What could have been: The F3 hotshot who twice turned down Japan
Racing in Japan has long been seen as a well-regarded path to becoming a professional career, and a successful 1999 season in the country had made Darren Manning one of the most sought-after hot properties. That explains why he turned down two chances to stay in the country - sliding doors decisions which he believes changed his life
Had it not been for an out-of-the-blue phone call, 1999 Macau Grand Prix winner Darren Manning believes he could still be racing in Japan to this day.
Certainly, without the approach that resulted in the Yorkshireman racing for Derrick Walker’s Champ Car team in 2003 when he was on the brink of joining Team Impul for a joint campaign in Formula Nippon (now Super Formula) and the All Japan Grand Touring Car Championship (now Super GT), the former BAR Formula 1 tester's career would have played out very differently.
Today, the 1999 Japanese Formula 3 champion views the sudden change of circumstances that led him to spend the remainder of the decade in Indy-style racing before settling with his family Stateside as “one of the craziest weekends of my life”.
Remarkably, it was the second time Manning had a tangible professional deal to race in Japan deal on the table. The first came at a period when he was the next in-demand hot prospect, following his 1999 title-winning F3 campaign with TOM’S.
That year had also included a promising GT500 cameo in the TOM’S Supra at Fuji alongside Tokio Suzuki, when his regular partner Ukyo Katayama was on Le Mans pre-qualifying duty for Toyota, and victory in the end-of year Korea F3 invitational over Jenson Button (as in Macau) and future Le Mans ace Benoit Treluyer. At its conclusion, Manning was widely courted by the top GT and Nippon teams for 2000.
“We were talking to nearly all of them!” he says.
Manning had beaten Button to victories in the end-of-year F3 invitationals at Macau and Korea
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It helped that British drivers were in vogue for Japanese teams at the time. After Geoff Lees had flown the flag for overseas drivers in the 1980s, winning the 1983 Formula 2 championship and later securing the 1992 All Japan Group C title, there were two British drivers racing in the 1999 Nippon championship. Ralph Firman Jr had been a series regular since 1997 and was joined that year by Peter Dumbreck, who had achieved the Japanese F3/Macau GP clean sweep with TOM’s the year before Manning.
But, with TOM’S not having a presence in the Nippon series until 2006, Manning knew he’d have to look elsewhere to stay in single-seaters. Racing the TOM’S Supra wasn’t going to further his ambitions of reaching F1.
“TOM’S couldn’t offer me a Formula Nippon drive, they wanted me to drive their Super GT car, so we were talking to other teams,” says Manning. “I wanted to keep my open-wheel stuff going. Several drivers had done Formula Nippon and come back to F1, so I wanted to keep that route open. But BAR and Frank Williams were talking to us as well...”
Manning hadn’t been forgotten about back home, and his victory in the 1998 British Grand Prix-supporting Formula 3 race had been a significant one for his career. Manning credits the advice of Frank Williams for heading to Japan in 1999, rather than taking a drive with the Portman-Arrows Formula 3000 team that folded after three rounds. And with Alex Zanardi on his way out of the team after a disappointing F1 return in 1999, Williams would have a potential race seat to fill for the start of its new BMW era in 2000. Sure enough, Manning was given a two-day test at Jerez in December, but was outpaced by experienced F3000 driver Bruno Junqueira.
"That would have been absolutely a solid Formula Nippon drive, and a great GT drive with Toyota. I’m sure I’d probably be there now" Darren Manning
BAR was circling too, wanting to tie him into a test driver contract supporting Jacques Villeneuve and Ricardo Zonta, while Arden F3000 boss Christian Horner had also approached him about a drive partnering Lukoil-backed Russian Viktor Maslov. Having lapped a remarkable second fastest on his official F3000 test debut at Jerez for Petrobras - the official Williams junior team set up to run Brazilian youngsters - Manning was also linked with the West Competition McLaren junior team that had taken Nick Heidfeld to the 1999 title. For the record, fellow rookie Button was sixth on his one and only F3000 test outing for Fortec.
“It was an interesting time!” says Manning, with a hint of understatement.
Meanwhile in Japan, Manning and his manager Mike O’Brien held a meeting with Impul boss and Japanese racing legend Kazuyoshi Hoshino.
With neither party speaking the language of the other, communication was achieved by “writing numbers on these dry whiteboards”.
Manning agreed BAR F1 test contract for 2000 alongside F3000 seat at Arden, pictured here battling Webber at Silverstone
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“That would have been absolutely a solid Formula Nippon drive, and a great GT drive with Toyota,” he says. “I’m sure I’d probably be there now.”
He ultimately decided to return to Europe and ink the deals with BAR/Arden.
“I had a bird in the hand with a free drive in Formula 3000 with Arden, a test contract with BAR for three years but BAR wanted a decision by Christmas,” says Manning, who like most observers was surprised to see Button enter the fray for the second Williams seat that looked to be Junqueira's for the taking.
“Frank couldn’t give me a decision and it’s a race drive, but was I going to get the race drive? If Zanardi stayed, Frank couldn’t offer me anything because he needed Brazilians in the Petrobras [F3000] team, so we decided to take the bird in the hand.”
Fast forward two years and Manning was at a career crossroads. Needing money to continue with Arden for 2002 after two years as effectively a single-car team alongside the ineffective Maslov – his best results a pair of second places at Silverstone in 2000 and Imola in 2001, both times behind Mark Webber – he tried for a Super GT ride at Dome that went to Northern Irishman Richard Lyons after a shootout at the TI Circuit.
In a frustrating season spent racing in the Rockingham-based ASCAR series against the likes of Jason Plato, his most high-profile outing came in Champ Car when he was entered in a one-off Dale Coyne Racing car entered under the Team St George banner at Rockingham, where he impressed on his way to ninth.
For 2003, a return to Japan picking up where he’d left off with Impul and Hoshino appeared his most likely prospect. Firman had just won Nakajima Racing’s third Nippon title in four years in 2002 on his way to an F1 berth with Jordan, but Impul’s 2001 champion Satoshi Motoyama had been his closest challenger and appeared well-placed to challenge again. A better team-mate Manning could not hope to find – and sure enough, Motoyama would open the year with three wins on his way to a third series title.
Manning had put in groundwork in Champ Car by contesting one-off with Dale Coyne at Rockingham in 2002
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But on the day before he was set to travel out to Tokyo “to sign a contract, to pick my apartment, pick up my road car and then test the next week in the Nissan GT500”, Manning had the life-altering call from recently-appointed Champ Car boss Chris Pook and Walker, who had sponsorship lined up from RAC (Manning’s backer for the Rockingham one-off) and wanted a British driver.
“I said, ‘I need to talk to my manager here, we’ve pretty much committed to going to Japan, I’m choosing my apartment tomorrow!’” remembers Manning. “I didn’t really want to make the call. I’d prefer to drive Champ Car, but the guys running the motorsports division were expecting me to come over and I’d never reneged on a contract or anything.
"From Sunday going to Japan to Monday coming to America, it was one of the craziest weekends of my life" Darren Manning
“Chris had a strong relationship with pretty much all of the engine manufacturers and so he called Nissan to explain the situation and then Monday, I was on a plane to America! From Sunday going to Japan to Monday coming to America, it was one of the craziest weekends of my life.”
Deciding there would potentially be another chance to race in Japan if America didn’t work out – but there might never be another crack at the US – Manning took the leap.
“Formula 1 was what we’d committed to for all those years and worked so hard for. And Champ Car was the next step down – yet still a route back to F1 potentially,” he says.
He was rewarded by ending 2003 as the top Reynard runner, ahead of the likes of 1996 champion Jimmy Vasser, with second at Surfers Paradise his best result. He was the second-best rookie behind standout former F3000 rival Sebastian Bourdais at defending champion squad Newman-Haas.
When newly-signed Chip Ganassi Racing driver Tony Renna was tragically killed in a testing crash at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, it was Manning that Ganassi turned to for its own IRL title defence in 2004, Scott Dixon having swept to the 2003 title in engine partner Toyota’s final year as a true contender.
Impressive form with Walker Racing in 2003 led to Ganassi IRL opportunity, just at the point its engines were uncompetitive
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Driving for Ganassi has tended to be a silver bullet for open-wheel success in the US, but Manning’s move couldn’t have come at a worse time. Its Toyota engines were no match for the Hondas of the rival Andretti-Green squad, Tony Kanaan dominating the year to end up as champion. Dixon and Manning finished 10th and 11th in points – the Brit missing the final two races after a heavy qualifying shunt at Fontana – and it was little better in 2005 when Toyota protégé Ryan Briscoe joined the team.
Manning was actually the best-placed of the trio in the standings (13th, with Dixon 15th and Briscoe 17th) when he was unceremoniously dumped after retiring early at Milwaukee – a move with hindsight that was to make space for champion-elect Dan Wheldon for 2006. He spent most of 2006 on the sidelines before returning for 2007 with Foyt Enterprises, but a second at Watkins Glen in 2008 was his only podium for AJ Foyt’s small team.
By this time Ganassi had hit its stride again, partnered back with Honda again, as Dixon won the 2008 Indianapolis 500 on his way to the title. Not that it was much consolation to Manning, whose final Indycar appearances came in 2009 for Dreyer & Reinbold Racing, his top-line career coming to a close after the 2010 Daytona 24 Hours.
But what of the seat he’d passed up back in 2003? In his place, 2001 Japanese F3 champion Treluyer stepped up to partner Motoyama and finished second in the points, winning twice to establish himself as a series mainstay. He was a race winner in each of the next four seasons and claimed the 2006 title, while building up a career as a handy endurance racer. The Frenchman was picked up by Audi for 2010, going on to claim three Le Mans victories as part of the axis with fellow ex-Nippon racer Andre Lotterer and Marcel Fassler.
Today, Manning’s racing involvement is on a limited scale having closed down his simulator business during the pandemic, but has spent the year mentoring his godson Seb Priaulx – son of tin-top ace Andy – who won this year's Porsche Carrera Cup North America title. Does he ever wonder what could have been if he’d eschewed America and taken the plunge in Japan?
“I think I’d still be there right now racing, I really do,” he says. “If I was in Benoit’s position, I’m sure I would have stayed for as long as he did.
“I did follow [Treluyer’s] career path with some [interest] though I wasn’t jealous because I felt I’d achieved a lot of what I’d wanted. I’d have liked to have won some more IndyCar or Champ Car races, but situations in motor racing to win are few and far between.
Treluyer took the Impul Formula Nippon seat Manning vacated and used it as the launchpad for a successful Le Mans career
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“Another year at Arden and I’d have probably won every race and the championship. Or another year or two at Ganassi with the Honda badge on my shoulder and maybe I’d have won the [Indy] 500 and some races and been challenging Dixon to this day.
“As a European it’s difficult because Japan is a long way away from everywhere. By the time I’d stopped with IndyCar, I had a wife and kids coming along, a very solid base in America – going to race and live in Japan, which you would need to, wasn’t on the table then. But if the Champ Car thing hadn’t lasted as long as it did, I feel like I would probably be out there now.
"They’re trying to win races and they’re very much engineering and racing-orientated rather than these hospital environment raceshops that are trying to attract the rich dads to spend money with the teams" Darren Manning
“I absolutely loved it out there, the language barrier wasn’t as big of a deal as you would think. You definitely could make yourself understood.
“I was arriving at a time when half a million-pound Formula 3 budgets were just starting to come into the melee in Europe with the fancy awnings and trucks, but Japan is not like that. It’s just about racing, not about how it looks. They’re not trying to attract the drivers with sponsorship, they’re trying to win races and they’re very much engineering and racing-orientated rather than these hospital environment raceshops that are trying to attract the rich dads to spend money with the teams.
“I don’t know if it's where I’m from, growing up in Yorkshire and not having any money, but I really thrived in that environment. I loved the country, I loved the people.”
Manning is content with his decision to head for the US, where he's now settled with his family
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