Updated: Feb 11, 2022
The seventeenth part of my series looking at each driver who contested the 2001 Rockingham 500.
My next series of features will be looking at each driver who competed in my first ever major international motorsport race, the 2001 Rockingham 500, the first time the American CART Championship had raced in the UK since 1979.
Having been confirmed the previous July, the race was held in front of 38,000 people who witnessed, at the time, the fastest ever laps on a British circuit, with hitting speeds of over 215 mph. It was also the first full length oval race in the UK since before the war, when cars roared round Brooklands.
I was seven when I watched the action at a very cold Rockingham, I remember my parents either side of me keeping me warm. However, I also remember the excitement of watching a major motorsport event trackside for the first time, having been to the official opening that May. The speed the cars hit was mind blowing and something I can still recall now.
The race was won by Gil de Ferran who executed a superb move on the last lap to beat Swede Kenny Brack, with fellow Brazilians Cristiano da Matta and Helio Castroneves finishing third and fourth.
Michael Andretti finished fifth ahead of his teammate Paul Tracy in sixth, with 1996 CART Champion Jimmy Vasser in seventh. The fourth Brazilian in the field Tony Kanaan was eighth ahead of home favourite Dario Franchitti.
Spaniard Oriol Servia rounded out the top ten for Sigma Autosport, while just outside the top ten, Italian Max Papis came home eleventh. After Papis in eleventh was Townsend Bell with his Patrick Racing teammate Roberto Moreno just behind in thirteenth. After the Patrick Racing duo of Bell and Moreno was the Forsythe trio of Alex Tagliani, Bryan Herta and Patrick Carpentier.
Following the trio was Fernandez Racing’s Shinji Nakano, the second driver who was two laps down.
Shinji was born on the 1st April 1971 into a motorsport family, his father Tsuneharu, was also a racing driver competing in Formula 3. Like his father Shinji moved into motorsport and contested in various championships prior to his time in the CART series, making his car debut at the age of seventeen in the Japanese Formula 3 series, finishing his first season seventh in the standings.
It was his only season in Japan before moving to Europe at the beginning of the 1990s, switching F3 for Formula Vauxhall Lotus, racing against the likes of Gil de Ferran, Kurt Luby, David Coulthard and Rubens Barrichello, all of which have had successful careers in an array of different forms of motorsport.
Shinji finished his first season in Europe fifth with seventy-eight points, before progressing up the ladder to Formula Opel Lotus Europe, again racing against some of the future stars of motorsport. Shinji joined legendary junior team Paul Stewart Racing finishing twelfth with a single podium as Pedro Lami took the title.
It would prove to be his final season in Europe before moving back to Japan for 1992, racing for Nakajima Planning in Formula 3000 Japan, followed by Formula 3 Japan once more in 1993 joining Super Nova alongside Taki Inoue. Formula 3 Japan, like Formula Vauxhall Lotus in 1991, in 1993 was full of future stars. Shinji finished the year fifth with three podiums and a single pole position, while the top three places were filled by Toyota factory backed Tom Kristensen, Rickard Rydell and Antony Reid.
Shinji remained in the series for 1994, joining Shion F in which he achieved his first victory in the series and began a partnership with Mugen, a company formed by the son of Honda founder Soichiro Honda in 1973 and had links with Formula 1 at the time, producing engines for teams such as Ligier, Jordan and BAR throughout the 1990s.
After contesting the 1996 Formula Nippon championship for Avex Dome Mugen, in which he finished sixth. At the time he was also Dome’s F1 test driver, an un-raced F1 chassis and project funded by the F3000 team, during the mid-nineties. The car was tested during 1996 with the intention of competing in the 1997 season, however due to financial difficulties, the team had to abandon their plans to enter F1.
It ensured Shinji left the program and joined Prost, formerly Ligier, for 1997 alongside Olivier Paris, ensuring he made his F1 debut. The car was strong with Olivier showing amazing pace before his unfortunate accident in Canada which resulted in his leg being broken. Shinji struggled with the car however and lost his drive at the end of the season, having achieved two sixth place finishes at Canada and Hungary.
Shinji remained on the F1 grid for 1998, finding a seat at Minardi alongside Esteban Tuero, although a seventh in Canada was his best result in a pointless campaign. It was Shinji’s last season in F1, becoming a test driver for Jordan for 1999, before returning to full time racing in 2000 for Walker Racing in the CART series, making his debut in the single car team, sharing the drive partially with Bryan Herta.
It was a tough debut for Shinji who switched teams once more for 2001 to Fernandez Racing which is when I first saw him at Rockingham. I already knew about Shinji from his time in F1, my favourite video when I was growing up was the 1998 F1 Review video, my Dad used to have to borrow it from the library each fortnight so I could watch it over and over again, I am sure he got quite a few late return fees!
To see people like Shinji Nakano was a big deal for seven-year-old me and it is a kick of excitement I still get today when watching motorsport.
Shinji finished 2001 with twenty points, remaining with the team for 2002 in which he finished seventeenth with forty-three points.
2002 was Shinji’s last full season of open-wheel racing, contesting two rounds of the 2003 Indy Racing League, one of which being the Indy 500 in which he finished fourteenth. The Indy 500 has proven to be his final open-wheel race as after his time in single seaters, Shinji moved to sport cars in which he has contested the 24 Hours of Le Mans for various teams in a selection of classes.
His Le Mans debut came in 2005 for Courage Competition alongside Jonathan Cochet and Bruce Jouanny, qualifying sixth in his LMP1 Courage-Judd. His first Le Mans ended in disappointment after an accident forced them to retire on lap 52.
It was not until 2011 that Shinji finished at Le Mans, contesting the race for OAK Racing in LMP2, finishing fourteenth overall and fifth in class. It was also his best result at Le Mans to date having last entered the race in 2016.
Between 2005 and 2016 however, Shinji contested in various endurance races and championships around the world, with mixed success. His first title success coming in 2009 when he won the inaugural Asian Le Mans Series championship for Sora Racing alongside Christophe Tinseau in an LMP1 Pescarolo Judd. The first championship was only one round, a double header at Okayama, the championship was supporting the World Touring Car Championship, in which Shinji and Tinseau won the opening round on the Saturday before finishing second on Sunday, confirming their title success.
It also ensured the duo gained an automatic entry to the 2010 24 Hours of Le Mans however this did not materialise.
Further success followed throughout the years in various endurance series and races around Asia with his best result since 2009 coming in the 2015-16 Asian Le Mans Series once more, this time finishing third in the LMP2 category.
His most recent events came in 2018 when he contested the 500Km and 500 mile races of Fuji, however since then, Shinji has not contested.
Now 49, Shinji has had a fascinating career in various championships around the world. It was fantastic to see him race live twice, both at Rockingham, after he was a part of my childhood growing up watching old review videos!
Pictures: www.snaplap.net, www.unracedf1.com, www.zimbio.com