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Of the WRC-spec GR Yaris, the Toyota chairman, and screaming like a kid aboard an amusement park ride
AN ANGRY SUN that seared the goings on belied the inundation of the previous night. Even some ominous rainclouds that hovered above for a few moments appeared unconcerned about staying put and moved on. Only a few rapidly drying puddles and a pump angrily siphoning off remaining water at the Quirino Grandstand gave clues to what happened just a few hours prior.
“The rain was crazy last night,” several Toyota Motor Philippines Corporation (TMP) officials told me as I arrived at the venue.
All good then. It was starting out to be perfect day for what was to come: the Philippine staging of the Toyota Gazoo Racing Festival (or, more simply, TGR Fest) – a celebration upon a celebration that was the 35th anniversary of TMP.
Open and free to the public, the spectacle was billed as a “gathering of motorsports enthusiasts and car aficionados celebrating the thrill and joy of driving Toyota cars.” To the uninitiated, Toyota Gazoo Racing (or GR) embodies the motorsports aspirations of the brand, and whenever you see that logo affixed onto a vehicle (more so if it prefixes a nameplate such as in the case of the GR Supra, GR Yaris and GR 86 here), you can expect heightened driving experience, response, and performance.
Back to the TGR Fest, the two-day event turned the historic venue in the heart of Manila into a showcase of speed and driving ability. Japanese TGR champion racers Norihiko Katsuta and Masahiro Sasaki flew into town to pilot GR cars through a maze of orange cones – highlighting a skill for driving, and drifting. Of course, Filipinos were well-represented in these “gymkhana” exercises through Alex Perez, Luis Gono, Marlon Stockinger, and Ryan Agoncillo using aforementioned GR performance cars.
But the highlight of the event was, undoubtedly, the appearance of the top brand ambassador of Toyota: Akio Toyoda, the company’s chairman, who takes on the name “Morizo” whenever he gets behind the wheel in pursuit of speed and performance.
Mr. Toyoda is obviously not your average high-powered automotive executive – not just because he willingly takes the wheel, but he has been keenly trained to do so.
The grandson of Toyota’s founder Kiichiro Toyoda, Akio-san is also Toyota’s master driver or chief test driver. Sure, most anyone can lay claim to that title, you say – particularly because of his name. But the younger Mr. Toyoda was actually mentored by the company’s then chief test driver, Hiromu Naruse. According to Toyota Times, Mr. Naruse, who joined the company in 1963, “had been involved in motorsports activities as a mechanic and evaluation test driver.” He was also the chief of the Gazoo Racing team, which was established in 2007.
The story goes that the two first met when Akio went home to Japan after serving as a vice president for a United States subsidiary of Toyota. Even as he already wielded a “top-ranked driving license” then, Mr. Toyoda was at the receiving end of harsh words from his future driving coach.
“It’s annoying that someone at the top like you doesn’t know the basics of driving, but just gets into the car and comments on this and that,” Mr. Naruse had reportedly said, adding, “Test drivers put everything on the line in the name of creating better cars. To talk about this and that without knowing anything just causes trouble.”
Then came the offer: “If you feel like it, even if just once a month, I’ll teach you how to drive.” And so he did.
Sadly, Mr. Naruse passed away in 2010 aboard a prototype vehicle he was testing near the Nürburgring in Germany. Gazoo Racing and its people soldiered on, and the term “let’s make ever-better cars” that is the mantra of Toyota is said to embody “the feelings (Mr. Toyoda) inherited from Naruse.”
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At the pit area, several of us media people were cracking jokes in anticipation of what was to come: A “taxi ride” aboard any of the vehicles – one of which would be driven by, you guessed it, Morizo.
“Maybe we could request for a straight-line performance,” someone quipped, quite aware that he was prone to car sickness. I was also a little, well, concerned because I have a knack for get dizzy when I’m not at the wheel myself. To be honest, we weren’t lacking in faith for the drivers; rather, we were worried about our own constitution.
I was handed a balaclava and an open-faced helmet which I quickly squeezed onto my head. Things seemed to happen both quickly and in slow motion. I was escorted into the passenger seat of Morizo’s WRC-spec Toyota GR Yaris – a heavily modified beast boasting, per Toyota, over 500ps and 500Nm. Its inline, four-cylinder turbo is also a glimpse at the present and future – being a hybrid.
A staffer strapped me onto the racing seat as the GR Yaris’ engine roared impatiently. I was taking everything in, and was, of course, conscious that I was going to be driven around by Morizo himself. I was grabbing my phone in a death grip. “Whatever you do, don’t let go of your phone,” said one of the Japanese handlers when I asked if it was okay to do video aboard the vehicle. Visions of my phone smacking Morizo on the head while the GR Yaris danced around the cones played non-stop. That must not happen, Kap.
“Please take care of me! Good luck to us!” I meekly pleaded. “Yes,” said Morizo, with a smile that bordered on mischief, to be honest. I wanted to ask so many things. This could have been a one-on-one interview, except for the screaming.
Mine, of course.
We were off, and Morizo was working on the steering wheel like crazy while I was trying to steady the phone and its front-facing camera in an effort to let it inhale everything it could. I remember a fleeting moment of embarrassment – quickly supplanted with terror – when I realized I was screaming “Oh my God!” within obvious earshot of the leader of Toyota.
I was also trying to figure out if I was getting car sick (thank God I wasn’t). I remember spying a GoPro camera affixed on Morizo’s side of the cabin, and I briefly prayed it wasn’t turned on.
Meanwhile, I could have sworn seeing Morizo’s grin get wider as my yelling increased in volume. He must have thought what a softie he ended up with. Smoke from the burning tires crept into the cabin from the abuse, and made the experience a truly more intense one. After what seemed like an endless number of donuts, I felt he let off the throttle and headed to the pit.
I read a great scribe describing his visceral experience with a sports car as akin to being “mugged by angels.” I think that perfectly captures my “taxi ride” with Morizo.
Overwhelmed but blessed.