Kamui 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
The 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.
Route to F1
- Kimi Raikkonen’s Route to F1
- Hamilton’s Route to F1
- Sergio Perez’s Route to F1
- Max Verstappen’s Route to F1
- Daniel Ricciardo’s Route to F1
Images © Caterham/LAT, GP2/LAT