With the second part of his look back at Japanese drivers in F1, Badger writer Craig Normansell takes us from the early 1990s all the way up to the present day.
With drivers from the Orient on the increase thanks to the likes of Satoru Nakajima and Aguri Suzuki, many other teams looked to the region for the mix that made both so successful – a solid, consistent driver with backing from either an engine manufacturer and/or heavy sponsorship. Unfortunately, as the saying goes, lightning doesn’t always strike twice.
The Italian Larousse team, so instrumental in bringing Aguri Suzuki to F1 (and were repaid with a podium finish), decided to experiment with other Japanese drivers. Hideki Noda paid his way into a seat, but his most notable moment was being an obstacle for Nigel Mansell to drive into at Jerez in 1994. Perhaps it was a lack of self-confidence that affected him the most, stating that “people think I’m useless.” A deal to pay to drive for the ailing Simtek team went disastrously wrong in 1995 as the team folded before he could get in the car, taking his deposit with them.
Toshio Suzuki didn’t fare as well as his namesake in the same team, finishing outside the top 10 twice in ’93. Naoki Hattori had failed to qualify for the Coloni team in two other outings two years previously.
There was only one driver during the mid-’90s who managed to balance the tag of “pay driver” with some flashes of quality. Although he was often regarded as a bit of a liability at both the start and end of his career, Ukyo Katayama slowly became known for his sterling drives in 1994. While Tyrrell had been going through a downturn, the car they produced during that season had been a back-to-basics affair powered by improved Yamaha engines and, with Katayama bringing in a small fortune in tobacco money, the legendary British team simply couldn’t say no.
The season only netted him 5 points, but don’t let that meagre total fool you – Ukyo had speed. Often running in the top 6 places each and every weekend, it was only the unreliability of his car that stopped him from scoring more. The most heartbreaking retirement was at Hockenheim when he had been running as high as 3rd. With such a strong season behind him many thought a top drive was merely a formality – allegedly there was one on offer – but Katayama decided to stick with Tyrrell for a couple more seasons, and then one final one with Minardi in 1997. It then transpired, after his retirement speech, that he had been diagnosed with cancer in his lower back.
After Ukyo, there was a dip in the talent coming from Japan into F1. With larger sums of money needed to compete in the sport, many teams continued to employ drivers with financial backing, with several slightly embarrassing moments. Taki Inoue managed to not only to have the course car drive into him at Monaco while driving for Footwork in ’95, but also had this ridiculous mishap with the medical car at Hungary…
Two other drivers featured as the 1990s came to a close. Shinji Nakano managed to nab two points for Prost while the team ran Mugen-Honda engines in 1997 before taking his cash to Minardi. However, when the largest section of your Wikipedia page is dedicated to your helmet design you know you haven’t set the world on fire. On a similar note, Toranosuke Takagi kept Tyrrell and Minardi afloat in 1998 and 1999 and achieved very little else.
By the time the sport entered the 21st century there were no Japanese drivers on the grid. There was, however, a big Japanese presence in the sport thanks to Mugen-tuned Honda engines. Thanks to fortunate wins for Ligier’s Olivier Panis at Monaco in 1996 and Jordan’s maiden win at Spa in 1998 the manufacturer had started to gain racing pedigree, cemented further by Heinz-Harold Frentzen’s fight for the title (and wins in France and Italy) in 1999. Honda returned to the sport they’d left 8 years previously by signing to supply Jordan and BAR in 2000, yet there were still no Japanese drivers. That situation changed when Jordan hired Takuma Sato in 2002.
Looking back at the season’s results it is clear to see that Taku may have been a little, how can we say this nicely, enthusiastic in his driving. An otherwise poor season for Eddie Jordan’s team was improved by a 5th place finish at Suzuka, which encouraged Honda to keep Sato onboard as they became more associated with the BAR team. The Japanese then gained his reward by replacing Jacques Villeneuve at Suzuka. With a 6th place finish and the points to go along with it, Sato was given a race seat for 2004.
With what could be described as a breakout season, Sato took all the plaudits for becoming the first Asian driver to start from the front row – at Imola, only behind Michael Schumacher – as well as finishing on the final podium spot at Indianapolis. Six points finishes from the last 7 races cemented a strong season and promoted him to the best Japan had ever offered F1.
It was after some disappointing seasons that Honda decided to start up another team to keep the popular Taku competing. Setting up a new team named Super Aguri (thanks to it being led by former hero Aguri Suzuki) kept Sato in the sport until midway through 2008. Although the team was mired in the lower midfield, a shining afternoon in Canada saw him overtake World Champion Fernando Alonso to nab 6th place. The team was plucky but folded part way through the 2008 season, taking the even pluckier Sato with them.
Unfortunately, this new team also brought us drivers from the lower end of the spectrum in Sakon Yamamoto – a perennial backmarker also for Spyker and who made some cameo appearances for Hispania in 2010 – and probably the most unprepared driver ever to race in F1, Yuji Ide. His only real contribution to F1 was his last, tipping Christian Albers upside down at Imola.
Kazuki Nakajima, son of the legendary Satoru, was the next to try his luck. Coming to Williams as part of a Toyota engine supply deal, his 2007 debut was blotted by hitting two of his mechanics during his first ever pit-stop. Only nine points followed in 2008 (including the first ever for Japan at Monaco), but a big fat zero followed in 2010 and Toyota’s withdrawal meant Frank could let the youngster go.
The last driver to represent Japan at the pinnacle of motorsport is fan favourite Kamui Kobayashi, whose rip-roaring debut for Toyota in Brazil 2009 interjected himself into the title battle by becoming a thorn in the side of champion-elect Jenson Button.
That performance, and in the season finale in Abu Dhabi, was enough to convince Sauber to take a chance on him. Over the course of three seasons, KK endeared himself to racing aficionados with his overtaking prowess, including passing five cars at the hairpin at his first home race in 2010, and emulating Aguri Suzuki’s trailblazing moment by standing on the Suzuka podium himself in 2012.
Despite this result, Sauber decided to drop Kobayashi for 2013, despite a fundraising campaign that yielded over €8m. He instead made his return to the F1 grid with the underfunded Caterham team in 2014, leaving the sport when they folded.
While the grid is missing a Japanese driver right now, their gallery of drivers is still impressive. As time goes on more names will be added to the annals of Formula One, bringing more success, and maybe, just maybe, the prospect of their national anthem ringing out after a maiden victory.