When Hiroshi Fushida took to the track for the 1975 Dutch Grand Prix weekend he was the first Japanese driver to compete in F1, I doubt may in the land of the raising sun thought they’d still be waiting for their first F1 victory 35 years later! The public love their Motorsports, their support for Ayrton Senna was almost as fanatical as his fans back in Brazil. There is a good infrastructure in place for young talent to be nurtured before heading off to the finishing schools in Europe. So why is Japan still waiting to stand on the top step of the podium?
Here’s a look at five of the most loved Japanese races since the mid Seventies up to the present day with an insight from former F1 racer Taki Inoue answering questions on the drivers. Taki raced in 18 Grand Prix during 1994 and 1995 for Simtec and Footwork.
Kozuyoshi Hoshino: Tagged “The fastest guy in Japan” Kozuyoshi started his racing career on bikes winning several National Motocross championships for Kawasaki by 1968. He was then persuaded by Nissan to try his hand on four wheels, it was a very good decision! In 1975 and 1977 he won the Japanese F2000 title, in 1978, he was crowned Japanese F2 champion before adding three F3000 Titles in ’87, ’90 and ’93. An impressive CV for any budding F1 driver surly? His F1 career spanned only two races, both at his home race for Heros Racing. He retired in 1976 after using up all his allocation of tyres and brought home his year old Kojima in eleventh the following year. I asked Taki why he thought Kozuyoshi didn’t get more opportunity in F1 given all his titles in other categories? TI “Very simple, he didn’t have any budget to carrying on F1 program. And also, he doesn’t like to go out Japan, which means typical Japanese”.
Satoru Nakajima: Satoru was the first Japanese driver to have a career of any longevity, taking part in 80 race weekends (74 race starts) between 1987 and 1991. Satoru’s big break came in 1987 with Lotus thanks in no small part to the engine supply from Honda. At the tender age of 34 he was no spring chicken and Partnering the late, great Ayrton Senna no one gave him much of a chance. Saturo’s highlights include scoring point’s in his second race (’87 San Marino GP) finishing sixth. A great 4th place finish and fastest lap in ’89 at Adelaide in the underpowered Lotus Judd was to be the highest placing for him. After two uneventful years with Tyrrell in ’90 and ’91, Satoru retired from F1 after the 1991 Australian Grand Prix. I asked Taki How good could he have been if he had got his chance earlier in his career? TI “The same thing to him. He didn’t have any budget to have done F1 program earlier. When Honda decided to come back F1 as an engine supplier, Honda believed Williams could accept Nakajima with Engine, but Williams said they need engine but they didn’t need driver. Honda immediately found out any team which Honda could supply engine with driver. This was a Lotus.”
Aguri Suzuki: A record breaker for good and bad reasons! He has the unenviable record of failing to pre-qualify for any of the 16 races in 1989 while driving for Zakspeed. His career peaked in 1990 with the Larrouse Lamborghini team.Two sixth place finishes in Britain and Spain were very good but they were eclipsed by a stunning third place finish at his home race at Suzuka. This was the first time a driver from Japan had stepped foot on the podium of a F1 race. For the first time, there was a belief the a Japanese driver could take a win. The following years didn’t capitalise on this success, a string of DNF’s and DNQ’s were to follow in the next two years. Aguri injured his neck in a massive crash during practice for the 1995 Japanese Grand Prix and immediately announced his retirement from racing. Taki answered How much did that podium at Suzuka in 1990 mean to the Japanese public and aspiring F1 drivers like yourself? TI “No much. Because he didn’t drive Japanese manufacture engine when he finished 3rd.”
Takuma Sato: With a hatrick of F3 titles in 1991 (British F3, Macau GP and Masters of F3) Takuma came into F1 with more Eastern promise (and backing from Honda) than any of his predecessors. 2002 saw Takuma given his chance at Jordan, his first points finish came at Sazuka at the end of the year with a fifth place finish. In 2003 he moved to BAR Honda as test driver, he got his chance to race in that years Japanese Grand Prix deputising for Jacques Villeneuve, bringing the car home in sixth position. A full-time race seat followed in 2004, a season the produced Taku’s best finish, third place at the US Grand Prix. That still to this day is only the second podium for a Japanese driver. Takuma will be best remembered for the 2007 Canadian Grand Prix. Driving for the hastily assembled Super Aguri team, driving year old Honda’s he managed to score the teams first points. A sixth place finish was news worthy enough but overtaking both Kimi Raikkonen’s Ferrari and defending world champion Fernado Alonso’s McLaren in the process had fans around the world on their feet. I asked Taki, Did the pressure of expectation weigh heavy on his shoulders and undermine his talent during his F1 career? TI “Well, he was a pure Honda boy. All budget was paid by Honda. I don’t think he felt any pressure on that point. But still Takuma fans became like a Takuma religion. It is very strange situation compared with the other driver.
Kamui Kobayashi: When Timo Glock injured his leg during qualifying for the 2009 Japanese Grand Prix, no one could have expected the performance this young driver from Amagasaki would produce standing in for him at the next race. The next race was Brazilian Grand Prix, Kamui drove a race far beyond his years keeping behind him non other than the champion in waiting Jenson Button. Button tried for several laps to get past Kamui whilst charging through from fourteenth on the grid and pulling off some stunning overtaking manoeuvres which have become his trademark. 2010 saw Kamuri score 32 points on his way to 12th in the championship. 2011 has seen points picked up in all races (both Saubers were disqualified in Australia after finishing in the points) with a career best fifth place at Monaco. Consistent finishes coupled with his flamboyant driving style has defiantly caught the attention of the bigger teams. He showed in Canada in the wet he’s a force given a more level playing field running in second until the circuit dried out. Surly the wait for a race winner from Japan is nearly over? TI “For sure, he has a talent to win the F1, but he really needs proper management system to get a potential seat in the future.”