With the Japanese Grand Prix upon us, Badger writer Craig Normansell takes a look at the men who have driven for the nation throughout the history of the sport.
This weekend marks the return of Formula One to its spiritual home at Suzuka, a track steeped in the proud history of driver skill and bravery. But, for the second straight season, since Kamui Kobayashi’s exit with Caterham in 2014, no Japanese driver will be competing on home soil. Does this mean there’s been a shortage of Japanese inspiration? Not by our reckoning.
The first forays into the Far East for Formula 1 in the mid-seventies brought some of the country’s fastest racers to the fore. With Fuji due to host in 1976, Hiroshi Fushida became the first Japanese name in the sport, competing for Japanese constructor Maki in two races 12 months earlier. He failed to start one and didn’t qualify for the other but, whilst not making a race may seem embarrassing, he had started the ball rolling for Asian drivers to compete at the highest level.
When the first two races at Fuji were held in 1976 and 1977 many home drivers tried their hands on a track they knew extremely well. Their efforts ranged from hiring a Tyrrell or Surtees to driving as a one-off Japanese constructor entry, as four drivers tried to ride the wave of interest in Oriental racing.
For drivers Kazayoshi Hoshino (debuting Bridgestone rubber in 1976 and retiring thanks to using all of his tyres), Noritake Takahara (making no impression in both events), Masami Kuwashima (who, in 1976, failed to pay Frank Williams some sponsorship money after first practice and was promptly dropped) and Kunimitshu Takahashi (renting a Tyrrell in 1977) it was forgettable, but it was local hero Mashahiro Hasemi who made the headlines in the 1976 event.
Driving for Kojima Racing, it was a crash on his final fastest lap that ruined what could have been a shock pole position. Running 4th, and without enough time to repair the car, he dropped to 10th on the grid. On race day, during torrential rain and out of the spotlight thanks to the Lauda-Hunt title fight, Hasemi set the fastest lap of the race. Eventually, thanks to a lack of tyres from Dunlop and facing faster cars he came home last, seven laps down. But it was another important step in Formula 1’s growth in Japan.
After the two races in the seventies, the safety of the Fuji circuit was brought firmly into question. This followed a racing accident that claimed the lives of two spectators; the track was removed from the calendar and Japanese interest tailed off. The gap lasted until 1987 when the growing might of Honda started a trend that lasted for over a decade – the use of a driver from Japan as a negotiating tool.
With the engine manufacturer becoming hot property at title-winning outfits, Team Lotus needed to improve to keep the mercurial Ayrton Senna happy – and, more importantly, competitive. Honda were happy to come on board, but there was a catch. They wanted to give a Japanese driver a chance to compete over a whole season, and they didn’t get much faster than multiple Japanese F2 champion Satoru Nakajima. Coupled with the fact that Honda’s test track at Suzuka had also made the F1 calendar, Eastern racing was massively on the rise.
After that first season, Nakajima made more history. As Lotus were competitive – Senna won twice – so was he, and it took him only two races to score his nation’s first point. 4th at Silverstone, one of the sites of Hiro Fushida’s first efforts 12 years previous, and 7 world championship points by the season’s put him firmly on the F1 map.
Unfortunately, just as Nakajima’s stock was rising Lotus’ began to fade, even with triple world champion Nelson Piquet on board. Only one point followed in 1988 and Honda withdrew their engine supply at the end of the season. In 1989 it got worse and he failed to qualify three times, including an embarrassing double-DNQ with Piquet at Spa.
His final race for the British marque would prove to be his best: at a rain-soaked Adelaide in 1989 he equalled his best finish of 4th and set the fastest lap in the process.
Two final years at Tyrrell, one back with Honda power, yielded five more points, and Satoru bowed out with 16 to his name. A proud achievement.
During Nakajima’s career, another Japanese driver would start to make a name for himself, and his career would go from one end of the spectrum to the other over the period of a few years.
Aguri Suzuki started out in F1 the same way as many of his predecessors. Drafted into the Larousse team for the 1988 Suzuka race (thanks to local knowledge, regular driver Yannick Dalmas falling ill, and a bucket full of Yen). A season at Zakspeed followed, but that was met with 16 consecutive DNPQ’s and abject failure. At least the team got some money for his efforts.
Heading back to fund Larousse the following year he was buoyed by a pair of 6th place finishes and the resulting points. But it all clicked in Suzuka. Getting into the top 10 on the grid was then eclipsed by finishing 3rd, and therefore being the first Asian driver to step onto the podium. His speed proved it wasn’t a fluke too – Suzuki set the second fastest lap of the race!
Alas, Aguri didn’t managed to continue his form, mainly thanks to him resigning for Larousse in ’91 and then becoming the face of the Footwork/Arrows/Mugen Honda project a few years later. By the time that had finished, he was reduced to a single outing for Jordan and then sharing a seat with Martin Brundle at Ligier thanks to the French team’s engine deal with Mugen. With only 8 world championship points to his name, Aguri Suzuki retired.
These men laid the foundations for the nation of Japan in Formula One, but it would be the men they inspired who would push the country onwards in its quest for racing success.