Chiang Mai, Thailand - Toyota Gazoo Racing Motorsport, the Japanese brand’s long running ‘one make’ series in Thailand, has just wrapped up another year of travelling across the nation, concluding its five round 2019 edition with a weekend of exciting races held on a temporary circuit located in the suburbs of the northern city of Chiang Mai.
This racing extravaganza, which has now clocked up a decade on the racing calendars, pitches itself as something very different to the plethora of other club level series here, not least thanks to it benefiting from the deep pockets of Toyota. Thailand’s dominant car manufacturer gobbles up more than a third of all new car sales – and that means power, influence and money coupled to massive brand recognition, customer loyalty and widespread affinity. They are all tools in the series’ cabinet that would turn any rival race promoter green with envy.
Toyota Gazoo Racing Motorsport has two key strategic aims. Firstly, it seeks to offer budding drivers their first foothold on the motor racing ladder, providing a low cost platform that revolves around equality of basic specification machinery where potential talent can be nurtured, benchmarked and exposed to the wider world. Those that cannot – or don’t simply don’t wish – to go any further up the ladder have a ready-made environment where they can enjoy all the thrills of racing.
Secondly, it's a huge marketing exercise for Toyota as the majority of the rounds bring motorsport into urban areas to engage potential customers with a touch of the glamour of racing. This year the series has hit the streets of Phuket and Bangsaen as well as Chiang Mai. There were more street races on the calendar in the past, notably in Bangkok and Korat, but these have dropped out in recent years. Wherever it goes, the local dealership footprint is actively engaged and consumer data is collected while temporary “showrooms” and shifting production metal is all part of the big mix.
The season closing Chiang Mai round – which shifted this year from its usual calendar opening slot – is a classic example of this strategy to bring racing to the people. That’s a real reversal from the traditional race circuits that are usually located well away from population centres and involve travelling. The series has made the long trip north to Chiang Mai for eight years now, emphasising its enduring popularity.
This circuit is laid out on the access roads of the city's 700th Anniversary Stadium, which was built to host the high profile Southeast Asian Games in 1995, has a 4,500-seat covered main grandstand and was named to commemorate the landmark of the seven hundredth anniversary of the founding of Chiang Mai.
The 1.8km course certainly has a few mickey mouse sections, but it also boasts plenty of places to squeeze in a pass and the driver absolutely has to get his lines right.
With many greener novices – who haven't yet learnt the art of making their car twice as wide as it is – in the field, the opportunity to make up places is certainly there. The track rarely has time to rubber up, it's a little rough and the asphalt wasn’t designed for motorsport use, so it's very easy to run wide and open the door.
It all make for a rather good show for onlookers and its urban location, which is less than 7km from the city centre, means fans come in to watch the racing unfold from the array of temporary grandstands thrown up for the event. Compared to the vast swathes of empty seats that are seen for example in Buriram, Bira or Sepang during all but the international headlining races – it serves to build up a unique atmosphere. The stars of the future get seen, their moment of glory applauded.
It really is all about putting on a show and Toyota caps the competitive racing off with more track action including drifting and performance driving displays, hot laps, marching bands and other activities. Off track live bands are the biggest draw. The headlining appearance this year of Bangkok’s currently most in fashion girl band, BNK48, was a cast iron assurance that the venue was going to get packed out – although the sight of people streaming into the complex well after the racing has finished is a reminder that motorsport in Thailand still has a long way to go. But add everything up and it means that Toyota Gazoo Racing Motorsport can be all things to all people.
On track there are essentially two performance levels. The entry point is the “Vios Cup”, which is powered by a basic race-specification version of Vios that’s primarily upgraded in the areas of safety and split into two categories with one reserved for lady drivers.
Adding further to the appeal of the “Vios Cup” and “Vios Lady”, Toyota always shoves a few well-known actresses or singers into the cockpits to give any walk-in fan a recognisable celebrity connection to cheer on.
Above the B-segment Vios comes its C-segment sister the Altis which has a similar safety-focused upgraded specification. However, Toyota has just introduced the new 12th-generation Corolla Altis to the showrooms in Thailand and this new machine will arrive in the “Altis One Make Race” category next year.
An example of the new MY2020 Altis One Make racecar was presented in the public display area in Chiang Mai and it appears to represent a decent step up from the current racecar, notably it now features a sequentially operated transmission and MCS racing suspension all-round. Production will be limited for 2020 and so availability is likely be fought over.
Also on show, was the Lexus RC F Japan GT300-homologated machine that the factory Toyota team has been racing in the Super Car GT3 category of Thailand Super Series this year, along with one of the Lexus-bodied racecars the team runs in the second tier Super Car GTM category. Completing the racecar line-up in the display tent was a Toyota CH-R which the Thai-based team ran in the Nurburgring 24 Hours this year.
There’s always plenty of tuned and customised vehicles on show at this event and for this edition that included a line-up of reworked Hilux pickups while there was also a superb gathering of Toyota retro cars allowing visitors to get a clear snapshot of the history of the brand and see again past cars they once knew very well.
A full range of the brand’s production portfolio were also on show, including the new Yaris Cross, which was just released into the showrooms last month. This newest addition to the B-segment hatchback’s range comes in the shape of an upgrade kit that includes new springs that raise ride height by 30mm, a polished black roof finish, 16-inch alloy wheels and plastic protective mouldings for the wheel arches and sills. It all combines to make the Yaris ride higher and embed the chunkier and more imposing feel of a ‘crossover’ type vehicle. In fact the Yaris Cross is just making its major public debut this week at the 36th Thailand International Motor Expo in Bangkok so it’s fresh out of the blocks.
Also in the production line up, was the sporty version of the new Altis while completing the expansive display zone was the stunning new Supra GR and a CH-R cutaway to reveal all the secrets of its hybrid powertrain as well as simulator games, a mini racetrack for radio control cars, food vendors and other booths where visitors could pit their skills or win gifts.
It’s also worth mentioning the new Supra GR – resplendent in the factory red, black and white colours – as it was whipped off its prime display spot several times to take to the track for “hot lap” runs where its dynamic capabilities were clearly on show as it was driven reasonably hard on the track and it certainly caught the eyes of the fans. It’s power and agility don’t seem to be in question at all.