Super GT is a Japan-based GT endurance series that features two classes racing together, GT300 and GT500. In theory the GT300 and GT500 cars are limited to 300 and 500 horsepower respectively. Also the cars in the GT500 class feature much more heavily-modified chassis with completely relocated formula car-style inboard suspension, tube framed front and rear ends, and repositioned engines. Truly these are the fastest most radically modified GT cars in the world.
Last month we had the opportunity to attend a Super GT race in Japan at Autopolis Circuit on the island of Kyushu. While there we got to steal Ralph Firman of ARTA NSX #8 for a few minutes for a quick interview. Ralph is an accomplished international driver and had a few interesting things to say about Honda's efforts in Super GT.
TOV: For the fans that don't really know your background could you talk a little bit about how you came up through racing and how you ended up here (Super GT)?
Ralph: Started racing go karts when I was ten years old. Raced in Britain, won the Junior British championship in 1990 and the Senior British championship in '92, then moved into cars. Won the British Vauxhall Junior Championship in '93 and the McLaren Allsport Young Driver of the Year. And then two years later...three years later, '96, won the British Formula 3 and Macau championship[Macau Grand Prix].
Moved to Japan, and won the Formula Nippon championship in 2002 and then did Formula 1 for one year with Jordan. And then came back here and finished second in the championship last year and we're trying to win again this year. I finished second in this championship also in 2002. So the last two years I've done I've finished second so I'm trying to do one better
TOV: What made you choose Japan of all places to race?
Ralph: Oh it's a fantastic place to race. It's a very high standard of racing and the cars are obviously great and there's a path for many drivers from Japan to Formula 1...and that's the reason I chose to come over here.
It seemed like a good reason at the time. And also you need one and half million dollars to race in Europe in Formula 3000, which I didn't have at the time. Over here you get paid, whereas over there you have to pay one and a half million. So anyway I chose to come over here. I've enjoyed it a lot, I enjoy being here and I've been very successful.
TOV: Good deal. So as I understand the NSX was a 3.5L naturally-aspirated unit for 2004 then you switched to a twin-turbocharged unit for last year, and then back to naturally-aspirated for this year. Why the switch to forced-induction and why the switch back to naturally-aspirated?
Ralph: Uhh, I wasn't here in 2004. Before that, ever since it started it was normally-aspirated, I don't know when it first came, '96 or '97 I think was the first year. I don't know why they changed it, Honda apparently decided we can get the same power and especially the drivability when you accelerate is a much smoother power curve with normally-aspirated. So that's why we changed back, we thought we could be quicker with normally-aspirated.
TOV: So how exactly are the teams set up here? Obviously you're heavily supported by Honda, is it just financial support or do the [Honda] engineers work with the cars, are they on the teams, do they just provide parts? How exactly does that relationship work?
Ralph: It's a very, very close relationship. Dome is the company that makes the cars, we're actually in the works Honda racing team with two cars. But very, very close working partnership with Honda with different engines and different engine parts coming through all the time.
This year running a Honda show we're actually with the Honda people so, a lot of Honda guys here. And normally we have the Dome team...or associated with this team anyway, but Honda gives support to all the teams and do a good job, it's fantastic.
TOV: How much has the car changed from the beginning of the year to now and how much input have you had in the development process. Do you say, 'Hey, we need more this, more thickness there...' how does that work?
Ralph: Obviously you're always trying to improve the car but basically at the moment we haven't had anything big come along for the last couple of races. They stopped developing the car a few races ago to basically start concentrating on next year's car. We felt this car was good and next year [is] new regulations so there's a lot of work going into that.
Obviously we're trying different dampers, different settings every day but the car is good enough to win at the moment, so it's mainly making sure you have the right set-up on the day and making the most of the package you have.
TOV: Well I know you've gotta run but one last question; you've raced all over the world, [at] a lot of different circuits, if you can't name one favorite circuit could you name your favorite circuits in the world?
Ralph: OK, Monaco would be my favorite. Then Macau, a circuit near Hong Kong, it's a big Formula 3 championship race. Then it's sort of joint with Suzuka and here (Autopolis) is a fantastic circuit...a great layout, just not much around it, but it's a fantastic place to be.
There are a couple of others like Spa in Belgium as well, I think they're the main ones that are quite special to drive on.
TOV: Is there anything you'd like to say to the American Honda fans here?
Ralph: Ah well I raced in America last year in [the] A1 Grand Prix and maybe I'll be racing in America next year sometime so hopefully we'll see a lot of Honda fans over in the states.
TOV: Thanks a mil, much appreciated
Check out the English language Super GT website at http://supergt.net/en/