A history of Japanese F1 drivers (Part 2)

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Kazuki Nakajima is the only active Japanese driver in F1

Guest writer Andrew Tsvyk concludes his look at the history of Japanese drivers in Formula 1. See part 1 here.

This second instalment covers the likes of Takuma Sato, Kazuki Nakajima and Ukyo Katayama. Plus, the only driver to stand on the podium at his home race.

Aguri Suzuki

Born on September 8, 1960 in the family of Masashi Suzuki, the founder of the Japanese Kart Association, Aguri Suzuki had little choice but to become a racing driver. And he did so by successfully racing in karts, before becoming the youngest ever Japanese F3 competitor, aged 18.

Suzuki’s F1 debut came a decade later. Substituting for Yannick Dalamas at the wheel of a Lola LC88, Aguri made his first F1 appearance at the 1988 Japanese Grand Prix, which was held at Suzuka. The native of Tokyo failed to produce a major impact, qualifying just 20th and finishing in 16th place. The Larrousse bosses must have expected more from a guy with some local knowledge.

Nevertheless, Zakspeed offered Suzuki a drive in one of their cars in the 1989 world championship. The German team, notable at the time for being the only F1 outfit apart from Ferrari to construct both the chassis and the engine on their own, were always among the outsiders. And, unfortunately for Aguri, their fortunes were even worse in 1989, as the car proved to be completely uncompetitive. As a result, Suzuki failed to pre-qualify for all 16 Grands Prix of the season??

Despite the lack of results, Aguri Suzuki was given another chance by Larrousse, the team that he had driven for back in the 1988 Japanese Grand Prix.

The Japanese driver scored his first point at Silverstone, round eight of the championship, and repeated that result at Jerez. However, the highlight of Suzuki’s season came at the Japanese Grand Prix, where he brought the car home in third, scoring the first podium for himself, his team and his country at his home Grand Prix.

A total of 6 points earned Suzuki twelfth place in the final drivers’ standings, just ahead of team-mate Eric Bernard.

The success of the 1990 season would prove difficult to repeat. With Larrousse’s fortunes taking a downturn, Suzuki’s charge from 21st to sixth at the first round in Phoenix was the only positive moment of the 1991 world championship. A string of retirements and DNQs followed, which definitely did not add confidence about the team’s progress.

Horrible reliability persuaded Aguri that the change of teams was necessary so he signed a deal with Footwork to drive one of their cars in the 1992 world championship. Japanese businessman Wataru Ohashi started pouring sizeable amounts of money into the Arrows team at the beginning of the nineties, giving reason to believe that the Leafeald-based constructor might become a serious challenger in the future.

Unfortunately, this never happened but 1992 was rather successful for Jackie Oliver’s outfit. However, while Aguri Suzuki managed to attract Mugen engines, it was his only contribution to the teams’ modest success, with team-mate Michele Alboreto doing the scoring. Indeed, the Italian veteran completely outclassed Suzuka, getting six points as well as finishing seventh five times. Suzuki’s best result of the year came in Spain, where he finished just one spot shy of the points, in seventh.

At the end of the 1992 season Alboreto left the Footwork team to join BMS Scuderia Italia and was replaced by Derek Warwick. The Briton, together with Aguri Suzuki, would make up Jackie Oliver’s driver line-up.

1993 was another difficult year for Aguri. Failing to score for the second successive season, Suzuki was told by the team that his services would be no longer required.

This left Japan’s most successful Formula 1 driver without a drive in 1994. However, Eddie Jordan recruited the native of Tokyo to drive for him at Aida, the venue for the Pacific GP. Sadly, Suzuki made it only as far as lap 44 before retiring with faulty steering.

Aguri Suzuki briefly returned to F1 racing in 1995, joining the Ligier outfit thanks to his connections with Mugen. It led to an unusual driver-swap scheme where driving duties were rotated between Suzuka and Martin Brundle.

Aguri picked up his last point, crossing the finish-line in sixth at Hockenheim. Unfortunately, Suzuki’s F1 tenure came to an end at the Japanese Grand Prix, where the Japanese star was involved in a horrific practice shunt.

Aguri made a return to the world of auto racing, running teams in various series. He even attempted to compete in F1, with Super Aguri F1 team competing in the pinnacle of motorsport for three years. While Super Aguri’s F1 tenure was rather brief, the team managed to produce quite an impact, scoring four points and conquering hearts of millions of Japanese racing fans in the process??

Naoki Hattori

Best known for presenting the Best Motoring video series, Naoki Hattori won the 1990 Japanese F3 championship before trying his luck in F1 with Coloni in the following year. Sadly, one needed more than just luck to make an impact at the wheel of those hopeful cars and, as a result, Hattori’s career in Grand Prix racing stalled even before it began.

Ukyo Katayama

In 1992 Ukyo Katayama made his Grand Prix debut at the wheel of a Larrousse, replacing fellow Japanese driver, Aguri Suzuki. Ukyo’s first season of Formula 1 was far from impressive – he scored no points and failed to qualify on a couple of occasions.

Despite the lack of performance, Katayama was retained for the following season, which saw few improvements. The Japanese diver still lacked the speed to make it into the top-six, but with the help of his faithful sponsors Ukyo stayed in F1 for another year.

The 1994 season was Ukyo’s best year. The native of Tokyo managed to earn four points, benefiting from Tyrrell’s progress. Incredibly, Katayama could have had an even better season, had it not been for a collision with the two Jordans at Hockenheim.

Nevertheless, Uncle Ken seemed to be satisfied, offering Katayama a deal for another two seasons of Grand Prix racing. But Katayama failed to repeat his 1994 performance, Tyrrell ran out of patience and did not re-new Ukyo’s contract. It was around this time he acquired the unfortunate and predictable nickname ‘kamikaze’.

Subsequently, Katayama found himself at the wheel of a Minardi, with little hope of competing for respectable positions. Disappointing results followed, which probably prompted Ukyo to retire from F1 at the end of the 1997. He has since become a successful mountaineer.

Toshio Suzuki

Triumphing in the Japanese karting and F3 championships, Toshio’s talent was never in doubt, however his only international success came in 1992, when Suzuki, together with Kazuyoshi Hoshino and Masahari Hasemi, won the prestigious Daytona 24-hour race.

A year later, Toshio made his brief Formula 1 appearance, substituting for Philippe Alliot at the Larrousse team in the final two races of the season. Despite making it to the chequered flag in both of his Grand Prix starts, Suzuki was not retained by the French team for the following year.

This did not disappoint the 38 year-old racer, and after returning home, he even managed to add some new trophies to his already impressive collection.

Hideki Noda

Noda was one of Japan’s brightest racing talents, storming through the junior categories at the beginning of the nineties. F1 soon followed, as the 25 year-old Osaka driver joined Larrousse at the end of 1994.

However, three outings resulted in as many retirements and Noda’s hopes of making a good impression on Formula 1 fraternity were dashed. In the following years Hideki raced everything from sports cars to IndyCars.

Taki Inoue

After making his first F1 appearance at the 1994 Japanese GP in a Simtek, Inoue was recruited by the Footwork team. The Footwork FA16 was far from the world- beaters that some of the opposition had to offer and therefore the native of Kobe did not have the best season.

Inoue was best known for a pair of incidents that were part comical, part horrific. At Monaco he somehow contrived to roll his car while being towed back to the pits. Then at Hungary he retired from the race with a blown engine, only to be struck by a course car as the marshals arrived on the scene.

Shinji Nakano

After competing in various European junior categories, Shinji Nakano was picked up by Alain Prost to drive one of his cars in 1997. The year was not only the first for Shinji in Formula 1, it was also the debut year for the Prost team. The first-ever season for the French team in Grand Prix racing proved to be a very good one as, having scored 21 points, Prost Grand Prix were classified in sixth position in the constructors’ championship.

As for Nakano, he managed to contribute only two points to the team’s tally and was outclassed by both Olivier Panis and Jarno Trulli, the latter taking Panis’s place after the Frenchman’s crash at the Canadian GP.

As a result, Prost decided to replace Nakano with Trulli for the following season, sending Nakano to Minardi. The year spent with the Faenza-based team turned out to be a disaster for Shinji and the Japanese racer was unable to find a place in F1 for the 1999 season. Later, Nakano made an attempt to re-launch his career in the States, albeit with little success.

Tora Takagi

Making a Formula 1 debut with a team which is in its final year is difficult. But Takagi had no choice as his junior formulae record was far from excellent. Driving an uncompetitive car in 1998, Takagi was unable to attract a lot of attention from the top-notch teams and found himself at the wheel of an Arrows in 1999.

Shadowing his rookie team-mate, Pedro de la Rosa, to the finish line at the Australian GP, Takagi lost his best chance of scoring points. The rest of Tora’s performances that season were lacklustre and he did not find a seat for 2000.

Takuma Sato

Takuma Sato in a Super Aguri at his home race in 2007

Born on January 28, 1977 in Tokyo Takuma Sato was an aspiring cyclist before being bitten by the racing bug. Aged 19, Takuma entered the Suzuka Karting School, which was run by Honda. This is where Taku’s relationship with Honda started, and six years later, having won the 2001 British F3 championship, Sato was competing in F1.

Sato found a ride at Jordan, the team using Honda power. Unfortunately, Jordan was experiencing reliability issues and Sato added even more problems by crashing with alarming frequency. Nevertheless, Sato did contribute to the team’s points tally by finishing fifth at Suzuka. But Eddie Jordan decided that Honda power was required for Takuma to stay with his team and since the Japanese car maker were not too interested, Sato was dropped in favour of Ralph Firman.

However Sato did not disappear from the Grand Prix scene as his close ties with Honda helped him to get a test drive role at BAR. When Jacques Villeneuve left the team late in 2003 Sato stepped in at Suzuka and finished an impressive sixth, securing himself a place at BAR for the following season.

The 2004 season was Sato’s best year in Formula 1. Driving one of the best cars in the field, the BAR 006, Sato scored a total of 34 points, including a third-pace finish at the United States Grand Prix at Indianapolis.

While 2004 was Taku’s best season, 2005 was definitely his worst. Bad luck combined with the 007’s reliability problems as well as amateur mistakes prevented Japan’s favourite F1 driver from getting respectable results. Having scored just a point during the 2005 campaign, Sato lost his seat at BAR.

However Honda were wise to the huge popularity of Sato in Japan and, following some public outcry, made arrangements to support the entry of a new Japanese Grand Prix team with Sato at the helm.

Super Aguri, run by Aguri Suzuki, entered the championship in 2006 using fear-year-old Arrows chassis. But by the end of the year the team’s form was improving, Sato finishing

Aguri Suzuki’s endured a difficult first season, getting their best result at the Brazilian GP, the final round of the championship, where Sato had a superb race and finished tenth.

Things improved a lot in 2007 as Sato scored four points. Unfortunately, this was not enough to save Super Aguri and the team folded prior to the 2008 Turkish Grand Prix with Honda refusing to pay the bills.

This left Sato out of job, but the Japanese driver remains optimistic about returning to F1 in 2009. Latest rumours link Sato with Toro Rosso, as Taku even tested with the Italian team in September. Sato’s career may not be over.

Yuji Ide

Like most of his peers, Ide started his racing career in karts, before moving to single-seaters. While Yuji was never a backmarker, he was not exactly one of the brightest stars either. It was thanks to his nationality that he landed a seat at Super Aguri for 2006, as the team sought to cultivate the interest of Japanese sponsors.

In his four Grand Prix starts Ide did nothing to justify his place, was hopelessly off the pace and hit the Midland of Christijan Albers during the opening lap of the 2005 San Marino GP. Soon after the FIA took away Ide’s licence, making his further participation in F1 impossible.

Sakon Yamamoto

Sakon Yamamoto spent half a season with Spyker last year

Later known in the Formula 1 world as a good DJ, Yamamoto was drafted in to replace Frank Montagny at Super Aguri in 2006. The young driver did not cause a stir, retiring on four occasions, and did not retain his Super Aguri seat for the following season. But personal sponsors helped Yamamoto to make a brief return to F1 fold with Spyker. He once again failed to impress and was regularly out-paced by team-mate Adrian Sutil.

In the summer of 2008 Sakon found a drive at ART Grand Prix GP2 team, replacing Luca Filippi, but was unable to disturb the leaders, scoring just three points in ten starts. He raced at Shanghai last weekend in the GP2 Asia series.

Kazuki Nakajima

Son of former Formula 1 driver Satoru Nakajima, Kazuki could yet prove to be the best Grand Prix driver to come from Japan. He made a stir back home at an early age, attracting the attention of Toyota. The Japanese auto giant was in the process of creating their Young Driver Program and Nakajima was immediately included in it.

The partnership proved successful, as it took Kazuki less than five years to reach F1 after starting to race single seaters. So far Nakajima has scored nine points in 16 Grands Prix he contested for Williams. An impressive result, given the state of affairs at Grove.

This is a guest article by Andrew Tsvyk. If you want to write a guest article for F1 Fanatic you can find all the information you need here.

9 comments on “A history of Japanese F1 drivers (Part 2)”

  1. Great article Andrew!

    My memory could be failing me – but I seem to remember reading in F1 Racing many years ago that at one point during the 1997 Belgian Grand Prix, Ukyo Katayama was the only driver to be lapping as fast as Michael Schumacher in the wet.

    I don’t know if anyone is able to verify that, but if it’s correct that is a mighty impressive effort! It’s a shame that sort of speed wasn’t consistent for Katayama because I really liked the fact he had a life outside of F1, and thought he was a great character on the grid.

  2. Takagi was a strange one. I thought he showed glimpses of considerable ability but they never really came to more than that in F1. He won Formula Nippon in 2000, though.

  3. A word also for the Japanese F1 racer who should have been – Satoshi Motoyama. A four time FNippon champion, I seem to remember him being described as something like ‘a calculating Jean Alesi’.

    Good articles.

  4. One to look out for – I saw Kamui Kobayashi testing for Toyota at Silverstone back in June, and was very impressed.

    He set the fourth fastest time out of 10 drivers on the first day, all of whom were current f1 drivers (with the exception of Liuzzi). I know it’s only testing but I’d like to think he might get a chance fairly soon.

  5. I think you missed Kunimitsu Takahashi?

  6. Sorry, mate, I probably did. Anyway, I shall try to fix that as soon as possible.

  7. yorricksfriend
    27th October 2008, 8:19

    Uh, good article but a bit puzzled by “fear-year-old Arrows chassis” and “by the end of the year the team’s form was improving, Sato finishing” finishing what? the races?

  8. A true racer has risen from the land of the rising sun, BANZAI KAMUI KOBAYASHI!!!

  9. the worst diver i every seen

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