The final feature 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, a lap ahead of the sole remaining Chip Ganassi Racing entry of Memo Gidley.
Behind Gidley was Bettenhausen Racing’s Michel Jourdain Jr, ahead of PacWest Racing’s Mauricio Gugelmin, who finished five laps down and two laps behind Jourdain Jr. The final driver to finish, also five laps down was Gugelmin’s compatriot Max Wilson, who was racing for Arciero-Blair Racing.
Having looked at Scott Dixon, Adrian Fernandez and Christian Fittipaldi and Bruno Junqueira, the final driver I am looking at of the series is Walker Racing’s Tora Takagi, who collided with Junqueira on the first lap, the two being eliminated on the spot.
Like Junqueira, Tora was a CART rookie in 2001, after a sabbatical in 2000 following two seasons in Formula 1 from 1998 to 1999.
Prior to his two seasons in F1, Tora made his motorsport debut in his native Japan in go-karts, as he followed in his father’s footsteps, his dad was also a driver, contesting touring car rounds.
After a successful karting career, Tora graduated to cars at the age of 17, competing in the 1992 Formula Toyota season before moving up to Formula 3 Japan in 1993, finishing tenth in his rookie season.
A second season in the series followed for 1994, this time finishing fifth in a year which also featured future F1 compatriot Shinji Nakano.
Tora also contested selected rounds of the Japanese Formula 3000 series in 1994 before moving up into the series full time in 1995 for Nakajima Racing alongside Takuya Kurosawa. It was a successful full time debut for Tora who won three times finishing second behind eventual champion Toshio Suzuki. It was this season which put him on the map globally as a future star.
He remained in the now rebranded Formula Nippon series for 1996 alongside Kurosawa and won twice more on his way to fourth in the standings, as rookie Ralf Schumacher won the championship.
His final season in the series saw him win once more while becoming test driver for the Tyrrell outfit before he graduated to Formula 1 with Tyrell for 1998, backed by PIAA, the same sponsor which supported him at Nakajima Racing. He aided his debut campaign in F1 a year earlier by contesting selected rounds of the Porsche Supercup series to familiarise himself with European circuits. Team boss Nakajima was also investing in Tyrrell making the move simpler for the rising star.
Despite sponsorship from PIAA, Tora was far from a pay driver as he hugely impressed in underpowered and underdeveloped machinery. Sadly, Tora joined the legendary Tyrrell outfit in their final season, in which they were handicapped by financial constraints throughout the year. Despite this, Tora dominated teammate Ricardo Rosset outqualifying him by an average of 1.4 seconds across the year, achieving an average qualifying position of 17th in comparison to Rosset’s 21st.
Two ninth place finishes were Tora’s best results in his debut season however this did not go unnoticed, as at the end of year reviews by former F1 driver, turned commentator Martin Brundle noted his “at times his speed thus season has just been sensational.” Brundle placed Tora 12th in his 1998 rankings, ahead of respected names such as Rubens Barrichello, Mika Salo and Johnny Herbert.
1998 was the first season I remember Tora as I remember playing the 1998 F1 game of which he was a part of. It was my first real understanding of motorsport up and down the grid at the age of four and loved playing with his car, as I always loved the look of the Tyrrell. I also loved Tora’s helmet design as I felt it really stood out.
Following British American Racing’s takeover of Tyrrell, Tora moved to Arrows alongside former Formula Nippon rival Pedro de la Rosa who made his F1 debut having won the 1998 Formula Nippon season.
Although the pairing was a much closer match, Tora still came out on top in qualifying, beating Pedro by 0.064 of second average over the course of the season, however vitally it was Pedro who scored the team’s only point that season, at the season opening race in Melbourne, where Tora finished seventh.
1999 was also a season I have fond memories of Tora, I remember watching Monza live where unfortunately he got tangled up with the Minardi of Marc Gene, forcing both of them to retire. Still despite the cars peculiar livery origins, I thought it looked fantastic and began my love affair with Arrows as a team.
Sadly for Tora, 1999 would prove to be his last season in F1 after he was dropped by Arrows to make way for Jos Verstappen. It ensured that Tora returned to Formula Nippon with the Nakajima Racing squad, filling the seat vacated by Dutchman Tom Coronel, who left the team to pursue the vacant Arrows seat.
Tora overcame the disappointment of losing his F1 seat by having the most dominant Formula Nippon season to date, winning a record eight times, it would have been nine however a terminal engine failure ensured he retired from the lead at the now disused Mine circuit. A second place finish at Suzuka was the only other time Tora did not win that season, ensuring he won the championship with 86 points out of a possible 100, a staggering 51 more than closest rival Michael Krumm. Had either Tora or teammate Tsugio Matsuda won the finale at Suzuka it would have been a clean sweep for Nakajima Racing, however Matsuda was only able to finish third before teammate Tora.
After his 2000 dominance of the Formula Nippon Championship, Tora moved to the CART Series for Walker Racing in a single car entry for the team. In his rookie campaign, Tora finished the season 21st with 29 points with a best result of fourth around the streets of Houston.
I remember the Rockingham 500 of that year so well, I remember my dad buying me the program and looking through all the drivers. At the time I did not know too many of the names as I was still only really into Formula 1, so Tora’s name really stood out. It was such a shame to see him retire so early but it was still an amazing experience!
Tora remained with the team for 2002, again achieving a best result of fourth, scoring 53 points in a year he dovetailed his CART Series commitments with his test driver duties for Toyota in F1, after he failed to secure an F1 drive with the Japanese manufacture.
Although similar comments were made about his time in the CART series as they were during his time in F1, Tora’s experience in CART was hampered by the lack of teammates and competing in one of the most competitive CART grids the series saw.
For 2003, Tora switched to the quickly developing IndyCar Series, CART’s rival, with Mo Nunn Racing, in which he found himself partnered alongside Alex Barron and Felipe Giaffrone. His pace was once again impressive, his talent shining through as he took a podium in only his fifth race, his fourth race in the series seeing him come a hugely impressive fifth in the Indy 500. Tora ended the year tenth in the standings.
His final season in America came a year later, competing for Mo Nunn Racing in Indy Car once more however he was unable to replicate the form he showed in his first season. However, he was hampered once again by being the only driver the team fielded leaving him alone to gather data. Tora finished the 2004 season in 15th with 263 points and a best result of fourth in the opening race of the season at Homestead.
After leaving America at the end of 2004, Tora returned to his native Japan to compete in the rebranded Super GT championship alongside Yuji Tachikawa in a Toyota Supra. Similar to his last season in Japan, Tora alongside Yuji won the title, winning three of the eight races that season, more than any other team, claiming the title honours by six points. It ensured Tora became the first rookie Super GT champion since 1996 when David Brabham and John Nielsen achieved the feat in the inaugural season of the GT500 regulations. The only other rookie champion was Jenson Button in 2018.
2005 also saw Tora return to Formula Nippon as a owner-driver for Takagi Planning with Cerumo, although he was unable to replicate the form of his dominant 2000 championship. Tora finished the season fifteenth.
Tora remained in both Formula Nippon and Super GT in 2006, winning once in the Super GT championship on his way to fifth in the standings alongside Tachikawa once more. Tora’s final Formula Nippon season was a year later in 2007, competing for Forum Engineering Team Le Mans alongside Tatsuya Kataoka. Two eighth placed finishes were his season high results as he ended the season 16th in the standings with three points.
2007 was Tora’s penultimate season in the Super GT championship winning once finishing the season 9th with 53 points before ending his career a year later in 2008 in which he finished 21st in the standings with 11 points. Following the conclusion of the 2008 season, Tora retired from racing.
That conclusion also concludes my look at each driver who competed in my first ever race as a spectator. I hope you have enjoyed reading each feature as much as I have enjoyed writing them!
Pictures: www.motorsportimages.com, www.motorsport.com, www.zimbio.com