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Fifteen minutes of fame

Hayashi: Macau Grand Prix – November 15, 1981

Japanese cars and drivers tend not to travel well, but 22 years ago a little-known marque from the Land of the Rising Sun beat the favourites at Macau. By Tim Scott

Only two Japanese-built single-seaters have taken victories in major international events outside the Land of the Rising Sun. Honda’s Formula One triumph in the high altitude of Mexico City in 1965 has stamped its mark on racing history. But the sole victory of a long-forgotten company in the Macau Grand Prix has most certainly not.

Even at the time little attention was paid to the Hayashi squad when it turned up at the Portuguese enclave’s prestigious end-of-season street race, two of its Formula Three chassis beefed up to fit in with the Formula Pacific (aka Atlantic) rules to which the event was run at the time. All eyes were on the high-profile teams running big-name drivers in benchmark products froml and March. And yet, three days later, an extraordinary sequence of events had conspired to allow American Bob Earl to secure top honours for the Japanese marque.

As surprised as anyone by the success was Earl himself; who had run the first tests of the Hayashi 220P in California earlier that year, and come away far from impressed: “It really wasn’t a very good car actually, so I suggested a number of modifications and that was it”

This unlikely liaison was just beginning then however, for Hayashi was ambitious and hungry to break into the international chassis market. Set up in 1970 by aluminium wheel manufacturer Masakazu Hayashi, the company had begun to make headway midway through the decade by producing a popular Formula Junior 1600 chassis from its base close to the Suzuka circuit.

Hayashi’s cousin, Minoru, founded the well-known Dome Cars company around the same time, and the duo colluded on Hayashi’s first F3 design in 1980. After that Hayashi’s team, which included Masao Ono – the man behind the Kojima grand prix cars – designed and built its own F3 cars. The 320 made an immediate impact in 1981 when Osamu Nakako won the Japanese F3 title, and it was this car, with an alloy monocoque, that evolved into the 220P Formula Pacific that was intended to take Hayashi onto the international stage.

The connection with Earl, at the time a rising star with Galles Racing in US Super Vee racing, came through an American friend of his who imported Hayashi’s junior cars for school use. Eager for an experienced driver to develop the new car, Earl was offered the chance to lead the company’s Macau assault. He arrived at Suzuka in late October to race the sister car to Nakako’s in a Japanese Formula Pacific race as part of the Macau build-up, but things did not start well.

“When I travelled to Japan, the car had been redesigned completely, a lot of it according to what I had suggested,” explains Earl. “But it was still not very good. I’m an engineer as well as a driver, and to me it felt like the rear end of the car was not communicating with the front. So I had them draw out the car for me on the wall. I found out the front roll-centre was about two feet under the ground, the rear one was about six feet off it! So I changed it completely.”

Earl finished in fourth place at Suzuka, but his contribution wasn’t necessarily going down well.

“They didn’t speak English and the designers didn’t like the fact that I was engineering the car. But my mechanic was a really good guy, and a hard worker; we communicated through drawings and sign language for what I wanted on the car.”

The suspension wasn’t hard enough to work well at Suzuka, and that, allied to a seat problem, left Earl with broken ribs as they set off for the notoriously bumpy Macau circuit Yet there its soft suspension suited the track, and the Toyota engine had enough power to make it something of a missile on the long start-finish straight

In the first qualifying session Earl was a surprise sixth-quickest, and when the team finally agreed to modify the front suspension as he wanted, he popped in a lap just 0.4sec slower than pole-sitter Geoff Lees in a Theodore Racing Ralt-Ford RT4 to start on the outside of the front row. The world suddenly sat up and took notice. It would surely be a different story in the race, though.

Theodore had Ralts for Jean-Pierre Jarier and Roberto Moreno, too, while Japanese hotshoes Kazuyoshi Hoshino and Masahiro Hasemi were aboard Team Dah March-Nissan 81As. Moreno, however, crashed his car in qualifying and ended up starting the race in a 10-year old March! One potential winner was already out of the way.

Reigning European Formula Two champion Lees bogged down at the start and Earl swept into the lead. The Englishman quickly caught up but, on lap two, put off by a lurid moment from Earl, he crashed into the sea wall.

For lap after lap Earl led, his car wayward on the twisty sections but strong on the straight. Hasemi, though, was on a charge.

“We had a lot of horsepower, and we’d taken all the wing off, too,” Earl enthuses. “There was no way Hasemi could catch me on the straight. But I knew I couldn’t hold him off forever, so I had to figure out a way to outsmart him.

“At the tight hairpin, if you don’t go to the very outside of the road and go all the way round on full lock, you don’t make it. Hasemi was chomping at the bit, so I left the door open and braked early, hoping that his adrenaline would make him go to the inside. That’s just what happened. He had to stop and reverse, and that gave me a 6sec lead again.”

Hasemi now had a red mist. He quickly caught back up, but then missed a gear and blew his engine. Earl was now able to cruise to a famous victory, and the ecstatic team was left to savour its finest hour.

For the Japanese company such heights would never be reached again. Earl arranged to use the car in Formula Atlantic trim for the Long Beach GP the following April, but was horrified to discover that Hayashi had sent a completely new design, the 230A.

“We were quickest in the first practice session, and everyone was really worried about the new Hayashi versus the Ralt,” remembers Earl. But in the race the bolts in the bulkhead sheared and Bob had to park up. “That hurt Hayashi over in the US, because that car showed up and fell apart, and then the name was completely forgotten.”

Hayashi’s attempts to expand abroad continued, however, with Nakako doing a handful of European F3 rounds in the 322 chassis in 1982, but his results were modest. More domestic success followed – another Japanese F3 tide in ’84 – but as the wheel business struggled, so did Hayashi Racing. Its doors closed at the end of ’86.

The Hayashi family may yet complete unfinished business, however. For 2003, Minoru Hayashi’s Dome concern has entered the F3 market in conjunction with Lola. Maybe a Japanese-designed car will once again triumph at Macau.

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