Japanese Drivers in Formula 1
For the first time since 2014, a Japanese driver will drive an F1 car at Suzuka on his home Grand Prix weekend. And when reigning Super Formula and Super GT champion Naoki Yamamoto takes to the track for Toro Rosso on Friday his will be the latest chapter in the wild, wonderful and occasionally weird tale of Japanese teams and drivers at their home Grand Prix.
We look at six great – and not so great – moments when local talent went big in Japan.
Privateers Lead The Way…
While Honda’s 1960s exploits deservedly hog the limelight when it comes to early Japaneseinvolvement in Formula 1, the manufacturer wasn’t the first Japanese outfit to make a Grand Prixappearance on home soil. That honour falls to two largely forgotten privateer teams – Maki and Kojima – both of which fielded less than competitive cars for Japan’s first F1 World Championship Grand Prix in 1976.
Founded by Japanese engineer Kenji Mimura in early 1974, the Maki team made its F1 debut at that year’s British Grand Prix where Howden Ganley failed to qualify its underdeveloped Cosworth-powered car. After Ganley crashed and was badly injured at the following race in Germany, the team retreated to Japan to work on a new car that failed to qualify for five events in 1975. Mimura’s squad would make one further F1 appearance, at the first Japanese Grand Prix at Fuji in 1976. This time Briton Tony Trimmer was at the wheel but again qualifying pace proved elusive and Maki faded from F1.
Fortunes were only slightly better for the Kojima team. Founded by former motorcycle racer Matsuhisa Kojima, the Kyoto-based engineering firm fielded a single DFV-powered car – designed by former Maki engineer Masao Ono –for the 1976 Fuji race. Piloting the KE007 chassis was experienced GT and sports car racer Masahiro Hasemi who managed to qualify a more than respectable 10th. Hasemi’s first and only F1 race was less successful, in famously treacherous conditions he managed to bring the Kojima home in 11th place, but he crossed the finish line some seven laps down on race winner, Mario Andretti.
Kojima would make one more appearance in F1, at the following year’s home race, again at Fuji. This time it fielded two cars, driven by Noritake Takahara, who crashed out, and Kazuyoshi Hoshino who again finished 11th for the team, who then disappeared from the sport.
Honda’s Home Runs
As a constructor, Honda enjoyed two race wins in its first incarnation (at the 1965 Mexican GP and in 1967 in the Italian GP) and a single win in its second stint in F1, when Jenson Button won the 2006 Hungarian Grand Prix, but it’s record on home soil is less impressive, with a fourth place for Button in 2006 (following Honda’s take over of BAR) being the best it can boast.
As an engine supplier, the manufacturer’s roll call of achievement is much better. The company took two Suzuka wins with McLaren during that partnership’s pomp in the late 1980s and early ’90s, with Ayrton Senna winning in 1988 and Gerhard Berger victorious three years later.
To that tally it can add five further podiums, with second places for Senna in 1987 and 1991, Alain Prost in 1988 and Berger in 1992, while Button finished third for BAR-Honda in 2004.
Aguri Suzuki First Japanese F1 Driver To Podium
While Japanese powered F1 cars have taken more than 75 wins and well over 200 podium finishes, Japanese drivers have fared less well in Grand Prix racing. Just 17 Japanese drivers have started Formula 1 races and only three have managed to stand on the podium. The first of those was AguriSuzuki and he did it on home soil in 1990.
Following an ignominious debut campaign with the Zakspeed team in 1989, during which he failed to qualify for any of that season’s 16 races, Suzuki moved to Larousse for 1990. Despite a lack of reliability that saw him fail to finish half of the season’s races, when Suzuki did manage to take the chequered flag it was often with a decent result.
Points finishes in Britain and Spain showed what he could do when the stars were right and at the season’s penultimate race in Suzuka they aligned perfectly. Starting ninth, Suzuki avoided any trouble at the start and as the race progressed he found himself in charge of a reliable car that had pace in reserve. “The car was perfect all race,” he said. “It was very well balanced and after my tyres change, I could increase the pace, which allowed me to achieve the second best time of the race.”
Suzuki’s third place, behind the Benettons of race winner Nelson Piquet and Roberto Moreno made him a celebrity at home and launched the racer on a career that took him into team ownership and eventually back to F1 with the short-lived Super Aguri team between 2006 and 2008.
Takuma Satu Best Japanese F1 Driver
Takuma Sato entered Formula 1 in 2002 as the highly-rated winner of the British F3 title, signing for a Jordan team that was fighting a losing battle with BAR for Honda support. Over the course of a rollercoaster campaign with the Irish squad, Takupicked up seven retirements from the first 12 races before things began to steadily improve.
By the time his home Grand Prix arrived he was firmly in the groove and a battle for fifth place at Suzuka proved the young Japanese driver’s worth. But his time at Jordan was at an end and with Honda firmly in his corner he exited waning Jordan for the better-supported climes of BAR, albeit as test driver.
He sat out the bulk of the season but ahead of the Japanese Grand Prix, BAR race driver Jacques Villeneuve pulled out of the weekend and asked to be released by the team. Sato, who had already been announced as a 2004 partner to Jenson Button at the team, was promptly installed in the Canadian’s place and he delivered in style, finishing fourth on his debut with the team. While Sato would finish on the podium thanks to third place at the 2004 US Grand Prix, fourth would remain the best home result of the future Indy 500 winner’s 90-race F1 career.
Toyota in Formula 1
Toyota began a massively ambitious, money-no-object foray into Formula 1 in 2002. But like so many before them resources alone were not enough to guarantee success and although the team reached a peak of fourth in the Constructor’s Championship in 2005, Toyota’s tale was all too often one of inconsistency and missed opportunities.
However, over the course of its eight seasons in the sport the Japanese outfit did manage to rack up a total of 13 podium finishes and it was perhaps fitting that the final one was delivered at the third last race of its final season in F1, the 2009 Japanese Grand Prix.
At Suzuka, Italian driver Jarno Trulli hustled the team’s TF109 to second place behind Red Bull Racing’s Sebastian Vettel. “Standing on the podium in the team’s home Grand Prix is a fantastic feeling and this great result is down to the whole team,” Trulli said afterwards.
A little over a month later the team was no more as Toyota swiftly announced its withdrawal from the sport, however, it wouldn’t be the last Japanese appearance on the Suzuka podium.
Kamui Kobayashi Japan’s Most Succesful F1 Driver
Japan’s most recent podium finisher was also arguably the country’s finest F1 driver. Backed by Toyota, Kamui Kobayashi made his F1 debut for the manufacturer at the 2009 Brazilian Grand Prix, replacing the injured Timo Glock. He quickly made a name for himself, battling hard with title-bound Jenson Button. In his second race, the season-closing Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, the Japanese driver scored his first points with sixth place.
His future looked bright and in 2010 he lined up for Sauber. Over three seasons with the Swiss outfit he scored 26 points finishes but the highlight was undoubtedly the 2012 Japanese Grand Prix.
Battling for his future with the Swiss squad, the Japanese racer drove like a man possessed at Suzuka, qualifying an impressive fourth behind Red Bull pole sitter Sebastian Vettel with Mark Webber in second, and the McLaren of Jenson Button in third.
Thanks to a gearbox-related grid drop for Button, Kobayashi then started the race in third place. Rock solid throughout the race, he resisted heavy pressure from Button in the closing stages to take an emotional first podium for a Japanese driver for 22 years.
Alas, the result wouldn’t save Kobayashi’s drive at Sauber and he lost his seat in 2013. After a year on the side lines he returned with the ill-fated Caterham team but at the end of 2014 his time in F1 was over. However, the Japanese star has gone on to prove his star quality in another arena, finishing second in the 24 Hours of Le Mans on three occasions with Toyota.