Few names in Formula 1 invoke more presumptions and preconceptions than Yuji Ide’s. The Japanese driver came to the series with little to no international experience, driving for a brand-new backmarker team with limited resources, no testing, and a four-year-old car. Unsurprisingly, he floundered and flailed, before the FIA made the unprecedented move of renouncing his superlicence. Now a derided figure of mockery, Ide and his story are the subject of ceaseless and ignorant clickbait articles regarding “the worst F1 drivers in history” which, coupled with the barrier to entry for Japanese news, means that this is the limit to most motorsport fans’ knowledge of the man. Grand Prix Rejects will expand those horizons where we can, and bring you the story of Yuji Ide.
|Date of Birth
|January 21st 1975
|Super Aguri (2006)
|13th (Australia 2006)
To start, Ide was born in Urawa, which is a satellite town and now part of Saitama in the Greater Tokyo area. Although he talks as so many do, of a passion for racing from an early age, his first professional karting experience did not come until he was 15 years old. His parents, tight on money, kept him from owning his own car or other luxuries in spite of their shared interest in sports. He and his brother were surfers, and together with their father were avid F1 fans, and Yuji turned that passion into a career when he found his way into a local karting team that was hosted only a few streets away. In his own words, Ide did not take it all too seriously to start with.
With the help of friends and family, Yuji began to spend all his free time scouting around the country in a compact minivan. It was the same vehicle that held his kart that he drove to see his friends and to go surfing. It was this van, Yuji says, that overheated all summer and spent more time on jacks than on the road, that inspired him to go after something bigger (and more profitable).
Yuji grew to be quite tall for a racing driver – 178cm, but found success regardless throughout the junior karting leagues. He won Kantou’s regional karting championship in the south-east of Japan in 1991. In the same region he was promoted to A1 karts and finished runner-up. At the highest league he would cameo for the yearly Japanese National GP for karting, which he won. His last year as a professional karting driver was in 1993, where he toured at the national level.
1994-1997: A False Start
He drove part-time in 1994 at the Formula 3 level with whatever funds he had, though scoring no points. The following year, he dropped down to the junior class, and at least on those terms he was able to take two second places and some brief glory.
Then, at the beginning of 1996, he had been connected by an acquaintance of his father (who had no affiliation with racing) to the Yutaka Kaneko, a high-up in the Formula Nippon team Impul. While this may seem insignificant, it was actually the turning moment in Yuji’s entire professional career. From here, Kaneko inducted Yuji to the team as “bag-carrier” (Yuji’s words) to Impul’s star racer, the six-time national champion and fastest man in Japan, Kazuyoshi Hoshino.
“In those days, there were no specialists who handed drinks to racers or dried their suits – the mechanics were in charge. So from that day on, I was in charge of that. For about two years through 1997, I attended every Touring Car, Gran Turismo and Formula Nippon race, and I was the manager who took care of everything around Hoshino-San. I would go to his house, pick up his clothes and helmet, and take them all to the laundry for fixing. I would always have two spare lighters on me and a cigarette for before he would jump in the car.”
In 1996 he did a one-off race, his first, in the Super GT round of Sendai Hi-Land partnering none other than the future four-time Formula Nippon champion Satoshi Motoyama, whom would be Yuji’s teammate again in Formula Nippon nearly a decade down the line, and was making his debut in Super GT that weekend.
It was likely here that Ide also made his first connections with former F1 driver Aguri Suzuki, who was shortly to move from the driving seat into team management. That same year Ide made another part-time run in open-wheelers, running the opening two rounds of national Formula 3 again, but again scoring no points with Asada.
1998-2001: Achieving the Dream
Ide’s problem was money and experience, and without one he was struggling to obtain the other. In 1998 he left the Asada team for Now Motor Sports, running in seven of the ten F3 rounds, but again with no points to show for his name. His teams appeared to be start-ups and one-car garages without much in the way of resources, while the TOM’S drivers won season after season.
Formula 3 was something of a dead-end at this point for Ide, who by 1999 was now 24 years old. It was just his, as well as many others’, luck that the Formula Dream series was founded for the following year. Formula Dream was set up by Aguri Suzuki and his ARTA Project, along with Honda’s star drivers and representatives, to provide an affordable and accessible journey to racing for young and aspiring drivers in a spec series. Ide, now managed by Suzuki, got a drive in the series for its first year.
The series was aimed just as much at mid-level drivers building up skills and experience, as the youngest promising talent. Machinery, parts, and even data analysis were swapped to allow all drivers equal opportunity for improvement. The system, aligned with Honda’s ownership of the Suzuka International Circuit, gave Ide and others hundreds of hours of practice around the track. Yuji was signed up with the highest Formula Programme, and he repaid the experience in dividends, winning the inaugural championship with one win of the six races. Four of those races were at Suzuka itself.
He combined his Formula Dream season with a full-time GT300 stint in Super GT, in which he came runner-up in with two wins losing the title by a single point to Morio Nitta. Regardless, 1999 had been a massive boost to Ide’s career, and lifted him right back up to Japanese Formula 3.
2000 saw Ide focus almost singularly on F3, as he dropped his Super GT drive except for a GT500 cameo at the 1000km of Suzuka. From 2000 to 2002 he would run the Korea Super Prix as well as the Macau Grand Prix, with his best result being fifth in the 2001 Macau race.
Driving now for the ARTA Project, Ide came runner-up upon his F3 return. Two wins and five podiums out of ten were not enough to win the championship, as Sébastien Philippe showed the real success of consistency, never finishing lower than ninth and always finishing. Without a single win, he still dominated the year and nowadays runs ART in Formula 2.
Ide continued in F3 for 2001, without much else in the way of options. With ThreeBond Racing, he finished the season fifth overall, emulating the consistency of Philippe the previous year and earning some podiums on his way. One place ahead in the standings was a young Sakon Yamamoto with the TOM’S group. Ide also returned to Super GT with Hasemi Motor Sports that year, taking three podiums with GT300.
Yuji was seemingly endlessly lacking funds. He has explained that his running in Super GT was almost entirely used to fund his running in Formula Nippon.
2002: A Taste of Europe
The powers that be sent Japan’s most promising drivers out to Europe, often with the purpose of a move to formula racing or other international experience. The ARTA Project, part of Honda’s development programme (now known as the Honda Racing School, fronted by Takuma Sato and Shinji Nakano) made a move to French Formula 3, which the manufacturer had a partnership with. Aguri Suzuki held plans for his drivers to eventually move to American open-wheeler series like IndyCar where, at that time, Suzuki was setting up a team with 2000 CART runner-up Adrian Fernández.
Sakon Yamamoto would head to Germany and Yuji would head to France. This was an early training ground for many other future F1 rejects, such as contemporaries Vitantonio Liuzzi and Robert Doornbos, who shared the grid with him. Ide was taken aback by the suits at Renault, who remarked to him that they ran a global company, as keen on Asian and American drivers as they were on homegrown talent. Then and now, Japan has had nationality restrictions, and Yuji had perhaps been naively unaware of the international opportunities he had been missing out on.
“It’s not about being fast or slow as a driver, it’s about having an environment where you can experience F1 circuits, the language, the cultural differences that make it possible to communicate with overseas staff. If F1 is your goal, I think you need to experience a category lower than F3 in Europe from an early stage. I also feel that the reality is that Japanese drivers won’t get a chance if they don’t.”
It was Ide’s first time in Europe. A two-class series, French Formula 3 used Dallara F302s in the A-class, and Yuji was partnered with Renaud Derlot. Derlot, now in his fourth season of national-level formula racing, fought for the championship with an early streak of wins, but a mediocre middle patch lost him the title to future two-time Superleague Formula winner Tristan Gommendy. Ide won the second race at the Croix-en-Ternois round during a weekend where the championship leaders all made a mess of things and he was able to capitalise. At the Masters of Formula 3 event, Ide barely qualified of the 38 starters, and finished right at the back, while he finished the French F3 season in seventh overall.
Ide again lacked funding. While it would be nice to speculate that he could have carried on in Europe, he just didn’t have that option open. Rather than carry on in Europe, Ide used the experience as a springboard to return to Japan, except this time at the highest level: Formula Nippon (now Super Formula).
2003-2005: Yuji’s Big Break
Ide’s first Formula Nippon season was with the mid-field Team Cerumo. As his former teammate Satoshi Motoyama dominated the year, Yuji himself won rookie of the year and seventh place overall. He finished second at Motegi as his best result of the year, while having the measure of his teammate Tsugio Matsuda. Matsuda himself had three years of Formula Nippon experience behind him and would win the series title twice: no amateur.
Motoyama, with a then-equal record three Formula Nippon titles, was attempting to achieve his own dream internationally by testing for the Renault Formula 1 team and follow the F1 circus. Part of that onboarding process was a Bridgestone tyre test at Sepang, which Ide was invited to as well. Motoyama did all three days, and there was room for Ide to have a run in the final hour. In that short time, Yuji did a time less than a tenth of a second off Motoyama’s best. Impul team boss Hoshino got on the phone to Ide, offering him the Impul seat for 2004. In his confusion, Yuji said that he had not been able to match Satoshi’s time. Hoshino replied:
“If it was within an hour of his time you can have the seat.”
Although Motoyama’s Formula 1 dream was not to be, his absence meant that Team Impul, defending team champions, took on Yuji as his replacement. It was the first drive in Yuji’s whole career that he had not had to pay for. Kazuyoshi Hoshino, now Ide’s employer in a different capacity as team boss, kept a strict regimen that Yuji had to follow, going from the hotel to the track together. Ide has since commented on the mental and physical toll of these weekends.
It was a mixed bag of success and disappointment: he was poor in qualifying but very consistent in the races, especially on long runs. Five podiums from nine weekends sounds good, but it was far too inconsistent for a proper championship run. His teammate Benoît Tréluyer was not much better – in fact, he was less consistent and finished behind Ide overall – while the same can be said of Richard Lyons and Andre Lotterer, the championship protagonists. Nobody covered themselves in glory in a topsy-turvy season, and Ide finished one point off the title in an overall third place.
Although information is sadly lacking in this area, we know that Ide was also a frontrunner in Super Taikyu in the early 2000s – a pro-am alternative to Super GT, and that he won the 2004 championship in his class.
2005 was a turning point year for Yuji in a variety of ways. Still partnered with Tréluyer, Ide again scored more than double the points of his teammate, with two wins and five podiums to his name over ten races. More consistent perhaps, and more successful, but in 2005 he was up against a master of the series: Motoyama had returned to his glorious ways and had simply outclassed the field. However, for Yuji it was to be a runner-up position overall after leading the championship for quite a few races.
2006: F1, Suddenly
After this, moving to F1 was probably as surprising for Yuji Ide as it was for everyone else. The Super Aguri F1 team was announced very late on in the game: November 2005. The team was able to get two cars onto the grid by March 2006 in the space of a few months, running a rework of the 2002 Arrows chassis, with only enough parts to work on the main car. They were partly a customer team for Honda, and partly a vehicle (pun intended) to extend Takuma Sato’s participation in Formula 1 after his reject-of-the-year performance the previous season had forced Honda’s hand to fire him. Suzuki, who had by now known Ide for close to a decade, fielded his colleague for an all-Japanese lineup.
It is hard to turn down an opportunity like a Formula 1 drive: Yuji accepted. However, there were countless factors working against him. He didn’t know the cars or anything of the level of power an F1 car possessed. He didn’t know the tracks: outside of Japan, the only F1 circuit he had driven on in anger were Magny-Cours and about half an hour at Sepang. Ide didn’t have the time to test before the year began, and he wasn’t going to get it. Limited resources, breakneck development speed, and a team revolving around his teammate, meant that by the time Yuji reached the 2006 season opener at Bahrain, he had only 199km of testing experience behind him.
Finally, English was a massive problem for him. Used to a Japanese environment and the ability to articulate and explain himself at length, he now had to make do with his limited language possibilities. It was such a problem that Suzuki himself had to intervene and act as moderator between Yuji and his race engineer.
“In the practice sessions on Friday and Saturday I had to ask, ‘Yuji, what do you need now?’ And, because he’s so inexperienced in F1, even I found his answers, given in Japanese, hard to understand.” Aguri Suzuki.
His age and tremendous international inexperience drew heavy scepticism before he had even sat in the car. The only test event Super Aguri made it to was the official weekend before the Bahrain Grand Prix. Sato was given two days to Ide’s one, which of course meant that the Japanese driver was going into his first F1 race on an unknown track in a new series with near-to-no testing. The following Sunday he would be required to run 308km in one go.
And when seeing his onboards, it shows.
Super Aguri made it to Bahrain, which was already an achievement. Sato barely made the 107% mark in qualifying, while Ide was well outside of it. The rule was thankfully not enforced in this era, likely out of sympathy for a team only founded 100 days prior!
“The car had huge performance. The engine power and downforce were far superior to anything I had experienced so far, and I was very worried about going to the circuit without being able to test it at all. Even so, we had to line up the cars on the starting grid for Bahrain, and during qualifying we had no spare parts and were just told, ‘Don’t destroy the car’. I saw Aguri-san going through hard times every day while managing the team, so I had to do the best I could on my side. I didn’t think I could.”
On Sunday, Yuji was in 21st of 22 after Kimi Räikkönen’s qualifying crash. Super Aguri’s debut went from blunder to blunder, with a fuel rig that never worked. Both drivers were forced to sit in their box interminably, while the ultra-slow Ide later misjudged his entry and hit some of the crew. A drive-through-penalty for the accident was nullified by late-race technical problems that took him out of the race finally.
Ide’s technical retirement in Bahrain had allowed him to change the engine for a key round at Malaysia. Those who had retired before received a slight benefit with new equipment to withstand the tropical heat. Sadly, in spite of a fresh Honda, Ide’s engine blew up on Sunday. He had qualified last and spent the race there too, while Sato had turned heads by fighting with the Midland of Tiago Monteiro and the Toro Rossos.
Australia is where the terrible reputation of Yuji Ide really began. At Albert Park he was having trouble keeping the SA05 on the track at all, and he was starting to draw more and more international attention to himself when he went off-track four times in the first fifteen minutes of Q1. One of his early laps had featured a quite blatant blocking of Rubens Barrichello in the parent Honda car behind him, while his fourth and final spin sent him into the wall and brought out a red flag.
Barrichello complained as he was wont to do, having been knocked out of Q1 by his sister teammate. Even Aguri Suzuki had to publicly acknowledge the poor performances of his second driver. In spite of the whole team’s pluckiness, Sato was not embarrassing himself, and indeed was bringing the car home and testing the limits of the machinery. Ide’s slowness and antics were only drawing the ire of a merciless western media, who were already on top of the Japanese driver’s poor English as a sticking point.
After the flyaway races, Ide was supposed to get more valuable testing under his belt at Barcelona. He had no problem admitting the reasons for such practice: “I am told only by Aguri that I should get more mileage in the test so that I can bring back results in the next race … That’s why I am here… At the moment it is difficult to keep the car straight and since I am so busy letting other drivers pass me, if I cannot keep the car under control, it is very tricky.” At the end of his day, Ide recorded absolutely no laps of testing – technical issues meant that the SA05 didn’t even start for him.
Yuji’s final race was the 2006 San Marino Grand Prix. His fourth race saw him qualify dead-last again, before committing his greatest moment of infamy when he slammed into the Midland of Christijan Albers on the opening lap from a hundred metres back. Their collision sent the Dutchman barrel-rolling over the gravel trap and into the barriers, where he thankfully emerged unscathed. Ide himself retired a little while later with suspension trouble, but the real trouble had only just begun.
The incident with Albers had been seen very severely by the stewards, who were called upon to take action against Yuji. Meeting the press, team boss Suzuki made the unwise remark that “[Yuji] didn’t have enough testing because he doesn’t understand how to use the car” which, although probably a miscommunication, was used as a very sharp stick by the press to beat Ide with. Suffice to say, public pressure and that from the FIA, who had already given a rare public reprimand to him for his on-track behaviour, led to Ide’s sacking before the season’s fifth round at the Nürburgring.
The official suggestions from the FIA were that Yuji needed more experience at the international level. He was replaced by Franck Montagny, who had experience of the next round circuit back to 1999 and three years of continuous F1 testing before his debut. Suggestions were put into official decisions, where any potential return for Ide was blocked as the FIA removed his F1 superlicence for the rest of 2006. Ide’s “path back into Formula One”, as Super Aguri’s media mouth put it, was now well and truly snuffed. Despite support from his team structure, the FIA’s decision was a clear sign that he was out of F1’s door and was not welcome back.
“I think that [Yuji] has coped incredibly well under the circumstances. With the team being put together so rapidly, we were unable to allow him the proper testing he should have experienced.” Aguri Suzuki and the team never broke ranks regarding their support of Ide.
While we don’t know if there had been such a pathway planned by Aguri’s management to retain their second driver in the future for F1, it is quite clear that any such campaign was never undertaken. With his tail between his legs, Ide returned to Japan and was right back where he started. He rejoined his old faithful series of Super GT and Formula Nippon, and at least from the perspective of the Europeans, was never seen again.
2006-2010: Full-Time Return to Japan
“What was even more difficult was when I came back to Japan and competed domestically again. No matter what I did, it went badly, and I just felt like I was causing trouble for everyone.”
In the summer of 2006 Yuji was loaned by Aguri to Team Dandelion Racing to finish out the year in Formula Nippon, with the unspoken implication that he was back in Japan for good. This is when he had the final embarrassment to end an annus horribilis. In the 2006 1000km of Suzuka, he had cameoed for the returning Nissan team as they started stomping their way to glory in the series. At the blue riband event, he was disqualified for hitting Hidetoshi Mitsusada off the track and not serving his required drive-through penalty in time. The other Nissan won the race.
Ide received a lot of flak from the domestic press for this blunder, especially as he was recovering wounded from the events of F1 earlier in the year. A series of brash remarks to the news media got him into trouble with the second governing body in one year, this time the JAF. For his actions and remarks at Suzuka he was banned from all remaining Super GT races that season.
From 2007 to 2008 he returned to Aguri Suzuki’s owned Formula Nippon team. He would also do stints for them in Super GT. These two years for Ide were much weaker than his original stint, with only a handful of points finishes after two more years with Aguri. One-off events in Super GT became a full-time return in 2008, but again with limited success. After a year only doing Super GT, he had one last year of double duty in 2010. It was here that he took his final victory in a major series: the 2010 1000km of Suzuka race. Again, this was the blue riband event of Japan’s GT racing, and Ide got his redemption for the embarrassment of 2006. After Takahashi Kobayashi took pole on his debut race, his teammates Ide and fellow F1 reject Ralph Firman took sole charge of the Honda to victory. The cherry on the cake? The Suzuka event was 20 years since team owner Aguri Suzuki had taken his podium at the Japanese Grand Prix.
2011-present: Part-Time and Winding Down
Yuji, now 36, took a sabbatical to decide on his own future and get out of the constant routine. He describes the therapeutic effect of getting off the road, staying at home for days on end and catching up with the rest of the world that had passed by in his absence. Very quickly, however, he was back operating in a different capacity, starting his own team, Y Racing. The intention was to start in local-tier racing, and in 2011 he joined the Japanese Civic One Make Race Inter series. However, his project was an early failure and could not attract enough sponsors. This project spread into his own affairs, where he spent some unwanted time off from Super GT due to a lack of money behind him.
He quite adamantly refused to retire, and for 2015 he was called up again to race in Super GT, which he did full-time until 2018. From 2013 he has also returned to racing in Super Taikyu, before returning to Super GT in 2022. Since 2014 he has spent a significant amount of time in South Korea participating in the Super Race series, a multi-class prototype and sportscars series. Its Super 6000 class runs stock cars, the only such series in Asia with FIA recognition. It was in the stock car class that Ide participated, ending 2018 joint-third with a win at the season closer at Everland Speedway.
In 2019, Yuji attended his first Formula 1 race in 13 years, at Monza. He took on Japanese junior Teppei Natori for that year’s Formula 3 season as his ward, although sadly Natori did not make it in Europe either.
“The engine is so quiet! I don’t have that overwhelming feeling when I stand in the pits, and you don’t even need earplugs. Even the Super Race series in Korea is much louder.” Yuji commenting at the 2019 Italian Grand Prix
In the September of 2020, he became the owner of New Tokyo Circuit, a 1km karting circuit in operation since the 1970s. It holds events in the junior and national karting leagues of Japan, and Ide has been dropping participation fees to allow more opportunities for young drivers to get some experience and some miles. However, things went awry almost immediately, with co-owner Shinnosuke Wakahama bringing the two into serious legal trouble with the authorities – power outages, cover-ups of COVID-19 outbreaks, and more. Altogether the debacle ended with him taking Wakahama to court, a case which at the time of publication still goes on.
In interviews, Yuji has discussed the physical difficulty in racing into his 40s: injuries to his legs and arms over the years have diminished his capacity to drive. A burgeoning home life, with a child born in late 2021, means that age has finally caught up to Yuji.
“In F1, I made my debut at the age of 31, and even at that time I felt that I was too young.”
Ide remains the only F1 driver to have had his superlicence revoked. Much of the pressure on the FIA to ban Ide may in fact have come from the drivers themselves. Everyone from the newspapers to Sir Stirling Moss seemed to have an opinion on the driver following the Imola collision. Many like Kimi Räikkönen went on record to criticise Yuji’s performance: “It could have been a big disaster in Monaco, it is a good thing he has been dropped … you never knew if he was going to spin in front of you.” Nick Heidfeld and Christian Klien offered similar sentiments, although perhaps the kindest was the victim of the Imola shunt itself, the usually abrasive Christijan Albers: “Sometimes we are too hard on a guy like that. Maybe we should give him more space.”
It is not only Yuji’s reputation who suffered from those four races, however, as the debacle was also horribly detrimental to Formula Nippon as a series. Whereas before it had harvested some of Europe’s hottest young talent, the next drivers to follow Ide out of Japan and into F1 were Sakon Yamamoto the same year (due to his Honda links), and then André Lotterer in 2014 for a one-off race. It would take over a decade for another driver, in this case 2018 Reject of the Year Stoffel Vandoorne, to use the credibility of Super Formula as a pathway to F1.
For his poor qualifying, his hit into Albers, and his subsequent ban, Yuji Ide regularly tops “worst ever F1 driver” lists, and it is easy to understand why people have that opinion. Aside from the on-track embarrassments, many argue that he only received his F1 drive due to Aguri Suzuki’s misplaced vision of an all-Japanese line-up. However, it was always Ide’s decision to make that move to the series, and one cannot fault his bravery or tenacity. Everything factored in against him, including last but not least, financially.
Ide is sometimes bizarrely ranked as a pay-driver by uninformed buffoons, when conversely, he was an incredibly rare driver of his era to earn his F1 superlicence from other series alone. Most other drivers, including basically every driver ever “compared” to Ide in F1 terms, initially earned their licences from being given testing days all by themselves on private tracks with established teams, and not in competitive environments. Ide was a journeyman with hardly a yen to his name, who had earned his points to drive, and that was ironically the key factor against him: he did not get the required testing that a pay driver would have to have shown his worth.
There is no denying Yuji Ide’s unsuitability to F1 at the time. However, with the most famous motorsport series comes the least patient press, over-eager to launch shallow claims against easy targets. In the context of his journeyman career, Ide as a driver and sportsman stands up far stronger than his reputation would state.
For further reading on Yuji Ide and Super Aguri, check out Grand Prix Rejects’ three-part Team Profile on Super Aguri, beginning with Part 1: Much Aguri About Nothing
Sources: motorsport.com; BBC Sport; saf1.co.jp; the-race.com; pitpass.com; Autosport magazine; Super GT World; pistonheads.com; Oxford Mail; driverdb.com; yuji-ide.com; amp.motorsport-magazin.com; f1rejects.com; mirror.co.uk; honda.racing; car.watch.impress.co.jp; speedsport-magazine.com; gprejects.com; tcr-series.com; jasmotorsport.com; cliccar.com; AS-Books Japan; superformula.net; motorsports.jaf.or.jp; dic.nicovideo.jp; excite.co.jp; 1242.com; autos.goo.ne.jp