To look at Hideki Noda’s Formula 1 career – three races with the at-death’s-door Larrousse team in the last races of the 1994 season – you could rightly assume that the Osaka-born Hideki Noda was similar to the other brace of Japanese pay-drivers (such as Naoki Hattori and Toshio Suzuki) to have graced the F1 stage in the 1990s.
But Hideki was definitely not without talent, and to his credit he was one of the first Japanese drivers to make his mark in racing circles outside of his homeland.
A prodigious karting talent in his native land, Noda followed the time-honoured tradition of aspiring Formula 1 drivers by competing in the junior categories in Europe en route to his ultimate goal of F1.
After a season of Japanese F3, Hideki moved to Europe and competed in the British Vauxhall Lotus Championship, taking a win at Donington among his three podiums of the season en route to fifth overall.
Hideki graduated to British F3 in 1990, and became the first Japanese driver to win an F3 race outside his homeland when he won at Silverstone that year. Hideki then moved to F3000, where he stayed for three years and peaked with some impressive results in his final season where he drove for Forti.
With the Larrousse F1 team in dire financial straits by the end of the 1994 season, Hideki was drafted in as the team’s latest pay driver alongside its regular, Érik Comas, at that season’s European GP in Jerez.
Well aware that little was expected of him in the uncompetitive and underfinanced car, Hideki surprised many by not only making it onto the 26-car grid, but doing so within a second of his more established team-mate.
In the race, Noda stalled off the line and toured around at the back of the field for 10 laps before he was slowed with a gearbox problem. Trying to limp back to the pits, he inadvertently baulked Rubens Barrichello and Nigel Mansell as the duo came up to lap him, and Mansell ran into the back of him, damaging his front wing.
The next round at Suzuka saw Hideki qualify impressively, with local knowledge helping him to a time just 0.013s slower than Comas. Sadly, he would retire on the opening lap with a fuel pump failure.
His final appearance at Australia saw him comfortably out-qualify his new team-mate, Jean-Denis Délétraz, in what would be the final race outing for the Larrousse team. He would retire after 18 laps with an oil leak.
That proved to be Hideki’s last F1 outing, for although he had paid a deposit to secure a seat with Simtek the following season, the Kobe earthquake saw his sponsorship disappear and the Simtek team folded after just four rounds.
Noda ventured to the United States in 1996 and competed in the Indy Lights series for two seasons. While usually a midfield runner, he peaked with a skilful win in the wet at Portland to become the first Japanese driver to win a CART-sanctioned event.
Noda returned to Japan and competed in Formula Nippon and the Japanese GT series for several seasons. He was utterly dominant in the Japanese Le Mans series and took the title in 2007 to remind everyone of his undeniable talent.
Now a regular Le Mans competitor, Hideki kindly took the time to answer our questions about the highs and lows of his motorsport career and his all-too-brief foray into Formula 1. We thank Hideki for his time and support in participating in our interview.
|Full Name:||Hideki Noda|
|Born:||7 March 1969, Osaka (JPN)|
|First GP:||1994 European Grand Prix|
|Last GP:||1994 Australian Grand Prix|
|Wins:||0||Best Finish:||DNF||Best Qualifying:||23rd|
|1982-1986||Three-time Japanese National Champion|
|1987||Japanese Formula Ford 1600, 4 wins, ‘Rookie of the Year’|
|1988||Japanese Formula 3 Championship, JAX Racing Reynard Toyota 873, 10th overall|
|1989||British Vauxhall Lotus Championship, 1 win, 5th overall|
|GM Opel Lotus Euroseries Championship, 9th overall|
|1990||British Formula 3 Championship, Alan Docking Racing Ralt RT35 Mugen, 12th overall|
|1991||British Formula 3 Championship, Alan Docking Racing Ralt RT35 Mugen, 1 win, 7th overall|
|1992||International Formula 3000, 3001 International, 9 races, Not Classified|
|1993||International Formula 3000, TOM’s, 8 races, Not Classified|
|1994||International Formula 3000, Forti Corse, 8 races, 1 podium, 10th overall|
|Formula 1, Larrousse Ford LH94, 3 races, 0 points, Not Classified|
|1996||Indy Lights, Indy Regency Racing, 12 races, 1 podium, 14th overall|
|1997||Indy Lights, Indy Regency Racing, 12 races, 1 win, 2 podiums, 9th overall|
|1998||Japanese Super GT, Team Cerumo Toyota Supra GT500, 6 races, 1 podium, 11th overall|
|1999||Japanese Super GT, Team LeMans Toyota Supra GT500, 6 races, 1 win, 12th overall|
|2000||Japanese Super GT, Team LeMans Toyota Supra GT500, 7 races, 9th overall|
|2001||Japanese Super GT, Team LeMans Toyota Supra GT500, 7 races, 1 win, 2 podiums, 7th overall|
|2002||Indy Racing League, Convergent Racing / Indy Regency Racing, 6 races, 32nd overall|
|2005-6||A1 Grand Prix, Team Japan, 2 races|
|2010||24 Hours of Le Mans, KSM Lola B07/40 Judd LMP2, 10th in class with J. de Pourtals & J. Kennard|
How did you become involved in motorsport? Did you always have ambitions to become a Formula 1 driver?
I had a desire to be a racing driver ever since I was 3 years old. I set myself the challenge to become one, and I always believe that when you challenge yourself to achieve something, you should aim to be the best of it.
You had a successful junior karting career and won many titles. You moved to Formula Ford and by the age of 19 you were competing with some success in Japanese Formula 3. It was then you went to Europe. How did the racing culture differ from Japan?
It was extremely competitive in the British F3 championship. Everyone who drove in British F3 was looking to become a Formula 1 driver. Most of teams are really professional. When you compete in the same field with the same equipment, you naturally have to become strong to survive.
You competed in two seasons of British F3, against the likes of Mika Häkkinen, Mika Salo, Rubens Barrichello and David Coulthard. At Silverstone, you took a fine win and you became the first Japanese driver to win a race outside of your homeland. Were you aware of this achievement at the time?
I was simply pleased because we were struggling with a lack of funding. I didn’t have enough budget at the time and it was supposed to be my last race in British F3 before the end of season.
Winning the race helped me out of that situation and I was able to continue in F3. I would like to thank Alan Docking Racing and all my friend who helped me.
Was there much support coming from Japan during your Formula 3 and Formula 3000 days in Europe?
I did not have a lot of support from Japan like many people would assume. Of course, I had some strong support through personal friendships. But my situation was different to other Japanese drivers, who often had a manufacturer backing them up.
You had three seasons in Formula 3000, and drove for the Mike Earle, TOMS and Forti Corse teams. How did you find the step up to Formula 3000 and how do you assess your performance during this time?
Racing in the Mike Earle’s team was a nightmare. I don’t want to say much about it in here but you can guess what some racing teams do to you.
At the time I had big support from some Japanese companies, but my team mate Allan McNish (who many were expecting to be the next British F1 driver) didn’t have any sponsors…
TOMS was trying hard but it was very new in Formula 3000, which meant that we had to a lot of time setting up the car.
Forti (pictured) was really good team and really honest. I enjoyed my time with them a lot. Unfortunately, after spending 2 years at the back of the grid, I was a little rusty! That I couldn’t speak any Italian also didn’t help the situation! But I became strong again as the season progressed and took a podium. I became the first Japanese driver to achieve this in F3000.
Towards the end of 1994, you were appointed to the Larrousse Formula 1 team. How did this opportunity come about?
I had good manager and he had many friends in F1. To put it simply, he and his friend backed up for me.
The team was at this stage in serious financial trouble and was struggling to see out the season. What were your first impressions of the team and your team-mate Érik Comas?
The car had more potential but the team’s financial troubles didn’t allow us to be competitive. But still the people who were in the Larrousse team were really professional and I learned a lot from them.
Érik was a very fast driver and very experienced. He helped me at my first race in Jerez, but when I went faster than him in my second race in Suzuka, he’s never helped me since! It gave me a lot of confidence.
Your debut appearance would be at the 1994 European GP at Jerez. What were your initial expectations leading into this weekend?
I felt that “I made it!”.
But I also thought it was only the beginning for me as well. I was looking to be competitive immediately and I recorded the highest G-force readings from the LH94 in that season.
Were you offered any advice from any notable figures in the paddock that weekend?
Nigel Mansell told me that I am doing all right. I was really pleased of course. He was my hero.
You managed to qualify the LH94 on your first attempt, but stalled on the grid as the lights went out. While not the best way to start your F1 career, how did you feel you performed that weekend?
Sure, it wasn’t the best but I was also relieved that an experienced driver from my country [Ukyo Katayama] had also stalled!
I think I did OK considering it was my first drive in F1 and I had no testing before the race weekend.
One interesting fact I read was that you were much better under braking than Érik. What was the Larrousse LH94 like to drive?
It was my first experience of carbon brakes. Imagine having to to do it and pull over 5G under braking in your first outing with out any testing beforehand. The team was really impressed by the performance.
But when you are so motivated to do well, you can do things like that.
The LH94 wasn’t a friendly car to drive, but it was still F1, which is good enough for a boy like Hideki Noda.
The next race at Suzuka saw you qualify much closer to Comas on your home circuit. Although all three Japanese drivers on the grid would retire after 3 laps in appalling conditions, what did it feel like to compete in front of your home crowd driving a Formula 1 car?
I was faster than Comas in practice but due having a problem with the car, I wasn’t able to go faster than him in qualifying. However, I was still very close to him.
I had to start from pit lane and we knew we weren’t going to make it to the finish. But I had to start because it was my home circuit. It was shame, but you have to face it when the team is in under serious financial problems.
Your final outing for the team was at the Australian Grand Prix, in what would turn out to be the team’s last ever race. By now, Comas had gone and Jean-Denis Delétraz was brought in to replace him. Could you sense that this was the end for the team?
It wasn’t my business. I was concentrating on the driving side. I thought it was the best thing for me to do.
And I believed the team could survive. But eventually I was wrong.
You had a drive lined up to drive the second half of the 1995 season with Simtek, but the team collapsed after a few races. What happened?
I know the story but it is a political game in F1. Sadly, this was an example of the bad side of motor racing, especially in F1.
[There is more to what has been revealed] and I won’t go into it here.
You joined the Indy Lights championship in 1996 and drove there for two seasons. You took a great win in the wet at Portland, and you became the first driver from Japan to win a CART-sanctioned event. How competitive was the championship and what did the win mean to you?
At this time I raced against like of Tony Kanaan and Hélio Castroneves, who both became Indy 500 winners. In fact, they were on the podium with me when I won at Portland. My team was very small and had a limited budget. It was really demanding to beat the big teams under the circumstances.
You returned to your homeland and competed in Formula Nippon and the Japanese GT championship for several years. Having been able to prove your ability on the world stage, how did your homecoming feel?
To be honest I wasn’t really motivated and didn’t enjoy racing in Japan as much. It is a very different culture and something I couldn’t get used to after so long. It may sound funny because I am Japanese. But I cannot help it.
You were awarded the opportunity to represent Japan in the inaugural season of A1GP at the second round of the 2005/6 season in Germany, picking up points in both races. How did it feel to represent your country and can you describe your experience in A1GP?
It was great opportunity and good concept for motor racing.
I think the A1GP series needed Japan to compete, but it wasn’t a real Japanese team. It was barely making the grid and facing a really tough situation.
I couldn’t believe how badly things were going when I arrived in Germany.
But I am still proud of and appreciate the opportunity to have represented the Japanese nation.
You’ve recently moved into the world of Le Mans racing, and won the 2007 Japan Le Mans Challenge championship with three race victories. You have also competed in two Le Mans 24 Hour races. How does endurance racing compare with the much shorter versions of motorsport?
It’s very fun and motivating. You have to be very smart as well as quick. I can use many of my past experiences and it relies on so much teamwork. The Le Mans 24 Hours is a great event and I am lucky to have had an experience in one of the biggest races in the world.
What would you say were your best and worst moments of your motorsport career so far?
The best moment were winning at Portland in ’97 with my friends as well as my team.
The worst moment was spent wasting time with Mike Earle Racing in F3000 in 1992.
What is your favourite racing circuit in the world?
Barcelona, Spa and Silverstone are my favourite tracks.
I assume you still follow F1 today? What is your opinion on the current state of F1?
It is getting interesting again after many car manufacturers are gone or are going.
We’re starting to see the emergence of the privateer teams like the earlier days. I hope it will become more like a motorSPORT again.
Images via F1 Rejects, Hideki Noda, Motorsport.com, MPIX