Friday, October 12, 2007

Japan and Formula 1 (Part 2)

Following Nakajima’s lead, several more Japanese drivers competed in F1, beginning in the late 1980’s thru the current season, with Aguri Suzuki becoming the second full time Formula 1 driver in 1988.

Ironically, I had the pleasure of witnessing Aguri Suzuki walking into the paddock at Phoenix in 1989. Suzuki was accomping some “dude” named “A-Ayrton” (Senna) and was totally ignored by the fans present. Little did I know that Suzuki was to become the only Japanese driver to stand on the podium one year later in Suzuka.

While Nakajima soldiered on with the fleeting Lotus team before finishing his career with a two year stint at Tyrrell, Suzuki spent the majority of his F1 career with the “Privateer” Larrousse outfit, followed by stints at Zakspeed, Ligier, Footwork and Jordan before retiring in 1995.

Although I simply do not remember this Japanese driver, Naoki Hattori who is also an Automotive Journalist, rose to prominence by winning the Japanese Formula 3 Championship in 1990, before very briefly trying to make his mark in Formula One, where Naoki made two unsuccessful attempts to Pre-qualify for races in the minnow-esqu Coloni team in 1991 As Pedro Chaves replacement.

Japanese driver involvement in Formula 1 then reached it’s zenith in 1994 with four drivers contesting the championship. Newcomers Ukyo Katayama, Taki Inoue and Hideki Noda joined Suzuki on the grid.

Katayama had actually joined the F1 circus as Suzuki’s replacement at Larrousse in 1992 and reportedly was one of Japan’s most eccentric drivers, having gone to Paris to compete in European racing! As well as breaking his neck and both legs in a junior formula.

Nevertheless Katayama planned his comeback immediately and ultimately found his way into Formula 1. After his brief stint at Larrouse, Katayama enjoyed another four seasons in Formula 1 with the fading Tyrrell team.

Inoue and Noda both broke into F1 with the Simtek Grand Prix team, which unfortunately faded from the grid at the end of 1994 largely due to the tragic loss of Roland Ratzenberger a day prior to “Black Sunday.” (Imola; May 1, 1994)

In its struggles to operate the new team, paying drivers were taken on in the later half of the 1994 season, hence Inoue and Noda’s appearances.

After making a single start for Simtek in 1994, Takachiho (Taki) spent the full ’95 season with the Footwork team. But Inoue is best known for his bizarre accidents, first being run over by a course car at Monaco while being towed back to the pits. Then he was struck by an errant recovery vehicle being sent to retrieve his broken down car in Hungary and was sent flying!

Meanwhile Noda was a pleasant “chap” who made three starts for Simtek at the end of the 1994 season with intentions of returning the following season before the team went into receivership with debts of $10 million.

Not to be confused with the current MOTO GP rider Shinya Nakano, Shinji Nakano like most current Open Wheel racers, cut his teeth in go-karts and won several Karting Championships before moving onto single seater racing, where he competed in Japanese Formula 3 & 3000, along with the European Formula Opel series.

Joining the ever revolving door of aspiring Japanese Grand Prix piloto’s during the mid 1990’s, Shinji made his Formula One debut in 1997 for the Prost team, which was powered by Mugen/Honda engines that season. The following year, Shinji was forced to take refuge at Minardi when Prost elected to campaign Peugeot engines instead and struggled with the perennial back markers. For 1999, Shinji occasionally tested for the Jordan Grand Prix team, who were using Mugen/Honda “lumps,” before moving to CART in 2000 for Walker Racing.

Billed as the next great Japanese hope in Formula 1, Toranosuke “Tiger” Takagi was spotted by Satoru Nakajima as a future F1 star in 1994 and spent considerable time racing for Nakajima’s race team, before being selected as a test driver for Tyrrell in 1997. Tiger then graduated to a full time race drive for “Uncle Chopper’s” (Ken Tyrrell) squad in 1998, becoming the sixth Japanese driver to compete in Formula One.

For 1999, Tiger joined Jos “The BOSS” Verstappen for his second and final season at the faltering Arrows Grand Prix team, before leaving F1 and contesting the 2000 Formula Nippon series for mentor Nakajima.

After a brief respite, while Nakano and Takagi plied their trades stateside in Champ Car and the IRL, Japan’s next rising star burst onto the scene in 2002 with Eddie Jordan. As Takuma Sato capped off his rookie campaign with a fifth place points paying finish in Japan before being dropped from Jordan Grand Prix.

Sato then took up refuge as BAR Honda’s test driver in 2003 before replacing Jacques Villeneuve for that year’s Japanese Grand Prix.

Taku-san ran two full seasons alongside Jenson Button for BAR Honda before it was announced that he’d be jettisoned from the squad in 2006. This move created such uproar in Japan that Honda effectively enticed Aguri Suzuki into creating his Super Aguri F1 team as a satellite operation in order for Sato to continue his Formula 1 career.

Takuma has done little to dampen his adoring country’s admiration with solid performances aboard the ever improving “Super Best Friends” chassis over the past two seasons.

With the launch of the Super Aguri F1 team, largely backed by Honda, it was sought to run an all Japanese driver line-up for the team’s debut season. This saw relative unknown Yuji Ide as Sato’s teammate, as Ide had raced for Suzuki’s Autobacs Racing Team Aguri (ARTA) in a Nissan Silvia in 1999.

Yet after a spectacular shunt with Cristijan Albers, the FIA demanded that Ide step down in favour of test driver Frank Montagny. Thus effectively ending his brief Formula 1 career after only four starts, as the FIA has also revoked his Super License

After a brief racing stint Montagny was subsequently replaced by Sakon Yamamoto for the remainder of the 2006 season before being relegated to test driver status for the beginning of this year’s championship.

But the tenuous financial outlook of the Spyker F1 team saw Yamamoto’s suitcases full of Yen eagerly appreciated when the Japanese driver was inserted as Albers replacement mid-season, prior to Vijay Malia purchasing the team and re-branding it Force India.

UpdateWith the arrival of Force India for the 2008 F1 season, Yamamoto was indeed sent packing in favour of Giancarlo Fisichella, returning to GP2 to drive for the ART Grand Prix team.

Yet, Yamamoto wasn’t the only Japanese driver to see his fortunes fade, as Taku-san lost his ride when Super Aguri was forced to shut its doors on May 6th, 2008, upon the team’s unsuccessful search for a new financial backer, with the team’s final outing coming in the Spanish Grand Prix.

Recently, Takuma has been linked as a possible replacement for Sebastian Bourdais at Scuderia Toro Rosso in 2009 and tested for the team at Jerez this past September.

Thus, with Yamamoto and Sato’s drives disappearing, the only Japanese F1 piloto on the grid currently is Kazuki Nakajima, who’s contesting his rookie season in Formula One for Williams Toyota alongside Nico Rosberg. “Kazoo” spent 2007 as the teams test driver and is the son of Satoru Nakajima. He also contested the 2007 GP2 season for the DAMS team.
Meanwhile, fellow countryman Kamui Kobayashi, has been hired as Panasonic Toyota F1’s test and reserve driver and also competed in the just concluded GP2 season for the

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