F1’s Most Underrated Driver: Ukyo Katayama

Ukyo Katayama is widely remembered as the laughing stock of F1 back in the 1990’s. His Mild Seven/Cabin sponsorship gave him the hallmarks of a prototypical pay driver, but after two undistinguished seasons, the diminutive Japanese surprised everyone in 1994. The banning of electronic aids helped the underfunded Tyrrell squad build a neat and nimble chassis in the 022, courtesy of Harvey Poslethwaite, Mike Gascoyne and Jean-Claude Migeot.

Along with valiant point scoring drives at Interlagos, Imola & Silverstone, Katayama set a fastest lap a mammoth 1.6 seconds quicker than his highly-regarded team-mate Mark Blundell in the race at Barcelona. Blundell’s eventual podium finish was a cruel blow for Katayama, as his Yamaha engine failed after just sixteen laps in a race where Michael Schumacher’s Benetton became stuck in fifth gear for two-thirds of Spanish Grand Prix. The German would savage second place, whilst championship rival Damon Hill won his first race of the year. This proved to be a moral-boosting lift for the beleaguered Williams squad still coming to terms with Senna’s death, but one wonders whether how close Katayama could have pushed Hill for victory. The Tyrrell stalwart would redeem himself further at that year’s German Grand Prix, qualifying a career-best fifth, 0.756 seconds ahead of Blundell. Thanks to an electrical failure for Jean Alesi and a collision with Damon Hill, damaging the latter’s suspension, Katayama was able to charge after Gerhard Berger and Schumacher in third place, only for his throttle cable to snap after just six laps.

Katayama would repeat his qualifying feats of Hockenheim by placing his Tyrrell 022 on fifth place for the following race at Hungaroring, but he retired due to an unfortunate collision with the two Jordans of Eddie Irvine & Rubens Barrichello on the first lap. Further hard-charging drives at Monza, Estoril & Jerez proved enough for Katayama to be awarded “Most improved driver of 1994” title by Autosport magazine’s Nigel Roebuck and rumours of a “top team” -most likely Benetton with Ukyo’s Mild Seven connections- offering a seat circulated, but Katayama claimed “he had to turn it down”. It later transpired the Japanese ace had developed back cancer, which sadly hobbled him for the remainder of his ailing F1 career, where he would be heavily outpaced by Mika Salo at Tyrrell and Jarno Trulli at Minardi. The new high cockpit sides mandated by the deaths of Roland Ratzenberger & Ayrton Senna at Imola and Karl Wendlinger’s coma-inducing crash at Monaco in 1994 would impair the peripheral vision of the diminutive Japanese star. The new weight regulations, starting in 1995, which mandated the inclusion of the driver’s weight into the new 600kg total car weight limit, would additionally impede Katayama as the advantage of being one of the lightest drivers on the grid was abruptly removed.

The remainder of Katayama’s F1 career is notably remembered for his start-line barrel roll in 1995 Portuguese Grand Prix, but he never lost his sense of humour and humility. Experts later estimated the Japanese stalwart could have scored up to 25 points had it not been for mechanical issues and pure bad luck accumulated during 1994. This would have placed Katayama in the heady heights of fifth place within the FIA Formula 1 World Drivers’ Championship, ahead of Alesi and just behind Mika Hakkinen, rather than his lowly classification of 17th with five points.

For just one season in 1994, Ukyo was one of the best five racing drivers in the world.

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