In Photos: Suzuka Sound of Engine 2019, Japan's Internal-Combustion Celebration
It's the closest thing Asia has to the Le Mans Classic and the Goodwood Revival.
The Suzuka Sound of Engine event is arguably one of the best—if not the best—annual events on the annual Japanese motoring calendar, and it's the one I look forward to the most each year. The Sound of Engine is a relatively new phenomenon, having been started in 2014, but each year it's attracted more spectators and more exhibitors from around Japan and the world.
Think of it as an ode to motorsports glory of the past. There are historic formula cars, legends of Formula 1, historic bikes, and a pile of classic street cars and road racers—with a dash of modern supercars thrown in the mix for good measure. It's a weekend long celebration of icons of internal combustion we wouldn't normally be able to see—or more important hear—otherwise, species of cars whose days are numbered in today's day and age of electrification. It's the closest thing Asia has to the Le Mans Classic and the Goodwood Revival.
The biggest draws are undoubtedly the Group C cars, and these monsters from the world of endurance sports-car racing from the '80s and '90s have been an integral part in the event's success. The Sound of Engine is a rare opportunity to get up close and personal with these incredible machines, and you can watch them being driven the way they were meant to on one of the world's most significant circuits. The annual Group C roster changes, but you can always count on seeing Mazdas, Nissans, and Porsches battle it out once again as they did those many decades ago.
The LMP1 Le Mans class is all but gone, to be replaced by the Hypercar class, and those cars were incredible, but Group C racers were a whole other breed. They pushed the boundaries of what could be done, although with hindsight this may have doomed Group C from the beginning. Trouble for the series brewed even before it began when the organizers at Le Mans became concerned by the domination of the 5.0-liter engines in the Porsche 917s and Ferrari 512s, eventually limiting maximum engine size to 3.0 liters, much like the Formula 1 engines of the time. The drop in engine displacement saw Porsche strap a couple of turbochargers to its 3.0-liter flat-six in the 956 and later 962, and these cars ruled Group C in the 1980s and well into the '90s. In an effort to even the playing field, organizers once again changed the rules in 1991 to ban turbochargers in favor of naturally aspirated engines up to 3.5 liters. Taking a page out of Formula 1 once again, manufactures could use anything from six to 12 cylinders as long as they stayed within the displacement limit.
The new rules hampered the competitiveness of existing cars such as the Porsche 962, which was used by many privateers and instead favored larger teams who could afford F1-sourced 3.5-liter engines. The rising costs in Group C, which were comparable to F1 at the time, thus saw teams switch to the larger and more well-known series. Manufacturers such as Peugeot, Toyota, BMW, Jaguar, and Mercedes quickly moved to F1 by the time Group C had dissolved.
In Japan, the All-Japan Sports Prototype Championship gave these cars their own dedicated series. Starting in 1983 as the All Japan Endurance Championship, set to replace the popular Group 5 Super Silhouette series, it started out as three-round event, including one counting as part of the World Endurance Championship. With similar rules to IMSA GTP and Group C, a lot of the cars were shared between the championships. Much as in Le Mans, Porsches dominated. The 962 won six of the 10 championships in Japan and were the main targets for domestic manufacturers such as Nissan, Toyota, and Mazda. By 1992, popularity for the All-Japan Sports Prototype Championship had faded, and with Group C and IMSA GTP also disappearing from the world stage, the Japanese equivalent was dissolved. However, the Japanese Group C cars were still able to compete for two years in the newly formed All Japan Grand Touring Car Championship, which would later be known as Super GT.
For Sound of Engine 2019, only six Group C cars were present, but these were enough to satisfy anyone's appetite. Toyota brought its 85CL, Mazda had two Renown-liveried cars in a 767B and JSPC-spec 787B, there was an Advan-livery Porsche 962C, and two Nissans were at the track, the R86V and R91CP. In previous years, other Group C cars that made appearances include the Silk Cut Jaguar XJR-9, Peugeot 905, and Toyota TS010. The cars get two runs each day, a practice session in the morning and a "demonstration race" in the afternoon, giving spectators at Suzuka four opportunities over the weekend to experience these legends. The great thing about Suzuka is the ease of accessibility to various sections of the track, including the first corner, chicanes, hairpin, and final corner, to get different vantage points.
Nissan's Group C cars started with a chassis based the domestic Le Mans LM03C. Later on, Nissan made the switch to sourcing chassis from U.K. manufacturer March Engineering, and their Silvia cars won the automaker's first victory in the 1985 WEC in Japan. The R86V at the Sound of Engine was a 1986 example, which packed a VG30 twin-turbo 3.0-liter V-6 producing more than 680 horsepower and weighed around 1,875 pounds. This particular car qualified 24th at the 1986 24 Hours of Le Mans but retired from the race. Nissan switched to chassis developed by Lola Car International for 1989 before developing its own from 1990. This led to the development of the R90 and later on its evolution the R91CP, as seen above. Using an in-house VRH35Z 3.5-liter V-8 engine with with 680 horsepower and tipping the scales at a tidy 2,050 pounds, the R91CP was the first Japanese car to finish first overall at the Rolex 24 Hour at Daytona in 1992.
Another significant Japanese Group C car is the Toyota 85CL. Toyota joined the All Japan Endurance Championship series in 1983 with the 83C. By this stage Porsche had switched from the 956 to the 962. To remain competitive, Toyota introduced the 85C. In 1985, both TOMS and Dome entered 85CLs in the Le Mans 24 Hours and the TOMS team finished 12th overall to become the first Japanese Group C outfit to complete a Le Mans 24-hour race. It would take six years for a bigger milestone was achieved by a Japanese car at Le Mans.
Mazda's road to Le Mans success arguably started with the development of the 767 by Mazdaspeed in 1988. Built to replace the 757 and contest the 24 Hours of Le Mans in the IMSA-spec GTP class, it was the first car to run the newer and larger four-rotor 13J Wankel engine producing 600 horsepower. The two 767s entered at the 1988 24 Hours of Le Mans finished 17th and 19th overall, while also powering Mazda to fourth place overall in the constructors' title in the All Japan Sports Prototype Championship. In 1989, Mazda upgraded the 767 to the 767B. The 767B proved successful overseas, finishing fifth overall at the IMSA 24 Hours of Daytona, but it failed to be competitive in Japan where Mazda finished fifth in the constructors' championship. At Le Mans, the 767Bs finished seventh and ninth.
In 1990, Mazda introduced the 787B with a larger 26B four-rotor engine. With a 2.6-liter capacity, the engine had a maximum power output of 900 horsepower but was limited to 700 horses for reliability during races. In 1991, the Mazda 787B became the first Japanese car to win the prestigious 24 Hours of Le Mans, the No. 55 car sporting the now-iconic Renown livery. Renown, a Japanese clothing manufacturer, had been a supporter of Mazda's Group C efforts since 1988. The particular car at Suzuka wasn't the Le Mans-winning car but instead the 787B-003 in JSPC spec built after Le Mans. The chassis was modified for short-distance racing and the headlamps removed in the pursuit of weight reduction. The 787B was by far the best-sounding car on hand±and not just in the Group C category. The high-pitched howl of its four rotors spinning furiously sounds more like a Formula 1 car than do modern Formula 1 cars. It's an intoxicating noise you can't help but soak in as the car screams past on the main straight. That alone was worth the entry fee.
Last but not least comes the Porsche 962, the car that dominated Group C and to an extent led to its demise. Debuting in 1984 to replace the 956, Porsche quickly launched the 962C in 1985. Not performing as successfully as it hoped, Porsche again upgraded its racer in 1987 with a new, more powerful, and more durable 3.0-liter twin-turbo engine, subsequently capturing the overall victory at that year's 24 Hour of Le Mans—Porsche's seventh consecutive win. Under a loophole, the 962 was reclassified as a road-legal GT1 car and was able to compete in Le Mans in the early '90s. So dominant was the 962, teams racing the 962 took World Sportscar Championships in 1985 and 1986, IMSA GT Championships from 1985 to 1988, the Interserie Championship from 1987 to 1992, the All Japan Sports Prototype Championship from 1985 through 1989, the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 1986 and 1987 and, as a Dauer 962, in 1994. The final victory of an original 962C was under the hands of Team Taisan in 1994 at the All Japan Grand Touring Car Championship at Fuji Speedway, a full decade after the model had originally debuted. The 962C at Sound of Engine was the ADVAN Alpha 962C that won the Suzuka 1000km after the final round was held during a typhoon, and which also won the All-Japan Sports Prototype Championship three times.
And if you think the cars aren't being run hard, consider this: During the last run on Sunday, the driver of the Porsche 962C managed to set a lap just 0.5 second slower than the record, pole-position-grabbing time set by the 962C in 1987. While we've focused on Group C in this missive, the Sound of Engine is much, much more than that—and you can check out all the various sights in the gallery below. Enjoy!