Juichi Wakisaka announced his retirement from Super GT’s premier category of racing during Toyota Gazoo Racing’s 2016 motorsport press conference, bringing one of the most sensational careers in racing to a close.
Wakisaka’s retirement will likely not be reflected upon to the same degree as that of another recently retired Toyota sports car legend, Alexander Wurz. He never got the chance to test his skill in the 24 Hours of Le Mans, or in the World Endurance Championship or any of its forerunners. He never got to compete in Formula 1. In fact, he rarely competed outside of his native Japan, save for his fairly recent efforts in the Nürburgring 24 Hour race with Gazoo Racing.
But to everyone in the Toyota racing family, his home for the last fifteen years, he is a respected, revered legend, amongst his fellow drivers, amongst the mechanics and engineers who’ve worked with him over a career that spanned twenty-one years in total since graduating from karting in 1995, and amongst fans, young and old, who will so dearly miss him as a competitive driver.
The man whose name is the Japanese word for “eleven” finished, ever so fittingly, with eleven victories in the ultra-competitive GT500 category over his eighteen year career in the series. There are only six men in Super GT’s twenty-three year history that have won more races. He finished in the top three in the championship eight times, more than fellow Toyota legend Yuji Tachikawa, and inside the top ten an astonishing fourteen times. He won ten pole positions. as many as Satoshi Motoyama. And his three GT500 championships are only matched or surpassed by four other legendary drivers: Motoyama, Tachikawa, Masahiko Kageyama, and the defending champion Ronnie Quintarelli.
In Japan’s great race, the International Suzuka 1000km, Wakisaka is a three-time winner – just one short of the great Kunimitsu Takahashi’s record. He’s also one of the few men who’ve ever won the race driving with their own family, which happened when he won it in 2002 with his brother, Shigekazu, as the third driver alongside he and Akira Iida.
These accolades are also preceded by a fairly successful career in single-seaters, that saw Wakisaka become the Japanese Formula 3 champion in 1996 – where his name sits between former F1 driver Pedro de la Rosa, and long-time WTCC ace Tom Coronel, on the list of champions. He retired from the top formula category of Japan after 2004, winning five races, eight pole positions, and finishing as high as third in the championship three times in his eight seasons – most of which were spent driving for the legendary Aguri Suzuki.
His meteoric rise in Japan saw him land a test drive with the Jordan F1 Team during their association with Mugen Honda, in 1998. It was the closest he ever got to a stay in Formula 1, or even competing full-time outside of Japan, but missing out on the chance to compete on the international circuit does nothing to negate his credentials as one of the best drivers of our generation.
In fact, it should only lead us to wonder what could have been if he had gotten the big-time chance to compete abroad – be it in F1, CART, IndyCar, the WEC, what have you, that quite a few of his peers did.
Wakisaka has been one of my personal favorites to watch in GT500. He’s one of the series’ most colourful personalities, who was always guaranteed to play for the camera with a number of legendary facial expressions. Juichi Wakisaka “mugging” to the TV cameras during a race or a qualifying session has become something you always look forward to during a Super GT race broadcast, right up there with Nobuteru Taniguchi playing with tablets, weird adverts for pachinko and slot parlor D’Station that play during the pre-race shows, and of course, a really good on-track product. These were all just from the last two years alone:
And that’s just what happens when he’s not in control of the camera. Ryo Hirakawa discovered this the hard way when he left his phone unattended the day after the 2015 Super GT finale at Motegi, and came back to find his iPhone’s photo album overflowing with Juichi’s repeated attempts to make the most ridiculous selfie documented to man.
That love of the spotlight is not really a surprise, given Wakisaka’s impressive credentials as a TV personality for automotive magazine shows like Best Motoring and Hot Version. In that respect, he’s a lot like longtime Fifth Gear host, and BTCC legend, Jason Plato – a vibrant personality lending his knowledge of motoring to a broad audience not entirely restricted to petrolheads. He’s got his own clothing line, and he’s got his own YouTube channel, which serves not only as a personal video blog, but also has plenty of videos of him playing Gran Turismo – mostly against his fellow drivers from Super GT.
But beyond the goofy facial expressions, the video skits, and everything that encompasses the entertainer Juichi Wakisaka, there is a truly driven competitor – that being the driver Juichi Wakisaka. Wakisaka was one of the most focused, dedicated, and uncompromising drivers that Super GT has ever seen compete in its still-young history.
His desire to win a championship played a big part in Wakisaka defecting away from Honda to Toyota in 2001, after frustrating near-misses with the title in 1999 and 2000 despite the NSX’s overwhelming pace that took the GT Association of Japan years of nerfing to reign in. It was a shock to the system in a motorsport nation where loyalty to manufacturer is as big as it is in NASCAR or V8 Supercars.
His ruthless determination as a driver helped create one of Super GT’s all-time legendary finishes, when in the final laps of the 2003 race at Sportsland SUGO, he began reeling in former F1 driver Erik Comas, by then a two-time champion himself, and an established gaijin superstar in the series. Paying no mind to the damaged rear bodywork which was set to explode off the back of his Esso Supra once it crossed the finish line, Wakisaka caught the rear bumper of Comas’ TOM’s Supra through Sugo’s famous 110R corner, then applied the “chrome horn” to Comas, pushing the Frenchman just wide enough to slip through and claim what was the closest finish in JGTC history to date.
When a shot at a win slipped through his fingers at the 2004 race in Autopolis, after being punted into a spin by Jeremie Dufour, Wakisaka’s frustration spilled over. He said nary a word to the Hot Version crew documenting his 2004 season for a video as he stormed angrily back to his team’s hauler. No entertainment. Only the bitter disappointment of a podium lost in the end.
By the mid-2000s, and still at his peak as a racer, Wakisaka was already starting to mentor the next generation of legends in Super GT and abroad.
His championships in 2006 and 2009 for Lexus Team TOM’s also helped to build the budding sports car racing career of a young man who, like Wakisaka, was also a former Honda driver who defected to Toyota, who also had a brief flirtation with F1 that went nowhere, who was brimming with potential that seemingly went unnoticed until he made the move to Japan.
A young man by the name of André Lotterer, who has now a three-time winner of the 24 Hours of Le Mans, a World Endurance Drivers’ Champion. Lotterer is a living legend of endurance racing, the ace of the Audi team today, and still with plenty more great years of racing ahead of him.
Later on, as co-driver in the Denso SARD Lexus, he served as a veteran mentor to a late-blooming rising star named Hiroaki Ishiura, who became Japanese Super Formula champion for the first time in his career this past year and can safely be considered one of Toyota’s best domestic racers.
His last co-driver, Yuhi Sekiguchi, has progressed so much in his two years at Racing Project BANDOH driving with Wakisaka. The 28-year-old will now fully take the reins as the lead driver of the WedsSport RC-F from 2016. The Bandoh team is left in a better place than it was before they brought Wakisaka on board in 2014, confident that this will be the year their struggles will finally culminate in a maiden GT500 victory.
Wakisaka will bring the same drive and determination that he applied for so many years as a driver to the role of Team Director of Team Le Mans, for whom he won the first of his GT500 championships. He’ll still occasionally race in Super Taikyu and the 86/BRZ Race series. He may even take one or two more spins around the clock at the Nördschliefe in the years to come. Juichi Wakisaka may be stepping away from driving, but like so many of the driving peers of his age, he will almost certainly seamlessly transition into the team director role.
Toyota’s honour roll of great Japanese racing drivers includes men like the late Sachio Fukuzawa, Japan’s first Le Mans champion Masanori Sekiya, and the Drift King himself, the man who made the AE86 an international icon of car culture, Keiichi Tsuchiya.
And now as he bows out of racing in Super GT after nearly two decades of excellence, Juichi Wakisaka will proudly take his place among those great legends as one of the finest drivers to ever have raced for Toyota, at home or abroad.