“I’m an artist, the track is my canvas, and the car is my brush”

Land of the Rising Sun – Japanese Drivers in F1

By Paul Martin

Takuma Sato - Japanese Grand Prix 2005: “This is a very disappointing result for me after the incredible support that I have experienced here from the fans. The start was difficult and through the first corner I was side by side with Klien and ran wide. Rubens came from behind, ran off in front of me and we made contact, which damaged the front of my car and then both of us went into the gravel. We changed the strategy but it didn’t work well for me and then I had the coming together with Trulli which was another blow to my race. I’m hugely disappointed for the myself, the fans, the team and Honda, but I will be back here racing at Suzuka.”

Perhaps this photo best sums up the cumulative careers of Japanese F1 drivers - exciting, but ultimatly, stuck in the gravel. This is Katayama and Inoue after an off.
Image source: unknown - photo reproduced in the spirit of ‘fair use’.

Quite unfairly, the Japanese F1 driver is seen by Western race-fans, as somewhat a breed - a clumsy breed. Stereotyped, perhaps with the kamikaze pilots of WWII in mind, they are generally seen as crazy no-hopers, capable of midfield mediocrity at best.

Results have always tended to back this theory up. The highest ever finish for a Japanese racer in F1 to date, is third. In 1990, at Suzuka for the Japanese Grand Prix, Aguri Suzuki brought his Espo Larrousse home on the podium; and then fourteen years later, in 2004, Suzuki’s current employee Takuma Sato repeated the feat at the United States round, driving for the Honda backed (now owned) BAR team.

However, both drivers - arguably two of the best Japan has ever had to offer, have never really been noted for any supreme talent. Generally, and with argument, Sato is eyed by many, as perhaps the most successful Japanese F1 cockpit incumbent ever. Yet his tally of only one podium in ‘04, before an abysmal year in 2005, with relatively competitive machinery, doesn’t really make Taku’s CV glow.

But who cares about all that statistical mishmash? I love the Japanese driver, the breed. Granted, down the years it has seemed as though they have an almost magnetic attraction to vertical concrete. Yet they also demonstrate, when on song, an almost insane turn of speed. Japan is unique, in that it has churned out so many Grand Prix drivers, so similar in style. Maybe it is the culture.

Let’s go back to school. Teacher: “Bullet point for me, the main characteristic’s of a Japanese Formula One driver. And then list the greatest exponent of that, within that community”. OK, why not …

Unpredictable - Takuma Sato

Takuma can be blinding one weekend, then awful the next [ed - usually with an emphasis on the later!] . Equally, he seems to be setting a similar trend in terms of racing seasons. In 2002, when racing for Jordan he really struggled, and had some massive shunts. In 2004, after a year on the sidelines, the 2001 British F3 champion showed a marked improvement in the BAR. He had his dissenters, however, and 2005 was abysmal again and proved those dissenters right - Taku was out on his ear for 2006.

Now after finding a last minute new home at the all new, all Japanese outfit, Super Aguri, it all seems to be going quite well again for Takuma. It must be said, however, that fans are definitely waiting for the first major cock-up of his Aguri career. Knowing Taku, it may not even come this year, he really is that unpredictable.

Takuma Sato’s world of crashes: another race, another crash. This is Sato after puntng Michael Schumacher out of the 2005 Belgian Grand Prix.
Image source: unknown - photo reproduced in the spirit of ‘fair use’.

Chaotic - Ukyo Katayama

Ukyo Katayama, raced in Formula One from 1992-1997 and during that time he drove for Larrousse, Minardi, and most notably Tyrrell. Like many, he could be really quite quick on his day and his two fifth places in 1994 pay testament to that. However, Katayama - who was backed by Japanese Tobacco giants, Mild Seven, was prone to crashes.

As a viewer on TV, you’d regularly see Ukyo sliding off towards the middle of the grid at Turn One. Perhaps his most spectacular incident came at Estoril, for the Portuguese Grand Prix in 1995. After having had qualified sixteenth in his Yamaha powered Tyrrell, Ukyo and a number of backmarkers (one of which was Massimiliano ‘Max’ Papis) got caught up off the line. Ukyo’s car launched into a series of horrifying, barrel rolls, with Ukyo’s car then veering left into the Armco barrier before finally coming to rest in the middle of the circuit.

After being extricated from the car, Ukyo was sent away for medical treatment. After being too injured to race at the Nurburgring a week later, Gabriele Tarquini took his place.

He made a dissappointing return with Tyrrell in 1996, and again with Minardi in 1997, but recovering with cancer he was not at his best, and left the circus for good.

One Race Wonders - Masahiro Hasemi and Kunimitsu Takahashi

Masahiro Hasemi was one of many Japanese drivers in the mid-to late 1970s who took full advantage of local circuit knowledge, to compete in the yearly Japanese Grand Prix around the Fuji circuit. Hasemi, born in 1945, was one of the more notable. In the Friday practice, the Kojima-Ford driver posted the tenth fastest time out of twenty-six drivers; in qualifying after recording the fastest time in the Friday practice. It all went wrong though, when he finished eleventh and last in the race!

Kunimitsu Takahashi was five years younger than Hasemi but he made his solitary F1 appearance at Fuji a year later than Hasemi, 1977. A bike specialist, Takahashi’s motorcycle career had been reasonably successful, with a 250cc World Championship win in 1961 at Hockenheim, before a big crash at the ‘62 Isle of Mann TT lead to his switch to cars. This move culminated in his F1 berth in 1977. Takahashi put in a fantastic race to finish a worthy ninth after qualifying twenty-second in his Tyrrell-Ford.

Courage - Satoru Nakajima

Satoru Nakajima was the original Honda backed Grand Prix driver, before Takuma Sato had even taken his first sniff of petrol. Satoru made his F1 debut in 1987 for the Honda powered Lotus team, and was already approaching forty years old by that time.

With Honda backing he partnered Brazilian champions Ayrton Senna and Nelson Piquet in the yellow Camel sponsored Lotuses of the late 1980’s. Often, Satoru would be outclassed, but in times of adversity ‘jima would show enormous courage, as if a driver God (answers on the back of a postcard) had possessed his arms and feet, making him drive like no other.

One such occurrence was at the Australian Grand Prix of 1989. Held in torrential rain, the race was a joke. Those with good memories will recall the legendary Ayrton Senna, then of McLaren-Honda, slamming full pelt into the back of Martin Brundle’s Brabham down the long back straight, as a result of how poor the visibility was.

“Eyes? Who needs eyes” said Satoru! (for legal purposes, he didn’t… but I bet he thought it!) as he went about setting the fastest racing lap, enroute to the second, and final fourth place finish of his career, and three hard earned points.

For the record, Satoru joined Tyrrell for the 1990 and 1991 seasons before retiring at the age of thirty-eight.

Nakajima at Silverstone 1988. With Piquet and Senna as his Lotus team-mates, impressing was always going to be difficult - but Satoru did a decent job.
Image source: unknown - photo reproduced in the spirit of ‘fair use’.

Obscure - Aguri Suzuki

Aguri Suzuki’s career, never really got off the ground. Starting out with Lola (Larrousse) in 1988, for just the one race in Japan, Suzuki made the switch to Zakspeed with the backing of engine supplier Yamaha in 1989, a year which heralded nil-points for the Japanese. After Zakspeed’s demise at the end of ‘89, Suzuki went back to Lola (Larrousse) and managed to bag himself a haul of six points, including a fantastic podium at Suzuka - resulting in a twelfth place in the final standings.

His career, up to this stage had heralded the first ever Japanese podium finish, but he never really looked like he could progress beyond these heights. His driving wasn’t as charismatic as Nakajima’s, and a catalogue of mechanical failures and excursions dictated that he never got and real chance to impress.

Onto 1991 and another year with Larrousse, before a switch to Footwork (Arrows) for two years, lead to yet more obscurity. The upshot of it all, was one point in three years, at the 1991 season opener in Phoenix, for the US Grand Prix.

Without a drive for 1994, Suzuki’s time appeared to be gone, but Eddie Irvine’s suspension for his part in a crash at the Brazilian round, gifted Suzuki the opportunity to drive for Jordan-Hart around the Aida circuit, in the first ever Pacific Grand Prix. He retired on lap 44 after an accident.

It really did appear to be all over for Suzuki now. But another stroke of luck came his way. With Renault defecting from Ligier to Benetton in 1995, Flavio Briatore, who was in charge of both squads, got Mugen-Honda engines for the Ligier team. Mugen-Honda wanted a Japanese driver but TWR, who also had a say in the team’s running, wanted 1993 driver, Martin Brundle. The result was that they shared the second seat alongside Oliver Panis.

Brundle got the lion-share of races, and subsequently points finishing: 7-1 in the Brits favour. To top it all off, Suzuki was injured for what would have been his final race at Suzuka, so his career ended on a low note.

As we know, Suzuki moved into team management and now runs the Super Aguri outfit, which run two Japanese drivers: Takuma Sato and Yuji Ide.

Suzuki (right) on the podium at the 1990 Japanese Grand Prix.
Image source: unknown - photo reproduced in the spirit of ‘fair use’.

“Yenified” - Toshio Suzuki, Hideki Noda and Shinji Nakano

I’ve coined the term, “Yenified” in order to describe the influx of Japanese pay-drivers that were able to buy themselves race seats in F1 throughout the 1990’s. It must be said, that there was a wealth of pay-drivers from a wide range of countries, but Japan, like Italy had an unusually high turnover of them.

Toshio Suzuki was thirty-eight years old at the time he made he Grand Prix debut at Suzuka 1993 for Larrousse. He made little impact on the field, and was there for the final two races of the year, purely due to the depth of his pockets. However, it has to be said, that Suzuki (no relation to Aguri) was/is a talented driver. He was the winner of the 1979 Japanese F3 title, and following F1, the Japanese F3000 Champion in 1995. His stay in F1 was brief, and uninspiring.

Larrousse seemed to be a team that liked Japanese drivers; in their brief tenure as an F1 team, they hired: Aguri Suzuki, Ukyo Katayama, Toshio Suzuki, and finally Hideki Noda whom signed in 1994 for three drives with the forever cash strapped team.

Noda, born in 1969, was extremely unimpressive in F1. Whether it was down to his machinery or not, in his three outings he retired from each after qualifying in 24th, 23rd and 24th consecutively. More notably he was due to drive for Simtek in the second half of the 1995 season, but the team folded before Noda’s half.

Since then, Noda has been successful in Formula Nippon, the all Japanese GT Championship, and drove for Japan in the A1GP round at the Lausitzring.

Finally, Shinji Nakano’s Honda Yen got him a drive with the Prost (nee Ligier) team in 1997. He actually showed great promise during mid-season, and then went on to score two sixth places against Olivier Panis, and Jarno Trulli.

When Prost opted for Peugeot engines in 1998, Nakano was dropped; and he found himself at home with Minardi. Unfortunately, he didn’t impress at all enough in what was a difficult year for the team, and he left F1 without a trace at the end of the year. Since then, Nakano has graced the IRL.

Clumsy - Taki Inoue

Taki Inoue could so easily have gone in the “Yenified” section, but I thought he deserved a little home all of his own. Taki Inoue was clumsy, simple as that. He debuted for Simtek in 1994, before a switch to Footwork for 1995, were he managed to get run over by medical car in Hungary (brekaing his leg in the process), be overturned by the safety car in Monaco, crash endlessly, and play a part in taking out both title contenders at Monza

All in all, he was a pretty poor driver by anyone’s standards. Taki, was as bad a pay-driver as they come, but his cash, and his luck, ran out when his proposed 1996 Minardi drive fell through as a result of his backer’s failure to pay up. Since then, he has done little motor racing.

Speaking to F1 Racing magazine in 1999, he said: “F1 was a dream, okay? Now it’s gone. Now I wake up. And nightmare, I completely forget about Formula 1.”

Taki Inoue’s Footwork upside down at Monaco - after being hit by a marshall’s car. Strangely, it would not be the only time he would be hit by a marshall’s car.
Image source: unknown - photo reproduced in the spirit of ‘fair use’.

Teacher: “So what have we learnt class?”

Well we have learnt that, to date, Japan hasn’t produced a driver in F1 which presents any danger to the World Championship crown. That’s pretty much fact. However, we’ve also learnt that Japanese drivers tend to be fun, hard-working, brave and sometimes, sporadically insanely quick drivers who just need the lucky breaks.

Japan can produce good racing drivers - it just needs to refine them!

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