Mazda 787B 1991 Le Mans Winner

9 Japanese Racing Cars of the ’90s

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There is no doubt that for many motorsport enthusiasts the 90s were the last golden era of racing. Coincidentally or not, it was also the golden era of the Japanese car culture. A prolific period where the Japanese manufacturers launched racing cars like who produces doughnuts.

But the best part, especially for us motorsport fanatics, is that Japanese brands had no doubt on going racing with their brand-new models. Some were more successful than others, but no one can deny that nowadays many of them are considered true legends in motorsport history.

Let’s take a look at some of them:

Calsonic Nissan Skyline Gt-R R32

Japanese Racing Cars - Nissan Nismo Calsonic GT-R R32 Skyline

Nicknamed Godzilla by the Australian media after destroying the competition there, the Skyline R32 Group A won 3 Australian Touring Car Championships and 2 Bathurst 1000 in only 3 years!

But Godzilla won’t only conquer Australia. In Europe, it also demonstrated to be a winner at events like the 24h of Spa Francorchamps in 1991.

However, it is in the All Japan Touring Car Championship where the Skyline would remain literally unbeaten. From 1990 to 1993 the GT-R R32 won 29 out of 29 races

Let’s not forget that the heart of this incredible machine is the acclaimed RB26DETT. One of the best engines ever made. 

Arguably one of the most iconic Japanese racing cars of all time. The Nissan GT-R R32 acquires its most legendary version under the Calsonic blue and white colours.

The Team Impul was the most successful team during those years, winning the championship in 1990 and 1993. The first and last of the R32 racing years.

But there’s another achievement that explains the passion for this livery among Japanese fans. Calsonic claims to be the sponsor that supported a team during more years than any other. Actually, with more than 35 years of sponsorship, it seems to be true.

Castrol TOM’s Supra JGTC

Japanese Racing Cars - Toyota TOM's Castrol Supra GT500 JGTC

We cannot talk about Japanese Racing Cars without mentioning Tom’s Castrol Supra, winner of the 1997 All Japan Grand Touring Car Championship. 

Many enthusiasts may recognize this car thanks to its appearance in Gran Turismo videogames. But apart from that, the 1997 Tom’s Supra was the first JGTC Toyota winner after years of Nismo dominance. 

Those were the early years of the GT500 class. A category that provided us with some of the most astonishing GT cars ever seen.

Moreover, the 1997 JGTC championship is the only one decided by a tiebreak. The #36 Supra, driven by Pedro De La Rosa and Michael Krumm, won the title thanks to a higher number of podiums during the season.

In the technical aspect, thanks to the open regulations of the JGTC, TOM’s swapped the original 2JZ engine for a turbocharged 3S-GT from the Toyota Celica GT Four. The engine proved to be lighter and more efficient while still delivering 493hp.

Subaru Impreza 555

Japanese Racing Cars- Subaru Impreza Prodrive Colin McRae

Every time I talk about the Impreza 555 automatically one name comes to my mind: Colin McRae

There’s no doubt that this combination raised the passion for rallies during the 90s. The very unique McRae driving style made us retain tons of spectacular moments with the Impreza as the protagonist. 

It is very hard to remember a more iconic driver-car duo in motorsports history. Even they ended up having their own video game title.

But talking about the Subaru Impreza also means to talk about its rivalry with the Mitsubishi Lancer Evo

The rivalry between these two Japanese Racing Cars went from rallies to streets. Actually, back in time, it seemed that there was no better option if you wanted to buy an affordable sports car with an authentic racing pedigree.

Mitsubishi Lancer Evo VI

Sito Rally Mitsubishi Lancer EVO IV Tommi Makinen

This machine, as the Impreza, is a model designed to dominate the rally scene. And god-damn if they did it! 

The Mitsubishi Lancer Evo, with Tommi Mäkinen, won the World Rally Drivers Championship the years 96, 97, 98 and 99. 

Actually, to commemorate such an achievement, Mitsubishi launched a street-legal version of the rally car under the name Tommi Mäkinen Edition. Only 2,500 units were produced.

As the Subaru Impreza, the Lancer Evo also grew its popularity thanks to its rivalry with the blue car of the 6 stars.

During the late 90s, the discussion among petrolheads about which car was better was constant. And what is even more, with tons of loyal fans, the discussion remains open.

So, are you for the Impreza or for the Lan Evo?

Nissan Primera BTCC

Nissan Primera GT 1999 BTCC

If you are not familiar with the British Touring Car Championship, something I doubt if you follow Motor Fanatics, I will tell you that this was the place to be for racing touring cars during the 90s.

The BTCC, under the Super Touring regulations, lived its golden age becoming what any touring car championship would aspire to become. Eight different brand’s competitive cars, top-level drivers, crowded grandstands and worldwide repercussion. They even had their own video game series.

During the last part of the decade, the Nissan Primera was the prime title contender together with the Volvo S40. Winning both 1998 and 1999 constructor’s championship, and the 1999 drivers championship with Laurent Aïello.

Suzuki Escudo Pike’s Peak

Japanese Racing Cars - Suzuki Escudo V6

Assuming that everybody knows this car from Gran Turismo 2, it is fair to say that the Suzuki Escudo was also a monster in real life.

This beast had a twin-turbo 2.5l V6 engine, delivering a close number to 1000hp with a weight of only 800kg! Its natural habitat were Hill Climbs, especially the Pike’s Peak International Hill Climb, where it finished second the years 1996, 1998 and 1999.

Its creator, Nobuhiro “Monster” Tajima, is a Pike’s Peak legend with 7 overall victories and the milestone of being the first driver to break the 10 min barrier.

Tajima became the first Japanese driver to win Pike’s Peak in 1995. However, that year he used a twin-engined Escudo. The previous Escudo to the version that appears in Gran Turismo. 

Nissan R390 GT1

Nissan Nismo R390 GT1 at Le Mans

Nismo, like many other Japanese manufacturers, was in the race for winning the 24h of Le Mans during the 90s. It probably was the period with the major presence of Japanese Racing Cars.

After a few unsuccessful years trying it with the GT-R R33, and the evolution of the cars due to some loopholes in the ACO regulations, Nismo decided to develop its own beast with the Nissan R390 GT1.

The R390 is a GT1 car designed in collaboration with Tom Walkinshaw Racing and the engineer Tony Southgate. Southgate was the father of the Jaguar XJR-9 and XJR-12. Later, he would be also involved in the Audi project in Le Mans.

According to the results of practice sessions and qualifying, TWR and Nismo developed a car that promised to have a chance to win the race. However, due to problems with the gearbox, the final result was a disaster with two retirements and a 12th position. 

For the 1998 season, and with an improved version of the car, the team managed to finish the race with all their cars in 3rd, 5th, 6th and 10th position.

There’s no doubt that Nismo was in the right way to become the 2nd Japanese constructor to win Le Mans. Then, the ACO decided to remove the GT1 regulations for the next season, forcing Nissan to change their project.

Toyota TS020 GT-One

Japanese Racing Cars - Toyota TS020 GT One

Toyota is arguably the manufacturer with more heartbreaking stories in motorsport, and the TS020 story is undoubtedly one of them.

During its first appearance at the 1998 edition of the 24h of Le Mans, the car already showed a promising pace. With a 2nd, 7th and 8th best laps in qualifying, and even fighting for the win during some stages of the race.

However, it was in 1999 when Toyota seemed to be closer than ever to a Le Mans victory since their first try in 1985.

After modifications in the regulations by ACO, Toyota and many other manufacturers had to modify their machines. However, the original design of the Toyota GT One made this adaptation easier for Toyota than for other contenders.

At the qualifying session, the Toyota GT One demonstrated to clearly be the favourite for the win taking the 1st, 2nd and 8th position. However, during the race the Japanese cars suffered with the Michelin tyres. The first two cars had important accidents. Due to punctures during the race, they were forced to retire while fighting for the win.

During the last hour of the race the last Toyota, driven by Ukyo Katayama, Keiichi Tsuchiya and Toshio Suzuki, reduced the difference to less than 1min with the head of the race. The BMW on the lead demonstrated to be more efficient in fuel consumption. However, the Toyota, was clearly faster on the track decreasing the gap fastest lap after fastest lap. Unfortunately, another puncture frustrated every hope.

Even when they managed to finish second after changing the tyres, the disappointment was again immense. Let’s not forget that the previous year Toyota also lost the WRC 700m before the finish line with Carlos Sainz and the Toyota Corolla.

Mazda 787B

Japanese Racing Cars - Mazda 787B by Luke Munnell

This is probably the race car with the most similar status of a rockstar. This is not only because of its popularity and success but also because of its “voice”.

Thanks to its 4-rotor engine, tons of fanatics consider the 787B as the greatest sounding race car ever made. Obviously there are many other contenders to that title but, even if the Mazda is not your favourite, there’s no doubt that its sound won’t leave you indifferent.

The Mazda 787B was far to be considered one of the favourites to win the 1991 24h of Le Mans. Especially in a grid dominated by Jaguar, Peugeot and Mercedes, which made its victory even more epic.

However, the Japanese car resulted to be much more efficient and reliable than its rivals, allowing them to follow a maximum attack strategy for the whole race.

With less than two hours to the end of the race, the #55 Mazda driven by Bertrand Gachot, Volker Widler and Johnny Herbert, took the lead after the leading Mercedes C11 had to pit, forced by mechanical failures.

After the last pit stop Herbert, who ended the race completely dehydrated, asked to keep driving till the end. The Mazda 787B crossed the finish line after 362 laps, becoming the first Japanese Le Mans-winning car. Nowadays, fans still considers this Le Mans win as one of the most heroic victories ever seen at La Sarthe.

Now is your turn, which are your favourite Japanese Racing Cars?

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One comment

  1. Wow! There are beautiful photos on your web site.

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