Interview: Top Gear meets Taki Inoue, F1's worst-ever driver
It's 20 years since THAT safety car incident at the Hungarian GP. Here's what happened when we joined 'F1's worst driver' for a pint
"My helmet was totally squashed. Then I see the doctor. Usual procedure - they try to see my d*ck first, touching my balls."
A long swig of beer.
"It's true! I learn that in UK. When balls move, brain is fine. When big crash, scissors, take off the overalls, see the balls, hit the balls, then when balls move, this guy's fine. If balls don't move, then there's a problem with brain damage, I think."
Meet Taki Inoue, Japanese former F1 pilot and the man widely regarded - not least by himself - as the worst driver in Grand Prix history. Over several pints on the Monaco waterfront, Taki is relating to Top Gear, in his inimitable style, exactly what he remembers of one of his most bizarre F1 moments, at this very city's Grand Prix in 1995.
As Inoue was sat in his car, being towed to the pits on the back of a truck at the end of first practice, the safety car came charging round the corner. It smashed broadside into the towed racer, flipping the car and crushing Inoue's helmet. Had Taki not put his lid back on a few minutes before, he'd have become a trifle dead. As it was, he just got his balls fondled by a doctor.
It was an incident more memorable than anything Taki achieved on track. In 1994 and 1995, Inoue competed in 18 races for back-of-the-grid trundlers Simtek and Footwork Arrows, scoring zero points. During his F1 career, Taki's name became a byword for ineptitude: Johnny Herbert, testing the 1995 Benetton for the first time and clocking a lap time over two seconds slower than teammate Michael Schumacher, said he "felt like Taki Inoue or someone". Even the mobile chicane that was Ukyo Katayama described Inoue as "rubbish".
I was not good enough to drive in F1...
But Top Gear hearts Taki Inoue. Not only for his heroically disastrous career, but also for his raucous, occasionally X-rated Twitter account, which proves that if you're going to be the butt of a thousand F1 jokes, you might as well make most of them yourself. @takiinoue mixes weapons-grade self-deprecation with deliciously mangled English and a tendency to let rip on anything F1-related. In a world of drivers and commentators who won't tweet anything more controversial than their favourite ice-cream flavour for fear of upsetting sponsors or Bernie, Taki is a breath of fresh air. Slightly boozy fresh air, admittedly.
Nowadays Taki lives in Monaco ("not the rich bit"), dividing his time between managing young Japanese F1 drivers ("I am sort of a family babysitter"), running a race outfit in Italy and drinking a lot of alcohol. In person, Taki is as magnificently scatty as his Twitter persona, with a healthy appetite for cold beer and cigars. He's also delighted to dispense scurrilous tales of F1's finances. "When Pastor Maldonado brings 35 million [dollars] in sponsors every year, it ****s everything up. 35 million!"
Taki should know. Though inept behind the wheel of a race car, he was mighty adept at convincing minted Japanese sponsors to hand over their cash. Many regard Inoue as the first of F1's pay drivers - those who obtain a race seat through chequebook rather than pace - but it's a title he denies. "No! Every single driver is a sort of pay driver. Schumacher, Alonso. Yes, Alonso gets a driving fee, but how much does [Spanish sponsor] Santander pay to Ferrari? What I did was the same. The only difference is that I was not good enough to drive in F1..."
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I landed on my feet, perfect landing. Nine-point-nine-nine
But in the YouTube bloopers stakes, Inoue's F1 highlights reel is unsurpassed. At the Hungarian GP a couple of months after the Monaco debacle, Taki's engine caught fire midway through the race. He stopped at the side of the track, gesturing at the fire marshalls to dash over and extinguish his car. But the dawdling marshalls struggled to grasp the urgency of the situation, so Inoue jumped from his car and legged it to the barriers, seizing an extinguisher.
As he turned back to his Footwork, Taki failed to spot the safety car careering over the grass at him. It clattered into the back of his legs. Taki was thrown over the bonnet before tottering back to his feet, still gamely clinging to the extinguisher. "Bang! Someone hits me very hard," Inoue remembers. "But I landed on my feet, very good, perfect landing, I think nine-point-nine-nine."
A few seconds later, Taki collapsed on the deck. It remains one of the most wincingly hilarious F1 moments ever captured on camera, but the slapstick didn't end there. "I expect the helicopter to take me to hospital, but Charlie [Whiting, F1's race director] comes in and says, ‘Sorry, Taki, we can't use the helicopter, otherwise we stop the GP. You wait until the finish, another hour."
So Taki lies writhing in agony for an hour, before eventually being choppered to the local hospital. "I expect immediately they are checking out my bone, that everything is OK," remembers Taki ruefully. "But they say, ‘Taki, we want your credit card.' I say, ‘What? Credit card? I don't have it!' I am still in my race suit! But they want pay first, otherwise they won't help me. I say, ‘Come on, I'm very painful.' Another half an hour, big negotiation. I didn't pay. For two years, they keep sending invoice to me in Monaco."
I say, 'Is any F1 driver Japanese?' And they say, 'Impossible for Japanese'
Faced with luck as limited as his talent, maybe it's odd Taki didn't call it a day in F1 then. But, he says, F1 was a teenage obsession that bit hard and refused to let go. "When I was 15, I never seen an F1 car. But when I buy the sweets, there is a trading card, 1978, James Hunt. I say, ‘What is this?' They say, ‘Taki, this is Formula One.' I say, ‘Very nice, is any Formula One driver Japanese?' And they say, ‘Impossible for Japanese.'"
Taki, never one to heed words like ‘impossible' (nor ‘braking zone' nor ‘watch out!', for that matter) took this as a challenge. Even after a few unsuccessful years in Japanese touring cars, Inoue's F1 dreams were undiminished. "I ask my friend, ‘How do I race in Formula One?' He says, ‘Taki, you should go to the UK, Formula Ford, 1600, this is the entrance to Formula One.' So I decide, ‘OK,' and I go to the UK."
Another drag of the cigarette, another sip of beer. "This is my first airplane, my first trip outside Japan. I don't even know how to get into the plane. When they are serving the food, I ask them how much is it; they say, ‘No, you don't have to pay.'"
When he reached London, his lack of preparation became apparent. "When I arrived at Heathrow, I ask at the information desk, ‘I want to be racing driver, where can I go?' It's true. They say, ‘You should go Newmarket - race course there.' I got a ticket, took the national coach."
So on a dark and miserable October evening, Inoue rattles out of London and into deepest Norfolk. "The driver says, ‘Newmarket,' so I get off. Then I ask a man, ‘Is this race course?' He says, ‘Yes, this is horse-racing course.' Horse racing! Not car. Very disaster."
I was very scared. The car is very fast!
Inoue stuck around in East Anglia, enrolling at Snetterton's race school, then graduating to Formula Ford before returning to Japan to race in F3. Despite a notable absence of podiums, Inoue managed to find sufficient sponsorship - a reported £2 million - to elbow his way into the lower echelons of F1, where, though never quite emulating his idol James Hunt's notorious booze-and-girls heroics, he at least enjoyed the sport's lighter side.
"In that time, I'm always drinking, drinking a lot, the following day a massive headache," Taki smiles, holding cigarette aloft. "No problem! The drivers are boring now, like Olympic games. Zero personality. Drivers today, they must pretend to be professional. But I was very scared. The car is very fast! Very scary, too fast."
It probably didn't help that Taki's race team failed to provide him any real practice time or training before he rocked up on the F1 grid. "In my first Formula One race in São Paulo, Brazilian GP, I didn't know what a pit stop is. No one told me," he admits cheerily. "But at least the car was not difficult. No paddleshift, once you get used to the carbon brakes, it's very easy to use."
Easy? With 900bhp, no driver aids of any sort and a notorious shortage in the talent department? Taki shrugs and drains his lager. Then that broad grin. "This is because I drove very slow..."
Photos: Shamil Tanna