Only a small handful of drivers have represented all three of Japan’s biggest manufacturers in SUPER GT and its forerunner, the All-Japan GT Championship (JGTC), and of those, just one has won races in the top GT500 class with Toyota, Honda and Nissan.
It’s not any of the championship’s grandee drivers like Satoshi Motoyama, Yuji Tachikawa or Juichi Wakisaka. It’s not a driver who has had all that much success elsewhere, and not one who, even at the height of his powers in the mid-2000s, was especially well-known.
In fact, it’s little short of a miracle that Richard Lyons was even able to forge a career as a professional racing driver at all, given his humble origins and a chronic lack of funding that stifled his progress up the single-seater ladder before he moved to Japan in 2001.
And yet somehow, the Northern Irishman not only ended up winning races for Honda, Toyota and Nissan in JGTC/SUPER GT, he also entered that most exclusive club of drivers in Japanese motorsport by winning both that title and Formula Nippon in the same year.
To put that achievement into context, the only driver to have done so since Lyons achieved the feat back in 2004, almost two decades ago, is current Honda star Naoki Yamamoto.
Lyons and Satoshi Motoyama (right) make up half of the exclusive Japan ‘double champions’ club – the only other members are Pedro de la Rosa and Naoki Yamamoto
“I was coming from doing a part-season in Formula Renault to being paid to race in Formula Nippon, which was crazy!” reflects Lyons. “There was no good reason why I should have been in that position, but the opportunities came, and I took them.
“By the time I was 23 or 24, I was on a great paycheck, I had a nice apartment and car, and I was performing at a really good level. I was learning so much in terms of how to develop a car, because back then [in JGTC] they were purpose-built racing cars, not the spec chassis cars we have nowadays. It was awesome, and I had a lot of success.”
There’s a strong case to say that a driver of Lyons’ obvious natural capability deserved more international stardom, and perhaps even a shot in Formula 1. But the fact neither of those things ultimately materialised shouldn’t take the sheen off a career that would still have left many of his junior single-seater contemporaries green with envy.
First, some context: from his humble origins as the son of a farmer, Lyons had been able to work his way up the junior single-seater ladder as far as Formula Vauxhall Junior, where he finished runner-up in 1998. But even by then, it was clear that stepping up to British Formula 3 would likely be a bridge too far financially.
“I was racing against guys like Antonio Pizzonia and Tomas Scheckter, they had money and could take the ‘normal’ route to get to F1,” recalls Lyons. “I knew that wasn’t an option for me, so we decided to go into Formula Palmer Audi. It allowed me to win races and keep my name out there, but in terms of the next step it wasn’t what I had in mind.
Lyons strayed off the beaten junior single-seater track when he raced in Formula Palmer Audi in 1999, finishing runner up to Richard Tarling
“I decided I would try Formula Renault in 2000, and it was the year Kimi Raikkonen won it. There were three or four of us favoured for the championship – me, Kimi, Danny Watts – but the cars were new that year and there were a lot of mechanical troubles. At the first round the gear lever fell off the car, and it just continued like that, getting no results.
“I decided to go back to Palmer Audi because Jonathan Palmer offered me a good deal to do two weekends. That year I also raced what was essentially an LMP2 car in the SportsRacing World Cup. I drove with [fellow Ulsterman] Dino Morelli [at Donington Park] and then I went to Magny-Cours, and the support race was Palmer Audi.”
It was at the French circuit where Lyons’ career trajectory would change dramatically as…