It’s a Friday evening in the middle of autumn in rural Braselton, Georgia. Qualifying has just wrapped up for Motul Petit Le Mans, the annual running of IMSA’s final crown jewel event of the season at Road Atlanta.
As all the focus is on the following day’s ten-hour, championship-deciding race, naturally, my first instinct was to ask first-time IMSA GT Daytona driver Shinya Michimi about how his iRacing game was going.
“Not so good actually, I’ve lost 250 iRating in the last two weeks!” laughs the 26-year-old newcomer, an avid sim racer in his time away from the real track – not unlike a number of his real-world racing peers, names like Max Verstappen, Lando Norris, and Nicki Thiim. “Mostly, [Belle Isle Circuit in] Detroit is a bit difficult if you don’t do everything correctly.”
When it comes to favourite cars in iRacing, Michimi sticks to what he knows best to prepare for what’s been a busy real-world season in 2019 – while still branching out to their selection of the golden age LMP1 hybrids, the Audi R18 and Porsche 919 Hybrid: “I try to stick with GT3, the LMP1s came out recently, obviously, those are wicked cars, so I drove those a lot!”
“I haven’t played a whole lot of the new Assetto Corsa Competizione,” the newest officially-licensed SRO simulation from Italian developers Kunos Simulazioni, “but I played a lot of the original. I know a lot of the guys from Kunos, I was kind of helping them out a little bit when I was racing in Europe.”
Shinya Sean Michimi, the ultra-quick Japanese-American driver, born in Cincinnati, Ohio and currently residing in Tokyo, had just come back from a stellar qualifying run that would have placed himself, co-drivers Brandon Gdovic, and Don Yount third on the GTD class grid for the race on Saturday, in their number 47 Precision Performance Motorsports Lamborghini Huracán GT3.
The lap was disallowed after team members touched the car during a red flag period, which will send Michimi, Gdovic and Yount to the back of the grid for the race.
But the takeaway from the weekend thus far was that a new name and a new face was asserting himself as a main player in the GTD field for Saturday’s race – after having done, what Michimi recalls, just forty laps ever around the ultra-quick, undulating Road Atlanta circuit.
“Last year I ran with Brandon in Lamborghini Super Trofeo. And the ultimate goal was actually to run IMSA for the full season. But due to budget constraints, it was too difficult. But for this race, I got the call from Mr. [Rick] Gdovic and he was like, ‘Do you want to drive for us at Petit?’ and to me, it wasn’t even really a question, I was like, yeah!” Michimi exclaimed, jumping at the chance to race Road Atlanta for the first time.
It’s the latest stop to this point, on a decade spent trotting the racing globe for Michimi. After a decorated karting career in the United States, Michimi went to Japan and won the Formula Toyota Racing School (FTRS) Scholarship. That honour put him on a shortlist of scholarship recipients headlined by two of Toyota’s ace drivers from the FIA World Endurance Championship: Kazuki Nakajima, and Kamui Kobayashi.
The scholarship also allowed Michimi to race in the Formula Challenge Japan (FCJ) series, the forerunner to today’s FIA F4 Japanese Championship. Testing his mettle against a number of future top talents, Kenta Yamashita, Ryo Hirakawa, Sho Tsuboi, Mitsunori Takaboshi, and Nobuharu Matsushita, among others, Michimi collected three podiums and two pole positions in his second season, before moving on to Europe.
His talents were noticed by infamous Formula 1 journeyman, turned driver manager, Taki Inoue, who’d previously managed Toyota GT500 ace Yuhi Sekiguchi. Inoue arranged a test for Michimi with Euronova Racing in the Auto GP World Series – which was positioned at the time as an alternative to the GP2 Series (Formula 2) and the Formula Renault 3.5 Series (Formula V8 3.5) with their 550 horsepower, ex-A1GP Lola B05/52s.
Michimi only drove three race meetings with Euronova, with fellow Japanese teammates like Yoshitaka Kuroda, and eventual 2014 champion, Kimiya Sato. But from setting the fastest lap in his first-ever start in Monza, to winning the season finale at Estoril on 19 October, he showed flashes of magic in his six races, scoring enough points to rank eighth in the championship. And it’s never a small feat to best a Formula 1 veteran – as he did that day in Estoril when he beat out third-place finisher Antonio Pizzonia.
Next came the chance to race in the Lamborghini Super Trofeo championships, where Michimi recalls vividly one of his favourite races: “There was a race at Spa in the 2015 Super Trofeo, going from fifth to second in the last two laps – that was pretty cool!”
Even if you feel like you’ve done a really good lap – or a near-perfect lap – (Antinucci) he’ll find a way to go a tenth quicker
And if sixth place in the European Cup in 2015 was good, and being selected to the Lamborghini Junior Drivers’ Programme for the upcoming 2016 season was even better, then a dominant run of six wins in the first eight races en route to winning the Super Trofeo North America was the high point of Michimi’s burgeoning sports car racing career to that point.
Returning after a year out of racing in 2018, Michimi picked up right where he left off, winning last August at Road America in Wisconsin, then winning again this August, at Virginia International Raceway and picking up his rivalry with Richard Antinucci, the driver he says represents his greatest challenge, the closest thing he’d personally consider to being a “rival”.
“He’s mega quick,” Michimi says of Antinucci. “He’s always a lot of fun to go up against in qualifying. Because even if you feel like you’ve done a really good lap, or a near-perfect lap, he’ll find a way to go a tenth quicker. I’d say he’s like, probably the most fun to drive against, because he really pushes me.”
But Michimi has been making his mark this season in the GT300 class of the Autobacs Super GT Series, competing in Japan for the first time in nearly six years.
In March, just before the start of the season, Michimi signed a two-race deal with X Works Racing team, the Hong Kong-based team formerly known as Phoenix Racing Asia, in X Works’ first-ever season in Super GT.
“I hadn’t completely decided what I was going to do for this year, but I was looking into options to run in Super GT this year. And I had a couple of contacts around the paddock, and a lot of them were saying, ‘yeah, everything’s filled up. But, some third driver roles are available.’ So I just kind of started messaging around and seeing who I could find, which teams are maybe available, and then gave [X Works] a call, they seemed really interested in running me.”
Michimi would be placed alongside owner/driver Marchy Lee, and young phenom Shaun Thong, starting with his first race with the Super GT newcomers, the Fuji 500 Kilometer Race.
“The first race at Fuji in Super GT was quite special for me. Because I spent a lot of time not in, I would say, like, a top-level motorsport,” he recalls. Nearly a decade removed from winning that FTRS scholarship, Michimi was now back in Japan, racing in the country’s most popular national racing series.
With the X Works team weeks removed from a heavy crash in Okayama, and up against the challenge of racing in a new series, Michimi had an immediate impact with X Works in their purple and green EVA Racing Nissan GT-R GT3.
When he climbed aboard the number 33 GT-R to relieve starting driver Thong, Michimi became only the third American-born driver to race in Super GT, succeeding gentleman racer Michael Kim, who raced from 2011 to 2012, and the late Jeff Krosnoff, who drove in GT500 for Toyota Team SARD from 1994 to 1995.
Then, with a blistering 41-lap run and a string of fast laps on a drying track, Michimi put X Works squarely into the top ten – even leading a few laps before Lee took the car home to a seventh-place finish, in only their second race in the series – the best result for a non-Japanese based GT300 team in GT300 history.
“That was the first time that I got to do it, and I had a really good run in my stint. So I think it was a lot of pressure relief for me.”
The second race of Michimi’s two-race deal came at Fuji Speedway in August, for the 500 Mile Race, where Michimi, once again alongside Thong and Lee, who’d bested X Works’ 7th place finish at Fuji with a 6th place finish at Chang International Circuit in Buriram, Thailand, was running comfortably in the top ten, before their race was compromised by a 10-second penalty stop for overtaking under Safety Car conditions, then the timing of the second Safety Car intervention past the halfway point in the race.
But then, Michimi was brought back to drive the following two rounds, in place of Lee. At Autopolis, a promising race wherein the EVA Racing X Works GT-R started seventh, fell apart due to rapidly changing weather. Thong and Michimi had much better luck in the changing weather conditions the following race at Sugo, however. Thong got a great start on a drying track, and as the rain came down in time for Michimi to close it out, the Japanese-American driver pushed on to match X Works’ best finish, and come home in 6th.
By this point, Michimi and the rest of the X Works team had become well acquainted with the unique challenges provided by Super GT that aren’t present in many other series. “Specifically with the tyre war,” Michimi explains. “It’s very different. Because obviously, each brand of tyre has its positives and negatives. And learning how to manage your car around it is quite tricky. But, they’ve been very good at managing that. Our engineers are extremely good.”
And, after our conversation on this Friday evening, Michimi will be selected to drive the Super GT championship finale at Twin Ring Motegi, where he and Thong will finish eighth. Michimi will finish the year 23rd in the GT300 Drivers’ Championship, with 12 points – and having driven X Works to three out of their four top-ten finishes.
Michimi also spearheaded the challenge for X Works in the Pirelli Super Taikyu Series. X Works scaled down from a three-car effort under their previous identity to just a single car, and for much of the season, it was an uphill struggle for X Works just to even tread water and finish races.
“Part of the difficulty this year was the BoP wasn’t too great for the Audi,” he recalls. “At Fuji alone, we were, I think, nine KPH down in a straight line, just not ideal straight-line speed. It was a difficult year, and obviously they weren’t happy about it.” The Fuji 24 Hours was a race spent mostly in the garage with repairs for X Works.
But then came a wild 5 hour penultimate round at Motegi. Michimi had stepped away and Thong had stepped in, and with ten minutes left, Thong took X Works to victory in what proved to be a championship-deciding race.
“Motegi, I think they all said it was kind of the perfect storm. A lot of people had issues, and then I think even we were two laps down at one point or something… but the way they made it sound was that there was like, there were a lot of things that were aligned just right.”
The following day is Michimi’s big IMSA debut. By nightfall, he’ll only have a record-setting fastest lap in his class to show for the effort he, Gdovic, Yount, and the rest of the PPR team put into this season-ending race. Their day will end two hours short of the finish when the clutch on their number 47 Lamborghini finally gives out.
As we were talking that October evening before the race, the future wasn’t clear just yet to Michimi, but it was now starting to become clear that performances like he’d put in, between Super GT and IMSA this season, were now making him a young driver in demand, especially now, as time has passed and teams in both series are finalizing 2020 plans.
“I had a few Super GT teams show interest,” he says. “So I’m actually going to go back to Japan, probably by the end of next week, to go and start having meetings for next year. I’d really like to get a full season, and I think it’d be a great challenge.”
It took the better part of a decade spent travelling from the United States, to Japan, to Europe, and back, but this year saw Shinya Sean Michimi’s talents showcased at some of the highest levels of racing, to where he’s now ready for a full-time, prime-time ride, ready to compete for a title.
“I’m just pushing as hard as I can!” Michimi exclaims.