F3 champion next year? An interview with Reece Ushijima

Interview by Archie O’Reilly, Edited by Simran Kanthi

Credit: Joe Portlock via Getty Images

Reece Ushijima is a 19-year-old FIA Formula 3 driver for Van Amersfoort Racing, currently in his rookie season with an eye for challenging for the championship in 2023. I spoke with Reece before the season-ending triple-header.


AO: To start with, I'd like to go into how you first got into motorsport. How did you actually get into karting and motorsport in general?

RU: The funny thing is my parents are actually golfers and my dad's won a couple of Japanese championships and played a lot of collegiate golf in America - same with my mum. But my mum was into cars and they took me to a couple of car shows. When I was around 12, I really started to get into it. I went to a car show in Tokyo and I really wanted to drive something but understandably, you can't drive anything at 12 years old. So I went to a kart track and started go-karting and I just got hooked on it from then on. I know a lot of the guys I race against, they've been racing since they were five or six, and I started a bit late compared to them. But at once I started to really enjoy racing, and I've been very fortunate with my family’s support. I've been able to go racing pretty much every weekend.


I raced for a year in Japan, and I realised I was not very good and wanted to go somewhere I knew I could hone my skills and learn from the best. My options were either moving back to America since my mum's from America and my dad grew up in America as well or going to Europe. We thought going to Europe was the best option for me. I moved when I was 14, on my own, and there I met Piers [Sexton] (manager) as he ran a racing team. He kind of took me under his wing and taught me everything from then on. I had a couple of good years in karting and then I went into Formula cars.


AO: There's a lot of travelling around involved. How have you managed to balance that with education and regular life, especially during your teenage years when you did start?

RU: As sad as it is - I'm not trying to make a sob story here - but when you're racing at 14, 15, you really have to make a conscious decision, 'This is what I want to do in the future!' And you have to make a lot of sacrifices in terms of enjoying your teenage life. A lot of guys around that age go to parties and meet people. And you go racing in another country, as you said there's a lot of travelling. At that time, you're a bit caught up in your emotions and you wish you were hanging out with your friends. But at the end of the day, the fact is I get to do what I love and that's what I moved here [to the UK] for. And I've been really fortunate to be able to do that and I know there are a lot of people who wish to be in my position. Travelling, even now, is very difficult since it’s tiring most of the time and I wish, 'I just want to chill at home for a day or two'. But it's all for what I love so it makes up for it.

Credit: Rudy Carezzevoli via Getty Images

AO: You started racing cars in Formula Ford, then went onto Formula 2000. What was your first experience of single-seaters moving from karts like, and how did you adapt?

RU: I did one race in Formula Ford. I was racing in a series called MRF, I'm not sure if it's still around anymore. I'd never driven a car before that, never even driven a manual car, so I had to do a race of some sort. Doing Formula Ford, for me, was a good step because it didn't have downforce, but it was still a car, so I got to learn a lot about how to control a car because it was stick and H-pad and gearbox, and also learn a lot about heel-and-toe. I think in my career I've been very lucky to have a good plan set out, I had good stepping stones. It wasn't that I went from karting to a Formula car - I did karting, a race in Formula Ford, and then I got to do three races in MRF. Then, I moved into British F3 and progressively got faster and faster - both in the car and in myself.


AO: How did your years then in British F3, now GB3, and Asian F3 help you make the step up to Formula 3?

RU: I think a lot of guys had time on their side, so they were able to go to Formula 4, whereas, I started racing when I was 13, so I had to make up time somehow. I had to skip Formula 4 and, luckily enough, Hitech picked me up in British F3. I think doing British F3 was really beneficial for me because it was so mentally challenging. The car wasn't as modern as a Formula Renault or a Formula Regional, but you go to very, very difficult tracks like Oulton Park - I learned a lot there. Although in my second year of British F3, which was the year I wanted to win the championship, it was the first time in my career that I was really faced with the pressure of needing to win a championship. And, in hindsight, I made a lot of mistakes, in qualifying, in the races, I made a lot of dumb mistakes. I think I've matured enough since then to learn from that and take it into my next year, where I really want to win the championship.


AO: Onto F3, your rookie year. What has your experience been like so far? How would you evaluate the year you've had until now?

RU: At the beginning of the year, I think my results spoke for themselves - it wasn't very good, I can't lie to myself. In all honesty, it was all really down to me not understanding qualifying and putting a lot of pressure on myself - I wanted to try so hard in qualifying that it would just lead to making mistakes on my laps so I wouldn't qualify well at all. I've been fortunate enough to have a very good group of guys on the team. Franco [Colapinto] obviously is very fast and he's been a very good benchmark for me to really push myself to be better. But I think at this point (heading into Spa), I'm really coming into my own and becoming the driver that I know I am. In Silverstone, I was able to prove that and in Hungary, in qualifying at least, I think I turned a couple of heads, and in the next three rounds I'm really excited to just show what I can do.


AO: Another thing is that F3 is more on the global stage as one of the main feeder series. How have you managed to deal with that attention with races being on TV and more attention from fans as well?

RU: To be honest, the way I feel now is the way I wanted to feel at the beginning of the season. Now I'm very relaxed with it because I've gone through the process so much. At the start of the season, a lot of people mentioned things such as, 'The first time you go into an F1 race [weekend], it's going to be super hectic and it's all going to hit you', and I tried to ignore it. The first time I was in the F1 pit lane before qualifying, it all just hit me at once. And I think that was a lot of the reason why I was making mistakes, both in Bahrain and Imola. It's difficult when I haven't performed in the past couple of races, it hurts, and everyone sees it. But now that I've become a lot more comfortable and understand more, it's an exciting thought because this is what I've worked for for the past six years since I started racing. I feel like I really know what I'm doing and have really understood myself. When you do perform well, everyone sees [in a positive way] and you’re noticed and someone will pick up on it. It's the real benefit of being on that 'global stage'.


AO: The Silverstone sprint race - you did mention it briefly. What was it like getting your first podium?

RU: To be honest, I haven't mentioned this to many people but I was kind of angry that I didn't win the race. We struggled with our balance a little bit so going for moves down the Hangar Straight was a bit difficult because I didn't feel at best with the car. And at that point when I was in the race, I really felt like I could compete with Victor [Martins] and [Isack] Hadjar. Since I was struggling a little, I just really wasn't able to get that last bit to make a move. But I was just really glad that I was able to show my worth to everyone. I think before that, I didn't really do anything to prove myself and that's the honest answer. I didn't do anything throughout the earlier couple of races to make people think, 'Ah, you know, this kid's actually not bad'. But I was just glad to be on the podium and mostly just to battle with that group of guys because Hadjar and Victor have had a very good year. I think both of them had very good junior careers, so for me to come up as someone who's not really done much in the past, I felt like it was a very good opportunity to prove myself.

Credit: Joe Portlock via Getty Images

AO: You mentioned Hungary as well. That qualifying lap was pretty remarkable, only to get deleted. It would have been quite painful but have you taken the positives from it?

RU: Yes obviously. You took the words out of my mouth - it wasn't easy to deal with. But I think the biggest positive was on that last run there was a red flag right before, and the lap that I was on when that red flag came out, I was purple in sector one. I knew I hadn’t done it just once, I was able to do it two times. For me, that was a big confidence boost because what I struggled with most was my qualifying pace, and I felt like I really made a breakthrough from pre-Hungary onwards with my training and practice. I felt Hungary was a good example, and hopefully, I can do the same in Spa, Zandvoort and Monza.


AO: I believe I'm right in saying you're not currently affiliated with any F1 team. Is that something that you're keen to have - that sort of relationship?

RU: Yes, of course. My goal is F1 and to be a world champion. To do that, I think you obviously have to be in a top team. With the junior career I've had, it's understandable from an F1 academy's point of view that I haven't done anything special in the past. But I feel I have a lot of potential as a racing driver and as a person. I started late and haven't yet reached my maximum. I have a lot more to learn. I would love to be involved with an F1 junior programme. But I understand it’s difficult and I have to prove myself. And I like that challenge that I need to show that I'm worth it.


AO: Just to finish off, what would you say your goals are for next year? Long-term obviously you mentioned F1.

RU: Next year I want to win the [F3] championship. I'll be happy with that, and that's about it.

Credit: Rudy Carezzevoli via Getty Images

Reece's rise to F3 has been unique given that he only started karting at 13 years old, six years ago. But it is a testament to his talent and ability to adapt that he is already coming into his own towards the end of his rookie season in a series as high as F3.


I would like to thank Reece for the opportunity to hold this conversation and wish him the best in his bid for the championship next season and beyond