Japanese racing legend Kunimitsu Takahashi dies aged 82

Japanese racing legend and iconic team owner Kunimitsu Takahashi has died at the age of 82, Honda has announced.

Japanese racing legend Kunimitsu Takahashi dies aged 82
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In a career spanning five decades, Takahashi was a pioneer for Japanese riders in grand prix motorcycle racing before embarking on a successful career on four wheels that took him to victories in 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 via team ownership, with his eponymous Team Kunimitsu outfit having scored two SUPER GT titles in 2018 and 2020.

Having emerged as a leading talent on Japan’s domestic bike racing scene in the late 1950s as a teenager, Takahashi was selected as a Honda 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 in the West German GP in the 250cc class at Hockenheim at the age of 21. He would pick up a further three GP wins in the 125cc class, all with Honda machinery.

Kunimitsu Takahashi

Kunimitsu Takahashi

Photo by: Kunimitsu Takahashi

A life-threatening crash in the Isle of Man TT in 1962 and subsequent loss of form convinced Takahashi to turn his attention to car racing in 1965. Joining Nissan, he contributed to the success of cars like the R380 prototype and Skyline 2000 GT-R touring car during the late 1960s and early 1970s, when Japan’s national scene was still in its infancy.

Takahashi would also prove a dab hand in single-seaters, first entering the All-Japan Formula 2000 series (the predecessor of modern-day Super Formula) in 1975. He finished runner-up in 1977 behind Kazuyoshi Hoshino, and at the end of that year he made a one-off Formula 1 outing in 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 biggest career successes would come in sportscars. In 1985-87, he took three consecutive titles in the All-Japan Sports Prototype series driving a Nova Engineering-run Porsche 962 and added a fourth crown to his resume in 1989.

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

 

Team Kunimitsu was formed in 1992 to tackle the All-Japan Touring Car Championship, and in 1994, the team entered the newly-formed All-Japan GT Championship (JGTC), the forerunner to modern-day SUPER GT, with a Porsche 911 RSR. He and teammate Keiichi Tsuchiya took the squad’s first win that season at Sugo.

That same year, Takahashi would return to Le Mans with Kremer Racing fielding a Honda NSX GT2, sharing a 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-ever for a Japanese entrant fielding a Japanese car and an all-Japanese driver line-up.

Team Kunimitsu switched to fielding Honda machinery JGTC in 1996, starting an association that continues to this day, and would score two more wins before finally bringing down the curtain on his professional racing career at the conclusion of the 1999 season.

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

Despite semi-regular race wins and some near-misses, championship success would elude Team Kunimitsu until 2018, the year that 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 a 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 at the end of 2019. 

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

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

“In motorsport, whether it is two-wheeled or four-wheeled, results cannot be achieved without the combined efforts of many people. It is thanks to all of you that I have been able to spend more than 60 years of my life involved in racing. I am honoured beyond words.”

Kunimitsu Takahashi

Kunimitsu Takahashi

Photo by: Motorsport.com / Japan

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