Richard Lyons: The “nobody” with a place in SUPER GT history
Richard Lyons emerged from almost total obscurity to conquer both of Japan's top domestic championships in the early 2000s. In this exclusive interview, the British driver looks back at a top-line career that has granted him a unique place in SUPER GT history - but could have delivered even more.
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 he met Irishman Dave Kennedy, the sometime Mazda Group C racer who was looking after Damien Faulkner – who would win that year’s Palmer Audi title before embarking on an Indy Lights campaign – and future Jordan F1 driver Ralph Firman.
When I was offered the Formula Nippon drive, I said, ‘great, how much money am I getting?’, and Dave [Kennedy] said, ‘What do you mean, money?’
By this point, Firman was well-established in Formula Nippon, impressing enough with Team Nova to get the call-up to join the title-winning Nakajima Racing outfit in 2001. That left an opening at Nova that needed filling, an opportunity that Kennedy sniffed out on behalf of Lyons.
“Dave asked me, ‘Why are you doing sportscars? It’s for old guys, you should be aiming for F1’,” continues Lyons. “I told him I literally had zero money at that stage. I’d done a few GT races and Porsche GB had offered me a British GT drive for 2001. They were offering me decent money and a nice new Boxster [road car]. When you’re 21 years old and you’ve got nothing, and all of a sudden Porsche are offering you a race seat, you’d probably take it.
“I was all set to take the Porsche drive, it had even been announced at the Autosport Show. There, Dave told me, ‘I got you a test in Japan, in Formula Nippon, at least go and see what you think’. I didn’t even know where Japan was! But I ended up jumping on an aeroplane and going there."
The shootout took place at the now-disused Mine circuit in the west of Japan, with Lyons up against newly-crowned Macau Grand Prix champion Andre Couto and Japanese F3 race winner Daisuke Ito. Lyons ended up quickest by a few tenths, prompting Nova boss Motoyasu Moriwaki to immediately offer him a race seat for the 2001 season.
In the unfancied G-Force chassis, Lyons leads the faster Reynards of Katsutomo Kaneishi (4) and Narain Karthikeyan (20) at Motegi
Lyons offers up an amusing anecdote about the negotiation that followed: “I said, ‘great, how much money am I getting?’, and Dave said, ‘What do you mean, money?’. I told him I’m turning down Porsche, which could set me up for my career, so we went to Gotemba to meet with Moriwaki-san, and he offered me two million yen [approximately $20,000].
“I asked for three million and Dave nearly fell off his seat! He says, ‘What are the hell are you doing? You can’t bargain with them!’. But Moriwaki went, ‘OK, done’. I should have asked for four million! But I wasn’t being greedy, I was just thinking about being able to live.”
Back then, Formula Nippon was still a multi-chassis category, and Lyons had the misfortune of driving for the only team running the under-downforced G-Force against the dominant Reynard package. The result was that he ended the year with no points, and when title sponsor Morinaga withdrew its backing, Lyons found himself without a drive for 2002.
For many European drivers, such a setback could have marked the end of their time in Japan. But Lyons had the good fortune of being noticed by Honda in a one-off outing for Nova in a McLaren F1 GTR in the Suzuka 1000km, a non-championship race at the time.
Although there were only a handful of GT500 cars present, Lyons and his co-drivers, Couto and veteran Japanese racer Hideki Okada, bagged a podium finish, notably beating one of the two regular JGTC Dome-Mugen Honda NSX machines. Following a test that winter, Lyons was chosen to partner Sebastien Philippe in Dome’s #18 entry for 2002.
That year, Lyons lucked in again as an opportunity arose to return to Formula Nippon. That was because French F3 champion and ex-Prost F1 tester Jonathan Cochet had suffered a disappointing start to the 2002 season at Dandelion Racing, prompting the team to invite Lyons to join it for a test, again at Mine. Lyons outpaced Cochet and was given the seat for the rest of the season, scoring his first podium that year at Sugo.
Lyons leads Hidetoshi Mitsusada (6) on his debut in a Dandelion Reynard at Mine
Lyons remembers: “It took a while to build the team up. We had [Jordan F1 technical guru] Gary Anderson coming over to help me understand the car more. That was a massive part of my success, and [race engineer] Rob Arnott did the full season with me, but we didn’t change much once we had a baseline."
The first victory came at Suzuka in 2003, with that season setting Lyons up for a full-blown title assault in ’04. With defending champion Satoshi Motoyama struggling following a move to the 5Zigen squad, Lyons emerged as the pacesetter, scoring five poles of a possible nine. But some misfortune – including being taken out by Benoit Treluyer while leading at Mine – meant he trailed Andre Lotterer by four points heading into the Suzuka season finale.
Nakajima Racing man Lotterer’s failure to score, however, meant third place for Lyons behind Impul pair Treluyer and Yuji Ide was enough – barely – to clinch the title.
“Andre had good press for himself that year, but he was not on the same level,” Lyons opines. “We thrashed him the whole year and in the last race of the year, I was on pole and he was eighth. I led easily in the first stint, but because the race was in the autumn and it started quite late, towards the end of the race the temperature dropped a lot.
“I came in and we didn’t adjust the tyre pressures, so the car was too low. Benoit jumped me in the pits and Ide passed me with three or four laps to go. I just let him go; if it had been Lotterer I would have been more aggressive! We got the championship, just, but we clearly deserved it. I think Lotterer was lucky to be as close as he was.”
Lyons and Lotterer ended 2004 tied on points, with Lyons winning the title by virtue of finishing ahead in the final race
That was one half of Lyons’ 2004 ‘double’, and while the other half was more straightforward on-track, it involved a change of manufacturer to get there.
Although he and Dome teammate Philippe had won a race at Motegi in 2002, Lyons wasn’t happy at Honda: “They were paying me peanuts and it was difficult to survive. I was butting heads with the team a little bit and I knew it wasn’t the right environment.”
Lyons was set to move over to Mugen for 2003 to join Ito, his old rival for a Formula Nippon seat. But the Ulsterman had other ideas, canvassing Nissan for a drive. An opening had been created at the factory NISMO team by Erik Comas’s decision to leave, and when the Frenchman’s initial replacement Darren Manning dropped out of the drive to pursue an opportunity in Champ Car, Lyons was installed as Masami Kageyama’s teammate in the team’s #22 car.
Kageyama and Lyons won in just their second start together at Fuji, going on to finish third in the points, and for 2004 Nissan decided to reshuffle its two works crews, with Lyons succeeding Michael Krumm as Motoyama’s teammate in the flagship #23 machine.
The 2003 JGTC season marked the final year of service for Nissan's iconic R34-generation GT-R
Motoyama and Lyons delivered the new Nissan Z a debut win at Okayama, and a second win later in the year at Autopolis meant the pair had a clear run to the title in the Suzuka finale.
In just three years, Lyons had gone from total unknown to champion in both of Japan’s top series. Still only 25, he was determined to get a foot in the door in F1, but his problem was that few in Europe were aware of his success in Japan at a time when information about the country’s domestic racing scene was much more limited than it is today.
In 2004, Lyons made a paddock appearance at the Hungarian Grand Prix, he and manager Kennedy talking to as many teams as possible in the hopes of at least landing a test. Given the Irish connection, Jordan seemed like the most likely candidate to consider Lyons. And yet, much to Lyons’ frustration, the hoped-for test would never happen.
While Lyons would make a decent defense of his titles in 2005, finishing third in the points in both Nippon and the now-rebranded SUPER GT series, at the end of the year he would leave Japan.
“I started getting itchy feet in 2004, and I decided in 2005 that I’d give getting out of Japan a proper shot,” admits Lyons. “I felt like I’d won everything in Japan, job done.
“In hindsight I should have just accepted that F1 wasn’t happening and focused on securing a career. I was still searching for the stars, and I felt like I was still owed something, whereas the reality was the chance had already passed me by.”
Lyons carrying the #1 on his Dandelion Lola in 2005. Motoyama would clinch his fourth title that year on his return to Impul
With the F1 door still closed, Lyons decided to try his luck in Champ Car, testing for the cash-strapped Rocketsports team at Sebring in December alongside Katherine Legge.
“They were on a very limited budget and they didn’t have an engineer there,” Lyons recalls of the outing. “There was no real plan. Katherine and I both did a handful of laps and I didn’t feel it went that well. And there was no option to race with them the following year. They'd had Timo Glock in 2005, but he came with DHL money and they needed somebody to bring a bundle of cash, and that wasn’t me.”
And so, Lyons was out of a full-time drive for 2006. He made a one-off appearance at Spa in the Le Mans Series in a Cirtek Motorsport Aston Martin DBR9 in May, and later in the year he would also contest the Sandown and Bathurst enduros in V8 Supercars, sharing a Triple Eight-run Ford Falcon BF with the late Allan Simonsen. But it wasn’t long before Lyons was racing in Japan again.
I was always scared about not having enough money. I knew where I would be going back – I would be back to working on a farm!
Lyons had struck a deal with Nissan whereby he would stay on the marque’s books while he pursued opportunities outside of Japan, and within a couple of months of the season starting NISMO needed a replacement for Sakon Yamamoto, who had been recruited by Super Aguri in F1 mid-season to replace Franck Montagny – who had got the ride after Ide was infamously stripped of his superlicence after only four races.
“I came back at Sepang in June, I shared a car [the #22] with Krumm and straight away we were quick,” Lyons says. “We did three podiums in a row, and that set me up for another year back at NISMO in 2007 – I was back in the #23 car alongside Motoyama as well.”
At the end of 2006, another opportunity arrived to race outside of Japan, as Lyons was called up to drive for the Status Grand Prix-run Team Ireland in A1GP. Results were thin on the ground, but the main issue wasn’t so much a lack of performance as a lack of payment, stemming from the championship’s well-documented financial issues.
Lyons would be reunited with former Jordan technical boss Gary Anderson (right) at A1 Team Ireland
“They wanted me to continue [for 2007-08] but the reality was I was getting paid well in Japan and they were needing me to give up some races there that were clashing to race in A1GP,” says Lyons. “The prize money I was meant to be getting wasn’t coming, because A1GP was holding back the prize money. It just wasn’t a risk I wanted to take.
“I was always scared about not having enough money. I knew where I would be going back – it wouldn’t be to race in the UK or living with my parents, I would be back to working on a farm! In the end they got Adam [Carroll] in there and he was super-strong – but I don’t think he received any of the promised prize money the year he won it, which was sad.”
Given that A1GP would collapse just a couple of years later, turning down the chance to continue in the series has to rank as one of Lyons’ more shrewd career decisions. But the same can’t be said of him leaving Nissan in favour of joining Toyota in SUPER GT.
Lyons made the move in 2008, linking up with Yuji Tachikawa at Cerumo and reuniting with the engineer, Yuji Katoh, who had taken him to title success at Nissan. At first it seemed like a good match-up, with Tachikawa and Lyons finishing runner-up in the championship behind NISMO pair Motoyama and Treluyer that year. But things soon took a turn for the worse.
Lyons takes up the story: “Unfortunately in 2009, Katoh-san became sick with cancer and he stopped coming to the circuits. The other issue was that my teammate didn’t speak English, and the team owner, [Masayuki] Sato-san spoke some English but he was a man of few words. All of a sudden I was in a bad position, I had no control over the team.
Victory at Fuji in 2008 in a Lexus SC430 meant Lyons had won races for all three of SUPER GT's 'big three' marques
“Without Katoh there, I felt like I had nobody on my side. I was just getting in the car and driving, and although I was getting paid like crazy for doing that, it had turned into a job that I didn’t really enjoy. It was hard to motivate myself.
“I was going through that period that many drivers go through in their first few years in Japan, and many of them end up not sticking around and just leave. I was fortunate that I had a lot of good years before I ended up hitting that phase.”
Tachikawa and Lyons slipped to 10th in the standings in 2009, and 2010 wasn’t a whole lot better. By then it was clear the strained relationship between Lyons and Toyota wasn’t going to last, although there would be one final hurrah in the end-of-season Fuji Sprint Cup event, in which the drivers raced individually: “I put it on pole easily and won the race hands down. It felt like a good send-off.”
Lyons describes leaving NISMO as his biggest career mistake: “Even as late as 2019 I was still really close to them, they were a great bunch of guys. [Long-time NISMO general manager Kunihiko] Kakimoto-san was one of my best friends, as well as Michael Krumm. I could have prolonged my time in GT500 for sure because it wasn’t like I was not performing.
“Kakimoto-san actually tried to get me back in, but his hands were tied because they had scaled back to one factory car [in 2010] and they had their drivers signed. I was his number one choice if they could get a second car back, but it never happened. Even though NISMO wanted me back, it was too late [for 2011] and once another year went by, time was up.”
Lyons pictured with now-wife Gina in 2010, which would prove his last full season in SUPER GT's top tier
As well as in GT500, Lyons thinks there was potential to stay in Formula Nippon, now known as Super Formula, for several years longer than he managed to.
In 2008, Lyons was invited to do a one-off drive for Impul in place of an injured Kohei Hirate, and the following season he was given a surprise chance to return to the series full-time with Dandelion at the behest of title sponsor Docomo. There was a new car for that season, the Swift 017.n, and unfortunately for the Ulsterman, the team he had won the title with five years prior got things badly wrong this time around.
“We had the ride height way too high,” explains Lyons. “We tried to run it the way we ran the old Lola back in 2005. The following season Honda replaced me with Loic Duval [who had won the 2009 title for Nakajima Racing], and I can understand why as I had a shit year on paper. And because I was a Toyota driver [driving for a Honda-powered team], the team was split in half; I didn’t have access to my teammate [Takuya Izawa]’s set-up.
“It was only when I tested for Dandelion at the start of 2010 at Suzuka in place of Duval, and I was with Duval’s engineer from the previous year [Kotaro Tanaka] that I realised what went wrong. That really pissed me off for a while – without that problem, I could have probably spent another four or five years racing in the series.”
Early in 2011, the Tohoku earthquake had convinced Lyons and his girlfriend (now wife) Gina to leave Japan, having “lost some love” for the country. The two set up home in Singapore, and after a season spent mostly on the sidelines, barring a handful of V8 Supercars appearances, Lyons made one final GT500 start in early 2012 for TOM’S as a replacement for Duval at Fuji.
Lyons finished fourth in his last-ever GT500 start for TOM'S, sharing a Lexus SC430 with Kazuki Nakajima
Some time later, however, another chance encounter would bring Lyons back to SUPER GT on a more regular basis, albeit this time in the lower GT300 division.
“When I was in Singapore, I was introduced to a guy through another friend,” Lyons recounts. “I was told this guy races in Japan and he needs a teammate for the next race. I asked his name and found out a bit about him, and sure enough it was Ryoji Hitotsuyama. We got talking and he needed a third driver for the Suzuka 1000km.”
Lyons was parachuted in to join Akihiko Tsuzuki, the heir to the ZENT chain of Pachinko parlours (known to motorsport aficionados for being a long-time sponsor of Cerumo as well as Toyota’s Le Mans efforts), and Swiss female racer Cyndie Allemann aboard the team’s Audi R8 LMS GT3 for the longest race of the season.
And so began a seven-year association with Hitotsuyama that lasted until the end of the 2019 season, peaking with a best championship finish of third alongside Tomonobu Fujii in 2016 – achieved with assistance from European Audi GT3 powerhouse team WRT. In between, Lyons was racing GT3 machinery in a variety of series in Europe and Asia, including a campaign in a Ferrari 458 GT3 in British GT in 2014, a full 13 years after Porsche had offered him his first professional contract to drive in the series.
Lyons had mixed fortunes in his seven-year stint with Hitotsuyama, with the team's performances often fluctuating due to Balance of Performance changes
Lyons and Hitotsuyama had already agreed to go their separate ways for 2020 even before the onset of the coronavirus pandemic. Indeed, the arrival of COVID-19 came at just at the wrong time for Lyons as far as his racing career was concerned, as he had only just moved to his current home of Florida, Gina’s birthplace, and Japan’s strict travel restrictions prevented him from taking up offers to continue to race in SUPER GT that season.
For the last two years, Lyons has worked as a driver coach and manager, although he still harbours ambitions of making a racing comeback in the States, expressing a particular interest in some GT Daytona outings in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship.
Some might question why Lyons never made it to F1, especially given that Firman (with whom Lyons shared a manager) had been able to parlay title success in Formula Nippon into a grand prix drive with Jordan in 2003. But at that stage of his career, what Lyons seemed to suffer from more than anything was a lack of name recognition.
“Unlike people like Lotterer, who had been a test driver for Jaguar before coming to Japan, and Firman, who had won the British F3 title and the Macau GP, I was just a nobody,” sighs Lyons. “It was the same with Motoyama when he tested for Jordan and Renault [in late 2003]. We were both winning everything in Japan, and nobody really knew about it.”
It would be tempting to look back at Lyons’ career and say that in comparison to some of his contemporaries like Lotterer, Treluyer and Duval, he underachieved, and certainly some of the career missteps outlined earlier will have cost him the chance to add to his record of eight wins in JGTC/SUPER GT, four in Formula Nippon and a sole title in both series.
I should have just accepted that F1 wasn’t happening [in 2005] and focused on securing a career. I was still searching for the stars, and I felt like I was still owed something
But the more generous interpretation is to say that, despite some mistakes, Lyons did exceptionally well to rise from humble beginnings to enjoy a decade of employment as a top driver in Japan, at a time when driver salaries were a fair bit higher than they are today, and in the process carve himself a unique place in JGTC/SUPER GT history.
After all, only a handful of current SUPER GT drivers today have even driven for more than one manufacturer, such is the rarity of inter-marque career moves today, let alone having actually stood on the top step of the podium with each of them. The chance of anyone else joining Lyons in winning with Honda, Toyota and Nissan in the near future is next to zero.
And perhaps most importantly of all, as well as racing top-quality machinery and being paid well to do so, Lyons had a hell of a lot of fun in the process.
“In many ways I wish I could have raced in Japan until I was 50!” he enthuses. “I loved driving the cars and I enjoyed the culture there. It was just a bit too different to set up home there, but I do miss it and the camaraderie there between the foreign drivers.
“We would race each other hard, sometimes hit each other, but then at the end of the weekend we would be going to meet in Roppongi for dinner or to party, and whoever had won the race or been on the podium was picking up the tab. We didn’t hold back – we lived life to the full. We trained hard, raced hard and partied hard. It was so much fun.”
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