Editor’s note: this profile was co-written by Kinnikuniverse and Jeremy Scott
Toranosuke, Tora, “Tiger” Takagi sits in the history books as yet another young Japanese talent of the 1990s, a case of false hope and unfulfilled promise. However, he was one of a long generation of such cases, few had so much potential as Takagi. With the full backing and support of his country’s racing institutions, he would leave Formula 1 pointless after two years, with bursts of redemption to follow, along with the begging question of what might have been.
|Date of Birth||February 12th 1974|
|Teams||Tyrrell (1998), Arrows (1999)|
|Best result||7th (Australia 1999)|
As one of the most important producers of automobiles in the world, Japan naturally also has a rich history in motorsports. While the adult generation witnessed Kamui Kobayashi’s magnificent drives for Sauber or Takuma Sato’s bouncing performances at BAR (not to mention his two Indianapolis 500 victories), the pioneering days of Masahiro Hasemi and Kazuyoshi Hoshino in the 1970s are the stuff of legend. Between there is a golden age, where Satoru Nakajima took the first points for an Asian driver since Prince Bira, when Aguri Suzuka took a podium at his home race at Suzuka in 1990, and when Ukyo Katayama took his Tyrrell 022 to unimaginable places while secretly battling back cancer.
Countless drivers were touted as bringing Japan its first world champion to F1, and the one with perhaps the most hype and backing was spotted in the national Formula 3 series by the aforementioned Nakajima. This was the quiet spoken and keen fishing enthusiast Tora Takagi.
1986-1991: Early Years
Toranosuke was called so after his birth in the year of the tiger, from where his Japanese name (tora being Japanese for tiger), and subsequent English nickname, originates. In spite of this epithet, Takagi has always been known for his introverted nature, giving short and quiet interviews only when he has to. His family were wealthy and owned land in the Shizuoka region of Japan.
Racing, as it often is, was in the blood and Tora has been around racing circuits since he was literally a baby. His mother took him to watch his father Masami, a touring car driver, take on the best Japan had to offer, with his best results a podium finish in his class and 8th overall at the 1985 Fuji 5 hours driving a Toyota Corolla Levin (yes, that Corolla Levin).
It is worth noting that, before motorsports were popularised and professionalised with the success of Honda engines, legends like Hoshino and Nakajima didn’t touch a race car until their late teens. As such, Tora can be considered among the first generation of Japanese drivers to profit from a proper structure and ladder in Japan. By the age of 15 he was already Japanese Karting A2 Champion, and his family kept him there to build up the experience and the racing knowledge required. In 1990, Tora won every single race of a perfect championship. Heads started to turn towards the Shizuoka native, and he would soon move up to the FA National Championship, the highest level of Japanese karting. In 1991, he once again established himself as Japan’s brightest teenaged prospect by immediately being on pace and almost winning the championship in his rookie year.
1992-1996: The Cub Becomes the Tiger
His first foray into single seaters occurred the moment he reached legal age in the Formula Toyota series. Success kept coming and he scored two wins in 1992. Momentum slowed down somewhat upon jumping to Japanese Formula 3, driving a TOM’s-built chassis to 10th in his rookie year in 1993. The following season he improved to 5th, leading to a call-up to Satoru Nakajima’s team for the last rounds of the 1994 All-Japan F3000 season. Nakajima himself had recently retired, and was now making his way as a manager with his F3000 team spotting talent in the lower rankings. Japanese racing had hit a brief stagnation following the country’s economic downturn in the early 1990s, and Takagi was adopted into the academy’s maiden group to help bring new blood into the series who might not otherwise be able to afford it. Takagi’s pace was clearly good enough that it earned him a full-time drive for 1995 in F3000.
Being thrust into a series containing drivers the calibre of Tom Kristensen, Marco Apicella, Kazuyoshi Hoshino, Mika Salo, and Shinji Nakano is quite a steep hill to climb for any young racer debuting in the All-Japan F3000 of that era. Nonetheless, our young cub showed no fear, finishing in the top 10 in all three races he competed in, enthusiastically battling with those aforementioned veterans and stars. With Nakajima-san giving him precious tips and a tried-and-true Reynard-Mugen combo, the cub became a tiger in 1995. After a few rounds finding his feet, Takagi would score three wins in the second half en route to an impressive tied runner-up finish behind F1 reject Toshio Suzuki. He could have surely won the title had he managed to avoid the two cars spinning in front of him at the 130R corner at the finale in Suzuka.
Making his first full season even sweeter, he finished in front of future Le Mans expert Tom Kristensen and national hero Kazuyoshi Hoshino! That cross-generation battle was the main storyline of the 1995 Japan F3000 season, with Takagi defeating the legend so soundly (particularly in a thrilling one-on-one duel at Fuji), Hoshino opted to retire the following year, baiting his young compatriot to just join F1 already.
Japanese racing outlets went mad over the 21-year-old from Shizuoka, calling him Japan’s best hope for a Formula 1 race winner and – who knows – maybe even a world champion. Takagi’s pace and aggressive style won him plenty of admirers, and he was considered a favourite for the 1996 championship (the first in the Formula Nippon era) against the X Japan Team Le Mans duo of Naoki Hattori and Ralf Schumacher. Unfortunately, despite a podium and two wins, Takagi would be plagued by reliability issues and some blunders that could have easily been avoided.
1997: Debts Repaid
In 1997, Tora’s performance in Formula Nippon was much the same as the previous year. It didn’t really matter, for Nakajima-san’s friendship with his former boss, Ken Tyrell, had opened a door for Takagi to test for the Surrey outfit that year, with a guaranteed seat for 1998. All efforts were now placed towards F1.
A common problem that occurs when Japanese drivers first race outside their home country is the difficulty of adaptation. The language of motorsport has long been predominantly English, while European tracks used to be narrower and less forgiving than the majority of Japanese tracks. In order to help him circumvent those problems, Nakajima-san bought Takagi a flat in London, while Tora himself would contest the Porsche Supercup support races in order to learn the tracks F1 ran on. It was experience he greatly needed:
“Things have changed since Nakajima’s day. Now, the circumstances of racing in Japan are very close to what they are in Europe. So a lot of young guns are coming up at the moment, and we’re catching up. But, if you are racing in the lower categories of European series, you can get the experience of the race tracks that are used in Formula One, and we cannot.”
It was Tora’s luck that Tyrrell were undergoing serious financial trouble in 1997. Their adoption of Takagi for those test sessions was likely part of their consideration in moving from their Ford V8s to Honda, whom Takagi and his sponsors were aligned with. Nakajima had already saved the team at the start of the decade, so management knew the money provided by the main sponsor PIAA was reliable. All of these factors worked in Tora’s favour, and in 1998 he was signed with the team in their swansong year.
As a tester of Tyrell’s funky, X-winged 025 machine, Takagi got to interact with the eccentric Harvey Postlethwaite, a long-time technical director in F1. Postlethwaite, who in the past worked with legends like James Hunt, Jody Scheckter, Gilles Villeneuve and Jean Alesi as well as Takagi’s countryman Ukyo Katayama, added more fuel to Tora’s hype during pre-season testing:
“Tora is one of the most talented drivers I’ve seen for a long while. He has a natural driving talent and is a very precise, neat and tidy driver. He’s been off the track a few times, but that’s by-the-by. I think he could go far.”
The stage was set for Japan’s saviour to arrive in 1998. Partnering Brazilian pay driver Ricardo Rosset in the Tyrrell 026, Takagi arrived in Melbourne with the weight of Japanese expectations on his shoulders. His stoicism soon became part of the mythos surrounding Tora.
He was known for being a rather introverted person. He spoke few words, often answering questions with the same three words: “yes”, “no”, or “maybe”, and preferring to speak through his interpreter or not even speak to the press at all. Often he would show up, race, then swiftly disappear back home. While one could assume that this was due to the language barrier and a way to keep a poker face amidst all the hype, Japanese motorsport fans would tell you that he acted exactly in the same stoic and mysterious manner even in his homeland.
Of course, what matters the most in the end are the results. Despite massively outqualifying Rosset with an average starting position of 17.0 compared to the Brazilian’s 21.5, Takagi would start his F1 journey with two consecutive retirements in Melbourne and Brazil. 12th place followed in his first ever finish in Argentina, followed by retirement at Imola, then two finishes at Barcelona and Monaco: 13th and 11th, respectively.
However, the Tyrell 026 suffered from constant power and reliability issues from their customer Ford engines. Development was almost non-existent due to a lack of funding and a major management shake-up – famously, Ken Tyrrell left the team over its choice to hire the underperforming Rosset over the capable Jos Verstappen. Despite all this drama, Takagi kept his head and went to work, showing a glimpse of his potential with a splendid race at Silverstone, finishing 9th and scoring his first ever top 10 finish in F1.
Takagi ran rings around Rosset, be it in qualifying or the races. At Monaco and Albert Park, Tora was lapping two seconds ahead on pure pace. Team politics likely played a huge part, as it often does with Japanese marques. Takagi brought PIAA title sponsorship, and Rosset did not hesitate to vocalise his complaints of favouritism in the team towards Tora. The two drivers were not friends.
In the car, Takagi was hard to quantify as a driver, especially as Rosset was committing Reject of the Year-style performances at races such as Italy where he was over a lap behind his teammate by race-end. When it came to tracks Tora knew, such as Suzuka where he had done so much of his training, he was nearly three seconds ahead of Rosset on pace. This is not to say that Takagi held up the team in glory in its dying days: his collision with Esteban Tuero at the last corner of Suzuka was Tyrrell’s final moment racing in anger. Adam Cooper was positive enough about the year to say:
“Takagi appeared to be the first-ever Japanese driver who might be worthy of a top drive on merit rather than because he fits in with sponsorship or engine supply plans.”
This is not to say that Tora was flawless. At the A-1 Ring, he went from sixth in Sunday’s warm-up to fluffing up the first corner and taking out multiple cars as well as himself. At Hockenheim, where Tora took his Tyrrell into a decent 15th place (for the car’s standards), he then promptly binned it on a later run, meaning that for the rest of the weekend he had to use the spare car.
“Our best qualifying of the year was within our grasp this afternoon but we finished in the gravel instead.” Harvey Postlethwaite after qualifying at the 1998 German Grand Prix
Pundits also noticed a lack of fitness over a race distance. Takagi admitted in interviews this was due to his fragile neck. A tendency to fizzle out in the latter stages of a race, combined with his lack of proficiency in English meant that his engineers couldn’t really get the best out of his car. His response at the Japanese Grand Prix to his subpar skills in English to the European press didn’t help him endear himself to them:
”When you come to Japan, please learn Japanese. We are always forced to adapt. Now it’s time for you to adapt.”
On Tora, Martin Brundle remarked:
“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.”
In Formula 1, raw speed alone is not enough to make a lasting impact. One has to adjust to on-track situations and be perfect in the moment. When Takagi was signed by Arrows in 1999 following Tyrrell’s buyout by BAT, technical director Mike Coughlan hoped that the tiger would work on those issues.
Takagi was able to pay $8 million to Coughlan and team, compared to the $7 million his rival for the seat, Shinji Nakano, could have brought. Pedro de la Rosa, Tora’s former Formula Nippon rival and now teammate, coughed up a further €5 million. There had even been talk of getting Mika Salo out of the seat early in 1998 to parachute Takagi in, such were the financial woes of the team.
Takagi had arrived at Arrows the same year that Prince Malik Ado Ibrahim, a mysterious Nigerian prince, had promised astronomical funding of €125 million for the team, which never arrived, manifesting itself on the car with the infamous T-Minus logo. Arrows’ inability to secure funding meant that their development halted almost as soon as the car first hit the track in anger. There simply weren’t enough resources to make any kind of adjustments to the machinery they started out with.
The season itself started pretty well, with Tora finishing two seconds off his first point in Melbourne, 7th behind teammate de la Rosa. However, he would soon find himself in the same situation as in Tyrrell, except his flaws would be even more exposed. This was evidenced by incomprehensible performances such at the Italian Grand Prix, where he drafted Luca Badoer along the main straight, only to miss his braking spot by a mile and piggyback-ride the Minardi’s rear wing. Not helping were mishaps by the team such as the French Grand Prix where Takagi was disqualified for being given de la Rosa’s wet tyres.
The summit of mediocrity was reached in the last 8 races of the season, for Takagi would fail to finish any of them. Only Jacques Villeneuve had a longer streak of DNFs in 1999. A look at the onboard footage of Takagi in the Arrows A20 during practice at Suzuka would show that the Arrows A20 was an absolute dog to drive: clunky, slow with a penchant to understeer like crazy.
Takagi’s personal flaws were also exposed during his time with the Leafield outfit: he still refused to improve his English and his lack of adaptation skills were magnified – troubles that Coughlan didn’t hesitate to call him out on:
“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.”
And so, at year-end Takagi would be ditched by Arrows for a returning Jos Verstappen in 2000. For a brief moment, a lifeline appeared in the Honda F1 project, which would see him be reunited with his former Tyrell boss Harvey Postlethwaite. It would not come to be, however, for Postlethwaite would die of a heart attack during testing at Barcelona in April 1999, abruptly stifling the project and leaving Takagi out of F1, for good this time as it turned out.
2000-2004: Near Perfection in Japan, and Imperfection in America
“[F1] was easier than I imagined. At first, I thought that I would definitely be the last in some races. Then, in the qualifying rounds, we ended up in the middle … I thought I would struggle a little more. After, I felt completely useless in F1 and I didn’t know if I was slow or the car was slow. After all, I was somewhat confident that I was fast.”
Fortunately for the tiger, he still had his second father, Nakajima-san, to fall back on. The Shizuoka native would duly return to his homeland to drive for Nakajima Planning in Formula Nippon for the 2000 season. The competition looked to be fierce, with longtime rivals Hattori, Hideki Noda and Michael Krumm now joined by Irishman Ralph Firman and Satoshi Motoyama, who looked to claim the title that was stolen from him by Tom Coronel in a highly controversial incident at Suzuka the previous year.
Little did Motoyama and the rest of the field know, however, that this was a different Tiger they were facing, for Takagi would have quite possibly the greatest season in Japanese top-flight history. He would secure wins in eight of the ten rounds that season, with a blown engine from the lead at Mine and a 2nd place finish behind Motoyama being the only blemishes on an almost perfect performance. Examples of his dominance came when Takagi stormed from a stall at the start to a win at Fuji, overturning a 20-second deficit for yet another victory at the Speedway, and overtake Michael Krumm for the lead on the penultimate lap in torrential conditions. He completely eviscerated the previous single season win record of six held by Kazuyoshi Hoshino in 1990 and his Arrows teammate de la Rosa in 1997, and Tora ended the year with a whopping 86 points out of a possible 100.
From this domination he springboarded straight back out of Japan and into more international scenes – this time, America. Signing with Derrick Walker, he replaced predecessor Shinji Nakano, who had been absolutely unable to capitalise on any opportunities the previous year. High off the brilliant success of his 2000 year, Tora was far from damaged goods:
“I struggled with the performance of the car in F1. But the difficulties on the track helped me gain superior concentration skills in my racing. The results from what I learned in F1 showed themselves in Formula Nippon … All-time records in the series, and I am proud of my accomplishments.”
Again, fate had been kind, and Tora’s connections to Toyota helped land him the seat, but it did not help him win out of the gate. Again, the central issue was his inconsistency over a racing distance, which meant that great results on Sunday were the exception rather than the rule. A few top tens landed him 21st in the standings by year-end, in a disappointing year marked with incidents of all kinds. At Rockingham he knocked himself and Bruno Junqueira out on the first lap, while at Monterey he was the unfortunate victim of Paul Tracy’s wrecking spree, and got punted by the Canadian from behind during a caution lap. The 2001 Toronto race saw Takagi in the spotlight for all the wrong reasons, where over the space of just 46 laps (in a 95 lap race), Tora tangled with Max Wilson, Oriol Servia and Roberto Moreno in three separate incidents at Turn 3, the final one terminally damaging the Reynard, no doubt to the rest of the field’s relief!
There had been rumours of a return to Formula 1 over this time. Tora had made some visits in the summer of 2001 to the BAR headquarters in England to discuss a return in some form of testing capacity. However, he was beaten to the punch by a young upstart called Takuma Sato, who was himself turning heads in British Formula 3. From this, Takagi tried to use his Toyota connection to join the incoming F1 team, but sadly the most he got was a one-off test at Paul Ricard in 2002. It was to be the last time Tora drove F1 machinery.
That year he continued in CART, keeping out of trouble for the most part. His results were more consistent and stronger, but the upwards momentum was slow at best. He took a sideways move, where he was offered a seat with the Toyota-powered Mo Nunn Racing over in the Indy Racing League. Here, success was more forthcoming: fifth at the 2003 Indy 500 (winning the Indy 500 rookie of the year award in the process) and a podium in the early summer at Texas were genuine feel-good moments. In 2004, he went backwards again. A near-podium at Miami was the only happy moment for Tora, and he seriously struggled to finish in the top ten at any given weekend. The phrases “flashes of inspiration” and “plenty of mistakes” were the descriptors given to him by year-end. Tora’s English sadly hadn’t improved either and, perhaps unintentionally by ESPN, this flaw was broadcast to viewers before the start of each race. ESPN asked each driver to record themselves saying their name and car number for the grid rundown. Takagi’s stilted, almost mumbled introduction never got any less awkward during his IRL stint.
2005-2008: Back to Being Big in Japan
His two-year stints in both CART and IndyCar had been altogether fruitless, and for the second and last time Takagi was to return to his homeland to succeed there. He signed up for what has since then become the norm in top-line Japanese racing careers: Formula Nippon and Super GT side by side. In the former he was to be mostly unsuccessful, but in the latter he once again found his stride.
Teaming up with Yuji Tachikawa at the ZENT team, Takagi achieved the very rare feat of winning the Super GT championship (then Japanese GT500) in his maiden season. Only Jenson Button, David Brabham, and John Nielsen have also done so. His association with Toyota extended into his obtaining part-ownership of his teams, known as Team Cerumo, in both series. This was to be the start of his move into racing management, and the team developed into Takagi Planning as it stands today.
Tora was almost pointless, building up his own team while sitting in the driver’s seat. His use of the Toyota car in Super GT allowed him a few more wins in the following years before a final season in 2008 with the SARD team. 2007 was his final year in Formula Nippon, during which he had been able to wring two points finishes out of his Team LeMans car.
His return to Formula Nippon was not easy, and he endured a long pointless run before a short return to the points after many years away.
It was after 2008 that he decided, by his own choice, to officially retire and go into full-time team management at the age of just 34. From there he has most recently run a mouthful of a team, TGR Team Wako’s Rookie, in the Super GT series. He collaborates with Toyota to the present day and is an operator of various academy programmes for young Japanese drivers. He also owns a kart shop that deals in vehicles and parts.
“I have never been nervous in a race, whether it’s the first car race I entered a month after I got my license or the biggest F1 race, it’s the same. It’s only ‘how can I be the fastest?’ … Even if the opponent was a world-class athlete, I always aimed to win the race. I have never been happy with second place. If you’re aiming to become a top pro, I think it’s meaningless unless you’re the best in your current place. I tell the kids I’m teaching now that ‘except for 1st place, 2nd place and finishing are the same’. If you don’t face it with that kind of attitude, you won’t be able to become a top pro.”
Tora the Tiger is an odd case: in some ways an anomaly and in some ways typical. He quite clearly had the speed, and when he was in the right environment, he was unstoppable. We can see his results in Super GT and Formula Nippon and proclaim a world-champion-class talent brought down by bad machinery and inappropriate environments for his skill. On the other hand, he simply wasn’t able to climb the hill that was adaptation to the English-speaking rest of the world. While his results at home might have been incredible, he never won a race outside of his native Japan and indeed was pointless in Formula 1 despite holding many financial and circumstantial advantages. The final point to cloud this conclusion is that his greatest moment, his 2000 Formula Nippon season, was not achieved in a stratified series of wildly differing machinery, and in fact had been more meritorious than any potential F1 world championship would have been.
It can perhaps be argued that, while Tora wanted to get to F1 and stay there, he was not in love with the series. Aside from a visit to the grand prix at Fuji in 2008, he doesn’t hold any interest in international racing, and maintains his presence solely on home soil. Interestingly, it has been noted that Tora was criticised in his native Japan for this “lack of passion”, or more likely his quiet personality, and not just in the international press. Satoru Nakajima, his mentor, was a very large personality with a great deal of success behind him that heavily shadowed Takagi’s pointless run despite how different their circumstances were. Nakajima remained his manager throughout Takagi’s F1 career, meaning Tora was quite literally in his shadow. Had Tora been able to develop his career as Honda’s main driver, he may have been able to continue on into the early 2000s as a capable Formula 1 driver. A stint at a heavily-funded team like BAR might have done him some good and given him the remaining resources necessary to make it. It stands however that, in the right place and at the right time, Takagi was unmatched.
“I have never felt scared. Of course, it was dangerous, but also fun. Racing is not a job, it is my hobby.”
Sources: motorsport.com; crash.net; f1forgottendrivers.com; brad.spurgeon.pagesperso-organge.fr; touringcarracing.net; nytimes.com; the-race.com; theparabolica.wordpress.com; formulanerds.com; unracedf1.com; cbc.ca; dailysportscar.com; snaplap.net; oldracingcars.com; atlasf1.com; formulapassion.it; supergt.net; superformula.net; cliccar.com; asahi.com.