W Series Academy 2022: Meet Juju Noda
Her name has the ability to become an attention-catalyst: under the spotlight of the racing industry since the youngest age, Juju Noda is getting ready for an important step in her career this weekend, with her W Series debut. Discover more about the youngest ever driver in the series.
On the starting grid of the first race of the 2022 season we will find the youngest ever driver to enter a W Series season: at 16 years of age, Japanese Juju Noda will make her debut in the all female championship at the Miami Grand Prix. Daughter of former F1, Indycar and SuperGT racer Hideki Noda, Juju has been under the spotlight since she was 9: when most of the kids her age were moving their first steps in karting, she was stepping for the first time in a F4 car. She made headlines all over the world as she continued her testing program on home soil, which brought her to test her first Formula 3 car at 13. Her actual racing debut would be in 2019, when she contested three races in the US-based Lucas Oil Winter Race Series, before heading to Denmark for her first full season in Formula 4. The Danish series was, in fact, one of the few categories in Europe with a lower age limit, allowing Noda to collect crucial experience in a racing environment. At 14, Noda had all the eyes of racing enthusiasts and industry professionals on her debut – but she did not disappoint: with a victory at her debut, she would collect four more podiums and three pole positions in her rookie season. "The Danish F4 was my first experience competing in Europe and I was a little bit nervous before coming to Europe", Juju tells us. "But once I started, it went quite well – I think I did quite well based on what I expected." "But having said that, I also faced some difficulties; understanding the language and some other issues" – she continues. The young Japanese racer had planned a move to the F4 US Championship in 2021. After topping the free practice, though, the season did not materialize and she announced she would return to the Danish championship for a second year.
She did collect some more podiums and two more wins over the course of the 17-race schedule, but she also faced a few technical issues that slowed down her progress. "Especially last year  I had to face so many mechanical problems and I couldn't race properly in some events" – Noda says. "That was a very difficult year. But nevertheless, I think I showed speed, so I'm looking forward to the next steps." "In the off-season I trained a lot, both physically and mentally. I also completed a testing program in Japan." During the winter of 2021, Noda started training in a Formula 3 Regional car, raising the interest over her next step. Meanwhile, she continued to test both in Japan and in Europe, adding mileage to her resumé. When the first all-female single seater championship W Series announced the list of new hopefuls for the 2022 season, 16 drivers were invited for the assessment tests at Inde Motorsports Ranch, Arizona. Many expected Noda to be included in the selections – but her nomination would only appear ahead of the second step of the process, when the drivers gathered at Circuit de Catalunya, Barcelona, for the collective tests. At her first time in the W Series environment – and her first time at the Spanish track - Noda impressed Racing Director Dave Ryan, who decided to promote Noda to the W Series Academy Team. "I've been racing for quite a long time and I always raced against boys", Noda tells us. "Something like this is very new to me and also quite a good challenge with the other girls. Both W Series and also the FIA are trying to help female drivers, so I think it's a very good thing for us. I watched some W Series races online before, and it's quite interesting to see females racing each other." Despite the experience in her Formula Regional car, she stresses that the cars used in W Series have a few important differences – which put her in the same position as all the other rookies.
"Having the experience of the Regional car helps, but it's not the same engine or same tyres. Also, I mainly drove it on smaller racetracks. So coming to Barcelona with W Series, everything was new." "The track was very new to me, and the car as well – so I was not sure what to expect. I just got some mileage to get used to it." She will be the second Japanese driver to enter W Series – after Miki Koyama – and the third Asian. Thanks to an important expansion project for the series created by Catherine Bond Muir, Noda will get the chance to race on home soil as W Series is expected to host its first Asian round in October, alongside the Japanese Grand Prix at Suzuka. As the youngest driver on the grid – and the youngest ever in the series – Juju will team up with Bianca Bustamante in the team dedicated to the stars of tomorrow, who can count on a two-year secured seat to race in W Series. They succeed Nerea Marti and Irina Sidorkova. "It definitely helps ease the pressure", Juju says regarding the two-year plan. "I'm now in the Academy team and if I have a good first year I will be more experienced in the next one. I can be more relaxed compared to if it would have been just a one-year deal." Alongside the championship for women-only, Noda plans to combine a second program in Europe, to add more races on her schedule and better prepare for the next steps in her career. "I will mainly focus on W Series. But having said that, I just turned 16 and, last year, age was a limiting factor in some categories. Now I'm 16 and I'm allowed to drive and to compete in F3 cars, and also on bigger race tracks", she explains. "So I will try to drive as much as I'd like to."
With a small group of Japanese mechanics, the Noda family travelled to Monza two weeks ago, where she made her debut in the Austrian Drexler F3 Open Cup – a series open to different generations of formula cars and with a huge field of over 40 entries at the Temple of Speed. Racers followed the Japanese up-and-coming star to the famous Italian venue. An accident in qualifying put some extra pressure on the mechanics but, with a great team effort, Noda's Tatuus T318 was ready just in time for the first race of the weekend. "Qualifying was unlucky, but the mechanics tried hard to fix the car", she sums up. "Despite being late on the grid, we still wanted to start the race, even though the car wasn't perfect. But we decided to go out." Noda made up several places and navigated through the field – but she had an even more impressive second race, where she finished 11th from the back of the field, gaining over 20 positions. "I was very calm, relaxed. I was just focusing on what I had to do and I think I did everything I was supposed to do", she recalls. "I didn't expect to finish as high up, taking into account where I was starting from. So I was satisfied with that one." Inevitably, there's a big hype surrounding Noda in her first season in W Series. Being the enfant prodige from such an early age, she managed to attract the attention of people around the world – both a huge number of fans and followers, as well as those waiting for any missteps. A pressure that could be enormous for a 16-year old. But Juju Noda is not your common 16-year old. "I don't feel any pressure", she says. "People are following me and I really appreciate it – I feel really grateful for people supporting me".
Surely, her first international campaigns in the competitive world of motorsport also posed some extra challenges for Juju, who had to learn the racecraft as much as a new culture. "it is quite different from Japan" – she tells us. "The approach of the people is different. The way you communicate with people is different here", she continues. "You need to deal with people more directly and say what you want." "In Japan it's nothing like that. To adapt to this, sometimes you have to be stubborn to get what you want. That's a difficult part, because of the culture. If I did the same thing in Japan, people sometimes wouldn't like this approach – but here if you don't say anything and just wait, sometimes you don't get what you want." This weekend, Juju Noda will make her W Series debut on the streets of Miami – a new track for everyone appearing on the F1 calendar for the first time. It will be her first ever experience of a street circuit, for which she has prepared – like her colleagues – mostly on the simulator. "I did practice on the simulator, but it's difficult! I've never driven with walls this close, I think it will not be easy." "The thing is I like all circuits. I don't mind where we race, I just want to get experience. Wherever I'm racing, I'm happy."