High-Speed Thrills at the Legendary Raceway
Twin Peaks: Racing with Lexus F at Fuji International Speedway
Halo products aren’t exactly new. Great examples shift the conversation from what’s desirable to what’s possible, ignoring the constraints behind the status quo. Applying the strategy to a single vehicle in the automotive world today is one thing. Taking that same halo approach to an entire brand is another story entirely. But that’s exactly what Toyota did with the creation of Lexus in 1989. A quarter century later, the established luxury brand is raising a halo of its own to create a new legacy of performance and driving excitement in a world that increasingly sees car ownership as a source of problems rather than passion.
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We were recently invited to experience those new halos, several of the company’s latest F models, this time at the very same proving grounds on which they were first developed: Fuji International Speedway. The opportunity provided a unique chance to study Lexus’s approach to the wide spectrum of automotive performance. It also gave us the chance to routinely push 150 mph right under the nose of Mount Fuji, Japan’s most prominent peak, which on a rare afternoon wasn’t shrouded in fog. Did we mentioned we love our job?
Lexus’s official debut in the U.S. — in the form of the big LS 400 sedan — came in 1989 after six years of top-secret development. Legend has it that chairman Eiji Toyoda himself summoned a secret meeting of executives to pose the question, “Can we create a luxury vehicle to challenge the world’s best?” The inquiry sparked a clandestine mission, dubbed Flagship One (F1).
Answering Eigi’s bell involved 60 designers and 24 engineering teams comprised of 1,400 engineers, who in turn produced roughly 450 prototypes with over a billion dollars in costs. The gutsy gamble quickly proved genius, positioning Lexus as a new standard for comfort and reliability — traits that have stuck with the brand ever since.
Is a race car any less great because it imbues its driver with skills he doesn’t possess by way of an easy learning curve?
But the reputation that once proved invaluable slowly lost its luster in the new golden age of automotive reliability that Lexus had helped to create. In this modern era the average car on the road in the U.S. is 11.4 years old; the longtime strengths of the company had stopped being a unique reason to buy their vehicles. After evolving from a unknown dark horse to a category leader, it had become time to lift a new guiding light for both Toyota’s and Lexus’s future. It was time to revisit the flagship.
The resulting F line is now widely known as a yet another success for Lexus. We’ve certainly relished our time behind the wheel of the IS-F and its glorious supercar teammate, the LFA. But seven years into the F series’ life, Lexus is now focused on what’s next.
Our generous allotment of track time at Fuji Speedway gave us three full speed laps behind the wheel of the LFA and the latest edition of the IS-F. The highlights of the event, though, were a newly minted IS 350 F Sport equipped with Lexus Dynamic Handling and pedal time in another rare member of the F lineup, the race-inspired IS-F Club Circuit Sports Racer, or CCSR. Together, these two vehicles and the technology within them combine Lexus’s new vision of racing performance and everyday drivability like none before them.
Building a racing edition of a performance car isn’t a new concept, but with the CCSR, Lexus engineers aimed to break new ground. They wanted a vehicle that married the strength of a race car with the production qualities of the IS-F; they got a powerful yet accessible addition to the F family that drivers of all experience levels could enjoy. Thirty years later, Eiji Toyoda’s challenge has taken on an entirely new dynamic.
Development for the lighter, racing-focused brother of the standard IS-F started in 2009. Extensive carbon fiber bodywork and polycarbonate windows among other unique specifications cut nearly 661 pounds of weight; there’s a racing suspension tuned to emphasize control over speed, specialized cooling and exhaust and a unique frameless construction roll cage. Yet for all that’s visually different, under the hood the garish whip is remarkably similar to the roughly 11,000 IS-Fs sold to date. The 416 hp, 5.0 Liter V8 engine is the same, as is the transmission.
Getting behind the wheel of the orange-clad monster provides a pure racing experience. Squeezing past the roll cage and into the rigid racing bucket seat sets a tone that can intimidate your typical freeway speeder. The barren interior, filled with the faint smell of engine, is a far cry from the supple ergonomics of a traditional Lexus. Then there’s the noise. Before we stepped on the gas to move into start position the professional driver in the passenger seat quickly reviewed the hand singles of stop, speed up and slow down. The roar of the engine was hard to speak over even at idle. There was no way commands could be heard inside once out on the track. The same thing went for our howls of glee.
Fuji Speedway, named for its fortunate position at the foothills of Japan’s most iconic natural landmark, Mt. Fuji, is technically located in Oyama, roughly an hour’s drive from the heart of Tokyo. Like all great tracks, its esteemed position as a temple for speed is born from a tumultuous history of racing triumphs and tragic disasters. The course was originally developed as a high-banked super speedway to hold the Japanese equivalent of NASCAR racing, but a lack of funding soon forced the project to convert to a road course. The course opened for the first time in 1965 quickly developed a reputation for extreme speed and danger, thanks to the inclusion of the one of the longest track straightaways in the world (0.93 miles), as well as the infamous Daiichi banked curve, the only remaining remnant of its original super speedway aspirations.
After the orphaned curve led to double fatality in 1974, the layout of the track was changed. The modifications were sufficient to bring the first Formula One race to the island of Japan at the end of the 1976 season — a world championship battle between James Hunt and Niki Lauda in terrible rainy conditions that is now the stuff of legend. The track’s second F1 race in 1977 left another deep impression on the racing world, this time from a crash by Gilles Villeneuve that killed two spectators, causing F1 to withdraw from the track. It would be 30 years until the elite racing league returned to the venue, but in the interim the course still gained prominence as a national motoring destination for drivers of all stripes, hosting enthusiast events, sports car racing and several FIA World Sportscar Championships.
Toyota acquired Fuji Speedway in 2000 and in 2003 stood watch over a major re-profiling of the track based on Herman Tilke’s design. The goal was to blend the course’s distinguished curves with a more modern feel while also increasing safety. The changes once again returned the facility to F1 standards, while also transforming Fuji into an ideal proving grounds for Lexus’s entire performance line.
Slamming on the accelerator immediately proved the spartan cabin wasn’t purposeless. We reached triple digits nearly instantaneously after leaving the pit road and gave thanks to the harness for keeping our vital organs in check. It was after taking the first turn firmly in control that the words of the briefing engineers resurfaced in our ears. Driving the CCSR was easy. Too easy. The pure sense of power was intoxicating — as were the fumes.
Is a race car any less great because it imbues its driver with skills he doesn’t possess by way of an easy learning curve? Our experience piloting the CCSR answered an unequivocal no. Everything about the car felt stratospheric with the exception of driving difficulty. Acceleration was ferocious but smooth. Steering was ultra-precise and at no point skittish. Strong brakes bit like a wolf on raw meat and a near-unflappable chassis made body roll almost nonexistent. Hauling through Fuji’s hairpin felt pre-programmed at times.
Driving the CCSR was easy. Too easy. The pure sense of power was intoxicating — as were the fumes.
The reassuring feel of the original IS-F was noticeably there in the background — but the CSSR had more to offer. We weren’t pushing the car anywhere near its limits. Our professional driver signaled that we should build speed faster and brake later at points throughout the first lap. We gladly obliged.
By the time we pulled back into the pit, our driving confidence was soaring. The concerns over danger or risk or the exhaustive mental calculations of taking each corner had all seemed so unnecessary. We were flushed and high on adrenaline from moonlighting in the thrill of racing. Being an impostor never felt so good.
Moving on to the short track with the IS 350 F Sport equipped with new Japan-only Lexus Dynamic Handling (LDH) revealed a similar theme. In layman’s terms, LDH allows the rear wheels of the vehicle to turn along with the front by a maximum angle of up to two degrees. By specifically optimizing the vehicle’s slip angle, LDH is designed to enhance everything from turn-in response to rear grip, vehicle control and overall cornering agility.
The addition of LDH in our trials was most noticeable when wringing the car’s neck in the short track’s S-curve. The slight turn of the rear wheels in parallel with the front gave the steering a more balanced feel in the extreme, maintaining precision and quickness throughout each arc. More importantly, it properly communicated the tire’s pain points straight to the wheel, strengthening our sense of control and command in hairy situations. LDH noticeably improved our meetings with tighter curves, but we did find its influence misleading at other times on the course after taking a few twists too quickly: it requires subtle driving adjustments that take some acclimation and invariably alter one’s driving instincts — a strange feeling.
In typical highway and road conditions, it’s clear that LDH can hone the driving experience, but the confidence it inspires at faster speeds is no substitute for smart decision making. That is, unless you’re professional. We closed the afternoon in the passenger seat, getting schooled by Lexus’s best on what a real lap looks like. Clearly a high frequency of braking isn’t as necessary behind the wheel of an LDH-equipped IS-F when you know what you’re doing.
Comparing the average commute to the ideal driving circumstances we experienced with Lexus in Japan doesn’t make sense. They aren’t the same thing; vehicles like the LFA and the IS-F CCSR will never fill the world’s roads. But Lexus clearly believes that drivers of all levels still deserve to enjoy their time behind the wheel. The existence of the IS-F CSSR and advances like LDH within the F lineup prove that truly successful halo projects create more than just a trickle-down of ideas. Instead, they bolster a culture of experimentation and focus, where any idea grounded in fostering a passion for driving is a worthy pursuit, as well as a future possibility.
Original photography shot with the Canon EOS 6D digital SLR. Unleash the photographer in you.