Interviews Autosport International 2014: Britain’s first Super GT Nismo GT-R

Interviews

Millions of racing fans around the world found their fascination for racing cars through video games. No game has had a bigger impact in this way than the Gran Turismo series. At this year’s Autosport International racing car show, I saw a car that I have always loved in GT, but never expected to see for real: a Super GT touring car.

The Super GT is Japan’s biggest national sports car racing series featuring cars similar in style and specification to Germany’s DTM series. During the nineties, this championship was known as JGTC and only allowed Japanese manufacturers to compete. Of those cars, my favourite was the Nissan Nismo Skyline GT-R; specifically those run by the Calsonic team. The iconic blue livery and the incredibly aggressive design caught my attention and has stayed with me ever since.

At Autosport International this year, I had the pleasure of meeting Tim Barks from Modern Vehicle Services (MVS), a North Wales Skyline tuning specialist. Tim and his company decided that they wanted to run a JGTC spec Skyline in the UK, but after hearing that other people’s attempts to buy one were turned down by Nissan and Nismo, he only wanted one even more…so he built his own!

I had the fantastic opportunity to interview Tim and discover the behind-the-scenes story of one of the most remarkable racing cars currently running in the UK.

VVV: Tell us a bit about how the idea for the car came about and how you were able to pull it off.

Tim: The car came about because I was always fascinated by the JGTC cars from the nineties. Later on they turned the series into Super GT and at that point allowed more European cars like Audi and Mercedes into the championship. At the time our car would have run it was a mostly domestic Japanese market with only Honda, Toyota, Nissan and so on taking part. I was fascinated with this particular car because we maintain and tune Skylines at Modern Vehicle Services (MVS) in North Wales and I was already running track day versions of Skylines as very modified road cars and I wanted to go more extreme.

I was at an event where there was a guy selling magazines, and amongst them were some original brochures for the original Japanese series, like matchday programmes for the JGTC. Mine is the 2004 JGTC Official Guidebook. In the centrefold of the programme there was a cutaway of last of the Skyline marque before Nissan swapped its racecar to the new GT-R. So it was the very last of the R34s. There was a big technical specification, which I have never been able to read because it’s all Japanese, but in the margins they listed the dimensions like length, height, horsepower, break size and so on. It was very detailed so that the guys watching in the stands could read all about their car and it was a farewell to the racing Skyline.

I decided that for us to have a more extreme car going forward that we would emulate what I saw in those pictures. So our Skyline was developed from a series of photographs that we’ve got of Japanese Skylines, from books, from speaking to people here who worked on the Nissan JGTC project in Japan and we also used a copy of the JGTC rules as they were at the time for aerodynamics, dimensions etc. It’s based on the R34 in terms of shape, so it looks like the famous Xanavi Skyline. However, a lot of my previous work is on the R33 models, so we applied a lot of that to this car, making it an R33 based machine, but with the later aerodynamics from the R34.

VVV: What do you think makes the generation of JGTC that you have recreated more interesting than the modern Super GT?

Tim: The JGTC was a little bit more extreme. Modern safety has now rationalised the cars and made them a little bit detuned. The older cars are very much drivers’ cars. It was man and machine, controlling the throttle, the brakes, there were no electronic driver aids and it was a pure motorsport form. The modern cars with the driver aids are perhaps easier to drive. The older cars were monsters – a little bit scary with more of a fight. I like that they were a bit more vicious! I like the look of the older cars as well. Windtunnels have smoothed off the modern cars, but these were a little bit more boxy and angry looking.

VVV: How did you manage the transition from working on road car modifications, to building a bespoke racing car?

Tim: It was an engineering exercise to build the car and it was very technically stretching. We had to learn all of the technology from the JGTC era. We had to build specific features, like the data logger, the air jacks, the sequential transmission, the twin turbo engine and the management systems. As much as we’ve done many of these things on customer Skylines in the past, we wouldn’t have a sequential transmission in a road car, so we’ve had to buy one and learn all about it. The transmission we’re using is still in development so we’re working closely with the manufacturer, giving them feedback to build a better gearbox between the two of us. If we break it they want to know why, then they modify it and we try it again.

It’s been a bodywork exercise as well. We’ve made small amounts of bodywork for modified road cars before, but with this project we had to make virtually the entire car. We had to learn how to make the moulds and sculpt the car. Now that the car is finished there’s even more things to do. I have a race license now and I’m learning to tame the car and understand it more. All of the guys at my garage get to come along at the weekend and be race mechanics, working under strict time constraints, doing lots of safety checks and so on. Its great for them to come and play racing cars after doing a normal job during the week. It has taught us a great deal and improved my company. It’s also a great advert for my company. If someone asks if we’re good enough to work on on their car, we just show them this and that always gets us the job.

VVV: What can you can do differently in terms of specifications here in the UK, compared to the original JGTC rules in Japan?

Tim: The original cars were limited to the 500 BHP in Japan but that’s not an issue for us here. We tend to run it above that and could run it up to about 800 BHP. At the moment we’re not running competitively, we’re still learning about the setup. Later this year or early next year we will enter it into some races. We’ve been invited to the Anglesey Circuit to do some testing alongside some GT cars as a benchmark to see how much work we still have to do. Because the car was built the way it is, it doesn’t really fit an existing series. We used MSA specifications for the rollcage and other safety aspects, so it is eligible to run in the UK, but we don’t know what series we can put it into. It could go into a silhouette GT class, where the cars have to look like the originals they are based on but aren’t necessarily correct underneath. There are all-comers races as well. There’s no chance of finding other cars like ours in the UK so we will have to work to see where we fit in.

VVV: Have you thought about racing in Europe or Japan if you can’t find a series you like for this car in the UK?

Tim: It’s possible that we could do that. I’m sure the Japanese would be flattered that we’ve copied one of their cars, but in hard terms money would be an issue. It’s possible that we could find more sponsors to back us and push us forwards, but we couldn’t do it at the moment. The car is a one off as well, so I’d rather people see it as a demonstration run. We will race it, but to give people the opportunity to feel what it’s like to sit in a stand in Japan and see one of these things blast past you. If we can expose this type of racing to a European market there is more fun in demonstrating it. There isn’t enough of these in Europe.

VVV: What sort of people tend to take an interest in the car? Do you get many video game fans coming up who know Super GT from Gran Turismo?

Tim: We get technical people who love the engineering that the project required. We get younger people who don’t always know what the car is in terms of performance, but they’ve seen it on Xbox and PlayStation. Gamers are one of the car’s biggest followings. They relate to the fact that it looks like the famous Calsonic Skylines and they come up and say ‘I’ve driven that car!’ I don’t have any gaming stuff but one of my friends is mad about it and he’s given me a go in this on his console. I was really impressed with how accurate it was compared to driving the real thing. The things you struggle with in the game are the same things we struggle with in real life. Traction is the biggest problem in both, but gamers don’t have things falling off like we do, or have oil leaks in their bedroom!

VVV: What kind of reaction have you had from the tuner community and the wider UK racing community?

The Japanese tuner community in the UK is very close-knit. We all know each other and many of us are good friends. We all phone each other when we’re stuck and we share parts. I’m very close friends with Rod Bell of RB Motorsports who has been helping me to get engine parts from Japan because he has many more contacts out there than I do. He loves being involved and he tunes and maintains Skylines himself. He’s really proud to be involved and we’re proud to have him as well. He’s a renowned engine builder.

Over the last few years a few people began to get an inkling that we might be working on something mental. We kept it secret and only let a few bits of information come out. When we showed the car for the first time it was a huge shock to the tuning community because so many people would love to build something like this. Few people have the time or the resources, so because we were the first to do it we’ve shattered some people’s dreams of having the first JGTC car in the UK.

It would be nice if some other Japanese tuners came out with similar NSX or Supra projects because then we could have our own race series, rather than us be a rogue entrant into another championship. It’s possible then that we could speak to a championship organiser and get a big following with the Japanese scene here.

Modern Vehicle Services is a Japanese and import tuning specialist based in Holywell, Wales. If you need some work done on your Skyline you can contact them at +44 (0)1352 720375.

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