The forgotten Japan successes of an ex-Jordan F1 racer

Ralph Firman is best remembered for his one and only season in Formula 1 with Jordan in 2003, but with a Super GT record that still holds up well today, his considerable successes in Japanese racing are perhaps not as celebrated as they should be.

Daisuke Ito, Ralph Firman (Arta NSX)

Two decades ago this month, Firman scored his first and only F1 point with an eighth-place finish in the Spanish Grand Prix. It turned out to be the high point of a tough campaign with Jordan, which by now was in its death throes ahead of being purchased by the Midland Group in early 2005.

Fast forward a little over a decade, and Firman clinched his 12th and final Super GT victory at Sugo. That year, the British driver with an Irish licence elected to call time on a career that yielded title honours in both Formula Nippon (now Super Formula) and Super GT.

Indeed, while Firman is best known for his brief Jordan stint, from 1997 until his retirement, almost his entire career was spent in Japan - besides the year in F1, only in 2004 and 2011 was he not racing in either of the country’s two top series before hanging up his helmet. When he did call it quits, Firman did so as Super GT’s joint-most successful ‘gaijin’ driver in terms of wins, and only the third from overseas to triumph in both the sportscar series and in Formula Nippon after Pedro de la Rosa in 1997 and Richard Lyons in 2004. With a little more luck, he could have been at least a three-time champion in JGTC/Super GT.

It’s a shame, therefore, that Firman’s illustrious career in the Land of the Rising Sun hasn’t been documented, at least in English, as well as it might have been.

“At the time there wasn’t much press coverage of Japanese racing in Europe, so that is probably why hasn’t been much written about it,” Firman says as he prepares to shed some light on his six seasons in Formula Nippon and 10 in the top class of JGTC/Super GT.

We begin the story in early 1997, as Firman searches for options to move up the single-seater ladder off the back of his British Formula 3 title and subsequent Macau Grand Prix win. In the end, the decision was made to try Formula Nippon, very much still in vogue in Europe at the time after Ralf Schumacher’s title the previous year, with Team TMS.

“Budgets were quite steep in Formula 3000, but I could get paid to race in Japan and it was established that you could get back to Europe at the time, so it felt like a good path to try,” recalls Firman. “The team was fairly inexperienced, and they certainly weren’t a top team. It all happened quite late, I didn’t look at Japan until way after Macau, and the top teams were all full.

“We had Paul Crosby come and help engineer the cars, he was a very experienced Formula 3000 engineer in Europe, we brought him on after a few races and it was great to have him come over. We started getting good results after that.”

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Pedro de la Rosa (9) dominated in 1997 for Team Nova, but Firman couldn't find similar success with the team

Pedro de la Rosa (9) dominated in 1997 for Team Nova, but Firman couldn't find similar success with the team

Photo by: Motorsport Images

The highlight of the season for Firman was a second-place finish at Sugo, with a smattering of other top-six finishes leaving him eighth in the standings and fourth among Reynard chassis users that made up the bulk of the grid. De la Rosa meanwhile took an utterly dominant title using the less-favoured Lola.

Firman appeared to be in a good position to challenge for the title in his second season as he took over de la Rosa’s seat at Team Nova in 1998. But Lola’s financial woes (following its disastrously ill-fated F1 project) meant the team looked elsewhere, forging an alliance with American firm G-Force, and that meant Firman spent the year swapping between the two chassis while team-mate Masami Kageyama had a Lola for the whole season.

Firman’s best results of the year, trips to the podium at Sugo and Fuji, came when he was in the Lola, but the British chassis was no longer the one to have as it had been the previous year, with Satoshi Motoyama winning the title for Team LeMans in a Reynard.

“The Lola was the best car in 1997, but in 1998 [sole supplier] Bridgestone changed their tyres and Reynard was the car to have,” remembers Firman. “Both of them produced excellent chassis, but no matter how good your car is, it always comes down to the one thing touching the road, which is the tyres. It happens often in motorsport, that a new tyre compound or construction comes along that just suits one car better than another.”

“It was good to put everything I’d learned in Japan up to that point together and win the [2002] championship - it took a bit longer than I thought!” Ralph Firman

Nova switched fully to G-Force in 1999 - which had “some inherent issues that we never managed to sort out” - but Firman was able to squeeze a first victory from it in that year’s season finale at Suzuka en route to fourth overall. The following year was tougher as Toranosuke Takagi went on a rampage with Nakajima Racing on his return to Japan from F1, leaving slim pickings for the rest - second at Sugo was the best Firman could muster.

Takagi left at the end of the year to pursue an opportunity in CART, and an approach from Satoru Nakajima finally gave Firman the chance to get back into a Reynard, and with one of the undoubted top teams.

“It was like a top European team, very professional, and my engineer [Kotaro] Tanaka-san could speak English,” says Firman.

But after two seasons exclusively in the G-Force, adapting back to the Reynard proved tougher than anticipated: “It took a bit of time to get the car to suit my driving style and for me to feel confident. It wasn’t easy to jump straight in.”

Two wins for Nakajima at the end of 2001 proved a springboard to a 2002 title campaign

Two wins for Nakajima at the end of 2001 proved a springboard to a 2002 title campaign

Photo by: Motorsport Images

A gearbox failure while Firman was leading at Mine scuppered any hopes of a late title challenge, but he won the final two races at Motegi and Suzuka to give himself strong momentum heading into 2002. After a tough year-long battle with defending champion Motoyama, Firman edged it by two points, winning one less race than his Team Impul rival (four versus five) but proving the more consistent of the pair over the season.

“It was good to put everything I’d learned in Japan up to that point together and win the championship - it took a bit longer than I thought!” admits Firman. “I think I was unlucky to join Team Nova, which was an excellent team as well, just as they changed chassis and that the chassis was uncompetitive. It wasn’t for a lack of trying on the part of the team or G-Force, but they just couldn’t get anywhere near the level of Reynard.”

Firman also has high praise for Motoyama, who would go on to win four titles in Formula Nippon but never drove in F1 beyond a Friday practice session for Jordan at Suzuka in 2003 and another test for Renault.

“He was one of the best drivers I ever raced again,” Firman says. “He was exceptionally good in Japan and he probably deserved a chance in Formula 1. Those two years were some of the toughest battles I had in my career.”

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Firman very nearly became a double champion in Japan in 2002, as he embarked on his first season in what was then still known as the JGTC at the wheel of a Honda. He had previously dabbled in the series in 1997 in a TMS-run Porsche 911, and then again in 1999 at the wheel of Nova’s Mitsubishi FTO in the GT300 class, before returning to the GT500 class for the 2000 campaign with Toyota Supra squad SARD.

Focusing purely on his Formula Nippon drive in 2001, Firman paired up with his team-mate from the single-seater series, Tsugio Matsuda, to pilot a Honda NSX-GT for Nakajima in 2002. With three wins from eight starts, the duo ought to have won the championship, and probably would have done without a small hiccup in the penultimate round at Mine.

Firman takes up the story: “In those days, there were very big weight penalties, but you could also get rid of the weight by finishing lower down. At Mine, Matsuda had planned on letting one car past with a couple of laps to go, to get rid of some weight for the season finale, which we felt was more beneficial than gaining the points. But there were two cars close together, and they both snuck through. And then we lost the title by a point…”

Despite that mishap, Firman still won the title that really mattered as far as his F1 ambitions went, and he feels that his stint in Formula Nippon was ideal preparation for his move to the big-time with Jordan in 2003.

Firman felt Motoyama deserved a shot in F1 after battling against him in Japan

Firman felt Motoyama deserved a shot in F1 after battling against him in Japan

Photo by: Russell Batchelor / Motorsport Images

“There was always a development war going on with the aero, and you could make so many changes to the cars,” he says. “We also did a lot of tyre testing with Bridgestone, trying different compounds and constructions. You didn’t get those kinds of opportunities in Europe; the cars were very fixed and changes were quite limited.”

Sadly for Firman, he had the misfortune of joining Jordan in its least competitive season up to that point. Although his team-mate Giancarlo Fisichella capitalised on good strategy to win a chaotic Brazilian Grand Prix, that proved very much a one-off as the Ford-powered EJ13 received virtually no development all year amid a lack of finance.

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Eighth at Barcelona was as good as it would get all year for Firman as his season was compromised further by numerous car failures, one of which caused a huge crash in practice at the Hungaroring that would sideline him for two races as Zsolt Baumgartner took over. With the team increasingly desperate for funds, he lost his seat to Giorgio Pantano for 2004.

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Firman would be the last driver to make the leap to F1 directly from Formula Nippon - which rebranded as Super Formula in 2013 - until Stoffel Vandoorne some 14 years later. And it was clear during his tenure in the Japanese series that its popularity as a stepping stone from Europe was waning somewhat. When he joined the series in 1997, he was one of nine foreigners on the grid. But by the end of 2002, he was one of three.

Firman would be the last driver to make the leap to F1 directly from Formula Nippon - which rebranded as Super Formula in 2013 - until Stoffel Vandoorne some 14 years later

Asked why he felt this was the case, Firman makes an astute observation: “I think it was around the same time that Formula 3000 started following all the F1 races. And when you’re racing in front of F1 teams all the time, it makes a big difference. That’s the only thing I can think of because as a championship and a training ground, it was excellent.”

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After his losing his Jordan drive, Firman dabbled in World Series by Nissan, which morphed into Formula Renault 3.5 the year after. He joined the Gabord squad, which had taken another F1 outcast, Ricardo Zonta, to the title in 2002 and repeated the feat with Franck Montagny the following year, but he left just two rounds into the season. “It didn’t excite me; it wasn’t quite what I was expecting,” Firman says of his brief time in the series.

Besides that, his only other engagements in 2004 would be a first outing in the Le Mans 24 Hours with Jan Lammers’ Racing for Holland team in a Dome S101-Judd, and a testing programme with the A1GP series, which was preparing to launch in 2005. Japan wasn’t on Firman’s radar until he was suddenly contacted by Dome about the possibility of returning to the now-rebranded Super GT series with Aguri Suzuki’s ARTA Honda team.

Firman feels F3000's late 1990s boom might have reduced Formula Nippon's appeal to European drivers

Firman feels F3000's late 1990s boom might have reduced Formula Nippon's appeal to European drivers

Photo by: Motorsport Images

“Dome, which was running Aguri’s team, had a driver who wasn’t performing [Jonathan Cochet], they wanted to get rid of him and they asked me if I’d like to race again,” explains Firman. “I flew out and did a test at TI Aida [now Okayama] and we made a contract on the spot. I was sharing the car with Daisuke Ito, who was extremely quick and a great team-mate. We had very similar driving styles, which was one of the keys to our success. 

“We started off with a turbo engine that year, but mid-season we switched back to a normally-aspirated engine and that was when we really went on a roll. We were so close to the title again… at Motegi, we were leading and we would have probably won easily when the gear lever fell off. Without losing those points we would have won the championship.”

Since Firman had raced for Nakajima in 2002, the GT500 regulations had undergone huge changes, allowing the manufacturers much more technical freedom.

“The cars had taken a massive step forward,” he says. “They had been more like GT3 cars previously, but when I went back in 2005 they had become full carbon chassis, very impressive - almost like an LMP1 car.” 

Another change that Firman had noticed in his three years away from Japan was the rising popularity of Super GT compared to the JGTC years, establishing a trend that continues today: “There were a lot more spectators coming to the tracks, and there seemed to be a shift away from Nippon and towards GT being the dominant category in Japan.”

Firman returned for another crack at the title alongside Ito in 2006, but a series of mishaps in the final three races - a loose wheel for Ito at Motegi; being hit from behind by old team-mate Matsuda (now a works Nissan driver) at Autopolis, which resulted in Firman being shown the black-and-orange flag for a loose bumper; and then more first-lap contact in the final race at Fuji - left the ARTA crew a disappointing seventh in the final standings.

The following year proved a very different story. Honda’s NSX-GT was the dominant car following further engine and chassis upgrades, scoring six poles out of nine and five wins. Three of those wins were scored by Firman and Ito, who became the first pairing to ever win the GT500 title with a race to spare, a feat only replicated once in all the years since.

“We learnt a lot from the year before, and the car was excellent,” says Firman of his title-winning season. “There had been further upgrades from Honda on the engine side - at the time they had an incredibly strong group of ex-Formula 1 engineers. There was constant development on the engine and you could really feel the horsepower increases. Dome also did a great job on the aerodynamics and engineering side. It all came together perfectly.”

2007 was the year everything finally clicked into place for Firman, Ito and ARTA

2007 was the year everything finally clicked into place for Firman, Ito and ARTA

Photo by: Yasushi Ishihara

At the end of the season, ARTA and Dome went their separate ways, the latter focusing on running just a single car in Super GT, and the newly-formed Servus Japan group was instead chosen to run what became the #1 car in 2008. At the same time, Ito jumped ship from Honda to Toyota, meaning youngster Takuya Izawa joined Firman in the cockpit.

None of the Honda teams excelled that year, as Nissan dominated the series with its new GT-R, but for ARTA the year was especially tough, with second at Motegi the highlight.

“It was a huge change,” says Firman. “We lost the continuity and it was essentially a learning year for a new team. We couldn’t get the car to work the same way as the year before.”

By the end of the 2009 season, the team had rediscovered its mojo, as Firman and Izawa scored two wins from the last three races to finish second in the points (marking Firman’s third runner-up finish). But another big change was on the horizon as the first-generation NSX-GT made way for the HSV-010 GT in 2010, and ARTA was never able to compete with the other teams in the Honda roster during the four seasons for which the front-engined car was used.

"I loved racing in Japan, the culture, the people, the professionalism. But flying back and forward all the time and not being able to win was getting quite tough" Ralph Firman

Asked to explain the team’s slump, Firman reveals: “I don’t think it was until the final season [in 2013] that I realised that they had actually kept the same car all the way through. We did all the pre-season testing in 2010 missing some stays on the front of the chassis. They only discovered they should have been on the car the day before the first race.

”We also had a big crash in the first race [in 2010], and they didn’t replace the rear adaptor, they just fixed it. So I think it could have been those two things that explained why we never got on top of it.”

After a disappointing 2010 sharing a car with Yuji Ide, Firman left Japan in 2011. In the latter half of the year, he made a handful of outings in a Ferrari 458 GTE car for the Luxury Racing squad, first contesting the Imola round of the Le Mans Series before tackling Petit Le Mans and the Zhuhai finale of the Intercontinental Le Mans Cup.

“It kept me ticking over, but it was difficult to step down to a car with such little downforce compared to what I was used to in Japan. The team wasn’t very good either,” is Firman’s blunt assessment.

Firman ventured away from the Japanese racing scene in 2011 but  struggled to rediscover that winning feeling

Firman ventured away from the Japanese racing scene in 2011 but struggled to rediscover that winning feeling

Photo by: Drew Gibson / Motorsport Images

For 2012, Firman reunited with ARTA, now paired alongside Takashi Kobayashi, but the duo finished dead last in the standings. The following year, which saw Kobayashi make way for Kosuke Matsuura, wasn’t a whole lot better, except for what Firman calls a “lucky” win at Sugo - a famously chaotic wet/dry race in which the leading three cars all somehow contrived to crash into each other on the back straight in the closing stages.

That win proved Firman’s 12th and final victory in Super GT, tying him with Benoit Treluyer (who had departed the previous year) as the series’ most successful-ever foreign driver. Only Satoshi Motoyama and Yuji Tachikawa had more wins at the time, although Matsuda and Ronnie Quintarelli have both gone on to eclipse Firman, who remains a very respectable joint-fifth with Treluyer and former team-mate Ito on the all-time winners’ list in GT500.

What’s more, all of Firman’s victories were scored at the wheel of Honda machinery, making him the brand’s most successful driver in terms of wins, three ahead of Takashi Kogure and Ito (who won three times for Toyota) and four ahead of the best of the current crop, ARTA man Tomoki Nojiri.

“I loved racing in Japan, the culture, the people, the professionalism,” says Firman as he discusses what compelled him to bring his Super GT career to an end in 2013. “But flying back and forward all the time and not being able to win was getting quite tough. When I first raced in Japan, I lived there, but post-F1 I always commuted. It was something like 15 or 20 return flights a year, so it was a lot of travelling. But I enjoyed it a lot.”

The end of Firman’s time in Super GT also marked the end of his professional career as a racing driver. Asked if there was anything else he wanted to achieve, he replies: “I would have liked to race at Le Mans in a proper LMP1 car, but I didn’t get the opportunity again after 2004, although I didn’t chase them properly either because I was so busy with Honda in Japan. I was quite happy for a couple of years not racing, although of course I miss it now.”

Since hanging up his helmet, Firman has followed in his father Ralph Sr’s footsteps by getting involved in the racing car business himself. Recently, he revived the Van Diemen brand that became ubiquitous in junior single-seater racing circles through its decades-long domination of Formula Ford, revealing the new RF350 design last year, and has an eye on the Japanese market too.

It’s unusual for a European driver to end up devoting so much of their career to racing in Japan, but Firman's impressive body of work in the country is further evidence of how a top-line career can be built there. And while his shot in F1 may have not proven quite the golden ticket it seemed, his lengthy stint representing Honda after his Jordan exit shows that, in the world of professional motorsport, there are few opportunities that are more enticing.

Firman showed European drivers can make it big in Japan

Firman showed European drivers can make it big in Japan

Photo by: Eric Gilbert


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