THE RISING SON
Ukyo Katayama's 1994
On paper, there seemed no reason why 1994 should have been any better. Yes, Tyrrell had come up with a brand new chassis, the 022, and Ukyo's continued presence in the team had attracted some money from Mild Seven. Mark Blundell bolstered the driving line-up, but the Yamaha engine, surely, would continue to be a stumbling block. After all, even since the Japanese company's pathetic first season with Zakspeed in 1989, Yamaha had never looked like any more than a poor cousin compared to Honda, in terms of budget, technology and performance.
No surprise, then, that the soothsayers were saying that Tyrrell were in irrevocable decline, that Blundell was in the last-chance saloon, and that Katayama had no place in F1. Who would have predicted, then, that 1994 would see a Tyrrell renaissance, their last truly competitive season, and that Katayama would have been the spearhead of the effort? So much so that, by season's end, Nigel Roebuck proclaimed him the most-improved driver of 1994, and Murray Walker, in a burst of Murrayistic enthusiasm, called him "the best Formula One driver that Grand Prix racing has ever produced". OK, so Murray was only trying to say, "the best driver Japan has ever produced", but the point was well taken.
Perhaps the brand new regulations for 1994 had a part to play. While other teams found it hard to pen a car without traction control, active suspension, and all the other gizmos, a back-to-basics approach was exactly what Tyrrell and Yamaha needed, and Harvey Postlethwaite and Jean-Claude Migeot obliged. By practice in Brazil, Katayama was well aware that he had an effective car at his disposal, and by the end of Saturday he was 10th on the grid, his best-ever grid position, and 0.052s faster than Blundell. "Tyrrell and Yamaha have given me a fantastic car," Ukyo raved, but at this stage, not many were listening.
The day after, and Katayama had finished 5th, a lap down, and picked up his first two World Championship points. A fluke result, some said, and in truth there had been a healthy rate of attrition. But not everything had run smoothly for Ukyo, as he revealed after the race. He'd lost places after a slow pit-stop, his dashboard hadn't worked, his water bottle had become disconnected, and he'd lost his windscreen and received a buffeting on the straights. Yet the sceptics remained unconvinced; Roebuck lamented on Blundell's failure to finish, claiming that he would have bettered Katayama's result, seemingly forgetting that Ukyo had started two spots ahead on the grid.
Race two saw Katayama head home to Aida in Japan for the Pacific GP, but after being 12th quickest in Friday qualifying, he slipped to 14th after an altercation with Nicola Larini's Ferrari on the Saturday, and retired in the race from an engine failure. But the diminutive Japanese driver realised the potential of the 022, and by the tragic weekend at Imola, he had qualified a best-ever 9th, nearly 0.4s up on Blundell. Even so, he thought he could do better. He said: "It is possible to do more with this car - the only problem is my driving!" Quiet determination, if anyone bothered to notice.
Had it been a normal weekend, then another two more points for Katayama, for another 5th place, would have had the pundits starting to sit up, but this was no normal weekend, one need not be reminded. And so Katayama went to Monaco, his home away from home, having scored all of Tyrrell's 4 points thus far, having outpaced Blundell, much to Mark's surprise, and lying equal 6th in the World Championship with the likes of Jean Alesi and Mika Hakkinen. The Yamaha engine was light and nimble, with no shortage of grunt, and the chassis was simple but remarkably efficient, equally adept in high and low downforce configurations.
Despite only qualifying 11th in the principality, Ukyo was confident: "Now that I have discovered the pleasure of getting points, I want to get more!" Unfortunately, a gearbox failure put paid to his chances, but come the Spanish GP, the Tyrrell's ability was evident. There Katayama started 10th, just behind David Coulthard's Williams, a shade faster than Blundell, and he was 6th in the warm-up. In the race, the Englishman came a fabulous 3rd, but Ukyo had suffered another engine failure after only 16 laps. Yet in that time, Katayama had lapped 1.5s faster than Blundell, enough for the 7th fastest race lap. In Roebuck's words, he had been "startlingly quick". That was food for thought.
Just food for thought? Seemed more like a four-course meal after Friday in Montreal, when Ukyo lay 5th. He hoped to record his best-ever qualifying position on the Saturday, but a spin in the second qualifying session saw him relegated back to 9th, but he had still blown Blundell off the Ile Notre Dame. And even though he'd spun out of the race, he could still say, "The chassis-engine combination is very good and I am confident for the future," and now the paddock couldn't afford but to take him very seriously. No Japanese driver had ever made such a sustained impression. But there was much more to come.
France, though, was a bit of a disappointment. Only 14th on Friday, he remained there after a frustrating Saturday session in which he made mistakes and got held up by red flags and traffic. Still, he shaded his team-mate, but once again he spun out of the race after his car's balance deteriorated. Redemption was just around the corner in Tyrrell's home race at Silverstone, though, when Ukyo was 3rd in Friday free practice, 9th in Friday qualifying, 8th on the grid, 5th in the warm-up, and 7th in the race, which ended up being 6th and another point after Michael Schumacher was disqualified. Ukyo had never been outside the top ten in anything that weekend.
Five points on the board already, and it may have been more. It certainly should have been in Germany, but this was one of the great what-might-have-been stories of 1994. 11th quickest on Friday, Katayama found some speed overnight, and was 6th on Saturday morning. He then leapt up to a remarkable 5th that afternoon, less than 1.2s behind pole-sitter Gerhard Berger who, after all, had a V12 Ferrari behind his back compared to Ukyo's humble Yamaha. What's more, Katayama was within 0.7s of Damon Hill's Williams/Renault, and under 0.5s away from Schumacher's Benetton. "Everyone has worked so hard this year; it is a great reward," he enthused.
When mayhem broke out at the start, with separate incidents removing some 10 cars, no-one noticed that Ukyo had made a screamer and was actually past both Hill and Schumacher. When Alesi's Ferrari retired almost immediately, the Tyrrell driver found himself in 2nd place for most of the first lap. Deciding that discretion was the better part of valour, he let Schumacher by, but was not about to be so courteous to Hill. The two touched, and Hill was forced in for repairs. Eventually, Schumacher would retire, so Katayama had a straight run to 2nd behind Berger, but sadly it was not to be. On lap 6, his throttle stuck open, and Ukyo was thrown off the track. A golden chance missed.
If anyone thought Hockenheim was a case of low-downforce heroics, then the tight confines of the Hungaroring should have put Ukyo back in his place. But there he stunned even Ken Tyrrell, and repeated his German performance, starting 5th. He even said: "I could have improved my time with my last set of tyres, but I did not push too hard as I wanted to save them for the race." Now, considering that he was only 0.012s slower than Berger, and 0.027s behind Coulthard, 3rd on the grid would have been a distinct possibility. More to the point, he was over 0.7s faster than Blundell, who was down in 11th.
All Ukyo needed was some good fortune in the race, but once again luck deserted him, and quickly. For the second race in succession, both Jordans were out on the first lap, and this time they took Katayama with them. Eddie Irvine claimed that Rubens Barrichello and Katayama had squeezed him; Barrichello said Ukyo had moved across on Irvine and himself. Naturally, Ukyo's version was different still, and it was clear whom he was blaming: "I was in 5th position when his very hard in the back and pushed off the track ... but for Irvine, I am convinced I could have scored my first podium finish."
Two great opportunities gone begging, then, and as the law of averages would have it, Belgium was a relative disaster. Having been 5th in Friday free practice, he spun off in the wet qualifying and was only 23rd. When even heavier rain hit on Sunday, that lowly place was secured. Another engine failure in the race made it a weekend to forget. But normal service was resumed at Monza, when Ukyo was 8th in Friday qualifying, but he hit the wall coming out of the second Lesmo, and jolted his leg. Not feeling too good, he was bumped all the way down to 14th after Saturday. Still, Blundell was only 21st.
Incredibly, Katayama then recorded the 2nd fastest time in the warm-up, and come the race start, it was clear why. While everyone else was on a one-stop strategy, Tyrrell gave its drivers a two-stop plan to vault them up the order. It worked a treat, and in the first 12 laps, Ukyo blasted past Heinz-Harald Frentzen and Hakkinen, and pestered the two Williams, in a show of "astonishing" speed (Roebuck again). He repassed Hakkinen before his second stop, and was on his way to 5th before a brake disc failure put him off the track. By now there was no doubt in Roebuck's mind: "By some significant margin, this is the best Grand Prix driver Japan has yet produced."
Portugal then proved to be another hard-luck story. 3rd again in Friday free practice, he was a fine 6th that afternoon. 4th on Saturday morning confirmed his challenge, but a mechanical problem prevented him from doing any flying laps in second qualifying, although he kept 6th on the grid. On Sunday, his engine cut twice on the formation lap, and Ukyo had to start from the pits a minute after everyone else. But, despite not charging too hard to save his tyres, soon he was picking up positions "at a remarkable rate", and set the 5th fastest race lap before losing gears and stopping altogether after 26 laps. The amazing thing was that a points finish had not been out of reach.
The European GP at Jerez started badly when he was only 18th after Friday, having been held up by Domenico Schiattarella, with whom he was furious: "I went to see him when I came back in the pits but he did not seem to understand that you must not be on the line if you are on a slow lap." Moving up to 13th on Saturday, he then felt his clutch overheat on the warm-up lap, and stalled on the grid. Given a push-start, he once again charged through the field, and this time his car held together. On the last lap, he challenged Frentzen's Sauber for 6th, and passed the German on the last corner, but ran wide, and was out-dragged to the line by only 0.153s.
But Katayama had every reason to be confident going into his home race at Suzuka. To measure the respect Nigel Roebuck now had for him, I'll let the veteran journo speak for himself: "I hate to think what he might do on home territory this weekend. Privately, Ukyo is convinced he can get the Tyrrell-Yamaha onto the front row, and while I might bet against it, I wouldn't bet much." However, Nigel's money would prove to be safe. A mistake on his last flying lap on Friday saw Ukyo down in 14th, and that's where he stayed when rain fell the next day. He lamented: "I feel sad for the Japanese fans. I was hoping to reward them for the good support they gave me all year long."
More rain on race day made the track an ice rink, and in the treacherous conditions Katayama was one of the first to fall victim. As the cars aquaplaned even in second and third gear on the front straight, Ukyo was running mid-pack at the end of lap three. Coming out of the chicane, he could see Johnny Herbert's Benetton beached in the gravel trap on the left, and barely had time to take that in before he was sliding and heading nose-first for the pit wall. The heavy contact was unavoidable, and poor Ukyo had to be helped away, limping badly. Nature had been terribly unkind to the local hero that weekend; one wonders what he would have achieved in the dry.
The final race of the season in Adelaide proved to be an anti-climax. 7th in free practice on Friday, the qualifying session was red-flagged just as he was on a flying lap, and overnight he was 15th. 6th on Saturday morning showed his potential once more, but rain in 2nd qualifying once again left him unable to improve. After the warm-up, Katayama decided to take some downforce off the car, and it proved to be a costly mistake in the race when he spun off on the fast right-hander going onto the back straight. It was a disappointing way to end the season.
With 5 points, Ukyo was only 17th in the World Championship. By comparison, Blundell was 12th, with 8 points, having added 5th places in Hungary and Belgium to his 3rd at Barcelona. But Katayama only finished 4 races all season, recording two 5ths, a 6th and a 7th. He had comprehensively outdriven his team-mate, and, had luck gone his way, he could have racked up anything up to 25 points, and challenged for 4th in the championship. Wishful thinking perhaps, but those in the know were rightly applauding his efforts, and an Italian magazine awarded him their 'hard charger' award. No one could begrudge him his accolades.
In fact, his stock had risen so high that, in his own words, "I had an offer for a top team for 1995, but I couldn't sign." Which team that was, one can only speculate. With his personal connections with Mild Seven, it may well have been Benetton, none too impressed with Herbert's two outings for them at the end of 1994, and looking for a reliable number two alongside Schumacher for 1995. Ukyo says that the contract was one reason he couldn't sign, which increases the possibility that it was Benetton, but more importantly, and something which he never revealed until just before his retirement, he had been diagnosed with cancer on his back.
Although it wasn't serious, it had become increasingly painful. Unable to treat it in time, he stayed with Tyrrell for 1995, but everything was falling apart. His doctor was advising him to leave F1; he was confused and lost motivation; Tyrrell abandoned their back-to-basics strategy and began on a revolutionary suspension that didn't work; instead of a team-mate he could blow into the weeds, Ukyo was now joined by the ultra-quick Mika Salo. Put it all together, and 1995 was a personal disaster for the likeable Japanese driver. He failed to score any points, and never looked remotely close. Instead, his season culminated in his memorably horrifying start-line flip at Estoril.
The sceptics who had jumped aboard the Katayama bandwagon in 1994 quickly deserted, declaring his 1995 a disappointment. Sadly for Ukyo, he would never regain the spark, and another season with Tyrrell in 1996 was yet again fruitless, and once again Salo easily had his measure. A switch to Minardi in 1997 was sponsor-driven more than anything else, and once again Katayama found himself out-paced by an upstart team-mate, this time in the form of Jarno Trulli. Although by now he had dealt with his cancer, at the end of the season he knew that enough was enough, and called it a day, preferring to indulge in his other passion of mountain-climbing.
In Formula One, the saying goes that you're only as good as your last race, or, more to the point, you're only as good as your last result. How sad, then, that most still remember Katayama as the guy who spun and crashed his way to six useless and undeserved seasons in F1, who was there by dint of cash rather than ability.
For one incredible and consistent season, though, Ukyo was one of the best drivers in the world, mixing with the cream of the crop, not only matching them but beating them on occasions. Perhaps, if a driver has one stunning race, you could say it was a fluke. When he strings a stunning season together, it's more than just that.
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