Back then things were different. In the early days at Honda vehicle testing was carried out on public roads, just as it was by the various automobile and motorcycle manufacturers around the world, and while this worked well for the mass produced vehicles of the day they needed more for the racing motorcycles the company was starting to produce. With the announcement in 1956 that Honda was going to enter the world-renowned 1958 Isle of Man TT motorcycle races the company decided that they needed a better way of testing the bikes, and as such took out a lease on a some Ministry of Construction land near Yamato which became the Arakawa Test Course. The lease was to run until 1979.
In 1972, with seven years remaining on the lease, Honda started the process of finding and developing an alternative site for testing, which had become an integral part of vehicle development for their production vehicles as well as their racing counterparts. A suitable site was found in the Tochigi prefecture and a two year construction process created the Tochigi Proving Centre, which opened in April 1979.
The centre has variations of almost every type of road imaginable, and the centrepiece of the site is the four kilometre, four lane oval course built for extreme testing of performance and racing vehicles. Two long flat straights are joined by two banked turns which reach an angle of forty two degrees, far steeper than any race track and at an incline of such magnitude that it is impossible to walk upright across the banking.
Jenson Button, driver for the BAR Honda Formula One team, was given a NSX-R for the day to drive around the track after the Japanese Grand Prix last year, and this is the story of that day.
Jenson Button: "Well first of all I drove the car at Motegi (a road track and oval course also owned by Honda) – I drove it around the circuit, which is great fun because you could really feel the handling of the car and everything, and it was the first time I'd really drove around a circuit where I thought it handles really well. Then we went to Tochigi and I drove the Type R, the really sporty one, it's a lightweight sort of racing version, and in a straight line I thought 'yeah this is great, this is good' and then I got to the banking and I thought 'oh my God' – I thought I was going to fall off, because I'd never been on a banking before!
"And as soon as the car turned on its side it's such a rush it was unbelievable – it was the biggest rush I've ever had, more than a Formula One car, more than anything – because the banking is I think 42 degrees or something. And it was such an amazing feeling being at that angle at full speed, because we were doing I think 170 mph, and the barrier on the outside must be about ten inches away or something! So it was an amazing feeling, feeling every bump in the car, and whoever I had as a passenger in the car couldn't stop laughing! I couldn't either! It was just an amazing feeling being at that speed on such a banking and being so close to the wall – it was great."
How did you hit it – did you go flat?
Button: "No you can't really, because if you go flat there's a bump on the way in and because it's that to that (Button moves his hand from flat to very steep) – you'd hit the oval and the rear would have just snapped. You just have a slight lift on the way in – you turn in, slight lift, back on the power again – and the average speed must have been about 155 mph or something. Around there, in a road car, it's not too bad.
"And we were trying to get as high as possible, as close to the barrier as possible, but the thing is, because it's so quick, the barrier's just flying by and it's really, really difficult to see. It's only about that high (Button holds his hands about 12 inches apart) – I don't know why it's even there, because it's not going to do anything!"
So what's to stop you going over?
Button: "Well, me! But I've heard that if you take your hands off the steering wheel at 100 mph round there, 160 km/h, it'll just go around the corner – it won't fly off, it won't go down, it'll just stick to the road and go around the corner because of the angle of the banking. So yeah, I tried it at that speed, at a hundred, and I just went like that (Button mimes releasing the wheel for a nanosecond and laughs) and went 'I think it works' – you know, I like driving with my hands on the wheel, really!
"And at 155mph the car is great around there – you'd think in a road car it'd be bouncing around, but it was really smooth – it was great. And the thing is, when the banking is at that angle everything goes really heavy because you're being pushed into the road, which is something different from Formula One altogether, and the steering's really heavy because the car's being pushed into the ground so much you've got a lot of downforce on the tyres. It's amazing how different the car can feel from the straight to the banking."
So what do you see? When you're in a Formula One car on a flat road you see ground around you…
Button: "Well, except for the wheels – you've got the wheels in the way in a F1 car. But you can't see so much because it's such a steep banking the car's into the floor, and you can just about see around the banking – all you can see is about forty metres in front of you because the banking's so steep, and at such an angle, you can't see around. You're trying to look (Button crouches right down in his seat and looks up), you try to get down to look where you're going but you can't see anything, and that's what makes it even more scary. And then you really get a sense of the speed.
"It's all tarmac – you just get tarmac. Sixth gear, and you just stick it. It sticks to the road – you've just got to hope that nothing, that there are no bumps in the road or anything, and you just hold the steering wheel as lightly as possible. On the exit you get a little bit of oversteer as the banking comes right down, or it feels like oversteer because of the change in the gradient, so you slightly change the angle of the steering wheel, but apart from that you don't really do so much."
Have you ever seen that movie 'Grand Prix', the old one from the sixties? You know there's that bit with the banking – is it anything like that?
Button: "I don't know really. You need to go to Tochigi and check it out – it's just awesome – it's such a steep banking. It's steeper than any NASCAR race, I think, so even NASCARs don't race around anything that steep. So it's an experience – I don't think there's anything steeper."
What about the banking at Indy?
Button: "Nowhere near, nowhere near – it's like nothing, it's like a flat circuit in comparison – it's that difference, seriously."
Apparently you got out of the car and asked if your lap time was the record
Button: "Yeah, but I didn't know that a Formula One car had been around there, though! But it was great – I took Ken Hashimoto (Honda's head of chassis technology development) out on the circuit because he designed the NSX along with Ayrton Senna, and that was a great feeling - going around this oval in a car that was designed by Ayrton Senna and Hashimoto-san, who was sitting alongside me.
"When he first got in the car I thought I'll just take it easy but you could tell he wanted to go quicker, so I did – the second lap was flat out, and it was great – he wasn't able to talk, he just sat there smiling all the way around!"
The story goes that he once took a Williams out of the Honda musem and drove it on the Tochigi circuit, setting the circuit's lap record that day…
Button: "Yeah, he's the one who did the record - just a bit of an advantage driving an F1 car! Yeah, about eleven seconds quicker than me or something. I don't think many cars will beat it.
"On the last laps some birds got on the circuit, which was a bit scary - there were a couple of birds flying around, so they decided to call it a day because it could have been a bit dangerous. But it was such a rush – it was great."
What would a Formula One car be like on the banking?
Button: "It would awesome – I think that the amount of G-force you would pull would be out of this world compared to anything we're used to, because we're used to lateral G, which is very different to what you get there. It would be a big experience, and it would be like Eau Rouge, except for ten or fifteen seconds, so I think it'd be pretty tough!"
Any chance of taking one out there when you go back to Japan this year?
Button: "Cor, that'd be dangerous! But that'd be great, if you go straight from Suzuka to there, drive it around. I can't see why not!"
Is there ever a little bit of fear when you go flat out on the banking like that?
Button: "Yeah, a little bit, but that turns into excitement and adrenalin really, I think. If you didn't have fear you wouldn't have that adrenalin sort of feeling. It's like singers when they go on stage - they're nervous, but the adrenalin's pumping and they love it. I think if you haven't got any fear then life can be pretty boring."
Is it the adrenalin that makes you go that little bit faster?
Button: "Push that little bit more if you want a little bit more – yeah definitely. You know, in an F1 car it's quite different because you can't just push to the limit all the time, because it can actually be slower, but sometimes you do and you just want to give it everything. And it's a great feeling, feeling the car on the edge – 'on the edge of out of control' as they say in 'Days of Thunder'…"
I can't believe you just quoted that movie!
Button (doing his best Tom Cruise impersonation): "'Loose is fast – fast is on the edge of out of control!' Why? It's a fantastic film! That's the best car film ever! Apart from the Italian Job. No, it's great – it's better than anything. The new films – they're crap! But that's a fantastic film."
Do you think anyone could ever make a good car film now?
Button: "No, not really. Especially not Hollywood – they definitely couldn't. An actually racing car movie, it can't be done by Hollywood, because Hollywood's full of cheese, so it couldn't be done."
But so is Formula One...
Button: "Yeah, but it's not the same; it's a different brand of cheese."