Okayama International Circuit - From Private Racing Club to F1 Grand Prix
Okayama International Circuit (TI Circuit Aida until 2004) is a race track in Mimasaka, Okayama Prefecture, Japan, which is mostly known as a venue of the Formula One Pacific Grand Prix in 1994 and 1995. Of other notable international championships, Okayama hosted FIA WTCC races from 2008 to 2010. In recent years, Okayama is regularly hosting major Japanese competitions such are Super Formula Championship or Super GT Series.
Envisioned as an exclusive race track for wealthy people
The race track in Okayama mountains was born as an idea of Japanese golf course magnate Hajime Tanaka. He wanted to copy a country club model from golfing to racing, by offering an exclusive race track for the wealthy people to enjoy their high-performance cars or race cars.
In 1989, Tanaka collected an initial capital by selling a membership to about 350 individuals. Each of them, or their companies, invested ¥15 million (about $120,000) for a lifetime membership in an exclusive club, including access to the race track and other services. The funding allowed Tanaka to buy land and he began construction, finishing a job in November 1990.
Naming the corners after British racing legends
The circuit was named TI Circuit Aida. TI referred to Tanaka International, Aida is the nearest town. The layout of 2.3-mile (3,703 m) track is a combination of hairpins and fast corners. Some of 11 corners were named after British racing legends Stirling Moss, David Hobbs, Dickie Attwood, David Piper, Brian Redman, Mike Knight or Jonathan Williams. Some of them participated in the opening ceremony and initial race in November 1990.
First national championship came in 1992
The TI Circuit Aida was not an exclusive members-only race track for long because the first Japanese national championship came to the circuit in March 1992. It was the round of the Japanese Touring Car Championship which held its season-opening race at Aida. The winners were Masahiro Hasemi and Hideo Fukuyama with #1 Nissan Skyline R32 GT-R, who eventually became Japanese champions.
JTCC returned to Aida in 1993, with Kazuyoshi Hoshino and Masahiko Kageyama winning the race. Tom Kristensen won both races in 1994. In the following years, some of JTCC winners were Masanori Sekiya and Anthony Reid.
Formula One added Tanaka’s circuit to 1994 calendar
Although TI Circuit Aida was a regular venue in the JTCC calendar, the appetite of the track owner Hajime Tanaka was much bigger. He wanted Formula One. And he gets it.
Tanaka and Bernie Ecclestone made a deal to bring Pacific Grand Prix to TI Circuit Aida, so Japan had two Grand Prix races that year, with Japanese Grand Prix being held at Suzuka Circuit in November.
Michael Schumacher won 1994 Pacific Grand Prix
The 1994 Formula One Pacific Grand Prix took place on April 17, 1994. It was the second round of the F1 championship. Michael Schumacher (Benetton-Ford) took an easy victory after the pole-sitter Ayrton Senna (Williams-Renault) crashed out on the first corner, being hit by Mika Hakkinen and Nicola Larini. It was the last race for Ayrton Senna and Roland Ratzenberger, as both were killed in the next race at Imola.
One more GP race despite logistical problems and earthquake
Although organizers had big logistical problems, because there was only one road to the circuit located in the mountains and there was a lack of hotels in the area, Pacific Grand Prix returned to Aida in 1995. The race was originally scheduled for April but was moved to October due to Great Hanshin earthquake which hit Japan in January 1995.
Schumacher repeated a victory in 1995
In 1995, Michael Schumacher was the third fastest in qualifying but he won the race again, driving the #1 Benetton-Renault. Williams-Renault drivers David Coulthard and Damon Hill completed a podium, being only two in the same lap with race winner.
It proved to be the last Formula One race in Okayama, as Hajime Tanaka and the Okayama Prefecture decided not to force an event which had no positive financial feedback.
Japanese GT Championship came to Aida in 1998
In the following years, the next big event was the non-championship All-Star race of the Japanese GT Championship in November 1998, with Tom Coronel and Koji Yamanishi winning the race in the #64 Honda NSX.
In 1999, TI Circuit Aida became the regular championship race for Japanese GT racers and it stayed in a calendar until today.
New owners and new name from 2004
In 2003, financial troubles forced Tanaka to apply for Civil Rehabilitation (Japan’s equivalent of administration). In April 2004, the circuit was bought by the Unimat Corporation. Soon after that, the circuit was renamed the Okayama International Circuit. The ownership changed one more time in 2012 when Unimat sold a track to the Aska Corporation.
Formula Nippon at Okayama since 2007
With Japanese Super GT Series as the main competition at Okayama, Formula Nippon was added to track’s schedule in 2007, with the first race being held in June 2007. Formula Nippon returned one more time in 2008 but then left the circuit until 2015, now under Super Formula name.
In 2016, the Autopolis round of the Super Formula championship was canceled because of Kumamoto earthquake and Okayama hosted two additional races. So, in 2016, Okayama had three Super Formula races in one season.
FIA WTCC at Okayama between 2008 and 2010
Between 2008 and 2010, Okayama hosted FIA World Touring Car Championship for three seasons in a row. The WTCC race at Okayama was the first ever Japanese round in a WTCC calendar. The first inaugural winners were Seat drivers, Rickard Rydell and Tom Coronel. It’s interesting that Coronel previously won two times at Okayama, driving Honda NSX in the Japanese Touring Car Championship in 1998 and 1999.
In 2009 and 2010, WTCC race winners at Okayama were Andy Priaulx, Augusto Farfus, Colin Turkington (all BMW) and Rob Huff (Chevrolet). After three seasons at Okayama, FIA moved WTCC races to Suzuka and never return to Okayama. Since then, only national events took place at Okayama.
Video : Ayrton Senna at TI Circuit Aida
Address: Okayama International Circuit, 1210 Takimiya, Mimasaka, Okayama Prefecture 701-2612, Japan
Phone: +81 868 74 3311
Official website: www.okayama-international-circuit.jp