Japanese racing prodigy Juju Noda made her highly anticipated debut in the Danish Formula 4 championship last weekend. The 14-year-old runs Formula Scout through her dramatic Jyllandsringen season opener
For a first weekend in any series, a win, an exclusion and a charge up the order to a class podium finish is quite an induction.
For Juju Noda, her first exploits in Danish Formula 4 attracted attention from across the globe and a lot of discussion about just how impressive they were. After all, hype has been building up around the teenager for the last 24 months.
So what did we, and Noda, learn?
Noda and her father Hideki, who raced in Formula 1, IndyCar and Super Formula in the 1990s and early 2000s, moved from Japan to Denmark over the winter, and are based near the Padborg Park circuit which frequently appears on the Danish F4 calendar.
She had only tested there and at Jyllandsringen (although usually on the circuit’s short course) in Denmark prior to her series debut, but has considerable experience in Formula 3 cars in the Okayama-based Formula U17 category in her home country, as well as several well-publicised private tests.
In addition to F4 tests in other parts of Europe, Noda had already tested against her 2020 opposition in Denmark, and “knew more or less how quick they were”.
While she was confident about her pre-season preparations, she was under no illusion that her test pace relative to the local field would be hugely insightful into how she would fare once racing got underway.
“I think it’s difficult to compare [in testing] because the circumstances there and here were very different,” Noda says to Formula Scout after her series debut.
In qualifying at Jyllandsringen she was marginally outpaced by Team FSP’s Conrad Laursen, the son of amateur Ferrari GT racer Johnny and a graduate of junior karting, where he was a frontrunner with Lando Norris’s old team Ricky Flynn Motorsport last year. Laursen had set his best lap under yellow flag conditions though, and therefore it was Noda who qualified on pole by 0.218 seconds.
On the 2.3km circuit, that equated to a 0.320% advantage, and on second-best laps she was clear by 0.282% over top Formula 5 driver Mads Hoe. But Laursen’s qualifying lap, after his best time was removed, was faster than Noda’s second best.
“I was very happy with my lap,” says Noda. “The conditions were bad on the first corner. It was raining a bit and the water mixed with oil from a car from another race made it very slippery. If not for that, the time could have been better as well.”
Noda converted her debut pole into victory in the season-opening race. At first she came under pressure from Laursen, but stretched out a gap of several seconds before going into race management mode and winning by 1.166s.
“The most important was keeping the lead at the start. After that, it was about managing the gap while trying to protect the tyres since we needed them for the whole weekend and even other rounds. Races are always tense but this helps to focus.”
That win put her eighth on the grid for the reversed grid second race, behind four of her five F4 rivals.
The drivers at the front of the grid were from the F5 class that usually outnumber the F4 entrants in the series. F5 cars are as powerful as F4 cars, but are significantly lighter. On some circuits they can be faster on merit, but a combination of slower drivers, H-pattern gearboxes that contribute to sluggish race starts and higher mileage on parts mean they rarely win races.
Winning from the front on a tricky track low on grip was undoubtedly impressive for Noda, but assessing her charge up the order in essentially a multi-class race isn’t as simple.
She made three positions off the line, with the F5 cars’ inability to match the Mygale F4’s paddle-shift gearbox from launch as evident as usual. Laursen made a pass on her a few corners into the race, and she made no further progress until after a lengthy safety car period.
Noda made a brilliant restart to pass three cars prior to even reaching the first corner, and remained in that position until the end of the race.
“I am not that used to overtaking in Japan because normally I would start at the front and do my own race,” explains Noda.
“It went better than expected because it was so much fun! I didn’t take unnecessary risk and at the end I even decided not to risk further and try to take second place so that I could protect the tyres.”
The tyres proved a contentious issue, as Noda was disqualified post-race after stewards found them to be ‘unregistered’. Although it’s unclear whether a performance advantage was gained from this discretion, it put Noda towards the back of the grid again for race three.
“It was a mistake from the team. I don’t think there was extra pressure [on me for race three], but I was a bit nervous before starting as I was so far behind. But I really enjoyed overtaking!!
“The whole experience has given me more confidence, especially the last race because I felt comfortable with something that was very new. I was satisfied, especially with race one because you only get one shot at winning your debut race.
“I feel comfortable as well [in all conditions]. So far I haven’t had any problem with that. But I enjoy dry conditions more.”
Noda’s fourth place finish in race three, from 12th on the grid, was a better assessment of her overtaking ability.
She overtook four F5 cars off the start, and claimed another place before the safety car came out at the end of the first lap. On the restart she gained another spot, with gaps of a couple of laps between moves down the inside of Turn 1 for fifth and then fourth. With the race finishing behind the safety car, she didn’t have the chance to hunt down Hoe for third.
All-in, it was a good weekend for a driver and team debuting in a sports contest on the other side of the planet, and especially so considering Noda’s age – even if she has substantial experience in test miles over in Japan.
“The Noda Racing operation has a total of seven people working in Denmark,” she concludes. “I think we are doing well but sometimes it’s difficult because we don’t know many people here and we don’t know the language. I also miss my friends! But racing is just as fun as everywhere else!”