Late last night, just hours before Race Day, Yoshihide Muroya's team changed a major component of their raceplane, after finishing third in Qualifying.
The decision to revert back to a previous tail configuration came after testing a smaller designed version in the earlier Free Practice sessions and Qualifying.
Not only does this race mark Muroya's first home race since winning the World Championship last October, but after earning victories in Chiba for the past two seasons, it's a chance for him to make history as the first pilot ever to lock a hat-trick in his home country. Not to mention it's an opportunity to move to the top of the overall leaderboard, where he's currently in third place, five points off the top.
So insiders were surprised when Team Falken, although doing well, unveiled a significant raceplane modification from the start of Free Practice for their important home event.
"We have a new vertical tail, which is very similar to the tail that Kirby Chambliss has been racing with for the last year or so," says Team Falken tactician Benjamin Freelove.
When Team Chambliss unveiled their smaller tail in 2017, the American pilot and his teammates had to balance the potential benefits of reduced drag with the possible pitfalls of a reduction in stability. Muroya and Team Falken faced a similar situation, and they first tested out the new tail before April's stop on the French Riviera in Cannes.
"We know that the new tail makes this raceplane a little more difficult to control, so we did the initial testing in France, and we decided not to fly it there," Freelove explains. "Afterwards, Yoshi had some more time to train with it here in Japan. He was starting to feel comfortable, but you basically have to fly it on the racetrack. So that's a process."
The first racetrack test was Friday's Free Practice session in Chiba, where Muroya placed fifth despite strong winds. Then came an unusually packed Saturday, with two more Free Practice sessions ahead of Qualifying, in completely different conditions with offshore winds. Muroya dropped to eighth and then tenth in those Free Practice flights, which made his rise to third in Qualifying all the more impressive. The result puts him up against an especially tough opponent in the very first round of Sunday's race: none other than the pilot he's chasing in the standings, Australia's Hall. It didn't take long for the team to decide they should switch back to the larger tail.
"Yesterday Yoshi felt like he was starting to get comfortable enough [with the new tail]. Then with the compressed time format of most Free Practice sessions being today, it was a little bit of a gamble in terms of whether to leave it on for Qualifying. But definitely for the race we're going to be conservative and go with the tail Yoshi knows," Freelove states. "It's not ideal having to switch back and forth, and it is a little risky in terms of results, but that's how we always race."
Fortunately, Freelove adds, "It's really simple to switch the tail out. This is sort of a normal situation, because even when we disassemble between races, the tail comes off. It's already on the raceplane now with only a little left to do, and that's just 30 minutes from when we started to change it out."
He concludes, "The plan is that we'll have a bit of time to fly with it again before the next stop in Budapest and make some adjustments, and then we'll see if we fly it in the track. It depends somewhat on things like the weather forecast and turbulence. It's a project, basically."
In the meantime, if the risk of going back to the original tail brings reward on Sunday, the superfans on Makuhari Beach are going to have a lot to celebrate.