Kamui Kobayashi’s Route to F1

Route to F1

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Kamui Kobayashi, Caterham, Hockenheimring, 2014Kamui Kobayashi’s F1 career began when he appeared for Toyota during practice at Suzuka in 2009. But five years later it looks like next weekend’s race could be his last chance to drive in front of his home crowd.

Kobayashi’s place at Caterham is in jeopardy. He has already been forced to stand down once this year in favour of Andre Lotterer, and may be nearing the end of his time in F1.

It’s not the first time Kobayashi has potentially faced such a setback. Just weeks after he made his F1 debut for Toyota, the team announced its withdrawal from grand prix racing.

Until then the Japanese manufacturer had spent years preparing Kobayashi for the top flight. Here’s how he made it there.

Double Formula Renault success

Kobayashi first came to attention in 2001 when he claimed the All Japan Kart Championship. But far away from the illustrious European karting scene there was little he could do to catch the eye of those closest to to the F1 world.

However Toyota were making preparations for their F1 debut in 2002, which included forming a young driver development program. In 2003 Kobayashi contested his first full season in racing cars, placing second in the Formula Toyota championship.

By virtue of Italy’s Prema Powerteam squad coming then under Toyota’s umbrella of associates, Kobayashi found a valuable entry point into the European racing scene. The Italian Formula Renault 2000 series gave him two race victories and fourth place in the championship. It also introduced him to many European circuits – valuable experience for an aspiring F1 driver.

Kobayashi stayed with Prema for 2005 and moved on to Formula Renault 2.0 for what proved a pivotal and highly successful season. When Michael Ammermuller faltered in the final three rounds of the Eurocup, Kobayashi was there to take advantage and pip him to the title.

It was a double title success for Kobayashi that year as he lifted the Italian crown as well. He bounced back from retirement in the first race of the season at Vallelunga to score three successive wins. Again Ammermuller proved his fiercest rival, but a win and a second place in the final race weekend at Monza put the matter beyond doubt: Kobayashi beat his rival by 24 points.

Tricky times in F3

Kobayashi’s Formula Renault success made Kobayashi a hot property, and landed him a place at crack Formula Three squad ASM for an assault on the F3 Euro Series in 2006. Here he found himself up against another Toyota-backed driver, Kazuki Nakajima, but despite the latter’s two year’s of F3 experience Kobayashi ended the year just two points behind his countryman.

Podium finishes at Brands Hatch, the Norisring and the Nurburgring helped Kobayashi on his way to an eventual eighth place in the championship table and highest-placed rookie. Expectations were high that he would make a bid for the championship in 2007, particularly as the previous three titles had been won by fellow ASM drivers Lewis Hamilton, Paul di Resta and Jamie Green.

But Kobayashi’s season got off to a difficult start with a double no-score at Hockenheim. That set the tone for the year ahead. Comprehensively out-raced and outperformed by a trio of fellow future F1 talents – Romain Grosjean, Nico Hulkenberg and Sebastien Buemi – Kobayashi recorded only a single win at Magny-Cours.

Here the quartet do battle at the Norisring in a race eventually won by Grosjean:

While Kobayashi was fast enough on his day, there were too many errors such as this one at Zandvoort:

And again at the Nurburgring:

Kobayashi finished the year with 59 points, 47 behind his championship-winning team mate Grosjean. But his disappointment was eased by when Toyota offered him a contract as test driver, which he signed in November, taking another step closer to F1.

GP2 Asia champion

Kamui Kobayashi, DAMS, GP2 Asia, Bahrain, 2009The inaugural GP2 Asia championship offered another avenue for Kobayashi and his F3 cohorts to progress at the beginning of 2008. With the championship rules encouraging teams to field Asian drivers, Toyota ushered their protege into a berth with French team DAMS.

Kobayashi adapted well to the more powerful cars, taking sprint race wins at Sepang and Bahrain. But in the championship it was a similar story to F3 – Grosjean took the title. Nonetheless he remained with DAMS for the main GP2 series.

A strong opening weekend in Barcelona brought eighth in race one, which gave him reverse-grid pole position for the sprint race, which he duly won. But that early success proved a red herring in an otherwise poor season. In the remaining 18 races Kobayashi scored points just once, and finished a lowly 16th in the championship.

Before that he returned to GP2 Asia where he finally tasted championship success again. He took the title in impressive fashion with wins in Dubai and Bahrain speeding him to the crown. On returning to Bahrain for the season finale a relatively modest fourth place in the first race was enough to put the championship beyond the reach of nearest rival Jerome D’Ambrosio, who finished 20 points behind.

Bolstered by his change in fortunes, DAMS happily sent Kobayashi back to Europe for the 2009 season expecting great things. But once again his erratic results played themselves out in all-too-familiar fashion and a solid start in Spain – as before in 2008 – turned to nothing as he failed to score in the next seven races.

Third in Germany was as good as it got over the rest of the season, and for the second year in a row he finished 16th, 84 points behind champion – and his former F3 rival – Hulkenberg. This time there wasn’t even a lone victory to console him, though he did enjoy a no-holds barred contest with Alvaro Parente and Vitaly Petrov at a damp Nurburgring that year:

It seemed as though just as he was getting within touching distance of an F1 break Kobayashi was failing to capture the top prizes on the junior single-seater ladder. But Toyota kept faith with their driver and Kobayashi drove at an F1 race weekend for the first time at Suzuka in 2009.

The day after that practice session bad luck for Timo Glock handed an opportunity to Kobayashi. Glock suffered a leg injury which kept him out of the cockpit for the rest of the year, and though rules barred Kobayashi from taking Glock’s place at his home event, he took over the car for the Brazilian and Abu Dhabi Grands Prix.

Feisty wheel-to-wheel battles new world champion Jenson Button in both races made Kobayashi an instant fan favourite. He scored points too, and beat team mate Jarno Trulli in the final round. That swayed the mind of the onlooking Peter Sauber, who was quick to secure Kobayashi’s services for 2010.

Despite losing his seat for 2013, Kobayashi returned to the track this year with Caterham. But it remains to be seen how much longer he will remain on the F1 grid.

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  • 19 comments on “Kamui Kobayashi’s Route to F1”

    1. I don’t think he would have done worse then raikonnen has done this year if Ferrari had signed him.

    2. The case of Kamui is a fantastic illustration of why junior category results can never always be translated linearly into F1 performance potential. So whilst Kobayashi (a pair of 16th placed rankings in his 2008/09 GP2 campaigns) and Perez (controversial Sauber signing – little real potential shown other than finishing runner up to Maldonado in GP2 in 2010; finished 14th in the 2005 Formula BMW ADAC season whilst current F1 teammate, Hulkenberg, dominated) surpassed expectations, Piquet Jr (2004 British F3 champion), Kovalainen (2004 World Series by Nissan champion), Liuzzi (2004 F3000 champion), di Grassi (2005 Macau Grand Prix winner) and even Vergne (2010 British F3 champion) arguably failed to translate the promise they showed before they were promoted.

      F1 is an incredibly specific challenge, with infinitely more variables and in turn more pressure than any other category the drivers will have raced in, and in 2009, whilst Grosjean was squandering his status as “the next big thing”, Kobayashi instantly gelled with the challenge at hand and simply excelled. That should be a warning to Helmut Marko if he seeks to continue the trend he has started this past year of hiring extremely young drivers, because fulfilling your potential in F3 or GP3 and fulfilling your potential in F1 are two very different things.

      1. At the time Vettel signed for STR, he was very young. And he went on to win FOUR championships in a row.
        So maybe, just maybe Helmut Marko does know what he is doing. Just look at Daniel’s performance

        1. @brunes – Which gives the highly structured multi-million dollar Red Bull Junior Team as many successes (Vettel, Ricciardo), in terms of well established long term F1 careers, as the shoestring and largely irrelevant (in that Ferrari tend to prefer talents established within F1) Ferrari Driver Academy (Perez, Bianchi).

    3. I really really like this driver… it has something in the way he drives that reminds me the best of the rest but i suppose pure driving abilities is not the case in F1 lately.

    4. Such a unique talent. F1 can be a cruel sport sometimes.

    5. Who cares if goes? Great drivers like Gutierrez, Chilton and Ericsson are still there!

      1. Not to mention the greatest of them, aka the Maldonado)
        To my mind, Kobayashi has a strong talent, but he didn’t learn that stability+speed is a key to F1 success. In his second year in Sauber, when they excelled their expectations, he should have earned more points and he should have got rid of ridiculous mistakes.
        Kamui’s year 2012
        Australia: beautiful 6th place;
        Malaysia: didn’t score points, brakes failure;
        China: 10th, ahead of his teammate.
        Bahrain: 13th, lost to his teammate;
        Spain: incredible 5th place;
        Monaco: accident; honestly, I don’t recall what happened there;
        Canada: 9th, average race;
        Valencia: accident damage, outpaced Sergio, before that stupid manoeuver Kamui led again, an incredible race;
        Great Britain: another clumsy movement and the injured mechanic; presumable, 6th place slipped away from Kobayashi;
        Germany: a staggering 4th place;
        Hungary: hydraulics problem;
        Belgium: best grid place in his career; it might have been another exceptional race; but we must “thank” Grosjean;
        Italy: 9th, average race;
        Singapore: 13th place, below average;
        Japan: 3rd, astonishing result; the first and the last podium;
        Korea: accident, another awkward move;
        India: 14th, below average;
        Abu-Dhabi: 6th, beautiful race;
        The USA: 14th, below average;
        Brasilia: 9th, though Schumacher provoked an accident, so Kamui could have had 6-7th place.

        To sum up: Kobayashi had only 1 podium, 5 stunning races overall, two races were spoiled by other pilots (Schumacher and Grosjean), potentially good points races. Another 2 races were destroyed by the team faults. Also, Kamui had 4 pretty normal races, 3 pretty bad races, and the most upsetting – 4 races that were ruined by his own mistakes.
        I am 100% sure that if the Japanese could have avoided inelegant faults, especially those in Valencia and Great Britain, he would have secured his Sauber place and F1 career.
        I am not convinced Kamui learnt enough to fight on the highest level. Anyway, I do like the guy and his racing style (with exclusion of crashes). But, remember, he was picked up by the Ferrari team! And that is another evidence that Kamui is a great pilot. I will definitely miss him.

        1. Did you know that IF is F1 backwards?

    6. Few would call Kobi wdc material, but he worthy of a midfield seat for his incredible overtakes… in a car capable of getting on the broadcast, he is one of the most entertaining drivers on the grid and one of my favourites.

      1. Sadly with gimmicks like DRS he no longer has much need to even try & pull off incredible overtakes.

        If you go back to his 1st races at Brazil/Abu-Dhabi in 2009 the biggest reason he stood out was because he showed good race-craft, He showed an ability to overtake & defend & that carried over in 2010.

        Since then with DRS, Nobody really stands out anymore because now everybody can easily overtake in the DRS zones.

        1. Can’t agree more, maybe we would consider Kobayashi wdc material if we had no DRS. His overtaking skills impressed me in 2009 and 2010 but from 2011 on, there have been less Leeroy Jenkins moments from him. We only had DRS passes in 2011, 2012 and 2013. The racing is somewhat better this year due to the new engine regulations.

          I think Kobayashi would have been a true star in the Schumacher era.

        2. Actually i think you are right, his main skill is now almost redundant.

    7. Formula Indonesia (@)
      26th September 2014, 15:40

      he’s a good driver, but being good sometimes not enough

    8. He deserves more.

    9. Every time F1F release ‘route to f1’ articles, I felt like I was reading obituary of a driver career on F1.
      A nostalgic article of soon to be not an F1 driver anymore exactly like F1F did in last 2013 with Mark Webber.
      Latest ‘route to f1’ articles are Jenson Button, Nico Hulkenberg and now Kamui Kobayashi…
      Did you knew something we don’t, @keithcollantine ?

      1. @ruliemaulana What a perfect logic you have: to see a pattern coz of a single article on Mark Webber, that takes some beating. Did you read the one on Fernando Alonso? Vettel? Rosberg?

    10. Definitely the best Japanese driver ever. It would be a huge injustice if his F1 career ended after this year. But F1 and injustice are bywords really. I hope in such case that F1’s loss would be Indycar’s gain

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