Profile – Hideki Noda

Hideki Noda’s career is a strange one. Often grasping at the many opportunities which came his way, the Japanese driver was able to effectively buy his way through the junior ladder into a Formula 1 seat for a few brief races. Finishing none of them, he rests as a Grand Prix Reject, though that really doesn’t tell the whole story. A struggling junior career in Europe was mirrored by a baffling set of stints in Japanese Super Formula, with a brief foray into American open-wheelers as the cherry on top of the cake.

Racing during Japan’s golden period in F1, Noda has been all but forgotten compared to his more successful compatriots, and his presence has only revived in very recent times for one particular reason: his prodigal daughter Juju.

Nationality Japanese
Date of Birth March 7th 1969
Teams Larrousse (1994)
Races Entered 3
Races Started 3
Best Result Retired (in all 3)
Early Years to 1988: Hideki at Home

Born in the city of Osaka, Hideki’s career began in karting, as careers so often do, and he spent most of the early 1980s rising up through the ranking, from local to national karting championships. Not simply quick, he indeed won a great deal of the categories he entered, coming out champion in the A-1 and A-2 divisions.

Proof that, like his daughter, Hideki started his racing career from a very young age! Photo: Hideki Noda.

It was in 1987 when he made the switch to single-seaters, and at least in the junior national Formula he was successful: Rookie of the Year with four wins no less. From there it was a very quick promotion up to the national Japanese Formula 3 championship, where the going was a lot tougher. However, his debut as a fresh-faced 19-year-old saw him finish a fantastic fifth, with another such result a few rounds later. Given that this was the feeder series to an even more competitive show, the reader can take at least some sympathy with Noda’s tough introduction. The racing was cutthroat, and after an appearance at Macau later that year, Hideki moved to Europe to get some international experience – and attention.

1989-1993: Hideki in Europe

His first season in Europe was in two series simultaneously. In British Formula Vauxhall Lotus and the GM Lotus Euroseries, he performed quite decently against a middling class of drivers. Among his stronger competitors were Antony Reid, Vincenzo Sospiri, Peter Cox, and Marco Werner. Hideki took a win and two second places, finishing fifth and ninth in the respective standings.

From there was another quick promotion up to British Formula 3. Noda was one of a number of lucky young drivers who were promoted by Alan Docking Racing. Its eponymous owner had been running in junior events all the way back to the 1970s, and was responsible in part for the success of stars like Mark Webber, Mika Salo, and Ricardo Rosset to name just a few. Salo, Noda’s teammate in 1990, took all the trophies in a direct competition against fellow Finn Mika Häkkinen for the title. Hideki meanwhile qualified very well and took an occasional point or two, but no podiums. 

Noda pictured here bottom-right at a driver meeting, 1990 British F3. Photo: Alan Docking Racing.

The Japanese driver’s next season was much more fruitful. His new teammate, the late Marcel Albers (no relation to Christijan), was on a more even pace, and the two’s season-long rivalry brought Hideki a much bigger haul of points this time around. He took the first ever win at this level for a Japanese driver outside of their own national leagues, and his second after succeeding in Formula Vauxhall. While Albers finished ahead overall, the Dutchman had not won as Noda had.

The competition here was also very strong: David Coulthard, Rubens Barrichello, and Gil de Ferran were all in contention week after week, while races such as the season finale saw Hideki racing right at the very front, forcing a climactic error from championship contender Coulthard in third place. These performances were punctured occasionally by long-term reliability issues on Noda’s car, though when fixed, the Japanese driver could be a front-runner against some stiff opposition.

In the new year, Noda would springboard from British F3, onward and upward to the big leagues of International F3000. This point is where the going got really tough. Noda’s previous strength in the lower leagues – namely, his excellent qualifying form – did not help him here. His qualifying was dreadful, and he regularly struggled to make the grid. DNQing at Pau was a low point, coupled with a variety of unforced retirements in the early rounds. Thankfully he ironed out these issues and his pace began to slowly improve towards the end of the season, if only in race form.

His teammate Allan McNish was a little more successful, scoring a podium at Hockenheim. Noda finished 1992 without any points. He switched teams therefore in 1993, jumping from Mike Earle’s 3001 team to the TOM’S group. Again, not much improved, and his performances were more or less on par with his outings the previous season. With no teammate to compare to, Noda again ended his season pointless.

1994: Hideki in Formula 1

Although it was slow in coming, Hideki’s pace finally leapt in 1994. With Pedro Diniz for a teammate, the two seemed to work well together as yardsticks, and the season saw a massive upturn in qualifying performance for Hideki. He even took a shock podium at the Enna track, which was a real culmination of his improved qualifying and race pace. The inconsistency remained and was a clear blotch on his scoresheet, but with points finally on the board, there was no denying that Noda was at least improving.

“For the first time in my F3000 career, I can just concentrate on my driving. The team knows what it is doing, and that does wonders for your confidence.” Hideki commenting on his late blooming in International F3000.

Then out of nowhere, Hideki was plunged into Formula 1. Larrousse, whose fortunes were plummeting with a subpar car and a rapidly depleting budget, were forced during the 1994 season to scrap their generally competent set of drivers with a succession of paying drivers. Luckily for Noda, he was one of them. Debuting all the way in the October of that season, he turned up at the European Grand Prix at Jerez with very few expectations and a lot of pre-empting criticism. Predictions that the Japanese driver would be in the realms of the Pacifics and DNQ territory were unfounded, though, and while just under a second slower than his teammate Érik Comas’ , Hideki qualified very comfortably on the grid.

On Japanese television, Hideki got the full treatment from the media and commentary teams, eager to see their compatriot do well in Formula 1. Photo: Mikhail Prizhov.

Although his pace was not terrible, his racing exploits on Sunday became part of reject legend. After needing a push from the marshals to get his car started, he spent his race in front of only Christian Fittipaldi, who had dropped to the back after an early incident. Noda then got stuck in second gear only ten laps into the race and, rather than pull off the track, in his wisdom decided to effectively park his near-stationary Larrousse on the racing line around the Turn 4 left-hander. A gaggle of cars from third to sixth all came upon Noda at the same time, with the unlucky Nigel Mansell miraculously avoiding an aeroplane crash by only scraping off his front wing, hitting the Japanese rookie. Noda was out and Mansell’s reputation was briefly bruised.

Pace improved for Hideki’s home race at Suzuka, a track he obviously knew well. His qualifying time was just about equal to Comas’, although with the famous rain on Sunday’s race that year, he was unable to prove himself: the fuel injection system failing, he was out before he could put so much as a lap around the track. At the season-closer in Adelaide, Comas was dropped and replaced by Jean-Denis Délétraz, who needs no introduction. With Hideki over 2 seconds a lap faster in qualifying, the Japanese driver was now de facto the leading driver at Larrousse – what a change of fortune! A poor start on Sunday brought the Japanese driver anonymity for the limited time he got on track, before retiring 18 laps in.

The stint had come about with the F3000 season over, and now with 1994 closing out, Hideki had to find a team to drive for in 1995: Larrousse was bust!

In spite of his poor luck and results, Noda was always very shiny and positive toward the media – his Larrousse stint was in many ways the making of his fame in his home country.

1995: Hideki at Simtek

A solution came quickly. He was signed up (paid up in advance!) as a part-time driver for Simtek in 1995, sharing the duty with Domenico Schiattarella. The intention was that they would swap driving and testing duties: Schiattarella would drive the first half of the season and Noda the second.

Tragically, in January of 1995, Japan experienced one of its worst modern natural disasters. The Kobe Earthquake was devastating to the local infrastructure, the national economy, and most of all in the loss of life following it. This, coupled with an increasing recession since the early 1990s, was the straw that broke Japan’s economic back for a long time. Noda, as the 1995 season began, was now far less able to provide the funds a struggling backmarker like Simtek needed.

Simtek themselves had plenty of financial woes of their own. Their partnership with MTV was fading away after the team’s poor results in 1994. A new reduced deal meant that, instead of money, the team were being paid in exposure on the MTV channel. Quite wisely, Simtek were allowed to use this airtime space to sub-let to advertising companies for extra cash.

It all got so desperate that emergency measures made the team reliant on one unnamed Dutch backer to step in and save them. When this backer never materialised by the Monaco Grand Prix, the team folded and all its personnel, Hideki included, were out of a job. In spite of paying his deposit up-front, Noda never set a lap in the S951. The reader can assume he never got a refund.

Proof here that Hideki at least sat on the S951, if never in it. Photo: Tom Prankerd.

Further opportunities did rear their head, however. The Pacific Team were more than eager to have Noda’s services once his responsibilities to Simtek were no longer binding, and the team were more than keen to have him. Firstly, it was the British Grand Prix that Hideki was expected to participate in, and then it was the two successive Japanese rounds at the end of the season. However, in a strange move, the FIA intervened to stop these from happening, refusing to grant Noda a superlicence to race even in spite of his prior experience. In a season where Jean-Denis Délétraz was again given the opportunity to race, the author finds this decision baffling.

1996-2001: To the USA and Back Again

Things changed quickly as 1996 got going. Noda was by this time running out of options for a seat in Formula 1. Forti, like Pacific were interested in hiring the Japanese driver’s services at least for the opening rounds of the season alongside Andrea Montermini. Reported as having a contract close to signing in January, this again fizzled to nothing, whether by interest or by FIA intervention.

For presumably monetary reasons, Noda chose his next opportunity to be in the United States. That very March he had moved to America to join the Indy Lights series as a possible precursor to the main leagues of CART and IndyCar. His results in 1996 were quite middling, while he raced alongside future superstars of the series like Helio Castroneves, Tony Kanaan, and the legendary Greg Ray. A podium at Toronto was Hideki’s high-point, and for 1997 he stayed on in the series.

For 1997, the aforementioned stars were joined by future CART champion and eventual Formula 1 washout Cristiano Da Matta, building up what was to be something of a vintage year for young talent in the States. For Noda, his qualifying fluctuated immensely: sometimes he was as far as the back-row, other times as close as the front. For the first half of the season he scored almost no points, but in the second half he almost took two poles, and he did take a win! It was at Portland that the moment of glory came for Hideki – he overtook Castroneves in the rain, and when the race was halted, he took his first win since 1991, and the first for a Japanese driver in a CART-sanctioned event. A third place in Vancouver lifted Noda in the standings for what was otherwise a topsy-turvy year. It is likely because of that inconsistency that opportunity here too dried up.

A rare photo of Hideki in America, where he unsuccessfully tried to start a new open-wheel career. Photo: asag.sk.

While Hideki had experience of Japanese racing from a decade prior, his 1998 foray into Formula Nippon was his first year at the very top level of his home nation’s scene. While not itself a classic year for talent, Formula Nippon of this era had very high driving standards and was often a pool for European talent to compare to. Hideki was certainly more consistent by now, finishing four out of nine races in the points, with a podium, pole and fastest lap to boot.

However, his experience in single-seaters over so many different series did not seem to do him much good: poor qualifying plagued most of these years, and even his best season of 2000 was overshadowed by the megatalent that was Tora Takagi, who had taken 86 from a possible 100 points! Conversely, Hideki’s 2001 season brought him no points, as he joined a budding new backmarker team to a predictable outcome.

He coupled, from 1998 to 2001, a double act with the Japanese GT Championship. His 1998 season was about on par with Formula Nippon, while in the following seasons he took two wins at the GT 500 level. In 1999, he was due to partner Shingo Tachi, the reigning GT300 champion, before the latter died in an accident in pre-season testing. Therefore, for 1999 and 2000 Hideki was instead partnered with the former 1987 500cc champion Wayne Gardner, and between the two of them they achieved some middling but steadily improving results. Finally in 2001, Hideki and his new teammate won the non-championship All Star race and had a great deal more consistent results, almost always finishing in the top 10.

He had far more success in Japanese GT driving than perhaps in any other category, and coupled with a Formula Nippon career, must have kept Hideki very busy indeed.

2002-2005: To the USA and Back Again, Again

Now at the age of 33, Hideki had the experience of 14 full years of open-wheel racing, and for 2002 made his way back towards America. The revival season of the Indy Racing League saw him reunite with Convergent and Indy Regency Racing from his Indy Lights days on a part-time basis. Although working on an odd-job basis, Noda dedicated almost his entire racing season to this venture, perhaps under the impression that he was to fulfil a full-time drive at some point. Aside from a tenth-placed finish at Phoenix, the venture was unfruitful, and so it was that he was headed straight back to his homeland.

Of note was a spectacular crash between himself and Tomas Scheckter; the latter slowed down with an issue, and Noda slammed into the back of him, causing his own car to catch fire from hitting the concrete. 

In what seems like déjà vu, between 2003 and 2005 his return from America had him couple a Formula Nippon season with the Japanese GT championship yet again. This time his GT appearances were one-offs, with concentration being placed on Formula Nippon. Not that this did much good, as in the three comeback years Hideki scored a whopping one point as the driver-owner of his very own Team Mohn. As its lead and sometimes only driver, he finished at the very rear of the standings for all three of those years. 

2006-2012: Part-Time Racer

In 2005-2006, Hideki had the great honour of representing Japan in the inaugural A1GP series. Working with Carlin Motorsport’s facilities, he was not only the principal of the team, but even drove in the second round at the Lausitzring to a mighty double-points finish. Alas, Japan did not do too strongly, finishing almost last of all the 25 represented countries. 

Here Japan’s first A1GP car is driven in anger. Noda managed the team and even drove for one round at the Lausitzring. Photo: A1GP.

In the meantime his actual racing career wound down significantly after his Formula Nippon comeback. He forayed into endurance racing at LMP1 level with the Asian, European, and American Le Mans Series, and took part in three 24 Hours of Le Mans, all at the LMP2 level. There is little of note from these races other than that his final race in 2010 saw his team finish 16th overall at the prestigious event.

Hideki made his official retirement in 2010 at the age of 41, although he did continue to make appearances around the Japanese Super GT paddock for the coming years, and entered a few races in the series all throughout that long late period of his career.

As with many other successful drivers with a national reputation, Hideki did what he felt was best for the future of Japanese motorsport and started a racing academy. Called the Noda Racing Academy High School (which is beautifully abbreviated to NRA), Hideki works along with his various team of friends and contacts to give opportunities to young Japanese drivers in finding seats and opportunities in motorsport, while continuing to support their academic degrees. That way, if drivers are simply not “it”, the academy works to find them other roles within racing a, such as in technical positions. With this, he also runs a foundation for youth and female drivers in Japanese motorsport. It seems to be a nice little retirement package for Hideki, with compatriots Roger Yasukawa and Hiroki Katoh acting as instructors and mentors on what appears to be a relatively cheap programme (close to $900 a year).

“Japan saw a tragic earthquake and the subsequent nuclear accident. In the racing world, the major manufacturers were withdrawing from international racing with their activities reduced. The social situation is still unstable, but that is why we need to move forward. We must remember that there are youths and girls who have dreams, believe in themselves, and do our best to help them.”
Hideki on the plan for Japanese youth talent.

Finally, he has settled into fatherhood and supporting the career of a very particular young Japanese star: his daughter Juju Noda. Juju stole racing headlines as a young teenager for winning races in Danish F4 (including her first), and her wunderkind reputation still follows her. Hideki’s place is now by her side, training her and flying around the world to give her the necessary experience and environment to grow. About this he seems very down to Earth and very aware of the challenges even the most promising of young drivers have to face.  Therefore, whether we will see another Noda in the sport, it is too early to say. However, while Hideki’s career is now over, his story certainly isn’t.

Footage of the plucky 11-year-old Juju Noda driving an F4 car, with her father Hideki monitoring her personally over the radio.

Looking Back

Analysing Hideki Noda’s career is interesting. For a driver with little to show for two decades in single-seaters, he got a great number of opportunities others didn’t. A few wins scattered about in a few semi-decent if inconsistent seasons, he seemed to peak in British Formula 3, and already looked past it by the time he was at Larrousse, never mind the brief success he had in Indy Lights. 

It also goes to show the difficulty of sliding doors in and out of Formula 1, that even with all the attracted parties, Hideki’s only real experience of the top series was a few races trundling around the back in a Larrousse that was unable to do more than ten or so laps without suffering mechanical failures. Bankrupted teams had been desperate to hire him, and, while he didn’t completely embarrass himself bar the Jerez incident, it makes this sentence the example of damning Hideki with faint praise.

Noda’s reputation at least appears to be stronger in his native Japan, more so than in Europe where he has been mostly forgotten. He was still something of an ambassador for motorsport in his later career, such as when he would still represent Japanese racing drivers in historic tests and public demonstrations. There is even bizarre footage out there of him driving a March 881 for a local crowd in 2003!

So, a confusing driver to think about. However, with the early rise of his young daughter Juju, this is far from the end of Hideki’s presence in motorsport, nor perhaps his presence in Formula 1.

Sources: atlasfi.autosport.com; grandprix.com; f1rejects.com; driverdb.com; autosport.com; noda-racing-academy.org; Motorsport Magazine Archives; motorsport.com, spaia.jp, as-web.jp

Author

  • Jeremy Scott is an active member of GPRejects, having joined on the weekend of Monaco 2014(!). He writes for fun, but secretly wants to make a career out of it.