Gran Turismo: gamer to MX-5 racer in 3 days (Part 2)

Dean Evans
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Start of the 2023 Mazda Four-Hour eco-enduro, in Japan

Start of the 2023 Mazda Four-Hour eco-enduro, in Japan

In part 1 of our Gran Turismo gamer-to-racer story, we talked about preparation, and visiting the GT HQ in Tokyo. Now, at Tsukuba Circuit, north of Tokyo, it's time to race.

The 4Hour Media Race has become a staple of the Mazda racing calendar, with Mazda building 25 racecars of the latest/current generation specifically and only for it, inviting a host of Japanese media teams from magazines to newspapers, TV and more to compete - with the odd Super GT and F1 driver thrown in for a bit of spice... and occasionally some overseas guests. So with thanks to Mazda New Zealand, we represented NZ for the first time in this event, which many Japanese did tell us how much they loved!

What makes the race unique is that it takes 70 litres to do the 4 hours flat out; but each team is only allocated 60 litres of fuel (40 in car, 20 in a jerry can for the one stop), so there's a huge component to saving fuel: higher gears, lifting off early and coasting, braking later and relaying the fuel-use gauge every lap to the pits via our mobile phone headsets.

Each driver has a maximum stint of 50 minutes, requiring four mandatory pit-stops, 60 seconds each, except for the three-minute refuelling/driver change stop. Adding to that was our team's 2nd place finish in 2022 that awarded us another 210 second pit-stop, to be taken within the first 30 minutes, effectively putting us back 3 laps.

The rule is designed to discourage quick teams from winning, such as Tipo magazine which has won 10 times, including 2022, with 1st place earning a 270 second penalty, 3rd place 150 seconds, and 4th to 6th place, with 120 seconds.

Our red, white and blue ND MX-5 NR-A (racing version) has a rollcage, racing seat and Bridgestone Potenza RE004 street tyres and race pads. Otherwise, they're all standard and the same car. That also means softly spring suspension and lots of pitch, dive and roll, along with a fair bit of tyre squeal.

Juha and I are each given three familiarisation laps in practice, while Yamada has the honour of qualifying - a good thing, given the downpour of rain moments before qualifying. On a drying track, times tumble in the final minutes and almost everyone's fast lap in their last, except Yamada who spins on the wet line just after the bridge and fails to improve his/our solid 12th place from 21 cars. In a 4 Hour, it's academic anyway.

At 4pm Peter is in for the rolling race start. Conserving fuel is the key, and running our own race. Others shoot off, and around 10 laps in, we pit for the painfully long 3.5 minute pitsop, which puts us four laps down. And that was pretty much our story of the race, always 3-4 laps behind, and never looking likely for even a top 10.

After 48 mins, Peter returns to swap to Sakamoto, who puts in a solid session with a few more rpm, moving up a few places (amongst those of us penalised and laps down, at least), parrly thanks to higher revs we're subsequently given due to our lower fuel use.

As dusk nears, it's my turn for some fun, and though our pit communication (via mobile phone and headsets) has overheated and ceased working, I'm always in traffic and pass around 10 cars. As night falls, the track is bathed in yellow thanks to the track lights. And in more ways that one. After 30 mins of driving blind without lap times or position updates, I head down the back straight and pass two cars line-astern... just as I do, I notice in the dark, distance, a rectangular flag, which I assume is yellow - like everything else.

Immediately I raise my hand as the 2nd-placed Car Graphic MX-5 I'd just passed is still behind me and had also passed at least one of those cars. It's borderline, but also confirmed at the next flag point, when the SC Safety Car board comes out and the flashing yellow lights turn on for a car that's spun off on the final corner, beached in the gravel.

As I enter the start straight, the MX-5 safety car oddly picks up me as the leader, soon waving me by, and gaining us a lap back. I catch the tail of the train and we take the opportunity to do the 3 min fuel stop; but it's too early for a driver change, so I go back out and catch the tail again of the still slow-moving train, before pitting again for the driver change to Juha: fortuitously, the whole process has got us back one lap. We're maybe up to 10th. Not long after, we're told of a one-minute penalty for passing a car past a yellow flag point. Dang. Though the reality is, that pass ultimately gained us 90 seconds.

Not that it mattered too much: while our fuel use was better than target, we just weren't making up the time we needed to, and were still three laps down as we passed the half-way point with Juha putting in quick and consistent laps, and having fun in the dark rounding up cars and racing with the Tipo team.

Maybe it was the 3.5 minute stop, but we're actually using less average fuel than the GT simulations suggested, and none of us are getting within 1-2 seconds of our expected lap times either. The simple answer is, we pick up the revs and go faster.

With Juha pushing hard, he pits with 50 minutes to run, and Yamada climbs in for the final stint and largely unleashed. He rolls off the fastest lap time of the whole race, a 1m:12.8sec lap. He's gaining places, we maybe see 9th, but it's burning through fuel, and with 10 minutes to go, the fuel light comes on and he's forced to back off to simply finish... as do many others.

Tipo runs dry and has to pull to the side of the track, as many teams have done in previous years. Cars are surging, going 5-10 secs a lap off pace. We're just hoping to finish, and as the chequered flag waves, Yamada crosses the line out of fuel, parking it 50m past the flag on the track, in front of our garage.

We finish in 13th place, still three laps down and never really able to make inroads. But we finish. Team Engine Roadster takes the win from 9th on the grid, ahead of previous winners and pole-sitter Revspeed, and the 3rd qualifying/finishing 009 MX-5 of Terry Tsuchiya's TV Car Storys.

From playing Gran Turismo at home, to the GT headquarters in Tokyo, then being able to race an MX-5 around Tsukuba with a great team is an experience that few get to realise. I'm no Jann Mardenborough or Lucas Ordonez, but for four hours, we lived the dream of going from gamer to racer.


Special thanks to Mazda Australia, Sony PlayStation NZ, NHK World/Samurai Wheels Japan, Peter Lyon, Polyphony Digital Japan, and C! magazine Philippines, plus all our drivers, team and supporters for making this incredible event happen.

For the full near-six hour livestream of the race, click here, or below.


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