Japanese racing legend Kunimitsu Takahashi dies at 82

In a career that spanned five decades, Takahashi pioneered Japanese riders in Grand Prix motorcycle racing before embarking on a successful career on four wheels that saw him win single-seaters, sports prototypes and touring cars.

Since his retirement from professional racing at the age of 59, Takahashi has remained a fixture on Japan’s motorsport scene through team ownership, with his eponymous team Team Kunimitsu claiming two SUPER titles. GT in 2018 and 2020.

Having emerged as a leading talent on Japan’s national bicycle racing scene in the late 1950s as a teenager, Takahashi was selected as Honda’s works rider for the brand’s assault on the FIM Road Racing World Championship in 1960.

The following year, he became the first Japanese rider to win a race in any class when he took victory at the West German GP in the 250cc class at Hockenheim at the age of 21. He would go on to take another three wins in the 125cc GP. class, all with Honda machinery.

Kunimitsu Takahashi

Kunimitsu Takahashi

Photo by: Kunimitsu Takahashi

A life-threatening accident at the 1962 Isle of Man TT and subsequent loss of form convinced Takahashi to turn his attention to auto racing in 1965. By joining Nissan, he contributed to the success of cars such as the R380 prototype and the Skyline 2000 GT-R. tourism in the late 1960s and early 1970s, when Japan’s domestic scene was still in its infancy.

Takahashi would also prove proficient in single-seaters, first entering the All-Japan Formula 2000 series (the predecessor to modern Super Formula) in 1975. He finished runner-up in 1977 to Kazuyoshi Hoshino, and made a start at the end of that year. Formula 1 only at the Japanese Grand Prix, finishing ninth in a privateer Tyrrell 007.

Although he would remain competitive in single-seaters well into the 1980s, Takahashi’s greatest professional successes would come in sports cars. In 1985-87, he won three consecutive All-Japan Sports Prototype series titles at the wheel of a Nova Engineering Porsche 962 and added a fourth crown to his resume in 1989.

By this time, Takahashi had established himself as a Le Mans 24 Hours regular, making five consecutive appearances between 1986 and 1990 in a Kremer Racing Porsche, although he only managed a best finish of ninth in 1988 and only one other classified finish in that span. .

The Kunimitsu team was formed in 1992 to take on the Japan Touring Car Championship, and in 1994, the team entered the newly formed Japan GT Championship (JGTC), the forerunner of modern SUPER GT, in a Porsche 911 RSR. . He and his teammate Keiichi Tsuchiya earned the team’s first win that season at Sugo.

That same year, Takahashi would return to Le Mans with Kremer Racing in a Honda NSX GT2, sharing the cockpit with Tsuchiya and Akira Iida. The trio would return in 1995, this time under the Team Kunimitsu banner, and their victory in the GT2 class was the first for a Japanese entrant with a Japanese car and an all-Japanese driver line-up.

The Kunimitsu team switched to JGTC from Honda machinery in 1996, beginning a partnership that continues to this day, and he would go on to take two more wins before finally closing the curtain on his professional career at the end of the 1999 season.

Takahashi would remain involved with JGTC (renamed SUPER GT in 2005) not only running his team, but also in his role as president of the GTA championship promoter, which he held from the organization’s formation in 1993 until 2007.

Despite semi-regular race wins and a few near misses, championship success would elude the Kunimitsu team until 2018, the year Formula 1 champion Jenson Button joined the team to partner Naoki Yamamoto. The pair prevailed in a tense showdown with the TOM’S Lexus team to give Honda its first SUPER GT title since 2010.

Yamamoto would lead Kunimitsu to a second title in three years in 2020, this time with Tadasuke Makino as his teammate following Button’s departure in late 2019.

That year, Takahashi was also honored by the Japanese Ministry of Education, Culture, Science, Sports and Technology for his achievements and his outstanding contribution to the promotion of sport in Japan.

Speaking at a special award ceremony held in Tokyo to mark the occasion, he said: “I became interested in motorcycles and motorsports more than 60 years ago, when I was 18 years old. At that time, there was no bullet train and no Tomei. [the main freeway linking Tokyo and Nagoya]but I was lucky to meet [Honda founder] Soichiro Honda and I were able to participate in the world championship.

“In motorsport, whether on two or four wheels, no results can be achieved without the combined efforts of many people. It is thanks to all of you that I have been able to dedicate more than 60 years of my life to racing. I am honored beyond words.”

Kunimitsu Takahashi

Kunimitsu Takahashi

Photo from: Motorsport.com / Japan