Team Rotary Revolution
‘Made in Thailand’
During the last round in Buriram, James Runacres was one of the drivers that stood out, he looked pacey all weekend in the bright yellow #17 Mazda RX-7 as the Rotary Revolution engineers continue unlock more and more speed and agility out of this racecar.
This is the team's second full season in Super Car GTC after a brief toe dip towards the end of 2015 – and now with three of these self-developed and built racecars on the entry list (the other two RX-7s are driven by Narin Yensuk and U-tain Pongprapas) they have grown into the numerically strongest team in the category.
Their story is unique, it’s one of a deep seated passion to race and a desire to prove themselves – and the robust capability of rotary engine power. Rotary Revolution has been racing in Super Car for the best part of a decade, however the team decided to kick its participation up a big gear by building their own breed of racecars – pushing back at a trend that has seen Super Car becoming almost exclusively the preserve of turnkey European machines that come ready to race, just the factory Toyota team currently races its own developed machines in both Super Car GTM and GTC.
Instead of following the trend Rotary Revolution really wanted to prove they could build winning cars themselves and keep a long standing Thai tradition of motorsport preparation alive and well.
There is another neat little twist too, this year Mazda is celebrating the 50th anniversary of its iconic Cosmo Sport, the first rotary-powered production car in the world. Never forgetting their place in the bigger picture and in a small nod to that milestone, the #17 Mazda is proudly displaying ‘50th anniversary’ decals.
After many seasons spent proving that rotary engines can race reliably – they have never suffered an engine failure in Super Car – the stakes have been raised much higher and they are hungry for wins.
That first win would appear to be very close. Last year they won the Teams' title, an impressive achievement, although the strength in numbers they put out on the grid did help them past the post. This year though they have really bridged the final performance deficit to join the GTC front runners.
Into the #17 car has come James who has a strong pedigree in Asian Formula Renault Series, the single seater championship, behind him and after spending a bit of time adjusting to life with the engine in front of him, a closed cockpit sportscar with much reduced visibility, and which is twice the weight and thus needs a much bigger braking window as well as a totally different style he's really come good and this season his pace has been improving with each round.
In Buriram last month, having been caught right out when qualifying was cancelled due to rain as the team hadn’t shown their hand in Free Practice, which would decide the grids, James retired with transmission problems in the first race. But he proved a point by setting the fastest lap of the race.
Come the second race though and the 23-year-old Englishman really showed what this driver-car combination is about. Starting from the back of the grid there was a yellow missile out on track as James picked off place after place, slicing his way into the podium positions and then getting all the way to P2. Race leader Thomas Raldorf (see separate story) had started from pole and the Dane had proceeded to romp away at the front. But by the time the chequered flag was waved James was just 4.6 seconds off his tail. Last to runner up and the fastest lap for the second consecutive day – it was job well done by driver and team.
So where have this year’s gains from? Rotary Revolution Team Manager Titapon Phaojinda is the man who first off had the big dreams to develop his own breed of racecar and take on the win-proven turnkey machines and secondly had the ambition and drive to make it all happen while also putting his reputation on the line. He reckons it’s been a step-by-step progression. They built the cars and then set out to unlock its potential, learning about it dynamically and slotting in the right pieces in terms of the driver and engineers.
He says that they haven’t really made any major upgrades for this year. “We have adjusted the suspension and the setting and learnt more about this,” Titapon explains. “The engine is the same, we’ve done nothing with the engine, only the ECU which we tuned with the tuner from Japan.
That’s the first big piece to be added to the jigsaw this year, the arrival in the garage of legendary Japanese rotary tuner Toru Kumaki. It’s not often the many international engineers lurking in the TSS garages see much demand for ‘selfies’, but in the case of Kumaki there is a steady stream of paddock people wanting to have a photo with him.
Kumaki’s been at all the races so far this year and will be back next week for the season finale – and it’s quite a coup for this team to have secured his services. The connection is long standing though and simply fell in place. “He’s from Top Fuel Racing Japan,” says Titapon. “He’s been a friend of my dad from 20 years ago so he came to help us make the car faster. He has experience of World Time Attack and so much and he looks after the ECU, tuning, collecting the data. He’s made a lot of difference to us. The car is old but the ECU system is a new one so we have put new technology in to help the car become faster.”
The other big piece slotted in was to put James into the ‘hot seat’. The young driver arrived from a career spent in single-seaters and he’s really gelled with the team – driver and engineers bounce of each other and most importantly push each other on. You can cut the ambition with a knife.
There were a few early growing pains in the relationship. “James came from Formula Renault so the car is quite different and he has had a lot to learn,” says Titapon. “The car in size is very different, it’s not easy to turn like a formula car and he had a lot of problems with the braking because I think in Formula Renault you can just tap the brakes and turn, but GT cars are not like that, you have to apply the brakes much more slowly, so he’s learnt a lot with us.”
Team and driver have been able to extract their respective strengths and harness them to push the programme forward. “The key thing from James is his braking, that’s making a lot of difference,” explains Titapon. “The car is fast but we’re not the fastest car in a straight line but it’s his braking gives us an edge.
“James is very professional so he also teaches us things about the car and what he wants from it,” he continues. “For example he loves to have a little bit of toe in, not have it set straight, so we adjusted that and he understands the car very well, he says the car is hard to spin now, so he can go fast in the corners as he’s not afraid of spinning. Some of the settings we learn from him and he learns the car and we all work together to make him go faster.”
When Rotary Revolution announced its ambitious racecar build programme it was admittedly seen by many in the motorsport world here as something of a leap in the dark. Now they’re on the pace and hunting for their first win as the end of their second full season looms into view. So is the project where Titapon would have wished it to be? “We’re very happy with where we are at now,” he says. “At first we built the car and we didn’t know the best time we were going to get from it and now James has come and we have a good driver, we know where we’re at with the driver as he can drive the car faster.”
It's also a statement of just how far they have travelled with this project that it's expected now for the yellow #17 RX-7 to be automatically included when considering the potential winners in Super Car GTC. And it’s a car that's assembled from the ground up in Bangkok, the team also building the engine.
James has three points scoring finishes now this year, two second places and a third, which leaves him fourth in the championship standings and just five points off third place which is a realistic target if he can bring in the results during the final two races of the year.
Young and quick, the Englishman has certainly provided an excellent benchmark that the team can work from. Is there more development from the RX-7 still to come going into the 2018 season? In one area there certainly is more potential, reckons Titapon. “The gearbox we’re using now is H-pattern, we’re not using a sequential gearbox so maybe next year we will use sequential and that should make him faster.”
This team goes about its business without a lot of fuss, without too much shouting – but real ambition runs deep in their veins so watch out for them over the coming seasons, clearly they’re going to get stronger and stronger as time progresses. Clearly too that first win isn’t far away now.