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The last female racer to reach Japan's top level

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The last female racer to reach Japan's top level
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May 16, 2020, 8:02 AM

Having a female driver on the starting grid is actually nothing new for Japan's top single-seater championship. But the last one to have a go disappeared after just two races, having left a poor impression.

When the 2020 Super Formula season finally gets going, Tatiana Calderon is poised to make history by becoming the Japanese championship’s first full-time female participant. But, 23 years ago, another ‘gaijin’ woman with aspirations of one day competing in Formula 1 was trying to establish a foothold in the Far East.

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Even committed motorsport fans would be forgiven for not having heard of Sarah Kavanagh. Perhaps best known for her exploits in the BOSS Formula series for old grand prix cars in the late 1990s and early 2000s, the Irishwoman made two starts in what was then known as Formula Nippon in 1997, generating significant media attention in Japan.

Unfortunately, that attention wasn’t matched by her ability behind the wheel, although anyone at the time who had scrutinised her record in the UK wouldn’t have been surprised.

According to a late 1997 interview with The Irish Times, Kavanagh first took up karting at the age of 18 in 1991, and quickly made the transition to car racing by purchasing an ex-Eddie Irvine Van Diemen Formula Ford, taking part in some low-level English events in 1992.

From there she managed to scrape together the budget to contest the tail-end of the Irish Formula Opel season in 1993 and then the 1994 season using the car Wayne Douglas took to the title the previous year – her only full campaign in the junior single-seater ranks.

That acted as a springboard to a part-season in British Formula Vauxhall series in 1995, and although it’s not clear how many races she did, what is certain is that she didn’t crack the top 10 in the championship standings in either Class A or B. Entry lists at the time listed her as a driver-entrant, so later claims she was part of that year’s championship-winning team (which appears to be a reference to Douglas’ Class B-winning effort) are bogus.

Despite that, Kavanagh was able to find the sponsorship needed to acquire a Cosworth-powered Reynard 95D to race in British Formula 2 in 1996.

Her first race at Silverstone ended with gearbox failure, after she qualified 10th of 12 runners, 3.4s off the pace. Her only other appearance that season came at Donington Park and yielded a single point for a sixth-place finish, two laps down. But that was in a race that featured only six finishers in a thin field of just eight cars.

With British F2 morphing into the very short-lived British Formula 3000 series in 1997, Kavanagh’s old Reynard was no longer eligible. But she could race it in Japan.

Sarah Kavanagh, Team Cerumo

Sarah Kavanagh, Team Cerumo

Photo by: su_san_motorsports

Her interview with The Irish Times states that the opportunity to do so came up after Irvine, by now a bona fide grand prix star with Ferrari, put her in touch with the Cerumo Formula Nippon team, which the Ulsterman raced for in the early 90s before making it to F1.

Cerumo was already planning to run a Lola T96/52 for Hidetoshi Mitsusada (who would become an F1 tester for Benetton in 1999) but agreed to field a second car on the basis that Kavanagh herself would provide it, as well as her own engineer and mechanic.

The deal was announced to the world on April 16, 1997, on the first morning of pre-season testing at Fuji Speedway. But the early signs weren’t exactly promising – future Tyrrell and Arrows F1 driver Toranosuke Takagi topped the two-day test in his Reynard 97D with a best time of 1m14.509s, a little under 13 seconds faster than the best time set by Kavanagh.

Part of the deficit can be put down to the fact she was the only driver in the field saddled with the Cosworth AC engine, as opposed to the favoured Mugen unit, with the power deficit thought to be in the tens of horsepower. On top of that, as well as having to familiarise herself with new tracks and a different working method, Kavanagh also struggled with the Bridgestone tyres used in Japan, having raced on Avon rubber in the UK.

I was not happy. The journalists wanted to know why I had not gone quicker, so did I. I found it very difficult to give them answers or to remain in good spirits

Sarah Kavanagh

Ten days later, it was time for the opening round of the season at Suzuka, although not before a quick trip back to the UK to finish fourth in a BOSS race at Donington Park.

During free practice at Suzuka, Kavanagh set a best time of 1m56.784s, 11.6s off the pace set by Takagi. But come qualifying, complaining about a lack of stability of the rear of the car, she managed only a 1m58.275s, almost 14s adrift of poleman Takagi and crucially leaving her some three seconds outside of the 110 percent bracket needed to qualify.

Recalling the session in a blog post written for her official website (which is still accessible more than 20 years on), Kavanagh wrote: “I wasn’t happy with the changes to the car [since practice]. It was turning in too sharply and unsettling the whole car on entry into the fast corners. I was not happy. The journalists wanted to know why I had not gone quicker, so did I. I found it very difficult to give them answers or to remain in good spirits.”

By now, it seems Kavanagh’s lack of pace was beginning to cause concerns in the paddock. Respected Japanese motorsport journalist Makoto Ogushi wrote that he recalled seeing one driver, who ran out of time to set a hot lap in qualifying after being held up by Kavanagh, brake test the Irishwoman at the S-curve. But Ogushi reckoned Kavanagh’s general tardiness on-track was “no less dangerous” than this hot-headed gesture.

Luckily for Kavanagh and the other five non-qualifiers, all the drivers that missed the 110 percent cut-off were allowed to start the race anyway – although, as Kavanagh noted, she was “under orders by the organisers not to get in the way of the quicker cars” during the race.

She added: “[It was] my first race in Formula Nippon and I decided to play it safe; besides, chances were my pace would drop off later on due to tiredness anyway. I was in it just to finish. So my race strategy was to stay out the way, no problem.”

In that respect, it was mission accomplished. Kavanagh finished the 35-lap race 14th out of 15 finishers, three laps down on the winner (and that year’s eventual champion) Pedro de la Rosa. Her best lap during the race was a 1m56.736s, a considerable improvement on qualifying but still about 9.5 seconds slower than future F1 stalwart de la Rosa.

If [Kavanagh] can’t qualify inside the 110 percent cut-off, isn’t refusing her a place on the starting grid in a strict manner actually the kindest thing to do?

Makoto Ogushi, Japanese motorsport journalist

The following month, Kavanagh was back in Japan ready for the second round of the series at the now-defunct Mine circuit. The Irish Times stated that most of her expenses for this trip were covered by the series itself, “conscious of the huge media interest in her”.

Kavanagh qualified last of the 25 runners present on a 1m21.487s (Takagi was again on pole with a 1m12.614s), and even though she was the only driver to miss the 110 percent cut-off she was again given special dispensation to start the race. Suspicions were rife that this was a crude promotional tactic on the part of the organisers, who weren’t prepared to let the rules get in the way of their star attraction being on the starting grid.

This time, there was no danger of Kavanagh getting in the way of the frontrunners, as she managed just six laps before being forced to retire with brake failure – and this was ultimately to mark the end of her brief Japanese adventure. On May 28, just a few days before the third round of the season took place at Fuji, it was announced that she would be taking time out from Formula Nippon.

Sarah Kavanagh, Team Cerumo

Sarah Kavanagh, Team Cerumo

Photo by: su_san_motorsports

Ogushi’s verdict on Kavanagh’s two-race foray into the Japanese scene was scathing. “It’s clear that she lacks the ability to race in Japan’s premier series,” he wrote. “If she can’t qualify inside the 110 percent cut-off, isn’t refusing her a place on the starting grid in a strict manner actually the kindest thing to do? Only by being made to qualify on merit can she prove herself and also can Formula Nippon’s credibility be protected.”

There was also a realisation that Kavanagh’s modest achievements racing in the UK did not merit her competing at such a high level. According to Ogushi, she claimed that she drove in four British F2 races in 1996 and scored two fourth places, but there is no evidence to support this. Even had that been the case, such was the perceived lack of depth in the series that, “in such races, we can’t consider finishing fourth a real achievement”.

A Cerumo press release stated that the team would “support [Kavanagh] to race in Formula Nippon again in the future”, and indeed The Irish Times claimed that she planned to return for the final round of the season at Suzuka before embarking on a full campaign in 1998, pending the arrival of sponsorship that never materialised.

Instead, Kavanagh would focus her efforts on the BOSS series in 1998 with the venerable Reynard. As she gained experience in the series, switching to an ex-Rubens Barrichello Jordan 193 she acquired in late 1999, Kavanagh’s profile began to rise, to the point that she did manage to get some attention from the F1 fraternity.

Her Irish nationality and the fact she drove a Jordan inevitably meant she was linked with the Silverstone-based team, but she was even connected to a McLaren test drive in late 2001 after undergoing a ‘physical and on-track’ assessment with the squad at Pembrey.

In mid-2002 she claimed to have raised the funds for a Formula 3000 drive only for sponsors to pull out. Then, in early 2004, reports surfaced she was on the verge of securing a Jaguar test and development driver contract, but this allegedly hinged on her bringing enough backing to race in British F3 that year for Carlin, and the deal fell over.

She outlined ambitions to compete in GP2 in early 2005, which again came to nothing, and a failed attempt at returning to BOSS in 2006 effectively signalled the end of her motor racing career. Subsequently she moved to France with her husband Mike, becoming a mother, and according to recent interviews she now works as a property manager.

Pedro de la Rosa, Shionogi Team Nova

Pedro de la Rosa, Shionogi Team Nova

Photo by: Motorsport Images

Since Kavanagh’s time, Formula Nippon (now Super Formula) has changed significantly. Back then, the series was paradoxically a much-better established route to the top – de la Rosa, Takagi and three others on the grid in ’97 (Norberto Fontana, Esteban Tuero and Ralph Firman) would all go on to race in F1 – but also still accessible to gentleman drivers and those without the budget to access the very latest equipment.

Although Stoffel Vandoorne and Pierre Gasly have gone from Super Formula drives to F1 seats in recent years, they remain the exception rather than the rule. These days, the trend is for the top drivers to spend many years in Super Formula and make their careers in Japan, with engine suppliers Honda and Toyota heavily influencing their teams’ line-ups.

Although there are still a small number of drivers bringing funding, they are of a much higher quality than those of the late 90s. A latter-day Kavanagh would have no chance of progressing as far as Super Formula with such dubious pedigree in the lower formulae.

In one sense, Calderon’s task is easier than Kavanagh’s – she has, at least nominally, equal equipment and a well-respected team around her. She also has six seasons of F3/GP3 experience and a season in FIA F2 under her belt, as opposed to a handful of races in ‘big cars’. But the quality of her opposition is far higher, and the gains that much harder to find.

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Only time will tell whether Calderon’s Super Formula assault is a success. But she won’t have to do much to surpass the efforts of the last female racer to tread the same path.

Special thanks to Makoto Oguchi, David Addison, Marcus Simmons and Rachel Bichener

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About this article

Series Super Formula
Drivers Sarah Kavanagh
Teams Cerumo
Author Jamie Klein