Tora Takagi: The F1 reject that destroyed his opposition

Tora Takagi: The F1 reject that destroyed his opposition


Toranosuke Takagi’s brief Formula 1 career isn’t usually remembered fondly, but his clear potential in grand prix racing went frustratingly unfulfilled – as he demonstrated by absolutely demolishing his opposition in Formula Nippon the year after losing his seat.

Who’s the greatest Japanese Formula 1 driver? Satoru Nakajima, for his pioneering role in popularising grand prix racing in his home country? Aguri Suzuki for earning the country’s first podium on home turf? Ukyo Katayama, for his underdog heroics for Tyrrell in 1994? Takuma Sato, perhaps, or even Kamui Kobayashi?

You could make a case for any of the above, but one less obvious suggestion is ex-Tyrrell and Arrows man Toranosuke Takagi. A cursory glance at his F1 record – 32 starts across two seasons, zero points – doesn’t exactly make a strong argument for his consideration.

But taking into account sheer talent alone, there’s some evidence to suggest Takagi might well have been the best of the lot. And the most compelling argument in that regard is his utterly dominant record in Formula Nippon in 2000, the year after his brief F1 stint ended.

That season, Takagi won a record eight out of 10 races (which would have been nine without a terminal engine overheating problem in one of the two he didn’t win), beating the previous best tally of six wins in a season held by Kazuyoshi Hoshino (1990) and Pedro de la Rosa (1997). Since then, nobody has managed more than five wins in a single campaign.

Given that the current calendar for what’s now known as Super Formula comprises just seven races, Takagi’s record is one that could well stand forever.

Tora Takagi

Photo by: photo by Ron McQueeney

So, how did such domination follow on from comparative mediocrity in F1? To answer that question, we first have to delve into why Takagi didn’t live up to his initial promise during his two-year foray into the pinnacle of motorsport.

While Takagi was being groomed for a 1998 Tyrrell drive, undertaking a test programme in 1997 and contesting some Porsche Supercup rounds to get familiar with European tracks, Katayama’s F1 career was coming to a close and Shinji Nakano was struggling to make much of an impression in his rookie F1 season for Prost. There was a feeling that Takagi would turn out to be a cut above his predecessors, and for good reason.

Two years earlier, Takagi put himself on the map by scoring three victories for Nakajima Racing in Japanese Formula 3000 in what was his first full season. The third of those at Fuji was especially memorable for Takagi coming out on top in a fierce inter-generational battle with Japanese racing hero Hoshino, and that defeat is thought to have played a role in convincing the six-time champion to give up single-seaters at the end of the following year.

Following that triumph, Takagi was well-set for the title aged just 21, but was denied at the Suzuka finale after getting caught up in an accident between two cars ahead of him at the 130R corner. Further wins in what was now called Formula Nippon, albeit no title, followed in ’96 and ’97, but by the latter of those campaigns it was clear he was F1-bound.

Nakajima investing in the ailing Tyrrell squad, where he drove in 1990 and ‘91, paved the way for his protege – nicknamed ‘Tora’, Japanese for tiger – to get a shot at the big-time.

“Tora is one of the most talented drivers I’ve seen for a long while,” the late Tyrrell technical director Harvey Postlethwaite is quoted by The New York Times as saying of Takagi in 1998. “He has a natural driving talent and is a very precise, neat and tidy driver.”

Writing several races into the 1998 season, F1 reporter Adam Cooper added that Takagi appeared to be the first-ever Japanese grand prix driver “who might be worthy of a top drive on merit rather than because he fits in with sponsorship or engine supply plans”.

Toranosuke Takagi, Tyrrell 026 Ford

Photo by: Motorsport Images

Hamstrung by a lack of development on the Tyrrell 026 and outdated customer Ford engines, Takagi’s best finishes that season would be a pair of ninth places at Silverstone and Monza. But he had the clear measure of more experienced teammate Ricardo Rosset, outqualifying the Brazilian by an average of 1.4 seconds across the year and achieving a respectable average grid position of 17th, versus 21st for Rosset. 

In an end-of-season ranking of every driver that year, F1 racer-turned-commentator Martin Brundle placed Takagi 12th ahead of veterans like Rubens Barrichello (Stewart), Mika Salo (Arrows) and Johnny Herbert (Sauber). Brundle wrote: “A lot of the circuits are new to him, and the language barrier made it hard for him to communicate effectively with his engineers, but at times his speed this season has just been sensational.” 

However, some of the other elements necessary for F1 success besides raw speed appeared to be lacking, in particular race fitness, consistency and a lack of proficiency in English. The latter factor was made more problematic by his somewhat introverted personality, with Cooper reporting that “even in Japanese, [Takagi] seemingly doesn’t have much to say”.

For his sophomore F1 season Takagi went up against old Formula Nippon rival de la Rosa at Arrows, and the pair were generally closely matched, with Takagi edging the qualifying averages by just 0.064s over the year. But critically it was de la Rosa who scored the team’s only point of the year with sixth place in Melbourne on his F1 debut, one place ahead of Takagi. 

Arrows’ financial woes meant the A20 chassis was little more than an update of the previous year’s A19, which, combined with an underpowered Hart engine, meant Takagi was consigned to scrapping with de la Rosa and the Minardis at the rear of the field all year. But the perception was he didn’t do enough to work on the weaknesses that had become clear in ’98. 

Technical director Mike Coughlan was quoted by Autocourse as saying: “Tora can produce a really quick lap but is not so good over a race distance. He was like that at Tyrrell during testing. He starts off quick, but if the car develops a handling imbalance he just drops away down the field rather than adapting his style to cater for the change in the car’s behaviour.”

Tora Takagi, Arrows A20

Photo by: Sutton Images

At the end of 1999 Takagi was ditched by Arrows to make way for Jos Verstappen, leaving him with no options in F1. He had been linked to a role in the still-born Honda works project that was cancelled in the wake of Postlethwaite’s tragic death, but instead headed back to Japan to race in Formula Nippon, re-joining his mentor Nakajima’s team.

In ‘99, Nakajima had scored his first title as a team owner when Tom Coronel beat Satoshi Motoyama to the crown in controversial style, the Dutchman giving Formula Nippon its own ‘Senna-Prost’ moment as he piled into the back of Motoyama at Turn 1 in the Suzuka title decider. Coronel wouldn’t stay to defend his title, targeting the Arrows F1 seat vacated by Takagi, who slotted back in to Nakajima’s team alongside rookie Tsugio Matsuda. 

The season began with a chaotic, two-part wet race at Suzuka, where Takagi recovered from an early spin with a well-timed switch to slicks and passed Michael Krumm at the chicane on the penultimate lap to grab the win. The following race at Motegi was a simpler affair, as Takagi romped to the win from pole, beating Krumm by 9.4 seconds – a margin that would have been considerably larger without engine trouble in the final 10 or so laps. 

At the now-defunct Mine track, Takagi lost certain victory to an engine overheating problem, although Matsuda was able to step up to the plate to keep the Nakajima team’s perfect winning record intact. Next time out at Fuji, Takagi stalled on the grid but mounted a superb recovery charge, taking the lead at the halfway point and then cruising to a third win. 

More straightforward triumphs followed at Suzuka and Sugo, giving Takagi 50 of a possible 60 points while nearest rival Krumm languished on 24 points – the German’s realistic title hopes probably ending when his engine failed to fire at Fuji, where he had taken pole.

Tora Takagi, Nakajima Racing

Photo by: Fuji Speedway

The seventh round at Motegi in August would therefore give Takagi his first ‘match point’, and it was fitting that he won the title after a fierce battle with Krumm, the only driver in a position to delay his coronation. The winning margin was just 1.2s, the tightest of the year.

Still, there were three races left, and Takagi duly won the next two. The first was a two-parter at Fuji, and Shinsuke Shibahara looked like he might steal an underdog win after getting his mandatory stop out of the way before the red flags were shown, only to see his 20-second lead overturned by a charging Takagi. The penultimate race was at Mine, where Takagi made up for his previous disappointment by winning ahead of Motoyama.

As Matsuda had won the spring Mine race, Nakajima Racing went into the final race of the season at Suzuka with the chance to make it a perfect 10 out of 10 wins. Perhaps it was this pressure that contributed to a somewhat sub-par performance from Takagi, who made a slow start from second on the grid to drop to fourth before recovering to his grid position while Impul man Motoyama won from pole.

The final scoresheet read 86 points for Takagi out of a possible 100, 51 points ahead of runner-up Krumm and 52 ahead of Motoyama. That Takagi was able to destroy his opposition so thoroughly in what was by that point almost a spec series is undeniably impressive, although there were a couple of factors working in his favour.

While almost every Formula Nippon team was using Reynard chassis by 2000, there was still an advantage to be gained in the engine department, as the choice Mugen-Honda engine could be tuned by a number of different companies.

Four different engine tuners featured in that season, and the best of these was Ogawa, as used by Nakajima and a handful of other teams. One of these was Nova Engineering, but the ’97 title-winning team was now running the unfavoured G-Force chassis, while the other big Reynard teams – LeMans, Impul and 5ZIGEN – were using Tomei-tuned engines. So Takagi had the ‘perfect’ engine/chassis combination. 

Yuji Tachikawa (11) jostles for position with Satoshi Motoyama (19) for the lead at Fuji, after Takagi stalls on the grid.

Photo by: Fuji Speedway

The other factor which helped Takagi was the lack of a clear challenger. This is a role that should have been occupied by ’98 champion Motoyama, but he had just switched from LeMans to the one-car Impul team and managed only eight points in the opening six races before finding form later in the year. LeMans, meanwhile, clearly lacked a driver of Motoyama’s quality, having replaced him with ex-F1 backmarker Hideki Noda.

As for 5ZIGEN, Krumm did well to keep Takagi on his toes in the first few races, scoring three second places in the first three races, but his form faded towards the end of the year. His teammate Naoki Hattori, runner-up to Ralf Schumacher in ’96, might have been expected to be a bigger threat, but was just coming off a three-year stint in the States.

Then again, a driver can only beat the opposition confronting him, and Takagi assembled a near-perfect campaign. Perhaps the chastening experience of his short-lived grand prix career and the determination to prove his naysayers wrong helped; perhaps being back in an environment where he was clearly loved helped him extract his maximum more consistently.

Whatever the case, it was clear that Takagi didn’t show the best of himself in F1, but he wouldn’t get another chance to do so. In August 2000, when he was on the cusp of his Nippon title, he made a trip to the Hungarian Grand Prix to hold talks with BAR-Honda about a possible test role, but by this time another young Japanese driver by the name of Takuma Sato had started winning races in British F3 and he ultimately got the job instead. 

With the Honda door now shut, Takagi turned his attentions to winning the favour of Toyota, which by now had firmed up plans to enter F1 in 2002. Signing to race in CART for Walker Racing in 2001, Takagi hoped to prove himself worthy of another chance, but some of the same issues that had stopped him from reaching his potential in F1 reared their head again. 

Tora Takagi

Photo by: Earl Ma

That year’s Autocourse’s CART yearbook said: “The language barrier, along with Takagi’s excessively quiet nature, didn’t help the learning process – and like his predecessor [Shinji Nakano], the lack of a teammate was also a handicap.” The net result was 21st in the standings with a best finish of fourth at Houston, albeit third of the rookies (behind Scott Dixon and Bruno Junqueira) in what was probably one of the championship’s strongest-ever grids.

Takagi missed out on the Toyota F1 drive for 2002, although he was handed a test outing at Paul Ricard in May, his first taste of grand prix machinery since losing his Arrows seat, racking up 106 laps. Meantime, his second year in CART was proving similar to his first, with that year’s Autocourse CART yearbook saying: “There were flashes of inspiration from the mercurial Japanese driver and plenty of mistakes, which cost him dearly in terms of results.” 

Matching his best finish of fourth from the previous year, Takagi wound up 15th in the standings in a rather weaker field that featured only 18 full-time entries. He then made the switch to the Indy Racing League along with Toyota, driving for Mo Nunn Racing in ’03 and ‘04, the highlights of those campaigns being a podium at Texas and fifth place in the Indianapolis 500 in 2003, at the time the best-ever result for a Japanese driver in the famous race. 

Ultimately, much like in F1, Takagi was unable to do his abilities justice in CART or IRL. This was further highlighted by the fact that, once he moved back to Japan in 2005, he won the newly renamed SUPER GT series alongside Yuji Tachikawa in a Cerumo-run Supra at his first attempt.

Yuji Tachikawa, Toranosuke Takagi

Photo by: Hiroshi Yamamura

It’s interesting to consider what could have happened if Takagi had been selected as a BAR test driver in 2001. It would have been the perfect opportunity for him to finally master English and get fully used to a European working environment, as well as get a firm handle on the car development process in a well-funded team, instead of a cash-strapped operation like Tyrrell or Arrows. It’s debatable whether it would have led to a race drive, but it surely would have left him better equipped to have a successful career in the States or elsewhere.

One can also wonder what could have been had Takagi embarked on a career path more similar to the one chosen by Sato, who turned down a fully-paid drive in Japanese F3 in 1998, believing that the only way he’d get noticed by the F1 fraternity would be by learning English and establishing himself on the British junior single-seater ladder. That strategy paid off as he secured a drive with Jordan-Honda in 2002 after his dominant British F3 season in ‘01.

A combination of Takagi’s clear raw speed and Sato’s adaptability and personality might have resulted in Japan’s first grand prix winner. Instead, more than 20 years on from Takagi’s F1 dream being extinguished, the wait continues, and is showing few signs of ending soon.

Tora Takagi, Arrows

Photo by: Sutton Images

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