So, how exactly does someone from Canada make their way over to Japan, to become the chief engineer for a team led by a local Formula 1 hero and boasting a championship-winning pedigree in the Autobacs Super GT Series?
It’s an unusual path for Ryan Dingle, who first arrived in Japan over a decade ago from his hometown in Vancouver, British Columbia, and has worked his way through the domestic racing ladder with a number of teams, and taken a few brief detours, to become the only non-Japanese Chief Engineer in the GT500 class of Super GT. “It’s a bit of a long path,” says Dingle, who was gracious enough to join me for an evening conversation less than two weeks away from the Super GT season finale at Fuji Speedway on 29 November.
“I guess there’s a few ways you could do it, but the way I did it was, basically I graduated from UBC in Vancouver as a materials engineer. I always wanted to do motorsport stuff, and I’d come to Japan for the first time, pretty much immediately after graduating. There weren’t very many jobs available at that time, it was right around when the Lehman Shock hit. And so I came to Japan and taught English for a little while, and I wasn’t really satisfied with that. So I looked for work back home as an engineer and eventually found something, went back, and wasn’t satisfied with that either.”
Dingle wanted something more fulfilling, so he enrolled in Oxford Brookes University in the United Kingdom, a school that has given many aspiring engineers a path into motorsport, primarily Formula 1.
“But by that time, I had met my future wife, who was Japanese, and it was sort of an easier path to find employment visas in Japan,” says Dingle. So in his second time out in Japan, he landed a job with TODA Racing, an established and respected team in the All-Japan Formula Three Championship. “I worked there for a little while and got my foot in the door. I was actually a design engineer on the engine side, and I asked them if they would let me join them at the track on the weekends. And that year, they just happened to have a second car, so they let me run that. And then things sort of snowballed from there, and it sort of took a couple of detours but I got back into it, really, full-time in 2017.”
It was Yuhi Sekiguchi, then the lead driver for Toyota Team WedsSport Bandoh in GT500, who recommended Dingle to second-generation team director Masataka Bandoh. Dingle then joined the team as a data engineer, his first chance to work on the track in one of Japan’s top series. “From there, I just kept getting sort of… a little bit surreal opportunities,” Dingle says. “I had the chance to work with Felix Rosenqvist when he was here in Super Formula. And then last year, I worked with [Kamui] Kobayashi in Super Formula. And I had worked three years at Bandoh and with Yokohama tyres as a performance engineer for their car.”
“And I had this opportunity, a few other teams that offered me work. So I had the opportunity to choose between a couple of teams, and the number 8 car seemed like the best fit for me. And here we are, in a bit of a whirlwind. But yeah, I mean, it’s a long and sort of convoluted route to get here.”
Just 34 years of age, Ryan Dingle is chief engineer for Autobacs Racing Team Aguri’s number 8 Honda NSX-GT. It’s a team that has won a GT500 championship in the past and has won several races since entering the series in 1998, then partnering with Honda starting in 2000. It’s very rare in Super GT that a Japanese team will bring on a “gaijin” as a Chief Engineer – in fact, the last non-Japanese to hold such a role in GT500, was the late, great Ricardo Divila, who enjoyed a fruitful, decorated tenure in Japan working for the likes of NISMO, Team Impul, Dome Racing, and SARD.
With the role of Chief Engineer, there is not just setting up the car, but also personnel resource management, strategy, planning, and constant communication between all of the members of the team. “There have been a few other performance engineers [from outside Japan],” Dingle says. “When I was with Bandoh, there was a guy from Australia named Matt Harvey, who worked with [Daisuke] Nakajima for a season. And then there are a few guys from Japan who actually attended the same uni that I did in the UK, with the Japanese guys.”
“It was extremely intimidating at first,” Dingle admits, “because when I first started, I mean, I was able to communicate in Japanese, but sort of not at the level where it needed to be. And it’s sort of gotten better over the years.” Dingle is now an N2-level Japanese speaker, the second-highest level of language proficiency – which usually takes between 1,400 to 2,200 hours of study to achieve. The language barrier is a little issue, and the culture is conducive for anyone of any creed or background to succeed. “The culture here, in terms of engineering, for the chief engineers, they tend to put a lot of emphasis on it. But at the end of the day, we’re not the people that the fans are showing up to pay money for. So it’s not hugely intimidating, I would say, from that perspective. It’s just sort of, ‘show up and get your head down and get to work.’ But yeah, people are generally nice in the paddock.”
When asked about which people have been the most helpful to him in achieving this goal, Dingle says, “I wouldn’t be where I am without a lot of people. But I think two people stand out, in that they’ve given me opportunities at certain points which have allowed me to progress to where I am, in a pretty clear way. The first one is Ryuji Doi from KCMG. I left TODA Racing in 2014 and joined Mahle in Tokyo.
And then on the weekends, I was sort of recruited by KCMG to be a part of their Formula 3 project with their driver Struan Moore. And so from then on, I’ve sort of had this relationship with Doi, which came back sort of full circle when he asked me to come back to KCMG for Super Formula last year. So he has been a really big, positive influence on me and I mean, he’s just a prince of a guy, he’s a really, really nice person.”
“And Bandoh-san, he basically gave me my shot in GT500 as a performance engineer, and really supported me and helped get my name out there in Japan. Through his connections with Team Le Mans, he got me a role that was originally supposed to just be a performance engineer with Team Le Mans, as well – but halfway through the first test [in 2017], they asked me to be the race engineer for Felix. So things you never know how things are gonna turn out. But these opportunities that people give you, you’ve just got to be really appreciative of them. And probably the biggest ones that I’ve had so far in my career have come from those two people.”
Perhaps the most incredible part of this new opportunity for Dingle has been how improbable their 2020 season has been thus far. “If you just look at the points tally scored, it’s fairly impressive in the second half, definitely not impressive in the first half,” he says.
“But we were quick in the first two races at Fuji, and we were very quick throughout preseason testing. Both of our drivers are top class – with the two of them, the issues were never really going to be about pure speed. This year has been difficult because it’s not only been my first year as a Chief Engineer in Super GT, but it’s the first year of a new chassis, and it’s my first year integrating into a new team.”
“The people in the team, the other engineers, and the mechanics have been phenomenal in sort of, accommodating me and getting me up to speed in the way that the team has done things. But a lot of what we do, in setting up the car, is referencing what has been done in the past – and this year, that’s been made extremely difficult by a number of factors.”
Talking about the new NSX-GT itself, Dingle explains, “I mean, the car has changed significantly in terms of the NSX going from mid-engine to front-engine – it’s been, in some ways exaggerated.” It’s other components of setting up the car that have proven to be much more challenging.
“The body of the car is so different between the NSX and the Supra. The NSX road car, with it being a mid-engined car – it sorta has those C-pillars, and they have the air in between the body and the C-pillar itself. But when you translate that to the race car, you have to keep that design element because that’s in the original car. And that ends up giving the NSX a bigger frontal area than the Supra – and so the NSX is inherently going to be more draggy than the Supra. Because of that, you get less air directly to the rear wing. I’m not 100% certain, but it’s possibly more difficult to create rear downforce from the rear wing, which is sort of one issue that always holds us back.”
“If you want to extract front downforce from the car, you need to put rake (increased rear ride height) on it. And if you do that, then there are all sorts of other issues which come about, which is a little bit different than the previous car. The previous car had a bigger front splitter, so it was able to create more downforce with less rake.”
“With these kinds of cars, you need to have rake, because depending on the drivers that you’re working with and their style of driving, having a lot of rear downforce, and rear grip at corner entry, it can be super important. And if you’re lacking the tools to create that downforce, or you think you might be, then you’re at a little bit of a disadvantage. If the frontal area of the body is bigger, then you’re creating more drag. I think that that’s probably one of the biggest reasons for the Supras being so quick on the straights at Fuji at the beginning of the year.”
“And the second point, that was a bit difficult at the beginning of the year: People may have noticed, when we were very, very quick in the first two rounds at Fuji, our car was sort of porpoising on the straights, or bouncing in a very rough way on the straights. And so when you get into certain, say, loading patterns on the car, at certain frequencies and ride heights, you can end up with a lot of porpoising – which ends up sort of sending the car into different ride height areas than you’d intended. And that can make it extremely difficult to drive, or to brake at the end of the straights. So those were sort of a couple of examples of things that we’d we’d encountered this year, and sold there haven’t solved to a certain degree.”
“So we’ve gone through sort of ‘cycles’ of our setup. And that’s really been one key aspect, we’ve sort of settled on a direction now in the second half, that’s been positive. I would say that we had an idea, or a concept in the beginning half that was also quick, over a single lap, but may not have been the easiest car to drive, or may not have been the easiest car to battle with against other cars.” To that end, GT500 newcomer Nirei Fukuzumi set a new course record in Q1 during the first race at Fuji, and veteran co-driver Tomoki Nojiri won the pole for the following race. “But the concept itself had sort of an Achilles’ heel in terms of when we got into the race. The balance of the car would change a little bit too significantly with the way that you drove it, or with the line that you had to take through traffic.”
“And then, it’s my first year there, and it’s Nirei’s first year in GT500 as well. So the team had some sort of things to figure out, let’s say in terms of how to properly utilize both drivers. There are only 100 minutes of practice before qualifying, so there’s not very much time before qualifying to get both drivers in the car. You have to check whatever tires you’ve brought for that weekend – three or four weeks before the weekend, you have to decide what tires you’re gonna bring.
Until this year I was with Yokohama [tyres], so changing to Bridgestone, has been probably easier than it would be to change from Bridgestone to Yokohama, but still a challenge in terms of getting up to speed with the different compounds and constructions that are available.”
“There’s a larger amount of selection available with a smaller variance between the selection,” Dingle says about the range of Bridgestone tyres available to the team. “They have, more tyres that are capable of delivering single lap times, or performing over a race distance. So in some ways, it makes selecting the tyre that matches your car, or your strategy for a weekend more difficult – because there are so many to choose from.”
“But in other ways, you’re sort of also saved by the fact that there are more cars running those tires than any of the Yokohama teams.” Ten of the fifteen GT500 teams, including ARTA, use Bridgestone tyres. “Yokohama only has one car with each manufacturer. And generally, Yokohama also has some good compounds and, and constructions, but they aren’t, I would say, as widespread. You have less selection, which makes it easier to choose the tires, although you could say that that would be detrimental to performance in the end, which has sort of shown itself to be the case over the last few years.”
“It’s easier, in the sense that at the end of the day, whatever tyre you choose is generally one that’s going to be competitive. Although, depending on what the majority or even a minority of the other Bridgestone cars choose – if you align with the other cars, then you really need to have the fastest chassis or the fastest engine or whatever on that weekend in order to get a good result. And if you gamble and go a little bit of a different route, then you leave yourself susceptible to possibly choosing a slightly worse tyre – which will then sort of mean that you won’t be in the hunt for pole position or the race win. Although with the Bridgestones, generally you’re sort of there or thereabouts, at least in the points scoring positions.”
In the first half of the 2020 season, Autobacs Racing Team Aguri had scored only four points – three of them came in the first race, where Nojiri and Fukuzumi drove to an eighth-place finish at Fuji. Then the next three races were marred by unfortunate incidents. Polesitter Nojiri spun on cold tyres after a pit stop at Fuji in Round 2. Fukuzumi made contact while battling for position in Round 3 at Suzuka, forcing a retirement. Then at Motegi in Round 4, Nojiri was wiped out just ten laps into the race by an out-of-control GT300 car.
Nojiri and Fukuzumi were 39 points out of first place and, effectively, needed to finish the next three races on the podium at minimum if they were to somehow salvage a run at the championship. They won pole in Round 5 at Fuji and finished third. They finished third again at Suzuka in Round 6. Then, after taking the lead, Nojiri and Fukuzumi took a dominant victory at Motegi in the most recent round. Another victory will clinch the GT500 Championship for ARTA, and it would be the greatest championship comeback in GT500 history if they were to pull this off.
One thing that helped not just ARTA, but Honda as a whole, achieve success in the first year for the 2020 NSX-GT was ensuring that their teams were able to share information between one another – in particular, ARTA, and fellow Bridgestone runners Keihin Real Racing and Team Kunimitsu. “That sort of policy, to me, it’s necessary at this level, if you really want to be competitive as a manufacturer,” says Dingle. “And the biggest area where it’s helped is…like I said, our first original concept, that road that we’d gone down the beginning of the year was, you know, it seemed promising, and then it sort of ended up in a dead end – and then where do you go from there?
“Instead of just having, you know, three tests and two races worth of data from your car, you have some other data or some other information at least from two other cars to look at and consider. And that’s really what’s helped on the engineering side the most. It helps get you to the answer quicker than you would get just by yourself. In the three or four year window that we have with the current chassis, I think all three of the teams would get there, to where they can extract the most performance from the car. I just think they would get there at slightly different times. And in that case, then you might not see three Honda’s fighting for the championship this year. You might see say, one this year, none this year and one or two next year or something like that. So that’s been critical on the engineering side.”
Dingle has been able to work with top-quality drivers throughout his time. Kobayashi, now a World Endurance Drivers’ Champion. Rosenqvist, now an IndyCar Series race winner. Kazuya Oshima, now the reigning GT500 Drivers’ Champion. At TGR Team WedsSport Bandoh as a data engineer, he set up cars for the likes of Sekiguchi, Kobayashi, Yuji Kunimoto, Kenta Yamashita, and Sho Tsuboi to drive.
And now at ARTA, he works with sixth-year GT500 veteran Nojiri, and reigning GT300 champion Fukuzumi, a GT500 newcomer who’s won races in the championship once known as the GP3 Series. “Both of our drivers are top-class,” says Dingle of Nojiri and Fukuzumi. “Nojiri proved that again last weekend in Super Formula, winning there,” in reference to Nojiri’s pole-to-win victory at Autopolis. “And Nirei is, like, that kid is elite! He’s very, very quick.”
“They’re two extremely talented people [with] varying degrees of experience. Both of them are a little bit similar in their personalities, they’re not sort of these guys who have an extreme amount of self-belief or self-confidence. They’re both in my mind, top-level, very quick drivers. But really, we need to work as a team to stay positive in certain times. And they’ve done a good job persisting through, let’s say, certain incidents this year, certain times this year where things haven’t gone our way. And I think it’s that it’s sort of culminating right now.
Obviously with Nojiri, we won at Motegi two weeks ago, then he won in Super Formula this past week. We are sort of in a good place mentally, with the two drivers and with the team at the moment. So we just want to keep that momentum going, I would say.”
“Nojiri has been fundamental in creating the setup that we have now for the car, so the setup we had, at the beginning of the year, we had some success with it in terms of single lap pace, although he was never particularly fond of the direction of that setup in the end. And so we’ve worked extremely hard together, him and I, and also Nirei and the other engineering staff as well, to come up with a different direction one that suits [Nojiri’s] driving style more. And that’s sort of what’s leading to the fruits that we’ve seen in the last three races here.”
“And then Nirei, what he brings to the table that is extremely important in a second driver in Super GT is adaptability, to drive various setups. So he could drive the setup that we had at the beginning of the year, he can drive this setup that we have now and, and extract a lap time and be quick over a race distance. So they both bring slightly different skills to the table. And they both bring skills that complement each other and help the team create a winning package.”
“It’s important in Super GT – and sometimes overlooked, that you don’t just need two quick drivers, you need two drivers that also have a compatible driving style. And drivers who can sort of help the team. Either both drivers have to have a really, really wide window of the type of car that they can drive, or at least one of them needs to know what they want out of the car and how to and how to build that car. And so we have that going, which is helpful.”
Like a lot of people involved in racing from Generations Y and Z, and in particular this growing group of Super GT fans, Dingle knew of GT500 racing through video games, and I was eager to confirm that for myself.
“Once I got into motorsport, one of the things that helped me get into it and stay interested in it was Gran Turismo. And so I started from Gran Turismo 1, and playing all the subsequent ones growing up. I used to think the cars just look really cool, you know, they were these squished-down versions of sports cars or not even sports cars. But I used to like – particularly the NSXes, the older NSXes were cool, I thought. But looking back on them, they’re all sort of neat now, like the 2004, 2005 NSX, the Supra was also cool, the HSV-010.”
“In all honesty, I think the cars directly preceding the link up with the DTM regulations looked a bit cooler than the ones we have now. The cars we have now are pretty impressive, technically. I didn’t have a particular favourite.”
Away from the virtual world and back into real life, Dingle knows that the final race of the 2020 Super GT season is a big occasion, but he’s not inclined to divert from the knowledge that he’s gained this year, nor is he letting the pressure of the moment get to him. “Not use too many typical sports cliches, but I’m just going about it the way that we always go about it.”
“I don’t want to put too much pressure on the team or the drivers, or myself really. I mean, we got where we are now, by doing things a certain way, with a certain process that we continue to build on. And so we just gonna bring the same mentality to this race. And so in terms of preparation, now, we’ll do the same thing. From the engineering side, we’ll go through all the previous data, all the cornering speed and load data that we have for Fuji, and adapt it to our new setup.”
“Tyre selection is done for a while now, so we’ll sort of just wait and see what the weather actually turns out like. It’s pretty warm this year, this season, for Japan. At the moment, I’m outside my apartment now, at about 9:30 at night – and it’s probably still about 15-20 degrees Celsius. So yeah, it’s it’ll definitely be cooler than what we’re used to, for Fuji. But there are off-season tests at Fuji from time to time. And it’s not going to be too much cooler than the race at Motegi. So in that sense, it’s not going to be unheard of to prepare for this. At the beginning of this year, there was the Okayama GTA test – a decent reference in terms of the tyre range that will be chosen for this weekend coming up, and then you’re just dealing with adjusting that selection for the load discrepancy between Fuji and Okayama, Fuji’s a higher load circuit.”
“The number 17 car has won at Fuji this year, and we’ve been competitive over a single lap. But the Supras are very competitive at Fuji, and very quick in a straight line so far this year, so we need to keep in mind their straight-line pace. And so that means we can’t go and just slap a load of downforce on the car, which is actually generally the quickest way around Fuji if you’re just driving by yourself. But then when you’re up against other cars in a race, you need to be also quick in the straight line. So yeah, that affects how we look at the setup for the race. But yeah, we have those sorts of factors basically every race weekend, so it’s just another slightly different set of factors this weekend.”
In that sense, Ryan Dingle is treating this race just like any other, proving to be wise beyond his years, and someone who can truly make a mark as an engineer for many years to come, maybe in Japan, maybe in a World Championship if the opportunity ever comes.
Images courtesy of Autobacs Racing Team Aguri and the GT Association (GTA)