan Group 7

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    When most people think of Group 7 unlimited sports car racing, they think of the original Can-Am series that ran from 1966 - 1974. But Group 7 was adopted in other parts of the world, too, most notably, Europe and Japan. The European series began in 1970, and was called the Interserie. It didn't enjoy anywhere near the success of the Can-Am.

    The Japanese variant began in 1968. Sports car racing was already hugely popular in Japan, despite motor racing still being in its infancy in this country. Only a few years earlier, in 1963, Japan hosted its very first international racing event, at Suzuka, Honda Motor Company's test track. This event, contested by sports cars and saloons, was called the Japan Grand Prix. From there, sports car racing quickly evolved, and enjoyed strong manufacturer involvement, most notably from Nissan and Toyota.

    When Group 7 was introduced in 1968, Nissan/Price, and Toyota (in partnership with Yamaha) set about building new cars. The Nissan was the more impressive. Although intended to be fitted with its own V12 engine, delays in its development forced the company to fit its impressive new R381 with a small block Chevrolet V8. The Toyota/Yamaha model, however, was far more modest, more dated, and looked somewhat like an old Lola T70, itself a design already several years old. Its crowning glory was a beautifully designed and constructed 3 litre quad-cam V8 engine, created by Yamaha for Toyota, specifically for Group 7 competition.

    The little Toyota (labelled the 415S) won several races in 1968, but this was thanks largely due to the absence of Nissan, whose only interest was in contesting the Japan Grand Prix, now held at the mighty new Mt Fuji Speedway. In 1968, winning the Japan Grand Prix was more important than winning all the other races combined. And it was at this event Nissan wiped the floor with Toyota, with its two cars qualifying first and second, and one of them going on to win handsomely. The first Toyota to reach the finish was down in eighth, several laps behind the winner.

    A new Group 7 event was introduced in 1968, called the World Challenge Cup Fuji 200. For this race, several teams from the Can-Am series were invited, and while no factory McLaren's or Chaparral's entered, Mark Donohue, Peter Revson, Jerry Titus, and Jo Bonnier were all aboard McLaren M6 models. Donohue's was the Penske car, while Revson's was the Shelby car. In addition, Sam Posey, Al Unser, Chuck Parsons, and Pedro Rodriguez would all drive the latest Lola T160ís. Such was the anticipated speed of the American Can-Am cars, organisers opted to run the track in the reverse direction. Mt Fuji Speedway featured an incredible high-speed superspeedway first turn, connected to the end of the 1.5 kilometer long Start/Finish straight. Mt Fuji Speedway was initially conceived as an American-style oval super-speedway, but a funding shortfall early in its build saw it reverted to a more conventional road course layout, after the first turn had already been constructed.

    Five updated Toyota 415S's were entered, while Nissan opted to skip the event. The best finishing Toyota was that driven by Yukio Fukuzawa, in fourth. But the results didn't tell the whole story. The Toyota's were massively outpaced, and over the course of the 75 lap race, Fukuzawa was lapped seven times by eventual winner Revson.

    For 1969, Toyota aggressively upped its game, and developed the 474S. Overall a much more modern car, albeit, still using a tube-frame chassis, as the 415S had done, its V8 engine was now increased to 5 litres. Nissan, meanwhile, had also been busy, and launched its new R382, now fitted with its own 6 litre V12 engine.

    Again, Toyota took several victories throughout the year, in Nissanís absent. Come the 1969 Japan Grand Prix, and three R382's were entered, against four Toyota 474S's. In addition was a pair of Isuzu R7's, powered by Chevrolet V8 engines, plus a couple of locally owned Lola T160s, and a new Porsche 917, sent out by Stuttgart, with Jo Siffert and David Piper sharing the driving.

    The Nissanís were fastest in qualifying, its three cars claiming the first three grid positions, while the first Toyota was fourth, albeit, 3.5 seconds off pole. From the start, however, Toyota took the fight to Nissan, with the Porsche also battling the front-runners in an epic multi-car train. But eventually, the Nissanís greater speed told, and at the finish, R382ís were first and second, with the first Toyota in third, one lap adrift.

    Come the 1969 World Challenge Cup Fuji 200, Nissan again chose not to attend. Toyota, however, did, and entered three 474Sís, with completely redesigned bodywork from that which contested the Japan Grand Prix. In addition was a fourth Toyota entry, this a 1969 McLaren M12, purchased by Toyota as a development mule for its own cars. The McLaren was also fitted with a 5 litre Toyota V8.

    International entries included the Autocoast Ti22 of Jackie Oliver, the latest Lola T163ís for Chuck Parsons, Peter Revson, and Gary Wilson, a McLaren M12 for Lothar Motschenbacher, the Ford G7A for John Cannon, and a Porsche 908 for Tony Dean.

    As if to underline its rapid development, the fastest Toyota in qualifying was that driven by Minoru Kawai. He was third, ahead of Revson, Cannon, and Parsons, while Oliver took pole in the Ti22. The Ti22 appeared late in the 1969 Can-Am championship, but quickly proved a serious rival for the dominant McLaren team. Impressively, second fastest at Mt Fuji was the Toyota/McLaren M12, driven by Hiroshi Fushida, just 2-tenths slower than Oliver. Come the race, Kawai won, from Cannon and Motschenbacher, after the Ti22 dropped out.

  2. #2

    That the Japanese manufacturers had displayed such a meteoric ascent since adopting Group 7 regulations less than two years earlier was astonishing enough. That the country had only hosted its first international racing event six years earlier, one in which there was virtually no domestic presence, made the speed and technology shown by the Japanese cars by late 1969 even more impressive. They were now building cars almost the equal of the front-running Can-Am machinery.

    But as quickly as it had arrived, so this technological showcase was stubbed out again just as fast. For 1970, the Japan Grand Prix would be contested by single seater open wheeler racing cars as part of a long-term program to bring Formula 1 to Japan. This goal was finally achieved in 1976. Without its most prominent national event, Nissan immediately ceased its Group 7 development and withdrew from sports car racing. Toyota, despite its major rival having dropped out, continued development of a new car for 1970, the 578A. However, the intention was not to contest Japan Group 7. Instead, Toyota planned to enter the Can-Am series as part of a larger long-term plan to integrate itself into the American car industry.

    Barely a decade earlier, Toyota had entered the hugely lucrative US market with its tiny Toyopet Crown. In its first year, 1958, just 290 cars were sold, barely registering a blip in the overall market. The company pushed forward its plans, but even by the late 1960s, was still very much a minor player. It was already using motorsport as part of its marketing program, and in 1968, had contracted Carroll Shelby to run Toyota 2000GT’s in C/Production sports car racing. But its Can-Am ambitions were on a much larger scale.

    The 578A was a further development of the 474S, although greatly improved in every area. But its most notable advancement was that the Toyota V8 engine was now fitted with twin turbo-chargers. As it was, the Toyota V8, designed and manufactured by Yamaha, was a work of art. Using an aluminium block, four camshafts, a flat-plane crankshaft, fuel-injection, and dry-sump, it produced around 550 horsepower in normally-aspirated 5 litre form. But it couldn’t be made any larger than 5,000cc. In 1969, front-running Can-Am cars were using 7 litre aluminium big block engines, producing over 700 horsepower. Clearly, the little Toyota engine would come up well short. So an intensive development program began to turbocharge the Toyota unit, using two Garrett AiResearch turbines.

    By the time Toyota began testing the new turbo car, the engine was producing 800 horsepower and 534 lbs ft of torque. This, in a car weighing little more than 650 kilograms. Toyota had perhaps the most powerful circuit racing engine in the world at the time. But on the track, the turbochargers produced massive lag exiting slower corners, before suddenly spooling up to deliver an explosion of uncontrollable power. The drivers were terrified, and found the car incredibly difficult to drive. In 1970, turbocharging in circuit racing was still a black-art, even for a car manufacturer with massive resources.

    It was while testing the turbocharged 578A at Suzuka in August 1970 that star-Toyota driver Minoru Kawai lost control and crashed. He succumbed to his injuries. A year earlier, another Toyota driver had been killed testing a Toyota Group 6 sports car at Suzuka. Quietly and immediately, Toyota cancelled its Group 7 program, and the 578A never raced.

    Although turbocharging was common in Indycar racing by 1970, its development and understanding in circuit racing had not yet been overcome. In 1971, Porsche teamed up with Penske Racing, and developed a turbocharged 917 for the Can-Am series, which it designated the 917/10. The testing program was intensive, but proved ultimately successful. The Penske/Porsche collaboration finally trumped the dominant McLaren team, which had won the Can-Am championship every year from 1967 – 1971. The 917/10, and in particular, its turbocharged technology, was such a game changer, that McLaren withdrew from the Can-Am series at the end of the season.

    History shows that Porsche slayed the mighty McLaren in the Can-Am series. But Toyota had a turbocharged Can-Am car on the track before Porsche did. Had Toyota overcome its massive turbo-lag problems, had Minoru Kawai not been killed testing the new 578A, had the Japan Grand Prix continued using Group 7 sports car regulations in 1970 and beyond and the Japanese manufacturers continued their impressive technological progress, its very likely Japan Group 7 might now be widely remembered and understood by all. Instead, it’s a brief period in history very few, other than the most dedicated of motorsport archaeologists, know anything about. But it deserves so much more.

    Main photo courtesy Duncan Fox Collection.


  3. #3
    Here are a few images showing the Japan Group 7 cars from 1968 - 1970:

    1968 Nissan R381:

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    1968 Toyota 415S:

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  4. #4
    1969 Nissan R382:

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    1969 Toyota 474S:

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    1969 Toyota 474S (World Challenge Cup Fuji 200):

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    1969 Isuzu R7:

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  5. #5

  6. #6
    World Champion
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    What a great article, thanks Steve.

  7. #7
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  9. #9
    World Champion
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    Some interesting Toyota 7 information at this site.

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    Very interesting thread Steve, thanks.
    I wish we could have an English version of the movie !

    (Ken H )

  10. #10
    Thanks for the kind words guys, much appreciated. Its a part of Japanese racing history I've always had an interest in, but knew very little about. It was only when researching the history of the Toyota/McLaren M12, which has been in NZ for many years, that I really got into delving into Japan Group 7. The McLaren is featured in an upcoming book I'm doing on Toyota's in NZ.

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    Duncan Fox photo.

  11. #11
    The car at the Bruce Mclaren Trust before it left the country.

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  12. #12
    Quote Originally Posted by Milan Fistonic View Post
    The car at the Bruce Mclaren Trust before it left the country.

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    Thanks Milan, great photo. Too bad this special car has left NZ already, so soon after its restoration was completed.

  13. #13
    Another shot of the rear of the car.

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  14. #14
    World Champion
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    In 2007 at Laguna Seca I enjoyed talking to Peter Bryant as he was promoting his book, "Can Am Challenger" a very interesting read.
    Sadly Peter died in 2009. His Titanium built Can -Am car Ti 22 driven by Jackie Oliver was one of the quickest cars in 1969.
    Here are some excerpts from the "Can Am Challenger" book of their trip to Japan.

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    (To Be continued..)

    (Ken H )
    Last edited by khyndart in CA; 07-27-2019 at 08:10 AM.

  15. #15
    World Champion
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    Fuji Circuit 1969. Peter Bryant. "Can Am Challenger"

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    (Ken H )
    Last edited by khyndart in CA; 07-27-2019 at 08:42 AM.

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