Kunimitsu Takahashi

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Last updated: 18-January-2002


Before Formula One Formula One After Formula One

Before F1

Starts on two wheels, becomes first Japanese rider to win a WC bike GP

The exciting arrival of Takuma Sato into Grand Prix racing in 2002 reminds us that, for a racing-mad nation, Japan is yet to produce a genuinely top-flight F1 driver, despite the likes of Aguri Suzuki and Ukyo Katayama having shown flashes of promise. However, there have been many very fine Japanese drivers capable of matching it with the best in the world on their day. One such person was Kunimitsu Takahashi from Tokyo, the closest Japan has come to a John Surtees or Mike Hailwood.

That is because Takahashi made a name for himself first on two wheels before switching to four. As an 18 year old he took a race win in the 1958 All Japan Motorcycle Clubman series, and in 1960 he went over to Europe, coming 4th in the Isle of Man Tourist Trophy. The next year, after becoming a works Honda rider, he took a 250cc Honda RC162 to victory in the German GP at Hockenheim, becoming the first Japanese rider to win a World Championship event, before winning the 125cc Ulster GP at Dundrod.


Serious accident in Isle of Man sees him try four wheels, becoming a Nissan driver

Though he continued racing in World Championship events until 1963, winning the 1962 Spanish and French 125cc GPs, a serious accident in the 1962 Isle of Man TT cut short his motorcycling career, and by 1964 he had made the transition to car racing as Nissan official driver. Adapting quickly, in Datsun roadsters Takahashi won the Japanese Grand Prix for sports cars in 1966 and 1971, and came 3rd in 1967. In 1970 he also won the annual All Japan All-Star event.

Kunimitsu's association with Nissan even took him to Australia, where he raced Datsuns in the Bathurst 500 mile race from 1966 to 1968, even taking a class win in Class A in 1966 in a Datsun 1300 with M. Kitamo. He then continued to race for Nissan until as late as 1973. In 1971, he made one start in the Grand Champion sports car series in a Nissan Fairlady 240Z, and in 1973 he and Kenji Tohira shared a Datsun 240 ZR to 4th place in the Kyalami 9hr endurance event, and a convincing win in the Suzuka 1000kms.

Racing in bike number 1, Takahashi is on his way to becoming the first Japanese rider to win a World Championship event: the 250cc German GP.
Racing in bike number 1, Takahashi is on his way to becoming the first Japanese rider to win a World Championship event: the 250cc German GP.


Makes his forst forays into open wheelers, starting with Japanese F2000

But by this stage Takahashi also began competing in other makes of car. In the Grand Champion series from 1973 to 1977 he would campaign a March 73S BMW, making 2 starts in 1973 and 3 more the next year, including one win at Fuji. In 1975, racing under the Sakai Racing banner, he took a win and a 2nd place to score 50.5 points, coming 2nd overall behind Noritake Takahara. Staying with Sakai in 1976, there was another 2nd place at Fuji, and in 1977, in the last year for the 73S, Takahashi was 7th with 26 points.

Proving to be an extremely versatile driver, Takahashi also became interested in the open-wheeler scene, which only began to flourish in Japan in the 1970s with the advent of the Japanese F2000 championship. In 1975 he made his first two starts in this series, qualifying 2nd at Fuji in a Sakai Racing Team Surtees TS15 BMW but failing to start, and then starting 6th at Suzuka in a Racing Shop Yatsuka Surtees TS15 Ford but retiring from the race.


Best 5 from 8 rules allows Hoshino to pip Kunimitsu for JF2000 title

A full campaign in the 1976 championship, driving a Sakai Racing March 742 BMW, saw Kunimitsu score 22 points thanks to a 4th at Fuji and a 3rd at Suzuka, taking 6th place overall. But the following year he joined Speed Star Racing to drive a March 742 BMW and a Kojima KE008 BMW, in a brilliant shoot-out between the best Japanese drivers of the 1970s and 1980s, featuring the likes of Kazuyoshi Hoshino, Satoru Nakajima, Masahiro Hasemi, Masami Kuwashima and Noritake Takahara.

The rules for 1977 stated that only the best 5 results from the 8 rounds would count towards the championship. Takahashi was sensationally consistent throughout, taking 3 wins (at Suzuka twice, and once at Nishinihon), a 2nd, three 3rds and a 4th. He scored 117 points in total, many more than anyone else. However Hoshino, who had scored 102 in total, had also recorded three wins but two 2nd places to Takahashi's one, and going by the best 5 results scored 90 points to Takahashi's 85. Hoshino thus became champion! This must have been an awful pill for Takahashi to swallow.

Formula One

Takes his place as a private entrant at Fuji alongside the Kojimas

But he soon got his chance for revenge when the World Championship Japanese F1 Grand Prix came around to Fuji. This was the time when private entrants were still allowed, and for the Japanese GP three of the Japanese F2000 stars were entered. The works Kojima team entered one of their KE009 machines for Takahara, while Hoshino's team Heros Racing put their man in a customer Kojima KE009.

Meanwhile, the Meiritsu Racing Team listed Takahashi to drive an old Tyrrell 007 with a trusty 3 litre Cosworth DFV engine behind him. This car dated back to 1975, and had by a twist of irony been driven superbly by Hoshino in the 1976 Japanese GP, when in wet conditions the local man had run as high as 3rd. Interestingly, Takahashi's car was the only one to race on Dunlops, while the two Kojimas were the only machines to use Bridgestone tyres. Everyone else raced on Goodyears.

Kunimitsu taking his elderly Tyrrell 007 to 9th plac ein the Japanese GP of 1977 at Fuji.
Kunimitsu taking his elderly Tyrrell 007 to 9th plac ein the Japanese GP of 1977 at Fuji.


Kunimitsu wrestles his ageing Tyrrell to place third of the three Japanese pilots

In qualifying the Kojimas had the upper hand on Takahashi's Tyrrell. Mario Andretti took the pole with a scorching 1:12.23 lap, just ahead of James Hunt in the McLaren and the Brabhams of John Watson and Hans Joachim Stuck. But a mere 1.32 seconds slower than Andretti, and in an unbelievable 11th place, was Hoshino in the private Kojima, having outdone the likes of Alan Jones, Riccardo Patrese, Gunnar Nilsson, Patrick Depailler and Ronnie Peterson.

In the works Kojima, Takahara had qualified a respectable 19th out of the 23 starters, having lapped 2.13 seconds off Andretti's pace. However, that had still put him ahead of the great Gilles Villeneuve in his Ferrari! Our man Takahashi, meanwhile, languished over half a second slower than Takahara and a full 2.65 seconds off pole, recording a 1:14.88, only good enough for 22nd place ahead of Alex Ribeiro's March.


Takahashi drives a solid race, beating rival Hoshino by 40 seconds

But in the race it was Takahashi who got the last laugh. Andretti made a poor start off the line and dropped down the order, and on lap two got caught up in a collision with Takahara and Hans Binder. Hunt took a lead he would never relinquish, and claimed the win in a race marred by a horrendous collision on lap 6 between Peterson and Villeneuve, which saw the Ferrari launched into the air.

Eventually Carlos Reutemann came 2nd in the Ferrari, a few seconds ahead of Depailler who held off Jones for 3rd by just 0.22 of a second. Meanwhile, Takahashi finished 9th, 2 laps adrift, almost 2 seconds clear of Jody Scheckter's Wolf, but most satisfyingly almost 40 seconds ahead of Hoshino's Kojima, which had dropped back throughout the race and could only come home 11th. It might not have been much consolation for having been robbed of the Japanese F2000 title, but it was nice nonetheless.

After F1

Another Suzuka victory, plus two podiums at Nishinihon and Fuji

In typical Japanese fashion, Takahashi has since continued to race in both open-wheelers and sports cars, becoming something of an institution in the process. In open-wheelers, the Japanese F2000 championship became simply Japanese F2 from 1978 to 1986, before being renamed Japanese F3000 (and subsequently Formula Nippon). Takahashi was a mainstay in this category until his final season in 1994, although he gradually faded in terms of his performances.

In 1978 he continued with Speed Star Racing in his Kojima KE008 BMW, and despite another win at Suzuka and a few other 5th places he could not recapture his 1977 form and fell to 6th with 40 points. His final season with Speed Star in 1979, when he raced a March 782 BMW, saw him rise back up to 4th overall with 64 points, but he could not take a victory despite 2nd places at both Nishinihon and Fuji.


Muscial chairs through the teams including Royce, Suzuki, Shift and Nova!

1980 saw him start the F2 season with Royce Racing in a March 792 BMW, but he soon switched to Suzuki Racing to drive a Toleman TG280 Hart. But neither car brought him good results; a solitary 7th in the last race at Suzuka brought him only 4 points and 15th place. A full season in 1981 with Suzuki Racing in the Toleman saw a slight improvement, and with a 5th and a 4th place at Suzuka he was able to climb back up to 8th outright with 23 points.

In 1982 he changed to the Shift team which initially put a BMW engine in his Toleman before switching him to a March 822 chassis. It couldn't halt Takahashi's noticeable decline, though, as he once again fell to 15th with only 9 points. So for 1983 he was on the move again, joining Nova Engineering to drive their March 822 BMW before upgrading to a March 832. The move worked a charm as he took two 2nd place finishes to score 46 points and take 6th in the series.

1994 was Takahashi's final season (after 20 years) in Japan's top single-seater category, in a two-year-old car he took a farewell podium at Fuji.
1994 was Takahashi's final season (after 20 years) in Japan's top single-seater category, in a two-year-old car he took a farewell podium at Fuji.


Finishes 13th, 13th, 10th, 9th, 7th overall before the climb halts and he lands 15th!

Sadly, that season would prove more an exception than the rule. Moving to the Advan Sports Nova team, his home in Japanese F2/F3000 until the end of 1990, he could only take 13th place in a March 832/842 BMW in 1984 with 11 points, and 13th again in 1985 in a March 85J BMW with 17 points, despite some strong qualifying performances. In 1986, with his Team JPS Advan (Nova) March 85J and 86J Honda, he increased his tally to 22 points to come 10th overall.

More consistency in his March 87B Honda in the 1987 Japanese F3000 series gained him 33 points and 9th overall before a switch to a Lola T88/50 Mugen saw him return to the podium with 3rds at Suzuka and Fuji, which bumped him up to 7th outright with 12 points under a new scoring system. But an upgrade to a T89/50 in 1989 only brought a downturn in results, with a single 4th at Sugo leaving Takahashi reeling in equal 15th spot with (a much younger) Marco Apicella, with only 3 points on the board.


Final season podium a goodbye present from single seaters after three point-less seasons

A 3rd at Suzuka and a 4th at Fuji in his Lola T90/50 Mugen in 1990 gave Kunimitsu 7 points for 9th overall, but then his Advan Sports team separated from Nova Engineering and became the Advan Sports Pal team. Running a T90/50 and a T91/50 in 1991, then a T91/50 and a T92/50 in 1992, and a T92/50 throughout 1993, Nova's absence had a dramatic effect, as Takahashi recorded a string of dreadful results, failing to score points in any of those 3 seasons.

Although he would continue racing sports cars until the end of 1999, 1994 was to be his last season in single-seaters. He stayed with Advan Sports Pal, and began the year with a two-year old T92/50, but then switched to a new T94/50. Out of nowhere he recorded one last surprise podium finish with a 3rd place at Fuji, giving him 4 points which put him in 10th place at year's end, but frankly he had long since been no match for his nemesis Hoshino, who remained ultra-competitive throughout.

In the World Sportscar Championship round at Suzuka, Takahashi and Kazuo Mogi drove their Kremer 962C to 5th place, gaining 2 points in the process.
In the World Sportscar Championship round at Suzuka, Takahashi and Kazuo Mogi drove their Kremer 962C to 5th place, gaining 2 points in the process.


Plenty of points and a couple of wins in the Grand Champion series keep the Tak on top

Takahashi's parallel sports car career was significantly more successful. He continued to race regularly in the Grand Champion series until it folded at the end of 1989. In 1978 he had three starts in a Speed Star Racing Chevron B36 BMW, and in 1979, with the same team but in an MCS Mazda, he was equal 14th with 3 points after competing in two races. For 1980 he moved to Royce Racing to drive a Royce RM-1 BMW, and in two starts at Fuji came 2nd in both, to claim equal 5th overall with Hoshino on 30 points.

With the same team and car in 1981, he drove all four rounds of the championship, winning the first two but then bombing out to end up equal 2nd on 42 points with Yoshimi Katayama. The same package then brought him 4th in 1982 with 25 points. Takahashi then plugged on into the 1983 Grand Champion series with the RM-1 for two more races before switching to an MCS 4, but he only managed to gain 13 points and come 9th in the championship.


Always competitive in GC, a constant midfielder with several more podiums

A competitive MCS 5 BMW in 1984 saw Kunimitsu take two 3rd places and two fastest laps en route to 3rd overall on 30 points, but 1985 saw him slip to 9th with 16 points after upgrading to an MCS 6. With the same car in 1986, he scored another 3rd and 4th place, picking up 22 points in climbing back up to 6th in the standings. Then in 1987, he got his Advan Sport team to join up with Tomei car tuners in preparing his MCS 7 Ford, but the best he could do was 9th outright with 16 points, the same as in 1985.

In 1988 he got Nova to tune his car instead, resulting in an upturn in fortunes. In his MCS 8 Mugen he had four top-5 finishes, claiming 49 points and 5th overall in the process. For the final Grand Champion series in 1989, the team switched to a Cerumo 89Ge Mugen car instead, and once again Takahashi could be found in and around the top five, eventually scoring 5 points and taking 6th place in the points table.

1990 proved one of Takahashi's worst years int he JSPC, finishing 22nd overall in a series he had won four of the previous five years.
1990 proved one of Takahashi's worst years int he JSPC, finishing 22nd overall in a series he had won four of the previous five years.


Kunimitsu becomes one of the best sports prototype exponents in Japan

But in the 1980s, through until 1991, Takahashi became best known as one of the best sports prototype exponents in Japan, through his exploits in the Japanese Sports Prototype Championship (JSPC), some rounds of which doubled as events of the Fuji Long-Distance series (FLD) and the World Endurance/Sportscar Championship (WEC/WSC). It was as early as 1980 that he had made his first start in the FLD, at Fuji where he came 6th in his Mazda Auto Yamanashi March 75S Mazda.

In 1983 he made his first JSPC/WEC start in an Alpha Racing Porsche 956 at Fuji shared with Preston Henn and John Paul Jr. Quickly getting the hang of these big cars, in the 1984 JSPC he made only one start at Suzuka in a Nova Engineering Porsche 956 with namesake Kenji Takahashi and Geoff Lees, but walked off with the win to claim equal 7th in the JSPC with 20 points! Two additional starts in the FLD saw the Takahashis claim yet another win in their Advan Sports Nova Porsche 956.


The two Takahashis take back to back JSPC titles, before tragedy strikes at Le Mans

For 1985 he competed in the entire JSPC with Kenji Takahashi (and sometimes Kenny Acheson also) in an Advan Sports Nova Porsche 962C, four rounds also counting for the FLD and one for the WSC. Three wins in the last four rounds gave the Takahashis 72 points and the championship crown. Two more wins in 1986 by the same combination of team, car and drivers saw them score 70 points and take away a second consecutive crown.

But 1986 was also a year of tragedy for Kunimitsu. He was drafted by the Kremer Racing team to partner Sarel van der Merwe and Jo Gartner in a Porsche 962C at the Le Mans 24hr classic. In the middle of the night, with Gartner at the wheel, the car speared into the barriers on the ultra-fast Mulsanne Straight, and Gartner was fatally injured. It was not the way he would have wanted to make his debut in the greatest sports car race in the world.

1995 brought Kunimitsu's best ever Le Mans 24hrs result, a fine 8th place, with co-drivers Keiichi Tsuchiya and Akira Iida.
1995 brought Kunimitsu's best ever Le Mans 24hrs result, a fine 8th place, with co-drivers Keiichi Tsuchiya and Akira Iida.


Another two JSPC crowns seperated by a dud year (and two dud Le Mans attempts)

Yet he managed to bounce back very strongly in 1987. In the JSPC, in what was now called the Advan Alpha Nova Porsche 962C to show the number of collaborators in the effort, driving with Acheson and usually also Kazuo Mogi, Takahashi took two more wins for a third successive JSPC title with 59 points. This included victory in the triple JSPC/FLD/WSC round at Fuji. At Le Mans, he was invited back by Kremer to drive a 962C with Volker Weidler and Kris Nissen, but the car blew its engine after only 6 laps.

A slight downturn in 1988 meant that Takahashi and Mogi failed to win a race in the JSPC, only coming equal 4th with 48 points. He also had yet another start for Kremer at Le Mans, this time partnering Bruno Giacomelli and Hideki Okada to 9th place in their 962C. But he bounced back in 1989, when with Stanley Dickens as co-driver, a brace of 4th places and one win was enough to earn him a 4th JSPC title with 56 points.


Speedy decline in results sees Takahashi give the prototype games away

1989 had also seen Takahashi make an additional WSC start with Dickens at Suzuka, where they came 7th in an Almeras Montpellier Porsche 962C. Kunimitsu's traditional race for Kremer at Le Mans, though, resulted in a fire in the 962C he was sharing with Giacomelli and Giovanni Lavaggi. In 1990, with his Porsche beginning to show its age, Takahashi and Mogi dropped down the JSPC field, and were only equal 22nd on 9 points.

In the WSC round at Suzuka, Takahashi and Mogi drove the Kremer 962C to 5th place, gaining 2 points, enough for equal 31st in the WSC. However at Le Mans, Kunimitsu was only a lowly 24th in the Kremer 962CK6 he shared with van der Merwe and Okada. Going into 1991, Takahashi switched to drive the Team Taisan Klepper Porsche 962C with Dickens, but only competed in three JSPC events, including 5th at Fuji earning 8 points for equal 27th place overall, before abandoning the series he had won four times.

Team Kunimistu entered Takahashi, Tsuchiya and Iida at Le Mans in 1996, but it was not as successful a story as the previous year, the team classified 16th.
Team Kunimistu entered Takahashi, Tsuchiya and Iida at Le Mans in 1996, but it was not as successful a story as the previous year, the team classified 16th.


Starts up his own team, to race in Touring Cars and then the JGTC

The reason for this may not have been clear at the time, but by 1992 it became quite obvious. Takahashi was awake to the fact that sports prototype racing was dying a slow death, and he established his own team, Team Kunimitsu. In both 1992 and 1993 he entered his young team in the All-Japan Touring Car Championship, driving a four-wheel-drive, 4-wheel-steer Group A Nissan Skyline GTR with Keiichi Tsuchiya, finishing equal 9th in the championship in 1992 with 74 points.

But the new thing that was starting to take off was the Japanese GT Championship (JGTC), and in 1994 Team Kunimitsu entered a Porsche Carrera RSR in three rounds for Takahashi and Tsuchiya. A win at Sugo and 2nd at Mine underlined the team's potential as they took equal 7th in the title with 35 points. The team also entered a Honda NSX for Takahashi, Tsuchiya and Akira Iida for the Global GT round at Suzuka, where they promptly came 2nd.


Remains loyal to Kremer and Honda at Le Mans, before a fine 8th the next year

In non-championship events in 1994, Takahashi was reunited with Kremer when they entered him, Tsuchiya and Iida in a Honda NSX at Le Mans, where they came 18th. Also, in the Suzuka 500kms endurance event, Takahashi joined Muzutani and Kimura to place 4th in an Oscar SK90 car. Then, in 1995, Takahashi entered his Porsche again in the JGTC, but middling results with Tsuchiya saw them only come equal 10th with 28 points.

That year Takahashi also once again took part in the BPR Global GT round at Suzuka, although this time he, Iida and Tsuchiya were entered by Team Nova to drive a Honda NSX, and they placed a creditable 9th. The trio had also started at Le Mans, also in a Honda NSX, this time entered by Team Kunimitsu, and in their eye-catching red machine they came home a fabulous 8th.

Always one to take part in historic bike events, Takahashi help celebrate Honda's 50th anniversary in style.
Always one to take part in historic bike events, Takahashi help celebrate Honda's 50th anniversary in style.


Team Kunimitsu become midfielders, but they take a pair of 2nd places at Mine and Sugo

From hereon in, the Team Kunimitsu Honda NSX has become something of a fixture in Japanese GT racing. Throughout the 1996 JGTC Takahashi drove it with Tsuchiya, but only achieved midfield results, gaining 8 points and finishing the season in equal 26th position. At Le Mans, sharing the car with Tsuchiya and Iida, Takahashi was able to be classified 16th, while in the All-Star event (which he had won way back in 1970), he and Tsuchiya came 6th.

1997 saw Iida partner Takahashi in the JGTC instead of Tsuchiya, and the Mooncraft concern come on board to tune the Team Kunimitsu NSXs. After some poor results to begin with, the pair ended the year with a pair of 2nd places at Mine and Sugo, but in the two races at the All-Star event at Motegi could only manage 16th and 20th place. In the JGTC they ended up in equal 13th spot with 30 points.


Celebrates Honda's 50th; takes a surprise, and popular, victory with Iida at Mine

Proving that Japan does not forget its heroes, that year also saw Honda's 50th anniversary celebrations. Not only was Takahashi currently a Honda driver, but he had of course been the first Japanese rider to win a World Championship motorbike GP, and he had done so on a Honda. So it was fitting that at those celebrations held at Motegi that Kunimitsu was invited to ride some of Honda's classic bikes. Indeed, even in his late 50s Takahashi was still regularly participating in historic motorcycle events.

1998 seemed to bring little improvement to the performance and reliability of the Team Kunimitsu Honda, until the second last round of the year at Mine when Takahashi and Iida took a surprise victory. That gave them 25 points each and equal 19th place in the standings. Takahashi also raced the car with Iida and Ryo Michigami at the FIA GT round at Suzuka, and at the All-Star event, this time held at Aida, Takahashi and Iida took a wonderful 2nd place.

Team Kunimitsu has been part of the JGTC since 1994, here Takahashi races his NSX in 1997, his third-last season in competitive racing.
Team Kunimitsu has been part of the JGTC since 1994, here Takahashi races his NSX in 1997, his third-last season in competitive racing.


Turning 60, Takahashi steps down from racing duties, becoming President of the GT Association of Japan

In contrast to the way 1998 had gone, in 1999 Takahashi and Iida started in a blaze of glory by winning the second round at Fuji, but after that the only result to show was 5th at Aida. The 34 points gained put the pair in equal 15th spot. At the All-Star event at Autopolis Takahashi and Iida repeated their 1998 feat and came 2nd again, whereas at the Suzuka 1000kms, a race Takahashi had won in 1973, they took 4th place with Takeshi Tsuchiya also joining the driving line-up.

At the start of 2000, Takahashi turned 60, but had shown that he still had what it took to race competitively. But after an active racing career spanning over 40 years, he stepped down from active driving duties, replaced by Naoki Hattori behind the wheel, although he still manages Team Kunimitsu today. 2000 also saw him become President of the GT Association of Japan, a terrific honour for a living legend of the Japanese racing scene. On a personal note, Takahashi is 165cm tall, and weighs 70kg. His blood group is Rh+ B.

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