Spoiler: it’s Taki Inoue.
Make no bones, Inoue was a driver who didn’t belong in Formula 1, even if under the current points system he would be a greater success than Brendon Hartley and Sergey Sirotkin combined. Alas, he did make it, and what he influenced on his way there and after he left can be felt to this day.
Inoue’s career started in Britain’s national Formula Ford championships, encompassing 28 rounds a year, and it was also where it – along with his life – briefly ended. Surprise.
In a session at Snetterton, where Inoue was as usual setting a unremarkable pace, his Van Diemen went off at Russell corner.
“BAM. Car is upside down,” Inoue says. Reader beware, this is a man who uses a lot of sound effects.
“That corner, Van Diemen made a huge amount of money from. Every test day: BAM, car destroyed. BAM. Van Diemen expanded and expanded, became a huge company, because of that corner.
“I broke my cheekbone. It’s still painful. But on other side [of my face], no nerves. So you can slap me, no problem. This side. I feel nothing.”
It’s an unusual situation for a journalist to be in, but Formula Scout keeps a serious tone and gives a few moderately powered slaps to Inoue’s face. There is no reaction.
“I went to the hospital, and during the night I woke up and saw so many nurses. Nice blond hair, and so on. Every two hours they woke me up. The nurse: ‘What is your name?’
“I wake up, and ‘ah, another different girl. Very nice’. Then I sleep again, and two hours later: [Inoue slaps himself and wakes up in a recreation of the scene] ‘Yes, Taki Inoue’. The Nurse: ‘What is you address?’. I then sleep again. And every single time it’s a different girl waking me up. I thought I might be in heaven again, it was very good.
“I think I died. Because my heart had stopped [before he woke up].
“Two weeks later there was a Donington race. The team were pushing me to race. My face was still bleeding everywhere, I couldn’t fit my Arai helmet. The team bought a Bell helmet for me, and it had more space. I put the helmet on for the Donington race – my face is still bleeding a lot. Then the team charged me for the helmet. £745. I clearly remember.”
Inoue describes FF1600 as an “incredible” experience, and he was personally assisted by team boss David Sears once he starting running short of pocket.
A return visit to Snetterton for a British Formula 3 test was stymied by wet weather, and so Inoue headed to home country Japan.
“I left my suitcases and everything. It’s still there in David Sears’ house. He keeps saying: Taki, can you come over and pick up your suitcase. Still haven’t done it.”
With zero money, and in a country going through a damaging boom phase of the economic cycle, Inoue hustled his way on to the back of a Japanese F3 grid with around 60 cars.
“First five races, didn’t qualify. 64 cars, to qualify was top 32 . Then the top 15, they race. It was impossible to always qualify.”
During his failed first season, Inoue struck up a relationship with Italian businessman Gian Paolo Dallara, then just a few years shy of dominating the F3 chassis market. According to Inoue, his involvement led to the beginning of that success. Dallara has told Formula Scout otherwise.
“In that time Dallara was a small company. I went to Gian Paolo, who was staying somewhere like a warehouse on a small farm.
‘Taki, this is our windtunnel.’
‘This is not a windtunnel. Windtunnels are big ones.’
‘No, this is our windtunnel.’
“It was a 25% windtunnel. The guys were really no good [at the time]. Back then, the cars had pullrod [suspension]. They had only designed for the Pirelli tyres. In Japan we used Bridgestones, which were a lot thicker.
“That means even the longest of pullrods, still the rideheight is like this [high]. So I asked: can you make it a pushrod?”
Dallara embarked on a redesign according to Inoue, and two years later its monodamper-fitted pushrod car had a near monopoly in F3. The technology was not implemented because of Inoue though, as it was handed down from the Scuderia Italia F1 car it had designed several years previous.
Inoue started to qualify more regularly in Japanese F3, and he became a points scorer in his third and fourth seasons when he convinced David Sears to run him. International Formula 3000, the Formula 2 of its day, was on his mind though.
“I said: hmm, I have to go to the International F3000. How [do I do it]? I asked Andrea Toso [of Dallara]:
‘Is it possible to do F3000?’
‘WHAT? You want to do F3000?’
‘Taki, are you crazy?’
‘Well yeah, maybe’
“At that time International F3000 was huge. Very competitive. You had Reynard, Lola chassis, and different types of engines.
“Then I went to Sicily, to see Crypton Racing. At that time Luca Badoer was very quick [and won title with them]. Maybe if I get into this team then I’m quick.
“I asked: can I race for you? They said: fuck off. So I went to the UK, and asked a couple of the teams, and everybody says: fuck off.
‘I have the money [to race].’
‘Show me the money.’
‘Well, ah, you see.’
“Then I went to see David Sears.
‘Can you help me? I want to race in F3000.’
‘Taki, if you have the money I can set up the Super team.’
‘It’s a Super team? It sounds very good’.
‘If we have the budget, I can set up a Super team for you.’
“In that time, David Sears was running only like Formula Vauxhall Lotus [and F3]. He’d never run a big formula. Anyway, I went to [Companies House] in London, I put in the £1 and set up the company Super Nova Racing.”
This is another dubious Inoue tale. But it has entertainment value.
Super Nova, which took the latter part of its name from the Japanese Nova schools group that backed Inoue, went on to win nine International F3000 titles. It was then successful in F3000’s successor GP2, carried Nico Hulkenberg to the 2006-07 A1GP title, and ran the Trulli GP team in the inaugural season of Formula E.
Inoue finished the 1994 F3000 season in a pointless 21st place, and was reunited with his old FF1600 friend and fellow David Sears regular Vincenzo Sospiri as team-mate. Sospiri had endured over three seasons with struggling teams, and was keen for Inoue to launch Super Nova.
Towards the end of the season, Inoue claims that he was “quicker than Sospiri”, and ambitiously thought podiums would be possible in a second season. Sospiri’s more impressive performances – which left him fourth in the standings – had made Super Nova an attractive team, and it had already signed rising star and British F3 race-winner Riccardo Rosset for ’95.
Sears wanted to retain Inoue for ’95, the financially safe option, but Inoue was aware that would then put his friend Sospiri out of a drive. As a result, Inoue set his mind on F1, while Sospiri gratefully took up the second seat and won the ’95 title in a Super Nova one-two.
Inoue started looking for a full-time F1 seat, having made his debut at home with Simtek in the ’94 Japanese Grand Prix, and discovered that many of the teams at the back of the grid were facing bankruptcy. None seemed to be bothered by Inoue’s lack of driving talent.
Arrows – then known as Footwork thanks to Japanese investment – was also in desperate need of a budget, and apparently said yes to Inoue straight away. The team also wanted to run Gianni Morbidelli for a second season, with Arrows designer Alan Jenkins having drawn the Footwork FA16 around the 5’4″ Morbidelli.
When signing for the team, Inoue accepted the decision. He was aware of his own talent shortfall, and that the team had tailored its car to a driver it deemed quick. He quickly found though that it was too small to drive in, demonstrating the lack of comfort and space to Formula Scout with some uncomfortably realistic noises.
After complaining to the team, Inoue was told to live with it. Further complaints led to a compromise that after three races the steering column would be shortened. It turned out that with a rudimentary paddle-shift system, and a stubborn designer, that was easier said than done.
Once that was sorted, Inoue was then plagued by mechanical issues, including several fires. Each time, he was quick to ensure it was extinguished to protect the monocoque from heat damage, as the team did not have a spare.
Despite 12 retirements, and a not entirely serious approach to his racing, Inoue picked up two top 10 finishes.
The majority of retirements didn’t come from spectacular crashes, as semi-automatic gearboxes prevented drivers from getting wheelspin to get their car turned around after accidentally spinning. Even worse, the gearboxes didn’t enable drivers to engage neutral with ease in those circumstances either, making many of Inoue’s offs even more embarrassing.
After his driving career ended, Inoue embarked on different avenues of motorsport – each of which he claims to be behind some sort of major success – and once those opportunities dried up he went back into business with Sospiri.
After his own driving career faltered, Sospiri set up a squad with Fortec Motorsport to run in Euro F3000, which later evolved into Auto GP. He then reunited with Sears, and Euronova entered a wide number of single-seater series that included the Formula Renault Eurocup, International Formula Master, Italian F3 and Formula 4.
It even entered the heavily populated Japanese F4, another sideplot which Inoue tries to claim credit for.
“Four or five years ago, [Japanese car manufacturer] Dome called me up:
‘Taki, we have to build a FIA F4 car. Can you help?’
‘Really, what can I do?’
‘We can’t design the car’
‘You have lots of designs, you’re Dome.’
‘Can you show us [Sospiri’s] Tatuus F4 car, then we can copy everything.’
“Basically they sent me to Vincenzo’s workshop, taking all the photos of everything and getting a parts list, and then they went back and immediately they build the car.”
As with Inoue’s Dallara stories, we’re really not convinced. Dome’s F4 chassis has proven incredibly popular in its own right, and this year it will be used for a special support event at the Japanese Grand Prix.
While the best Japanese drivers are usually backed by local manufacturers and then Formula 1 teams such as McLaren or Red Bull once they move abroad, there have been two talents over the last decade that have had to count on the support of Inoue instead. Surprisingly, both have done quite well.
Kimiya Sato was a winner in Japanese F4 predecessor Formula Challenge Japan, and took an overall podium Japanese F3 despite running in the National class. He then became a decent performer in the F3 Euro Series and German F3 with Motopark, before becoming the most frequent winner in Auto GP history with Euronova.
After a failed GP2 season and Sauber F1 test, Sato returned to Japan to forge a career in the secondary class of Super GT.
His namesake Marino Sato drove for Sospiri in Italian F4, winning once, before a fruitless two-season spell with Motopark in FIA European F3. For this year he and the team switched across to Euroformula Open, which he has a commanding championship lead in despite being up against several Red Bull and Honda juniors.
Unlike the other success stories Sato has supposedly had a role in, he refuses credit for his work as a driver manager.
“I just get their state together, that’s all. Because I can’t tell him how to drive the car, otherwise they would be a shit driver.
“I know how to fuck up, because I fucked up so many times. That’s why I never succeeded.
“But because I know how to fuck up, that means when drivers do it: ‘No, no, that way you fucked up, because I did it that way’.
“So it’s the other way round. Normally just a good driver: yes, you drive like this. Or you do it like this. Always telling them how to succeed, right. I’m always telling them: don’t do that, don’t do that. You fucked up. And this [management method] works now.”
When pressed on Marino Sato’s 2019 improvements have come from – he has four wins and four poles from eight attempts – Inoue has no answer, although Motopark team principal Timo Rumpfkeil believes it to be a point of application. After three years with the team, Sato is finally taking its advice on board and reaping the benefits.
Sato himself is not thinking of the title, despite carrying a points lead that would allow him to skip the next round at the Hungaroring while staying at the top of the standings. According to him, any points he’s gained on his opposition so far can be lost.
It’s difficult to measure Sato’s talent, given his underwhelming career prior to this season, but he’s had strong opposition in Euroformula and if you isolate his performances he has been superb.
If Inoue were to take on another single-seater talent, he’d be picky over which series they race in. He’s fiercely loyal to ‘traditional’ F3, but interestingly thinks that the new halo-shod cars are ideal preparation tools for drivers who look to GT racing after their single-seater dreams fade.
This view may be led by the fact that his friend Sospiri has taken his team out of single-seaters and into the sportscar arena.
There are several other lengthy and humorous anecdotes from Inoue, all of which are highly entertaining and intriguingly insightful. As with the ones already mentioned in this article though, there are a lot of claims that require substantial additional research.
As for Marino Sato, who was evaluating a move to Formula 2 for this year after testing the current Dallara F2 2018 car, it will be interesting to see whether he can show the same-title winning prowess of Kimiya Sato, the ability to hustle his way to F1 like Inoue in the coming years, or even both.