For all that we bemoan ‘pay drivers’ in F1 – people who have a place in the sport simply because of the sponsorship money, or occasionally personal cash, that they bring, rather than pure talent – if I win Euromillions this week I still won’t be lining up on the grid in Melbourne next year, much though I’d love to. This is because, sensibly, the governing bodies decree that you have to have a minimum level of talent before you can share a track with 21 others hurtling round in exposed cockpits at 180mph.
I once drove an F3 car as a result of a (very welcome) Christmas gift – I wasn’t absolutely terrible, but neither was I particularly good, and my abiding memory will be of overcooking my entry to a corner, and spinning through 180 degrees so that I was facing the wrong way, whilst two other novices were hurtling at high speed towards me. I only just managed to retain control of my bowels and bladder while, for a five seconds that I will never forget, idly wondering if my compatriots would be able to avoid a rather unpleasant head-on collision….
For people, unlike me, blessed with a modicum of talent, however, the passport to racing in F1 is the attainment of an FIA ‘superlicence’. This is awarded only to “those who have met the criteria of success in junior motorsport categories, or in exceptional circumstances, those who have not met those criteria but have demonstrated ‘outstanding ability in single-seater formula cars’ and achieved 300 kilometres (190 miles) of running in a Formula One”. Spinning an F3 car and posting the 4th fastest time out of seven utter novices on a small track in Lancashire just won’t cut it, sadly. So there’s no need for me to ring Toto Wolff any time soon.
Indeed, as of next year (2016) it has become even harder to attain a superlicence – as a driver must accumulate 40 points by dint of their championship positions in lesser formulae according to a new but rather arcane and complex scoring system. The message from the governing bodies is clear – F1 should be a sport for the very best and the very best only.
To date over 400 drivers have qualified for a superlicence – not all have made it to F1, but at least they could argue they had the ability to do so. On the other hand, only one driver in the history of the sport has ever had their superlicence revoked. Step forward, Yuji Ide….
Ide was a little-heralded and obscure driver back in 2006 when he was suddenly thrust, at the relatively advanced age of 31, into the top echelons of the sport. The new Super Aguri team, run by former driver Aguri Suzuki, was joining the sport that year with the help of Honda, and was keen to show its Japanese credentials. To this end, it signed Takuma Sato, a prior podium finisher who had proved fast but erratic in his hitherto career at Jordan and the works Honda team, but at least he was someone who indisputably deserved his place in the sport. It was also, fatefully, decided that the second driver would also be Japanese. The issue being that at the time, the talent pool in Japan was a little shallower than it had been for some time. Hence the signing, from apparently nowhere, of Ide.
His background wasn’t staggering, it must be said. He had spent the majority of his career in his native Japan, coming second in the All-Japan F3 championship at his fourth attempt, before moving to Europe briefly in 2002 to compete in the French F3 equivalent. This was Ide’s sixth year in F3 – an unusually long time to spend at the level without moving up, and it’s fair to say that results were average. He did win one race, but finished seventh in the championship, and his team-mate, one Renaud Derlot (so obscure that he doesn’t even merit a Wikipedia page) finished 100 points higher in the standings, and as runner-up. None of the drivers in the championship that year ever subsequently really made a mark on motorsport, so it wasn’t the strongest competition the world has ever seen.
Suitably chastened, Ide retreated to his homeland and turned to ‘Formula Nippon’, a Japanese F3000 equivalent that often seems like a means to an end for mediocre Japanese drivers rather than the feeder formula to F1 it aspires to be. His first foray in 2003 was as mediocre as anything else up to this point, as he finished 19th overall, but a move to Team Impul for 2004 saw an upturn in results, Ide finishing third overall behind Richard Lyons and Andre Lotterer. Incidentally, a reasonable indication of the championship’s quality can be shown by the fact that the 3 European drivers competing , who had come up through the European ranks, finished 1st, 2nd and 4th (out of 17) respectively, in contrast to efforts of the rest of the home-grown field. In 2005 he did one better, winning two races and finishing second in the championship behind Satoshi Motoyama. Motoyama was by then nearing 35, and perhaps this is why he was overlooked when Super Aguri started casting their net in the winter of that year. He couldn’t realistically have done much worse than Ide.
In fairness to our hero, he did face a number of obstacles, once signed by the new F1 team. First, although Super Aguri were keen to be as ‘Japanese’ as possible, it remains a fact that the home of motorsport is the UK – the team were UK based and had mainly European staff. The fact that Ide couldn’t speak a word of anything other than Japanese certainly wouldn’t help him in giving feedback to the engineers, or indeed, in much else. Second, as per many new teams SA struggled to get their car ready for the new season, such that poor Yuji’s preparation for his big debut in Bahrain was a measly 44km of testing in Barcelona. Understandably, the team viewed Sato as their best prospect for the year, and given that Sato speaks excellent English, he was the clear choice to set up the car and work with the team in ironing out any gremlins before the new season. It was Sato, therefore, that did the bulk of the testing, reducing Ide to a bit-part role.
In Bahrain, Super Aguri proved itself perhaps a little less than super, and its car was comfortably the slowest. Sato managed a time of 1:37.411, a good second and a half off the pace of the next slowest car of Tiago Monteiro. Ide? Ide was a fairly staggering 2.8 seconds further back, on 1:40.270, and had already encountered the ire of some of the other drivers for both not looking in his mirrors, and some erratic and unpredicatble driving. On-board footage exists of Ide in Bahrain practice (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yiyTqpCPYrc), and what is noticeable is that the line he takes into many of the corners is, er, different, to say the least….
By some miracle, Ide wasn’t last on the grid, as Raikkonen had an accident that meant he had to sit out qualifying in the Ferrari, but he was last by the first corner, and was being lapped by the leaders as early as lap 11. His first-ever pitstop was a disaster too, as Ide apparently didn’t know how to engage the car in neutral, necessitating one of the mechanics had to reach into the cockpit and do it for him… His agonies (and those of the frontrunners trying to lap him) were over on lap 35, when the engine blew. “I don’t know what I could do to make the car better,” he said after, reassuringly for the team.
And so it was on to Malaysia, where Ide was last in every session, and this time firmly occupied the back row of the grid. Ide had at least raced in Sepang before, but his experience counted for naught as he remained over a second shy of Sato’s times, and was running a distant last again before his throttle broke on Lap 33.
The third Grand Prix was at Melbourne, and here Yuji really started attracting the annoyance of his fellow drivers. In first qualifying, he seemed to have absolutely no awareness that Barrichello was coming up behind him, and spoiled the Brazilian’s lap entirely, and only Barrichello’s quick reactions avoided an accident. Given that Barrichello was a driver for the Honda team that was effectively bankrolling Super Aguri, and the incident left Barrichello stranded way down in 16th in the grid, this incident did nothing to further Ide’s reputation among the sport’s big guns, or his ultimate employers. Ide’s time in qualifying, furthermore, was a truly spectacular 3.3 seconds slower than Sato’s, and many were questioning whether he was good enough for this level.
Again, he started last, and at least finished this race, albeit 3 laps down, including being lapped by his team-mate, in the same car. Somewhat cruelly, then, given his struggles, the team offered Ide no running whatsoever in the test that preceded the fourth race at Imola, again preferring Sato to run the car. Perhaps they knew what was coming.
The race at Imola was the last to date at the famous (and because of 1994, sadly infamous) track in Northern Italy, and again Ide was plumb last on the grid, again over a second and a half of shy of Sato’s sister machine. One suspects that, by this time, Ide was sick of being last – as he had been in virtually every session and race since the season started. Maybe he was under pressure already. But on the first lap, Yuji decided to go for it – diving down the inside of Christijan Albers’s Midland car.
Unfortunately, Ide had horribly misjudged his braking on cold tyres, and he simply slammed into the side of the Midland, launching Albers into a series of frightening barrel-rolls that culminating in the Dutchman landing in the gravel upside down, but thankfully unhurt. Perhaps in consequence of the shunt, Ide’s suspension gave out on lap 22, while he was running….last.
The FIA had seen enough. The governing body took a dim view of Ide’s obvious lack of pace, but the Barrichello and Albers incidents were the final straws. It was decreed that he was a danger to the other drivers, and in an unprecedented move, his superlicence was revoked.
This presumably came as a shock to Ide, who announced that he was preparing for the next race at the Nurburgring by – wait for it – watching old videos of races so that he could learn the lines….
Effectively chucked out of F1 for being too poor after just four races, Ide retreated to Formula Nippon, where he failed to emulate his relative successes of 2004 & 2005, scoring just 9 points over the next 4 seasons, with a best finish of 13th in the championship. Despite Aguri Suzuki promising that he would “look after Yuji’s interests and support his continuing efforts within the team, including his path back to a Formula One race seat”, he never got near F1 again.
Meanwhile, Frenchman Franck Montagny replaced Ide at Super Aguri, the team seemingly realising that you can only run two Japanese drivers if there are two decent Japanese drivers out there to run.
Ide didn’t get a proper chance in testing, and had language problems, so his struggles can be understood to a degree, but when Aguri Suzuki later said “In practice on Friday and Saturday, I had to ask Yuji ‘what do you need now’ and because he’s so inexperienced in F1 even I found his answers, given in Japanese, hard to understand” it’s clear that here was a man for whom his big break in F1 was simply a bridge too far.