Champion’s Story 5: Toranosuke Takagi (2000)
A young man with long hair, one of the signs of the times, with long legs like a deer. Toranosuke Takagi, when he raced in Japanese F3, still had not entered full manhood and wasn’t much of the type to toot his own horn–that was the impression that those around him held. Born in 1974, the Year of the Tiger, which is where the “Tora” part of his name comes from (Japanese for “tiger”), came from Shizuoka, a place where his father owned a lot of land. Tora’s father was a semi-pro racer who took part in big time races such as Corolla and sprinter races. Tora began karting at a young age while his father watched on. When he was in high school, he claimed the All Japan karting championship title. He began his race car career in Formula Toyota, when he was 18. At 19, he began his career in Japanese F3.
With his rather rare name as his calling card, Toranosuke began getting noticed in 1995. Which was the year he began racing in All Japan F3000 full-time. The Japanese bubble economy had bursted, and veteran’s like Kunimitsu Takahashi and Kazuyoshi Hoshino, along with 30-year-old drivers and drivers from overseas competed in the series. Many young drivers just couldn’t put together the budget to step up into the category. But, the first Formula One Japanese driver, Satoru Nakajima, had recently returned to Japan. He had begun his own team, and was looking to begin the change of the guard. This gave way to spot driving opportunities for some younger drivers such as Masami Kageyama and Akira Iida in 1994. Toranosuke was one of the drivers selected to also spot race in the series. His first race in F3000, was a double header with F3, which was the last race of the season for that series. He picked up a 7th place finish in that F3000 race, his debut. Then in his second race, he finished 8th, followed by 9th to give him 3 top 10 finishes in a row. This led to him being able to step-up into F3000 full time.
Racing as Takuya Kurosawa’s teammate, Toranosuke’s first few races didn’t yield big results. But in mid season, in Rd. 5 at Sugo, he won his first pole position start, where he went on to win the race. Katsumi Yamamoto was P2, and Shinji Nakano was P3–giving way to an all Japanese driver podium finish. Which left the impression of the beginning of the changing of the guard. After heading into the latter part of the season, Yasuhiro Tasaka, who was in his 2nd year as an engineer, began working with Toranosuke at Nakajima Racing. Tasaka’s impression of Tora was “wow, there is a Japanese driver of this caliber? Other drivers would use certain corners to gain position, but Toranosuke wanted to go full throttle through every corner. Tora’s thinking was if he gave it full throttle through every corner, he would have the advantage. So his basic thinking was completely different than other drivers. The truth is you can’t race through full throttle through every corner, but that is how Toranosuke approached things.” In regard to the handling of his car, “the way he explained it was really easy to understand. He would say the rear would react this way in this corner, and it was a waste to hold back in certain other corners.” It was in Rd. 8 at Fuji that really stuck out performance wise for Toranosuke. He started in P5 and worked his way up through the field. Hoshino, who was usually the biggest star at Fuji race in and race out, was overtaken by Toranosuke–giving him his 3rd win in the series. The way that Toranosuke had his gears configured is what allowed him to overtake. Most other drivers would set up a short first gear to start the race, then work their way up from 2nd through 5th. But Tora set his up long from the beginning, and made full use of each gear throughout the race. He would of course lose a bit of grip at the start of the race, but he was able to build up speed afterwards. Later after the race press conference, in the pits, the so-known “fastest man in Japan” Hoshino shouted out to Toranosuke “You should just go on to F1.”
Toranosuke did go on to F1, but after just 2 years, in 2000 without leaving much of a mark, he returned to Japan to race in Formula Nippon. That season, “Tora came up with the idea of doing FP1 on Friday with a full tank of gas. It was apparent that both of us had grown a bit. And Tora was obviously one of the top ‘grown up’ drivers” is how Iida recalls it. Tora started in P4, but used his “Formula One” style braking to claim a come from behind victory. Rd. 2 was a pole to win. In Rd. 3, he ran into machine trouble and was forced to retire, but after that, he pulled off consecutive wins. “The pressure on him not to lose was fierce, but he performed remarkably under that pressure. After each race, we’d check the car, and it was always on the brink of trouble. That is how bad he wanted it every single race” says Iida. Satoshi Motoyama wound up winning the season finale, but it was Toranosuke who commandingly claimed the season championship with 8 victories of the 10 races that season. He went on to race in the U.S. after that.