Today will mark the twenty-fifth anniversary of the untimely death of one of the greatest drivers of their generation who never had a chance to race in the Autobacs Super GT Series, but whose impact and legacy is still felt today as an all-time legend of Japanese motorsport.
Hitoshi Ogawa was just 36 years old when he lost his life in an All-Japan Formula 3000 racing accident at Suzuka Circuit on May 24, 1992.
An accomplished driver across a number of disciplines, from single-seaters, to touring cars, to prototype sports cars – Ogawa was a driver who overcame a number of setbacks early in his too-brief career to become a champion of Japan’s top single-seater championship, and an early architect of Toyota’s successful prototype racing programme on the international level.
Born on February 15, 1956 in Okazaki, Aichi Prefecture, Hitoshi Ogawa was a mechanic who made the jump to racing in 1979. By 1981, he had stepped up to the All-Japan Formula Three Championship, and in 1984, he made the move up to All-Japan Formula Two – before having to put his single-seater career on an abrupt hold due to a lack of budget.
By the end of 1985, however, Ogawa would land his first drive with TOM’s Racing, and in 1986, he’d drive for Minolta Team TOM’s in both the All-Japan Sports Prototype Championship (JSPC) and the All-Japan Touring Car Championship (JTC), quickly building a reputation as one of the coolest, smoothest, and safest drivers in the paddock.
Ogawa captured his first major success as a racing driver in 1987 when he, along with co-drivers Masanori Sekiya and Geoff Lees, took Toyota Team TOM’s to victory in the International Suzuka 1000km – defeating the mighty Porsche 956es and 962s in their Minolta Toyota 87C-V. In ’88, Ogawa made his debut at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, as well as his single-seater return in what was now known as All-Japan Formula 3000 – and while he didn’t score any points in five races, he did finish every race he started.
1989 was the greatest year of Ogawa’s professional career, capped off with an improbable season in Formula 3000. He needed just one win at Suzuka Circuit on September 24th – which would turn out to be the only Japanese Formula 3000 victory of his career – coupled with three second-place finishes and two fourth-place finishes to enter the final round at Suzuka with a three-point advantage over American challenger Ross Cheever.
Ogawa took pole position, but broke down with 11 laps to go, putting Cheever in position to win the championship – but on the final lap of the race, Osamu Nakako spun in front of Cheever, collecting the American and putting him out of the race on the last lap – and giving the ’89 championship to Ogawa.
Along with Ogawa’s selection as one of Toyota Team TOM’s drivers in their inaugural campaign in the FIA World Sports Car Championship, forerunner to today’s World Endurance Championship, another JSPC victory at Fuji Speedway, and runner-up in the JTC’s premier category with his co-driver Sekiya, and it truly was a season for the ages.
Ogawa, who by this point was already drawing apt comparisons to the likes of Thierry Boutsen and even four-time Formula 1 World Champion Alain Prost, for his methodical, consistent racecraft, even eyed up a move to Formula 1 after his ’89 triumph. Talks were on the table with Team Lotus and Minardi, but the budget just wasn’t there, and the F1 dream was never realized.
Instead, he’d follow up his successes in ’89 with a solid 1990 season that included victory at the Fuji 500km in the JSPC, and five more second-place finishes in All-Japan F3000 to give him second in the championship behind the great Kazuyoshi Hoshino. He also joined his running mates Sekiya and Lees in the 1990 24 Hours of Le Mans, where he’d score a career-best 6th place finish in their Toyota 90C-V.
In ’91, Ogawa focused on Japan only, enjoying his greatest successes in prototypes. Ogawa and Sekiya finished second in the 1991 JSPC Championship by just two points in their Toyota. Ogawa also finished fifth in the F3000 Championship.
Going into 1992, Ogawa was selected to drive for Toyota’s first full-on factory sports car racing programme, aboard the new Toyota TS010 prototype, with a 3.5 litre V10 engine built to Formula 1 specifications, but placed into one of the last of a dying breed of Group C prototypes. The WSC was on its last legs, and Ogawa’s greatest victory on the international stage was almost denied.
Only 11 cars took the grid for the 500 Kilometers of Monza on the afternoon of April 24, 1992. Hitoshi Ogawa and Geoff Lees lined up second on the grid in their new red and white TS010, but the Peugeot 905s were expected to dominate the race.
With two laps to go, the Peugeot of Yannick Dalmas and Derek Warwick led by a minute, Dalmas cruising to a comfortable victory even with brake issues. Second place seemed a certainty for Ogawa. But as Dalmas was completing his 86th lap, approaching the Variante della Roggia, the brakes gave out, his Peugeot barrel rolling through the gravel trap. Dalmas was uninjured, but the victory was lost for the Frenchman.
But it was won at the last gasp for the Japanese driver Ogawa, who took Toyota’s first chequered flag in the premier category of international endurance racing, completing 87 laps in just over two hours. With the win, Hitoshi Ogawa’s name went in the record books at Toyota forever.
Ogawa and Lees would try to repeat their unbelievable triumph at Silverstone Circuit on May 10th, but halfway through the race, their TS010 suffered an electrical failure – they only completed 288 laps.
In 1992, things were looking bright for Ogawa, the man who transformed from garage hand, to journeyman racer, to champion and a bona fide star of international endurance racing. TOM’s were trying to put together a Formula 1 team, and they saw Ogawa as the star of that vision. The 24 Hours of Le Mans was coming up, and Toyota had a real chance at winning it all with Ogawa, Lees, and the reigning Japanese F3000 champion from ’91, Ukyo Katayama, all set to drive together.
But things were less optimistic in the WSC. A round in Jarama, Spain on May 26 was cancelled along with a number of other events in the WSC’s tumultuous final season. So Ogawa returned home, to Suzuka Circuit, where he raced in the All-Japan Formula 3000 Championship in a one-off appearance. His teammate was a rising star from Northern Ireland named Eddie Irvine. Irvine started second, Ogawa tenth.
Irvine stalled when the green flag was waved, triggering a six-car pileup on the frontstretch. Ogawa got away unscathed, and was soon making his way up through the field.
By the start of lap 27, it was a close race, with the top six cars separated by just six seconds – and Ogawa was fifth, chasing down Andrew Gilbert-Scott for fourth. Naoki Hattori and Ross Cheever were battling for second, just up ahead. A podium wasn’t out of the picture, neither was a victory.
Ogawa tried to make his move around Gilbert-Scott into Turn 1, but as he cut back to the outside, he clipped the left-rear wheel of Gilbert-Scott’s machine, pitching the car into the air and into oblivion by way of the catch fencing above the tyre barriers.
Just two hours after the race was red flagged and declared official after 26 laps, Hitoshi Ogawa was gone, succumbing to a severe head injury.
A month later, his old partner Sekiya took his first podium at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, driving a Toyota TS010 like the one Ogawa would have raced in that year’s Grand Prix of Endurance. On the podium, Sekiya, Pierre-Henri Raphanel, and Kenny Acheson held aloft a framed photo of their fallen friend.
On April 22nd, 1991, a year and a month before Hitoshi Ogawa’s death at Suzuka – the last fatality in a race in what is now known as Super Formula – Hitoshi, and his wife Masako, welcomed their only child to the world – a son, Ryo Ogawa.
Ryo Ogawa would have been much too young to remember his father in the final year of Hitoshi’s life. Masako raised young Ryo on her own, and eventually, Ryo would follow in his father’s footsteps into motor racing.
Now a champion in Formula 3, Super Taikyu, and Porsche Carrera Cup, Ryo Ogawa has since gone on to become one of Japan’s top young drivers that’s yet to race in Super GT, apart from a rookie test in June 2016 with Lamborghini Team Direction. And like his father, Ryo seems every bit the multi-talented racer in anything from touring cars to single-seaters.
Hitoshi Ogawa was part of the next generation of Japanese racing heroes to emerge in the 1980s – up there with the likes of Aguri Suzuki, Toshio Suzuki, and Keiichi Tsuchiya. And though his accomplishments as a racing driver remained unfinished, Ogawa’s legacy still remains intact, even after all these years.