Who can deny Chiyo’s greatness?

Katsumasa Chiyo began 2016 with another spectacular rally in the Bathurst 12 Hour, and if that won’t solidify his place among the best sports car racers in the world, what will?

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Image Credit – © NISMO Global

I spent the past weekend in a small-ish Alabama town called Anniston making an appearance at a local anime convention as a guest of honour. After a long, hectic day at the convention that involved two panels, one of which I can safely say I bombed, and knowing I would have to immediately drive back home at just past the crack of dawn, there I was, still awake at nearly 1 in the morning listening to the final laps of the Bathurst 12 Hour race on my phone.

Now, to set the scene, I’m staying in a luxurious, 19th century bed & breakfast run by a kind man who lives with his young sons. When I checked in that afternoon, there were dark chocolates sitting on the counter where I ultimately left my phone charger in my rush to head home the next day, and a white rose laid gently on the bed. This is a nicer place than I ever expected to be staying in for a night in central Alabama. It is really late. I’m put up in the house with the other guests, who are all either sleeping, or at least trying to. They have to get home the next day too. And it is so quiet and tranquil in this old, beautiful home that you can only hear the nearby train blasting its horn throughout the town as it departs for the next stop.

And then there’s me, recognizing the need for calm and quiet in the house, yet restraining myself about as hard as I could to do so because of a rally by Nissan Australia driver Katsumasa Chiyo that almost secured his team consecutive victories in the event.

Shane van Gisbergen has had the weekend of his young racing life, and he was basically driving the last few laps in his McLaren 650S GT3 in cruise control at the end to avoid throwing it all away in the last laps of the race. That’s not uncommon. Not when you, in essence, have the win in the bag after twelve hours of flat-out racing.

But what’s less common is for a lead of fourteen seconds, about the length of time it takes to drive the Bathurst circuit’s 1.1 kilometre Mountain Straight at speed, to be slashed down to just 1.276 seconds when the chequered flag fell on Van Gisbergen’s McLaren after 297 laps. Unless the lead car has a mechanical issue, a tyre blowout, or the driver just made a mistake and ran off the road or into a wall somewhere – if all they’re doing is just pacing themselves at the end, having already proven that they were the quickest team and driver combination all weekend long, that shouldn’t happen.

And yet, rattling off the Nissan GT-R GT3’s best laps of the entire weekend, at the very end of a grueling twelve hour endurance race, Katsumasa Chiyo closed to within a margin that made the final margin of victory closer than it had any right to have been. The record-breaking crowd roared in applause. The commentary team could not believe what they were seeing and calling for a worldwide audience. And back in Alabama, I was trying to hold back on screaming like a lunatic and trampling up and down the floor of this house like a stark-raving madman.

Chiyo just missed out on stealing the victory for Nissan, but he stole the show for the second consecutive year at Australia’s new great race, in a field containing some of the world’s greatest racing drivers.

Who, then, can deny the greatness of Katsumasa Chiyo?

To establish how great Chiyo is, let’s backtrack and talk about Shane van Gisbergen’s racing credentials. At 27, he’s already one of New Zealand’s most successful, popular, active racing drivers. He drives V8 Supercars, he drives GT3 sports cars, he even does some drift driving and sim racing here and there. A fun, aggressive, flambouyant driver who is everything you want out of a driver if you aren’t an insufferably dull pillock. He shattered Bathurst’s all-time official lap records in qualifying and the race in his McLaren this weekend, and he was only just getting started.

He helped the Tekno Autosports team rally back from losing power for a minute during co-driver Alvaro Parente‘s stint in the fourth hour, and from his own self-inflicted drive-thru penalty for pit lane speeding, to win at Bathurst, a track that he’s raced at since he was a teenager, for the first time – not just his first win at Bathurst, but the Tekno team’s first win, and McLaren’s first win. And for Van Gisbergen, a Kiwi racing superstar of our time, the significance of winning a marquee race for a manufacturer named after New Zealand’s most revered racing legend – the late, great Bruce McLaren – cannot be understated.

Shane van Gisbergen is really, really, really good. And Katsumasa Chiyo came within 1.2 seconds of running him down from fourteen seconds back of the lead, and passing him on the last lap of a twelve hour endurance race on Australia’s most perilous racing circuit – despite not having anywhere close to the fastest car of the whole race.

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Image Credit – © NISMO Global

“I really learnt a lot, especially from this little fella, he can drive that car. Let me give you the tip,” said Chiyo’s co-driver Rick Kelly, after the race.

“I don’t think there would be another hundredth in the car compared to what he got out of it — although I think we need to check the mirrors for some paint. He got that close in places, which was really impressive.

“The high risk places around here, he’s got nailed. Same as the low risk. He’s definitely got the track under control.”

Now, when October rolls around and assuming nothing catastrophic happens between now and then, Kelly will be driving in the Bathurst 1000 for the sixteenth time in his career. He’s already won the race twice before. And this was his first time in the 12 Hour race on top of that. 32-year-old Kelly is already a seasoned, hardened, successful master at Bathurst. So he has seen hundreds upon hundreds of drivers competing on the circuit in just over fifteen years, the good, and the great, and everyone else in between.

And when he’s putting over a 29-year-old Tokyo native, who’s only driven Bathurst three times in his career, as a master of Bathurst, this says multitudes about Chiyo-san’s consistency and astonishing pace.

When Chiyo was chasing Van Gisbergen, his final 10 lap average was at 2:03.438 per lap. Van Gisbergen never turned a lap below the 2:04 threshhold (albeit by design) in that whole stretch. The fastest lap of the race that Chiyo turned in, on lap 296 of 297, at 2:02.496 – that was a half-second faster than the quickest time Kelly did in qualifying the day before. On fresh tyres and with a setup engineered for blistering pace over a single lap as opposed to consistent pace over almost 300 laps, Rick Kelly, a two-time winner and fifteen-year veteran of the Bathurst 1000, was slower than Chiyo-san.

This onboard lap from Chiyo’s first practice is tidy, controlled, and smooth as all hell. He’s not trying to force his way past a clearly much slower Ferrari down the mountain descent. He’s not fighting the car despite the team saying they had problems with the setup early in the weekend. Not one wheel off track. There’s no way I could ever make it look this good.

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Image Credit – © NISMO Global

If you’ll recall, the legend of Chiyo as the man who conquered Australia’s most notorious mountain began just a year ago.

In the midst of a politically-driven strife that saw the V8 Supercars drivers like Van Gisbergen and Kelly barred from entering the Bathurst 12 Hour, the race had to build a few new stars throughout the weekend to make up for their absences.

Enter Katsumasa Chiyo, who’d been driving the NISMO Global Athlete Team’s GT-R well all race long. With 15 minutes to go and the safety car about to come in after an astonishing nineteenth interruption of the race on the day, Chiyo, with fairly fresh tyres fitted to his GT-R, was tenth in line in a train of cars, led by leader Matt Bell‘s Bentley Continental and polesitter Laurens Vanthoor‘s Audi R8. He needed just one lap to clear over half of those slower cars in front of him, and in another lap, he was already breathing down Vanthoor’s tailpipe for second place.

A record twentieth safety car interruption came with just ten minutes to go, which could have spoiled Chiyo’s charge entirely, leaving the NISMO team to settle for third. Instead, quick work from the safety team left just enough time for a two lap dash to the finish.

What happened next was probably the best thirty seconds of sports car racing that I’ve seen in recent memory. On the restart, Chiyo timed his getaway where he was already alongside Vanthoor when they crossed the line to start lap 268 of 269, but not to the point that he was ahead of Vanthoor – which would have been grounds for an easy disqualification. He clears Vanthoor, and he’s now practically bumping Bell’s Bentley through the apex of Bathurst’s first corner.

Chiyo then slipstreams off of Bell, and using every ounce of the might of Nissan’s powerful twin-turbo V6 engine, he’s past the Bentley before he has to brake for Griffith’s Bend. Chiyo is completely out of reach by the time they take the white flag, leaving Bell, Vanthoor, and Stefan Mücke to battle for second best a lightyear in the distance behind him. This is when Katsumasa Chiyo, a rather mild-mannered young man known for his post-race selfie parties on the podium, morphs into Godzilla, the radioactive monster of silver screen fame.

To the roar of the crowd, Chiyo drives the Nissan GT-R to its first win at Mount Panorama Circuit since the 1992 Bathurst 1000, twenty-three years ago. And unlike that ’92 victory, greeted with bitter, jingoistic jeering from the crowd after the race – jeering which led to an enraged Jim Richards’ legendary one-line shutdown, “you’re a pack of arseholes” – Nissan were cheered and revered as their drivers stood atop the podium celebrating a landmark victory. And of the trio that also included former GT Academy winners Wolfgang Reip and Florian Strauss, it was Chiyo who rightfully earned the most praise for pulling off one of the most astonishing drives through the field in racing history.

It reminded me of Dale Earnhardt‘s last NASCAR victory at Talladega in October 2000, where he slipstreamed his way through the field to ascend from 18th to the lead, and the 76th win of his premier class career, in just five laps.

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Image Credit – © NISMO Global

Katsumasa Chiyo, almost entirely anonymous as a competitor in Super GT’s GT300 class and the Blancpain Endurance Series over the last three years, became a household name in the international racing community in one furious sprint.

In his last two Bathurst 12 Hour races, Chiyo has stood on the podium for Nissan, yes, but something else that needs to be pointed out is that along the way, in both of those races, he made Laurens Vanthoor look completely pedestrian in one brief, yet distinguished, moment of the race.

Now, as we did with Van Gisbergen earlier, let’s establish the amazing credentials of 24-year-old Laurens Vanthoor. He was ranked #10 last year by Sportscar365 writer John Dagys, among all sports car endurance racers in the world. Stephen Kilbey of Dailysportscar.com echoes my own personal feelings about Vanthoor’s future – that he is destined to ascend to Audi’s LMP1 class dynasty at Le Mans in the very near future. He is one of Audi’s premier GT racers. He and sports car racing rookie Robin Frijns would have cruised to the Blancpain Sprint Series title, and the overall Blancpain GT Series title, if Vanthoor wasn’t injured in a race at Misano, Italy. This is a young man who is likely to win the Le Mans 24 Hours multiple times in his career, and he’s only making his second start in it this year.

And Katsumasa Chiyo did what would be known in the basketball world as “posterizing” him in two consecutive Bathurst 12 Hour races.

The final restart last year? Vanthoor might have gotten a pretty decent getaway in a vaccum, but it didn’t matter when Chiyo was already mirror-to-mirror with him at the start line and several carlengths’ past him before they got to Hell Corner.

This year, Chiyo was lining up Vanthoor for a pass in the same spot where he took the lead the year before. Vanthoor knew damn well his new Audi R8 couldn’t match Chiyo’s GT-R in terms of speed down Mountain Straight. But he could defend aggressively, to where Chiyo had to drop two wheels on the grass to get past him, and good luck keeping the car stable in the run to Griffith’s Bend if you did that. Instead, Chiyo blew past him, two wheels off, and took the position away from Vanthoor regardless – then drove away like it was nothing.

Remember when I mentioned Dale Earnhardt earlier? He had a famous “Pass in the Grass” of his own, way back in the 1987 All-Star race at Charlotte. But it wasn’t really a pass, he was just defending his position from Bill Elliott who practically punted him off the road. Only expert car control averted Earnhardt having a huge wreck. But “The amazing car control to hold onto the lead in the grass” just doesn’t sound as catchy. This, however, was a genuine pass on what I can safely assume is real, natural, Australian grass.

It’s one thing to be a specialist at one circuit or in one race in particular, yet be underwhelming elsewhere. There are hundreds upon hundreds of drivers in history and actively racing today who are like this.

But Katsumasa Chiyo excels in every arena that he races.

I first got acquainted with Chiyo when I was watching the 2013 Super GT season. I knew a little bit about the series up to that point, but this was before I could watch it regularly, this was all before I studied a lot, almost to the point of obsession, about the series and its history. I didn’t know anything about him up until this point. At this time, Chiyo was the young driver of a Nissan GT-R GT3 fielded by the Dijon Racing team. They’ve been one of the GT300 class’s perennial underdogs in their brief history. They’re a true amateur team, with a low budget and without all the resources they need to win.

Chiyo had just arrived there after spending his rookie year in sports cars with the Nissan Driver Development Programme (NDDP) team in 2012. He was a winner in just his fourth-ever race for Nissan. But with no room for him to stay with the team in 2013, Chiyo was moved to the lesser-ranked Dijon team, carrying sponsorship from Infinite Stratos, a fanservicey harem anime with mechs and disturbingly endowed young women.

This team had no business being competitive at all in an ultra-competitive field, but Chiyo’s driving abilities helped get the team into the points in the opening round in Okayama, the team’s only points finish in their four years of existence. And he qualified the car an unbelievable second on the grid for the penultimate round in Autopolis.

Chiyo took a year away from the series, to return in 2015 in a brand-new Nissan fielded by the Gainer team. He’d be joined by Andre Couto, a veteran of Super GT who stepped down to GT300 in search of his first title. When the Nissan racing family needed an emotional uplift after the tragic accident at the Nürburgring Nördschliefe involving Jann Mardenborough that killed one spectator and injured several more, Chiyo responded by putting the new Tanax GT-R on pole position in its first race.

In its second race, the historic Fuji 500km, Chiyo and Couto used the GT-R’s legendary speed advantage to crush the field and win just its second-ever race. Then, months later, came the big one, the Suzuka 1000km, Super GT’s crown jewel event with a history tracing back to 1966. Analogous to the Bathurst 1000 in Australia, or the Daytona 500 in America.

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Image Credit – © NISMO Global

Couto started the car in second, but with the car heavy with success ballast and poorly set up for a wet start on a twisty, technical circuit, they had already fallen to 25th in the 28-car GT300 field by the time Couto finally brought the car in for a tyre change on lap 18. But the conditions soon improved, and Chiyo, Couto, and third driver Ryuichiro Tomita worked together to drive through the field. By lap 50 they were back in the top ten, and on lap 105, they were back in the lead. That set up a final-laps showdown, with the sun setting and the race ending on a six-hour time limit, between Chiyo, driving the Tanax GT-R’s last stint, and Jörg Müller, driving the last stint in the BMW Team Studie Z4.

Müller is one of BMW’s most accomplished factory drivers. He’s won the 24 hour races at Daytona, Spa-Francorchamps, and the Nürburgring (twice). He’s won the 12 Hours of Sebring, the Guia Race at Macau, and multiple World Touring Car Championship events. He was a German Formula 3 champion and unlucky to be the only rookie champion in International Formula 3000 history that never got to start a race in Formula 1. He’s a living racing legend. He’s done this dance many times before, and with night falling over Suzuka and the circular tail-lights of Chiyo’s GT-R visible in the distance, Müller is trying to keep the pressure on Chiyo in the hopes of taking the win in the last moments.

But Katsumasa Chiyo does not break under the pressure. He handles Müller’s best stuff with ease, and resists the pressure of a man who’s been racing cars almost as long as he himself has been alive, to secure his, his co-drivers’, and his team’s first victories in the GT300 class at the Suzuka 1000km, in the best comeback drive of the Super GT season.

The team wrapped up the title in the penultimate round in Autopolis, finally securing Andre Couto’s first Super GT championship after fourteen seasons in the category in an emotional post-race scene. For Gainer, a team who had fallen just short of the crown in three of the last four years, they finally get to carry the GT300 champions’ number zero into 2016 as the champions of the second division.

Chiyo, however, only finished second in the Drivers’ Championship in GT300 because he ran just six of the eight races, with Tomita, the third driver, running in his place at Thailand and Sugo.

Chiyo missed those races while making history in Europe.

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Image Credit – © NISMO Global

In 2014, Chiyo was assigned to race in Europe in the Blancpain Endurance Series for Nissan GT Academy Team RJN. He’s not a GT Academy graduate, as the programme doesn’t even exist in Japan, but he would race with many former GT Academy champions from around the world since joining the Blancpain series. It was a bit of a trying year, only one podium finish on the season in the Pro-Am class at the Circuit Paul Ricard in France. That was also the year of his first Bathurst 12 Hour entry, which ended in a frightening crash at the very top of the mountain.

Then, after his heroics in Bathurst and in concurrence with his Super GT return, Chiyo was put in the team’s Pro Class entry with his Bathurst companion Reip, and Alex Buncombe, who would have driven with him if not for the birth of his first child.

After a disappointing finish in Silverstone which saw the trio finish outside of the points after taking pole and the fastest lap, they fought back at the 1000km Paul Ricard. This is where Chiyo was when he missed the Super GT race in Thailand, and they won the race outright ahead of the Bentley M-Sport team and the Von Ryan Racing McLaren, putting the drivers at the front of the Pro Cup Drivers’ Championship halfway through the season.

By the start of September, Katsumasa Chiyo has now won a 12 hour race at Bathurst running a bit short of 2,000 kilometers. He’s won the two biggest, most historic races in the Super GT calendar – the Golden Week holiday classic at Fuji, and the 1000km of Suzuka. And in Europe, he’s won another 1000km race at Paul Ricard. He’s excelled on the biggest stages he’s performed in all season long, with only one bogey, a 15th place finish overall at the 24 Hours of Spa. This is a historic season of racing that Chiyo is putting together across three continents.

On 20 September, 2015, while Super GT was running a race at Sportsland Sugo, Chiyo was again in Europe instead. His team had to finish third in the final round at the Nürburgring GP track to win the Blancpain Endurance Series championship. Chiyo did his part, and even as their title rivals from Bentley passed Buncombe in his closing stint with the minutes ticking down, Buncombe brought the car home in third place to secure the Pro Cup Drivers’ Championship with just three points in hand over the trio of Guy SmithAndy Meyrick, and Steven Kane.

In doing so, Chiyo didn’t just become the first Japanese driver to win a Blancpain GT Series championship. He was the first Japanese driver to compete in any Stéphane Ratel Organisation-organized GT series, going back to the 1994 BPR Global GT Series and through the old FIA GT Championship, to win a drivers’ championship. In any class.

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Image Credit – © NISMO Global

In fact, when looking through the history of the top sports car racing series outside of Asia – IMSA’s first and second incarnations, both the American and European Le Mans Series, the Rolex Sports Car Series, and then the World Endurance Championship, and its forerunners, the Intercontinental Le Mans Cup, and the FIA World Sportscar Championship, there had never been a Japanese driver to claim a championship title in any one of their established classes.

Katsumasa Chiyo made history in the Nürburgring, that went largely unnoticed. He defied the stereotypes and the expectations of Japanese drivers competing abroad from less enlightened race fans, and he did it with a cool, collected, consistent style virtually indistinguishable from most of his European peers.

And he became the first Japanese driver to win a championship in top-level sports car racing abroad.

But for all of that, Chiyo’s accomplishments in 2015 went unnoticed to the racing world at large, somehow. Dagys’ Top 10 drivers list that placed Vanthoor tenth doesn’t even have Chiyo listed as an honorable mention. He did not capture a nomination for Man of the Year award from the contributors at Midweek Motorsport – some of whom got to call Chiyo’s wins earlier that year from the commentary booth. Autosport had him nowhere close to their annual Top 50 Drivers list for 2015.

I went through to extensively promote the credentials of Chiyo’s rivals to demonstrate that by meeting or exceeding what they accomplished, if even for just one race, that he is one of the best drivers in the world today. Certainly in endurance racing.

This is the problem some people have with the Sky Sports F1 commentary team. They will go out of their way to promote Lewis Hamilton as the greatest driver in the field to the point of belittling his nearest challengers, like Sebastian Vettel or Nico Rosberg. This seems backwards. It can never be executed perfectly, but promoting Vettel and Rosberg as on par with Hamilton rather than completely beneath him, it actually makes Hamilton come across as a stronger champion because he’s been able to beat them more often than not. If you make them seem like afterthoughts, then by the rule of “perception is reality”, they will be seen as such from some of the fans, and cause a backlash from the other parts of the fanbase who see through the bullshit.

That was all last year, and this is 2016, a year that’s starting off about as good as it did for Chiyo the year before. His 2016 plans after Bathurst are a mystery. He’s been linked to the promotion to Super GT’s GT500 class that he’s more than deserved, with an announcement of Nissan’s plans for the 2016 season due shortly.

He would have been a slam dunk candidate for the Nissan LMP1 team had the plug not been pulled on them, but with plenty of Nissan-powered LMP2 entries entering the 24 Hours of Le Mans, he might have a chance to make a debut in the great race around the clock regardless should he fit into a team’s driver rankings. And of course, there’s always the option of being the first Japanese driver to defend his championship in the Blancpain Endurance Series.

Katsumasa Chiyo enters the bulk of the 2016 racing season off the high of another sensational performance at Bathurst, and just like he did last year, he enters it, in my opinion, standing shoulder-to-shoulder with the best that sports car racing has to offer around the world. He’s as good as Van Gisbergen, Vanthoor, and Müller. He’s as good as Mücke or Guy Smith. As good as Gianmaria Bruni or Kevin Estre, Nick Catsburg or Patrick Pilet. And hell, I’d put him up in that upper echelon with the best of the best of the best like Timo Bernhard, Andre Lotterer, Nick Tandy, and Earl Bamber.

After the last twelve months of racing, and now, after what I witnessed from the quiet, midnight solitude of my temporary stay this weekend, I would need to ask once again:

Who can deny the greatness of Katsumasa Chiyo?

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Image Credit – © NISMO Global

 

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