It may be April Fool’s Day today, but it’s also the 41st birthday for former Grand Prix driver Shinji Nakano!
Born in the Japanese city of Osaka, Shinji’s initial motor racing exploits showed promised, courtesy of a very strong background in karting in the 1980s.
He graduated to Formula 3 competition in 1989 before he made a brief sojourn to Europe to compete in the European Formula Opel-Lotus championship in 1990. He claimed a win and two pole positions, but also some crucial mileage at some of the European circuits where he would ultimately race in the late 1990s.
He returned to Japan in 1992, and for the next five years he was a consistent points collector in the Japanese Formula 3 championship, later graduating to their Formula 3000 and Formula Nippon.
In 1996, he worked with DOME’s ultimately aborted F1 project, but this allowed him to forge close ties with their engine supplier Mugen-Honda, who were also supplying the Prost F1 team with their V10 powerplants.
Alain Prost had just taken over and renamed the team from Ligier, and Mugen ensured it flexed its corporate muscle to guarantee Nakano the second race seat alongside Olivier Panis, much to Alain’s chagrin.
Largely ignored for the first half of the season, Nakano was completely overshadowed by Panis, who racked up podiums at Argentina, Brazil and Spain. But Panis then suffered a leg-breaking crash at the Canadian Grand Prix – which ironically allowed Nakano to sneak into sixth place when the race was red-flagged – and this left Alain with two rookie drivers in his line-up when Jarno Trulli was bought into the fold.
Nakano started to receive more support and his results immediately improved. He should have collected another sixth place at Silverstone until his engine blew with a few laps to go, but he did claim another championship point at the Hungaroring (pictured above left), admittedly after ramming Eddie Irvine off the road on the final lap to claim the place.
By the end of the year, Shinji hadn’t proven to be as out of depth as many had first predicted, but when Prost brought in new engine partner Peugeot for the 1998 season, Shinji was shown the door.
Nakano took his sponsorship backing to Minardi, but the underfunded team was always destined to be battling at the back of the field. Accordingly, Nakano achieved little with the uncompetitive package, although he was unlucky not to net another points’ finish in Canada, finishing seventh.
The Mugen-Honda tie-in gave him a testing role with the Jordan team for 1999, and in 2000 he crossed the Atlantic and joined the ChampCar Series in Derrick Walker’s team.
He finished an excellent eighth on his debut, but at a test session at Milwaukee he suffered a big accident that sidelined him for three races. It was a year littered with mechanical failures, and he only saw the chequered flag on a few occasions.
He switched to Adrian Fernandez’s team for the 2001 season, and remained there for two seasons, achieving a best finish of fourth at the 2002 race at Toronto.
[Images via Forix, F1 Rejects, Rainer Schlegelmilch, The Cahier Archive]