“I speak enough Japanese to get into trouble, but not enough to talk myself out of it!” After nine years in the Orient Geoff Lees has lost none of his native touches of humour, although he is now the senior figure among European drivers who have settled in Japan to reshape their careers, and by far the most successful.
The Warwickshire-born driver, now 41, has led Toyota Team TOM’S sports car team since 1985 and continues to show the flair that landed him the job. The recent death of Hitoshi Ogawa, his long time co-driver, hit him hard, but David Brabham is shaping up well as his replacement and helped him to third place at Donington. “He’s beginning to look Japanese,” exclaimed one journalist when Lees took a bow at Toyota’s Le Mans press conference. A Jackie Stewart squint and a good layer of suntan begin the transformation which continues when Lees introduces his wife, Ayako, and talks about their home in Setagaya-ku, near Tokyo.
Not surprisingly, Lees feels very comfortable in Japan, and will continue his career there whatever happens to the Sportscar World Championship. He says, in fact, that he fits in better there than in America, where he spent the 1979 season driving for VDS in CanAm.
“Jacky Ickx won the championship that year because he was very consistent,” Lees recalls. “Keke (Rosberg) and I were always the quickest but I had a Chaparral engine which kept dropping valve springs, so I led plenty of races and won none of them. Keke crashed rather often so Jacky got the championship and Elliott Forbes-Robinson was the runner-up.
“It was a good year and I enjoyed it, especially racing at Road America and Road Atlanta, but I’ve never been back.” The chances are that Lees will be back next January, perhaps to race in the Daytona 24 Hours, because Team TOM’S regards that as the place to go to prepare for Le Mans.
Lees started racing in 1972, in Formula Ford of course, and three years later he won 33 races outright from 40 starts, and was marked for stardom. He moved up to Formula 3 in 1976, became Chevron’s works driver in ’77 and progressed to Formula 2 in 1978.
So far he was on the fast track upwards, and although his season in America seemed like a sideways move it brought him into competition with established names. Lees returned in 1980 ready for Formula 1 but as so often happens Formula 1 wasn’t ready for the driver.
Odd-jobbing for Shadow, Ensign and Williams got him nothing but a string of DNQs, so he made a wise decision in ’81 to contest the European Formula 2 Championship, a fiercely contested series which he won in Ron Tauranac’s Honda powered Raft.
Lees returned to Formula 1 in ’82 but again with disappointing results, with Lotus and Theodore. Then, when many of his contemporaries went to Heathrow and faced westwards, Lees turned east, to Japan, and so far as his career was concerned it was a one-way journey.
Acknowledging his CanAm experiences with the Lola, Lees won the All-Japan Grand Champion title three years in succession, twice with March chassis and once with a Reynard, all being single-seaters with enveloping bodywork.
He has been through some frustrating periods, for instance when Toyota’s early attempts to build Group C sports cars turned out lemons, and his direct appraisals didn’t always go down well with the management.
“The Japanese have a way of saying things,” he commented five years ago. “I would say that something has to be changed, but others in the team would say it’s fine, because they don’t like to offend their bosses. I wasn’t getting the backing I needed to improve the cars.”
All that is water under the bridge now. In 1989 the World Championship effort was based at TOM’S Toyota GB in Norfolk, close to the Lotus F1 team where key men Glenn Waters and Dave ‘Beaky’ Sims made their reputations.
Waters and Sims could control the chassis development, but were in despair that the V8, twin-turbo engine needed some fine tuning to achieve decent fuel economy. Only now does the turbocharged model use its fuel allocation sparingly, as was demonstrated effectively when the SARD team Toyota 92C-V won the ‘unlimited’ class at Le Mans, finishing fifth overall.
Driving for Toyota hasn’t all been plain sailing, but the 3.5-litre TS-010 is quite a different matter: light, powerful and reasonably reliable, the Group C car has made astonishing progress since it first appeared at Autopolis last October.
“The TS-010 is the best car I have ever driven, in my 21 years as a racing driver,” says Lees with conviction. “I’d like to drive it more often but there are only seven (possibly only six — Ed) races in the championship now, and we aren’t doing much testing. I’d prefer to test in the winter and do a lot more racing in the summer.”
In April Lees and Ogawa won the Monza 500 km in somewhat lucky circumstances, when Yannick Dalmas flipped the Peugeot almost in sight of the flag, and they could have cruised to victory at Silverstone but for a sudden, terminal electrical failure at half-distance.
Le Mans and Donington were exclusively Peugeot affairs, with a big contribution from Michelin it must be said, but Lees feels that Toyota will strike back on home ground at Suzuka on August 30. Nothing short of victory will do to keep Toyota and Lees in the title chase, though with Derek Warwick and Dalmas so close to their target, the possibilities remain remote.
“We are finding that the Peugeots are performing better on the smooth tracks like Silverstone, Le Mans and Donington, and I’m afraid Magny-Cours, where we’ll be in October. In particular we are having difficulty in getting our power down out of slow corners.” (Jaguar came to the same conclusion at Magny-Cours last year).
“Suzuka will be our best track, for sure. The surface is quite abrasive, I know the circuit like the back of my hand, and I like it! When we went testing at Suzuka earlier in the year the car was fantastic, and I did a time of 1m 41s, about seven seconds quicker than Jaguar’s pole position last year.
“The Toyota was inside the Formula 1 lap record, and since then we’ve improved the engine and the chassis. We’ll have the latest ‘big valve’ engine which breathes better, and is said to have another 20 bhp. We could use it right now!”
Looking to the future, Lees welcomes the FISA proposal to introduce Formula 3000 cars with bodywork, but not the Grand Touring cars… at least, not mixed with Group C.
“The Grand Touring car idea just won’t work,” he says forcefully. “They’ll be mobile islands, even if our cars are slowed by two seconds a lap. It will be terrible. I haven’t seen any American races but I hear they are very dangerous on account of the speed differential.
“Will the GT cars bring the crowds back? Do people want to see the fast cars threading their way through the slow traffic? FISA must answer these questions. Personally, I want to race against cars with similar performance, and I’m quite happy with the F3000 idea but really not with GT.”
The new regulation for 1993, lowering the rear wing and moving it closer to the rear wheels, will certainly reduce downforce and make the cars more interesting to watch. Lees is all in favour, pointing out that modern technology is making the top levels of motor racing boring to watch.
“Downforce and tyre development have taken a lot of spectacle out of racing,” he observes. “People used to enjoy watching drivers sliding, opposite-locking through the corners which you could do with crossply tyres.
“Now, with radials, if you slide the car you lose performance and you lose time. That’s progress I suppose, but anything which makes the cars more interesting to drive is fine by me.”
World Championship sports car racing is in a very precarious state at the moment but Lees has no plans to be left on the beach, as other fine drivers such as world champion Teo Fabi have been.
“A few years ago I was doing 40 or more races each year, Group A, Group C, Grand Champion and Formula 3000, and I will do a lot more before I retire. “As a youngster I saw Jimmy Clark get out of a Formula 2 car at Snetterton and into a Ford Cortina which he raced with equal success. It became my ambition to be as versatile as Jimmy, to be competitive in everything as he was. It’s difficult to have a programme like that in Europe today but easy in Japan… that’s one of the reasons why I settled so happily over there.” The number of top-line Japanese drivers in the world is growing. What they all have in common is that they raced against Geoff Lees, the European pace-setter, in their formative years and felt ready to spread their wings if they could beat him on a good day. Chances are they’ll go home one day and find they still have to beat him, if only in a tintop race! M L C