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The Birth Of Nissan's Racing Legends

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Hans March 9, 2015 12:50

The year was 1964. Japan was playing host to the Tokyo Olympics. The country's proudest achievement was the 210km/h Tokaido Shinkansen bullet train that broke the world speed record for trains, at a time when most trains could muster 160km/h at most, and only for a fleeting moment.

The Shinkansen would set the tone for high-speed railway networks for many decades to come, paving the way for France's TGV, and Germany's ICE.

Interestingly, the Shinkansen represented not only Japan's love for high speed rails, but the country's obsession with technologies that can propel people faster than ever before.

Away from the 500km-long Tokyo-Osaka railway line that the first-generation Shinkansen trains blitzed past, Nissan was busy stamping its mark on the world's motor racing arena. 

Taking on Germany's Best

It was the 1964 Japanese Grand Prix. Nissan's factory racing team's driver, Tetsu Ikuzawa, in a No.41 second-generation S54B Nissan Skyline GT, running in second place was becoming an annoyance to the leading Porsche 904 Carrera GTS. 

"It's so fast! It's more than a racing car! This machine's only purpose is to race," said the race commentator.

Outgunned by the Porsche's superior power, it could not keep up on the straights, but the nimble Nissan made up for its deficit in top speed by closing the gap in the corners. Like a fast rhinoceros aggressively charging ahead, but yet unable to shake off the irritating hornet behind it, the Porsche just couldn't shake off the Nissan.

At the peak of the intense German-Japanese rivalry, Ikuzawa sent the crowd into a wild frenzy when, on the sixth lap, the Nissan dived from the outside and blew past the Porsche, just before both drivers had to stomp on the brakes as hard as they could for the hairpin curve that was coming up fast.

"The Skyline GT has taken the lead! Ikuzawa's Number 41 is leading!" shouted the commentator, and everyone in the crowd stood up in awe.

"Now the Skyline is being chased by the Porsche!"

Of course, there was no way the Nissan could keep the Porsche at bay with at least eight more laps to go, but the race ended with Ikuzawa's teammate in another Skyline, car Number 39, taking second place.

While Nissan could not defeat Porsche, the Skylines claimed all second to sixth places. Nissan didn't win the race, but a statement of intent had been made.

Former Nissan factory team's race car driver and Ikuzawa's teammate, Yoshikazu Sunako, still remembers the defining moment very vividly.

“Just before the hairpin curve, Ikuzawa overtook the Porsche, so I thought, ‘Wow, he’s the man!’”

But the early-generation Skyline was hardly a promising race car to begin with.

“We had extended the car by 20 centimetres. The body balance was very bad and the tyres were ‘out’, so that’s why we could only drift when we turned. We slipped and drifted because the tyres were bad,” said Sunako.

“But these issues actually turned out to be good for us,” he added.

After a few practice runs, Sunako knew the car was something special.

“We finished a lap in 2 minutes 47 seconds, and at that point I was proud to say this was the fastest car at Suzuka,” claimed Sunako.

After seeing how close Nissan could get within the Porsche, chief engineer Shin’ichiro Sakurai became so emboldened by what he previously thought to be impossible, actually quite possible.

By 1965, Sakurai's team was ready for a counter-attack in the form of a Nissan R380. Learning from the Porsche, Nissan built a mid-engine race car similar to Porsche, but minus the flat-six engine. Instead, the Nissan used a modified version of the Skyline's 2.0-litre inline-six engine.

Victory would come in the 1966 Japanese Grand Prix, when two Nissan R380's, driven by Yoshikazu Sunako and Hideo Oishi, took first and second place respectively, convincingly defeating not one, not two, but three Porsche 906s.

The defeat would lay the foundation for an epic, bragging rights battle between the two at the fearsome Nürburgring circuit many decades later.

Not only that, the R380 went on to set seven world speed records in the following year (50km, 50 miles, 100km, 100miles, 200km, 200miles, 1 hour), with speeds ranging from 251.22km/h to 256km/h.

The progress in Nissan's motorsports activities was even more impressive when you consider that Sakurai had no experience in developing racing cars.

Prominent Japanese motoring journalist, Kyoichi Yamaguchi, recounted his encounter with Sakurai saying, "He told me that he was given a wide range of assignments because Prince Motor only had 10 engineers on its payroll back then. He didn't really know anything about cars, so he started to study on his own day and night. The effort he put into his studies back then contributed to his vast and detailed knowledge of a whole range of fields related to car making, including even production technologies and material engineering.

"And, in fact, you have to have a really good understanding of even peripheral fields, if you want to be able to explain things to another person. I understood then that the effort he had put into acquiring knowledge back at the beginning of his automotive career had established a very solid foundation for the capabilities and achievements that made him such a great figure in Japanese automotive history."

To continue reading, click to download the latest issue of Nissan's Drive On magazine for free. 

About Hans

As someone who appreciates cars not just for their horsepower value but also for their cultural significance, he is interested in the art of manufacturing and selling cars just as much as driving them. Prior to swapping spread sheets for a word processor, he spent his previous life in product planning and market research.

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