Shinji Nakano is a Japanese racing driver, most known as a former Formula One driver. He participated two seasons in the Formula One World Championship, recording 17 starts with Prost team in 1997 and 16 starts with Minardi in 1998.
After leaving F1, Nakano competed three seasons, from 2000 to 2002, in the North American CART Championship. In recent years, Nakano competed in different sports car racing competitions, including 24h Le Mans, recording 10 participations in world's greatest endurance race.
As a teenager, Nakano was a successful kart racer
Shinji Nakano was born on April 1, 1971, in Osaka, Japan. Influenced by his father Tsuneharu, who was also a racing driver, Shinji started a racing career at the age 11, driving go-karts. In 1987, Shinji became the first Japanese-born driver and the youngest driver to win the International Karting Grand Prix.
Two seasons of racing in UK and Europe
The next step was the Japanese Formula 3, in which Nakano debuted in 1989. After just one season in the Japanese F3 competition, Shinji moved to the UK in 1990, entering British Formula Vauxhall Lotus championship and European Formula Opel Lotus championship. He was fifth in the British championship in 1990. A year later, he finished 12th in the Formula Opel Lotus Euroseries and then returned to Japan.
Returning to Japanese championships in 1992
In 1992, Shinji continued his Japanese career where he stopped a few years ago, in the Japanese Formula 3, but he also entered the Formula 3000. Nakano spent four seasons in the F3 and F3000 championship, gaining the biggest success in 1994 when he finished third in the Formula 3 standings.
Stepping to Formula Nippon and testing an F1 car
In 1996, Shinji stepped into the Formula Nippon, the highest-grade Japanese single-seater competition. He was driving the #8 Dome F104i (Mugen) for Avex Dome Mugen team, scoring three podiums throughout a year and finishing sixth in the final standings.
During 1996, Nakano was also a part of Dome F1 team's preparations for the 1997 Formula One season. He served as a test driver with their Dome F105 car. The team never entered Formula One, but Nakano found his place in the world's premier single-seater competition.
Formula One debut with Alain Prost's team
Nakano joined Prost Gauloises Blondes team, owned by four-time F1 champion Alain Prost. Japanese drivers get a seat in the French team because of his connection with Honda, as Prost was using Mugen-Honda V10 engine for their JS45 cars. Nakano was driving the #15, with Olivier Panis as a teammate in the #14 car.
Nakano made his debut at the 1997 Australian Grand Prix in Melbourne, finishing in the seventh place. Nakano scored his first point at Canadian Grand Prix, finishing sixth. Olivier Panis was badly injured in that race, breaking both legs in a high-speed crash, so he was replaced by Jarno Trulli in following seven races. Nakano had one more finish among point scorers, with sixth place at Hungaroring. At the end of the season, Nakano was 18th in the final standings.
Driving for Minardi in the 1998 Formula 1 season
For the 1998 season, Prost switched to Peugeot power and dropped Nakano, taking Jarno Trulli as a full-time driver. However, Nakano found a seat in the Fondmetal Minardi team. He was driving the #22 M198-Ford, with Esteban Tuero in the #23 car as his teammate.
Nakano's best result was the seventh place at Canadian Grand Prix at Circuit Gilles Villeneuve. Without points on his account, he was classified behind seventeen drivers who scored at least one point. Nakano's last Formula 1 race was the Japanese Grand Prix at Suzuka Circuit.
Moving to CART Championship in 2000
In 1999 Formula One season, there was no any free seat for Nakano, so he spent a season as a test driver for the Jordan team, which was using Mugen-Honda engines.
Nakano realized that his F1 career was over, so he moved to the United States to compete in the CART FedEx Championship Series. He joined Walker Racing, driving the #5 Reynard-Honda in 17 races throughout a season. He recorded 12 DNFs, finishing best in the 8th place two times, at Homestead-Miami Speedway and the streets of Houston. He was 24th in the points at the end of the season.
Two American seasons with Fernandez Racing
For the 2001 CART season, Nakano moved to Fernandez Racing to drive Honda-powered #52 Reynard. His best result was an eighth place again, at his home race at Twin Ring Motegi. At the end of the season, he was 26th in the points.
Nakano managed to score two Top 5 results in 2002, still with Fernandez Racing. He was fifth at Chicago Motor Speedway and fourth at Toronto's street circuit. Nakano even scored one fastest lap, in the season's finale at Mexico's Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez. Nakano finished the season in the 17th place.
Nakano participated at 2003 Indianapolis 500
In 2003, Shinji Nakano participated in only two races of the IndyCar Series, driving the #54 Dallara-Chevrolet for Beck Motorsports in the Indy Japan 300 at Twin Ring Motegi and in the Indianapolis 500.
Nakano finished 11th in the Japanese round of the IndyCar Series. At Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Nakano qualified 15th and finished 14th. It was his last race in the single-seater career, as he switched to sports car racing since 2004.
A season in the Japanese GT championship
In 2004, Nakano returned to Japan and participated full season in the All-Japan GT Championship, driving the #100 Honda NSX for Team Kunimitsu. His co-driver was Hiroki Katoh. Not scoring wins or podiums, Nakano and Katoh finished 13th in the final standings.
Two unsuccessful Le Mans attempts with Courage Competition
In 2005, Nakano debuted at 24 hours of Le Mans. He was a member of the #13 Courage Competition crew, driving the Courage C60 Hybrid LMP1 prototype together with Bruce Jouanny and Jonathan Cochet. Thy retired after 52 laps because of an accident.
In 2006, Nakano joined Courage Competition in the Le Mans Endurance Series, sharing a Courage LC70 LMP1 prototype with Haruki Kurosawa and Jean-Marc Gounon. A trio competed also at 24h Le Mans, not finishing the race.
Two more retirements at Le Mans
In 2007, Nakano's biggest success was the second place at Japan Le Mans Challenge in Sugo, where he competed with Team Mugen's Courage LC70. His co-driver was Haruki Kurosawa. In the Le Mans Series at Le Mans 24h, he joined British team Creation Autosportif. His third Le Mans participation was again unsuccessful, finishing after 55 laps. His co-drivers in the #9 Creation CA07 LMP1 prototype were Jamie Campbell-Walter and Felipe Ortiz.
Nakano recorded fourth consecutive retirement at Le Mans in 2008, participating in the race with #21 Epsilon Euskadi EE1 LMP1 prototype. His co-drivers were Jean-Marc Gounon and Stefan Johansson. With the same car, Nakano participated in two more races of the Le Mans Series, sharing a car with Adrian Valles.
Asian Le Mans Series winner in 2009
In 2009, Nakano participated in the inaugural Asian Le Mans Series, winning the race at Okayama and earning the invitation to the Le Mans 24-hour race next year. Nakano won the race in the #17 Pescarolo 01 Evo prototype, sharing a car with Christophe Tinseau.
However, he didn't participate at 2010 Le Mans race. He returned to Le Mans in 2011, as a member of OAK Racing's #49 crew, sharing the Pescarolo LMP2 prototype with Jan Charouz and Nicolas de Crem. Nakano finally reached the finish line at Circuit de la Sarthe, finishing 14th overall and fifth in LMP2 class.
Four more Le Mans attempts with four teams
In recent years, between 2012 and 2016, Nakano participated four more times at Le Mans with four different teams. In 2012, he finished 10th in the LMP2 class with Boutsen Ginion Racing's Oreca 03 (Nissan), sharing a car with Bastien Briere and Jens Petersen. In 2013, Nakano drove Oreca 03 again but, this time, for Delta-ADR. He recorded one more DNF.
In 2014, Nakano was driving Ferrari 458 Italia GT2 at Le Mans, driving for Team Taisan in the GTE Am class. His co-drivers were Martin Rich and Pierre Ehret. They finished 8th in GTE Am class. Nakano's last Le Mans attempt was in 2016 when he was driving Oreca 03R-Judd for the Swiss Race Performance team. He, James Winslow and Nicolas Leutwiler finished 17th in the LMP2 class.
Three victories at Fuji Speedway
Besides recent appearance at Le Mans, Nakano occasionally participated in the FIA WEC races, Asian Le Mans Series races or European Le Mans Series. He scored several notable results. In October 2012, he was the LMP2 class winner in the FIA WEC race at Fuji, together with John Martin and Tor Graves in ADR-Delta's Oreca 03.
In September 2013, he scored GTE class win at Fuji 3 Hours driving Ferrari 458 Italia GTC for Taisan Ken Endless. Nakano's next win was again at Fuji Speedway, in October 2015, in the Asian Le Mans Series race. This time, he was the overall winner with Race Performance's Oreca 03R, together with Niki Leutwiler. A month later, Nakano and Leutwiler won one more ALMS race, at Sepang.