That Kamui Kobayashi is the finest grand prix driver to emerge from Japan is, in our opinion, already beyond doubt. From the prodigious talent who exploded on to the F1 scene at the Brazilian Grand Prix of 2009 the 24-year-old has developed in to a consistent, established performer, but one who is still known for his daring overtaking moves.
And as such we couldn’t stop ourselves from doing a feature on the Sauber man. But, rather than stick to the usual formula, we’re focussing on how Kamui’s short F1 career has seen him disprove a number of myths. From confirming that Japanese drivers can stand on their own two feet in F1 to showing that not all grand prix drivers are capable of adequate pet care, Kobayashi disproves those myths faster than he dispatches a snoozing Toro Rosso driver at the end of a long straight.
Myth Number One: You have to be quick in GP2 to succeed in Formula One
When Kobayahsi made his debut at the Brazilian Grand Prix of 2009 some – this writer included – were borderline angry at the Cologne-based team’s decision. It was, we foolishly asserted, simply Toyota trying to drum up support for their unpopular-in-the-boardroom F1 programme by running a homegrown driver.
In fact it probably was, because if they’d been watching GP2 for the previous two years they’d have seen little to suggest Kamui was anything more than an also ran. Yes, yes he won the Asia Series in 2008-09, but that was primarily because he contested all the races. The real star of that championship was Nico Hulkenberg (who finished sixth overall despite contesting just two rounds). In the main series – the real barometer of sub-F1 abilities – Kamui finished 16th two years running. He took one win, and that was from pole in a reverse grid sprint race. Basically, he wasn’t particularly eye catching.
But in F1 he’s been a star, proving that GP2 form doesn’t always translate in to the senior category. At the other end of the scale, Nelson Piquet Jr. was second to Lewis Hamilton in 2006, just 12 points shy of the title-winning Englishman, but you’d never have thought it given the way the two have performed in F1.
Myth Number Two: Japanese drivers only get and maintain F1 drives based on sponsorship
Okay, his F1 break came with Toyota, but after impressing there he’s been going it alone, landing a seat at Swiss squad Sauber, with whom he had no prior relationship and whose engine suppliers are not Japanese. He took no sponsorship of note with him, leading to the team’s 2010 car looking like a pack of budget photocopier paper, and remains there solely on talent.
Compare that to recent Japanese racers: Takuma Sato only ever drove Honda-powered cars; Kazuki Nakajima’s two seasons at Williams both saw the Grove-based team run Toyota units, whilst his father Satoru was a Honda backed driver. Then there are a slew of racers who got their jobs because they had money behind them: Ukyo Katayama (Mild Seven), Shinji Nakano (Mugen), Tora Takagi (PIAA), Sakon Yamamoto (we’re not sure who was funding him or why) – the list goes on. Kobayashi has bucked that trend.
Myth Number Three: Whilst not always sensible on the track, F1 drivers are responsible adults away from it.
Kamui disproved this by doing a very poor job of looking after his pet dog (which this writer, as an avid fan of man’s best friend, can’t really approve of, but there we go). In a recent interview with F1 Racing magazine he was asked about his canine chum, to which Kamui replied “I don’t have dog anymore. I lost it.” Err, okay, moving on…
Myth Number Four: Japanese drivers crash – lots
It’s true that Japanese drivers have often had a tendancy to throw the car in to the scenery. Remember Takuma Sato? Giancarlo Fisichella will certainly never forget his pint-sized team-mate after he attempted to mount his Jordan at the Malaysian Grand Prix of 2002.
Recalling Kazuki Nakajima’s time in F1 two things come to mind: his Williams hitting a mechanic on his F1 debut at Brazil 2007 and his shunt at Australia ’09; Taki Inoue managed to get hit by a safety car (okay – not his fault, but he was always quick to bin it himself) whilst the slow-moving disaster that was Yuji Ide managed to tip Christijan Albers’ Spyker in to a barrel roll at the San Marino Grand Prix of 2006.
Kobayashi has generally been less crash happy, usually pulling off those gutsy passes rather than slamming in to his rivals, and hasn’t thrown it in to the gravel as much as his predecessors. However it’s worth mentioning that he’s had the odd shunt. Take this example from last year’s Australian Grand Prix – it ain’t pretty, but it’s the exception that proves the rule.
The Final Myth: A Japanese driver can never hit the heights in F1
This final myth is yet to be disproved – but belief that Kamui will be the man to shatter it is growing with each race he contests. To date, Japanese drivers have taken just two podium finishes (Aguri Suzuki at Suzuka ’90 and Sato at Indianapolis 2004), never scored a pole position or come anywhere near launching a title bid. Could Kamui be the man to finally put this one to bed?
It’s hard to deny that he’s the best Japanese prospect F1 has ever seen – none of his countrymen have combined gutsy overtaking with the speed and consistency he’s displayed in the Sauber. He’s very quick, mature beyond his years (in racing terms at least) and is fast becoming very consistent. When a seat opens up at a top team he is surely at the front of the queue of young drivers looking to make the leap to the bigtime. And he fully deserves it.
Whether he could then make the final leap to challenge F1’s big boys remains to be seen, but there’s one thing is for sure: it wouldn’t phase him one bit. We’ve already seen him go wheel-to-wheel with Fernando Alonso in a Sauber – how good would it be to see the two doing battle in equal machinery?