OYAMA, Japan -- When racing a dowdy Toyota Prius around Fuji Speedway's demanding Formula One circuit, the cunning driver must employ some special strategies.
Don't floor the accelerator. Don't slam on the brakes. Hit the gas when you're heading downhill. And coast for as long as possible when you're rolling up an incline.
Clearly, this is no ordinary race. Indeed, the goal at the so-called Prius Cup is mpg, not mph. It's a race for hypermilers.
Toyota's popular hybrid is off to the races again after a two-year hiatus of Cup events triggered by Toyota's 2010 recall crisis and Japan's earthquake-tsunami disaster in March.
When Japan's No. 1 automaker held the first national championship Dec. 7, it invited Automotive News to get behind the wheel as part of a three-driver foreign-media squad. We were dubbed the "Mean Green Gaijin Team," using the Japanese word for foreigner.
Our team was thrown against 29 dealer entrants. The Cup pits Japan's Toyota dealerships against one another in a contest of fuel economy and crew service, not speed. It is a tool for promoting Toyota's hybrid technology and sharpening dealer familiarity with the product.
Executive Vice President Takeshi Uchiyamada -- known inside the automaker as "Mr. Prius" because he was chief engineer of the first-generation hybrid sedan -- stopped by with some tips before the start.
"Try to coast up the hills. Keep your speed averaging around 37 mph," he said.
Uchiyamada would be piloting his own vehicle with a team of engineers called Utchy Racing. Despite his own gentle guidelines, the company's global r&d chief was decked out in a fireproof racing suit and crash helmet. Obviously some competitors weren't fooling around.
It's difficult to resist the temptation to gun your car when you are alone zipping along the straight-aways and curves of Fuji Speedway. But the name of the game was fuel efficiency, and I'd be damned if I let the two other Japanese media teams beat us in the quest.
During the race, three drivers take turns rounding the track. They are penalized for going too fast or too slow and strive to keep the car going on as little gasoline as possible.
For the dealer teams, there is also a service component. Teams are clocked on how fast and accurately they service their car, from checking the engine to rotating the tires.
Fuel burn is chronicled on the Prius' console monitor. Team managers lean over the pit wall with message boards telling drivers to speed up or slow down to avoid penalties and boost mpg.
During my leg, I logged an average fuel economy of 29.1 kilometers per liter (68 mpg), but I was penalized for lapping the 2.8-mile course too slowly.
Le Mans and beyond
The Prius race begs the question of when Toyota will parlay its lead in hybrid drivetrain technology into a sports hybrid that delivers performance on top of mileage. Something with a bit more bite than the pedestrian, tree-hugging hatchback that is today's Prius.
For more than a year now, Toyota has been kicking around incarnations of its GRMN Sports Hybrid Concept: an open-cockpit sporty hybrid based on the MR2. In October, the company said it would field a hybrid in next year's Le Mans 24 Hour race.
Executive Vice President Shinichi Sasaki confirmed Toyota is indeed working on a sporty hybrid. But he declined to offer details about the project or a timeline for bringing a vehicle to market.
"Hybrids have more to offer than just mileage," he said. "We want to do it as soon as possible."
Sasaki pledged a car that will showcase such a hybrid's potential when Toyota competes in the French endurance race in June. "As long as the car doesn't break down," he said, "we can win the race."
The tally: 64 mpg
Despite my penalty for going too slow, my team pulled ahead of the Japanese auto journalists. We had a team average of 64 mpg, compared with their scores of 61.5 mpg and 61.7 mpg.
We saved face, but only barely. The overall winner, a dealer team called Toyota Aichi, blew us away. They cruised to first place with a fuel-sipping team average of 80.2 mpg.
There's something perverse about intentionally creeping along a circuit built for Formula One cars pushing 150 mph. Sasaki, who drove on a board-member team, acknowledged as much in sheepishly reporting his meager 42 mpg average.
"I lost out to the seduction of Fuji Speedway," he said, conceding his heavy foot. In fact, going slow is one reason Toyota has no plans to bring the Prius Cup competition to the United States.
"Americans aren't as concerned about fuel economy," he said. "They are focused on speed."