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By Ben Pulman (photography by Paddy McGrath)
11 February 2013 11:45
When CAR met 'Drift King' Keiichi Tsuchiya, we took Toyota's new GT86 coupe – and its legendary AE86 predecessor – along to see what the original oversteer hero made of the slidey new model. Read on for the full story of how Tsuchiya brought drifting to the world, and his thoughts on the Toyota GT86 and AE86.
The diminutive orange Toyota starts to drift long before the corner, engine blaring near the redline, rear tyres gliding playfully close to undergrowth that’s ready to act as armco, the car holding a ludicrous angle and carrying huge speed. Then it’s gracefully through the off-camber bend and silence returns to the forest once more, two black lines and the whiff of acrid tyre smoke all the evidence left behind.
Inside you expect the driver’s arms to be a blur, feet constantly dancing across the pedals, but each movement is measured, controlled, calm. And when the right rear tyre delaminates halfway through the next corner, he coolly completes the slide, puts the hazard lights on, and brings the GT86 to a halt. The stern face cracks into an impish grin, the dark eyes shine, a gloved hand is raised with thumb outstretched, and through halting English the Japanese legend declares: ‘Nice! Very. Good. Balance.’
Among those obsessed with going sideways Keiichi Tsuchiya (kay-ee-chee chuh-see-yuh) is practically a god – his nickname is ‘Drift King’. But Tsuchiya learnt to drift to improve his racing, and highlights include a second at Le Mans. Japanese comic books, a cartoon series and Hollywood moved him from motorsport into the mainstream, and it’s been his relationship with Toyota’s AE86 throughout that’s turned a humble hatch and coupe popular with race and rally teams into a cult icon.
Drifting, Tsuchiya and the AE86 are inextricably linked. And now Tsuchiya is why the AE86’s belated successor, the GT86, has heritage, but the identical Subaru BRZ doesn’t. Subaru engineered both, is building them too, but without all-wheel drive or a turbo the BRZ is as out-of-place in the company’s line-up as Grace Jones at a monarch’s birthday bash. But although the only significant Toyota part in the GT86 is the direct-injection system, the car itself harks back to the principles of the AE86, and it’s legitimised thanks to the Drift King and his legacy with the Hachi-Roku (eight and six in Japanese).
Tsuchiya played a part in the GT86’s development, too. ‘I started my involvement in 2007,’ he explains. ‘I gave advice and opinion on price, size, weight and performance.’ He continued to be consulted every few months, and is proud of the result: ‘If you look at other 2.0-litre cars in the world, with naturally aspirated engines, I don’t think there’s another with an equally good balance, whether it’s front-, rear- or four-wheel drive. Oversteer and understeer don’t suddenly happen – the car will tell you beforehand.’
Don’t think Tsuchiya’s here to toe the company line. His famous green racesuit (chosen because the Nagano Prefecture where he was born was ‘the greenest in Japan’) has Honda on the back, he works for a Honda Super GT race team now, worked on the successor to the NSX before the project was canned following the Lehman Brothers collapse (the HSV was already a secondquicker around Suzuka than a Nissan GT-R, he reveals), and quit Toyota more than once in his career.
Tsuchiya only started driving in his teens, secretly borrowing his father’s Nissan Skyline 2000 GT to cruise around the neighbourhood. Once 18, and with a licence, he graduated to nearby mountain passes (there were no circuits where he lived) until a racing driver saw how quick he was and suggested he compete. He first raced aged 21 in a Nissan Sunny: ‘I thought it would be easy to win. I was only ninth.’ But failure spurred Tsuchiya on, and to pay for his racing he worked at his father’s company during the day, and at nightclubs during the evening. Looking down upon him, he probably wasn’t employed as a bouncer.
His professional tuition is limited, but a Nissan racing school in his early 20s set him on a sideways path. There he met Kazuyoshi Hoshino, an ex-F1 driver reputed to be the fastest in Japan; Tsuchiya refused to ride alongside any instructor but ‘Crazy Hoshino’ and realised his driving style had to change. ‘I started drifting only after I started racing, as I wanted to win,’ Tsuchiya recalls. ‘If you brake at the same point as the others you can’t win, so I learned to enter with over-speed and then drift.'
Having watched Hoshino he set out to learn from a rally-driving friend, practising in the mountains a few times a week (he smiles happily at this memory), getting arrested a few times per month (and giggles mischievously at this one). And he started to win, first in his Sunny, then a Nissan Pulsar, and then in an AE86 in 1984. ‘The 86 was the only sports car in which I thought I could win. Everyone was going front-drive, but I wanted rear-drive to drift.’
He won the first six rounds of the series, sometimes by half a lap, by more if it was raining, before Toyota offered him a three-year factory drive on condition he didn’t enter the final race. He later moved to Nissan for its rear-drive Skyline 2000 GTX and R32 GT-R, before switching to Honda when they offered him a drive at Le Mans, and he raced for McLaren too. Perhaps most impressive, however, was finishing second overall for Toyota at Le Mans 1999, even managing to get his high-downforce GT-One moving around when it was raining.
‘It’s not drifting to show off, it’s drifting to kill and offset understeer,’ Tsuchiya explains. When he’s racing and minutely sliding and balancing the car, it’s to be faster than the traditional approach of neat and tidy. And it’s why he recently left the D1GP drift series he helped found over a decade ago, and set up Drift Muscle: ‘I wanted to make it more about motorsport, not a show. But D1 went more in the direction of a show, so I quit. In Drift Muscle we measure entry speed and speed while drifting, so it’s more like a sport.’
Tsuchiya officially retired from racing in 2003, but when I ask him if he still drifts he looks at me incredulously, then replies in English to make sure his answer is unequivocal: ‘Of course!’ And he still loves his Hachi-Rokus. Besides an NSX Type R and a Honda Odyssey MPV there are two AE86s in Tsuchiya’s garage, his ‘training machines’. The Trueno (pop-up lights) has a 1.8-litre engine instead of the standard 1.6 and is used for sprints, while the Levin (fixed lights, like the car we’ve brought along) is ‘absolutely fully tuned’ and spends its life sideways. Tsuchiya bought it for ¥250,000 (about £2k) but then spent ¥10m (£80k) on it. Half of that went on the engine alone, which now revs to 10,500rpm he tells me, laughing at his own absurdity.
He stubs out his cigarette, dutifully collects the butt, zips up his racesuit, pulls on his marigolds, then climbs into the waiting GT86. One sighting run later and he’s drifting inches from the back of our camera car. When we chase him our car can’t keep up, such is Tsuchiya’s commitment, and even after multiple runs he’s still going faster, finding new lines, playing with new approaches. He’s constantly sideways, the overworked tyres starting to smoke, and still his lead increases. We ask him to go slower, but the results are still as spectacular, and now he slides along the straights as well, gliding elegantly from verge to verge. At the end of each run the window is lowered, the thumb comes up, and the grin gets wider when we ask him to go again.
He’s unique, literally. A manga comic called Initial D is loosely based on his adolescent life, and when sales passed five million it was turned into an anime. Tsuchiya recorded the in-car sounds for the original TV series, but other drivers were used for the second and third seasons and fans noticed, so Tsuchiya was back for the fourth. The comic is still going strong, with total sales now over 8m, and whatever happens in the Drift King’s Hot Version DVD (now onto its 116th edition) soon finds its way into print. There was an Initial D film too, and knowledgeable Western fans would have recognised his cameo in The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift as a fisherman despairingly watching the film’s hero attempting to drift. Tsuchiya recorded all the in-car sounds for the film, and performed the lead character’s driving stunts.
We won’t be drifting the AE86 we’ve borrowed today – though it looks set up to slide with an under-bonnet strut brace to stiffen the nose, hard suspension, and rear tyres skinnier than the fronts – so impressions are limited to the archaic interior, nimble and lightweight chassis, weighty steering, and the keen-to-rev and characterful little engine. Tsuchiya loves it, and so did a legion of fans that embraced the affordable rear-driver when the alternatives were all front-wheel drive.
It’s a similar situation today, the GT86 entering a market dominated by hot hatches. It’s perhaps not to everyone’s taste, but the electric steering offers weight and real feedback through the small wheel, the engine’s a little dull, the gearbox a little notchy, but you’ll forget all that when rushing to the redline or blipping downchanges to stay in the powerband. And when the competition is heavier and grippier and drives the front wheels, the hope is that an intuitive, perfectly balanced coupe on 17-inch tyres pinched off a Prius can offer the accessible thrills so hard to otherwise find.I only worry it’s not powerful enough, or that those anorexic tyres are still too grippy. ‘The thing I rather strongly suggested was a 2.5-litre naturally aspirated engine, or a turbo,’ says Tsuchiya. But, just like the AE86, the basic ingredients are there, and it’ll be left to aftermarket tuners and enthusiastic fans to tweak the car to their own preferences.
Or you need the skill of the Drift King, who uses every inch of our closed road to make the GT86 dance, calling out to me where he shift-locks from third to second gear to lock the rear wheels (see panel on left for an explanation), where he clutch-kicks to put the 2.0-litre engine back in its high-rev powerband, all the time moving deftly, never once applying too much lock or too much throttle.
I try to be nonchalant, try not to make it obvious that I’m panic braking in the passenger seat as Tsuchiya enters each corner too fast. But then he drifts to carry the speed, exactly as he’s been doing for over 30 years, and at the end of the run I spontaneously applaud. I’ve never been more impressed. And when the tyre lets go, Tsuchiya beams with glee and has a cigarette while it’s changed. Then we head back out and do it all over again.
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Toyota's GT86 meets the legendary 'Drift King'
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RE: Toyota's GT86 meets the legendary 'Drift King'
please, not plese... Yes, Ben, I can see you're aiming low, so who cares if you screw up a couple of Japanese words... But it is fairly obvious why the UK has virtually no domestically owned car manufactureres.
12 February 2013 05:47
Ben Pulman: Mr Tsuchiya himself may have a non-standard accent, or was just slurring his pronunciation. The "translator" was plain wrong. Japanese is a major language: once again, plese try and get it right.
12 February 2013 05:43
**** as in donkey or **** as in arse?
Doesn't sem to bother the auto ****-wipe editing software.
**** as in donkey or **** as in arse?
Doesn't sem to bother the auto ****-wipe editing software.
11 February 2013 20:55
**** has three letters, arse has four.
11 February 2013 20:53
I wouldn't worry Ben, everyone loves a cute ****, no one loves a smart ****.
11 February 2013 20:52
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