12 February 2018

Fascinating F1 Fact: 77

Bananas are big business in Japan. They became popular in the years after World War II, and remained a delicacy until the 1970s. People bought them one by one, rather than in bunches, which explains such glorious Japanese inventions as the portable banana case, designed to protect a single banana from bruising…

Today Japan’s banana imports are worth $900 million per annum. Every year, close to a million tons of bananas are shipped to Japan, accounting for 60 percent of the country’s fruit imports.

Back in the 1960s, before the big combines moved in, you could get rich quick in the banana trade – and Matsuhisa Kojima did exactly that.

Born in Kyoto, a charming town, boasting a string of famous temples, not far from Osaka, Kojima became a motocross rider while still at school and then, while training to be a mechanic, he signed up to be a Suzuki factory rider. He was the dominant force in 250cc motocross in Japan. He even made a trip to Europe to compete in the Motocross World Championships. There was never much money in motocross and so Kojima retired at the age of 24 – and went into the banana business. Two years later he had made enough to start a racing car manufacturing business and bought a GT40, which he entered in the Suzuka 300 sports car race. It was painted banana yellow…

In 1971 he built a Suzuki-engined Formula Junior car for the new national series and Kojima Engineering won the title, with former Suzuki works motorcycle rider Yoshimi Katayama, who had raced all over the world on two wheels. Kojima also created a two-seater rotary-engined sports car with Mazda.

The company then stepped up to FJ 1300 and built a car based on a March 733 Formula 3 car, powered by a Nissan engine and his old motocross rival Masahiro Hasemi raced the car with much success. The next step was the All Japan F2000 series in 1974. This was equivalent to Formula 2 in Europe. Rather than build his own cars he ran a Surtees for Hasemi and they went on to win the title in 1975 with a March 742.

When it was announced that there would be a Japanese Grand Prix in 1976, Kojima decided to build his own F1 car and hired Masao Ono, who had designed the Maki F1 car in 1974. The KE007 was powered by a Cosworth engine and ran on Japanese Dunlops tyres. The car was crashed heavily and had to be rebuilt, but still managed to qualify 10th, ahead of a string of regular F1 runners. In the race, Hasemi finished 11th. He was credited with the fastest lap, although this was later corrected. It was impressive nonetheless and in 1977 Kojima built his own F2 cars, based on the F1 design, but powered by a BMW engine. Hasemi won an F2 race at Suzuka early that year, but then moved on while Kojima ran the car for another former bike racer, Kunimitsu Takahashi. The car was even driven by visiting Europeans Didier Pironi and Hans Stuck, and Pironi raced a Kojima-run F2 March at Suzuka.

For the 1977 Grand Prix Kojima built a new KE009, based on the 007. Two cars were manufactured: one for Noritake Takahara, the other for Heroes Racing’s Kazuyoshi Hoshino. Takahara crashed and Hoshino finished 11th. Kojima then did a deal to sell the cars to Willi Kauhsen and Keke Rosberg even tested one of the cars.

Kauhsen’s money never arrived.

Ono then built a new KE010 for the Grand Prix in 1978, but the race was cancelled and so the car was never completed, although several Kojima chassis were raced in Japanese F2 that year and Kunimitsu Takahashi won the JAF Grand Prix after Pironi retired from the race with gearbox trouble. The team built a new F2 car, the KE011, in 1979, but it had no success, despite being driven by both Yoshimi Katayama and Pironi.

At the end of the year Kojima decided to go powerboat racing instead and began building KE boats, which he raced himself in offshore events and continued to do so, winning several championships, until he retired in 2007.

Today the Kojima company has a busy marine business, while also chartering helicopters and organising motor sport events.

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