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Japan is known for its advanced automobile manufacturing industries and has made significant contributions—both as drivers and constructors—to various motorsports, including Formula One.
The Japanese Pioneers in F1
Satoru Nakajima was the first Japanese driver to occupy a full-time F1 seat, partnering with Ayrton Senna for the 1987 F1 season for Team Lotus. Though he was outclassed by Senna in his first season, he made a name for himself as a solid pair of hands and was teammates with some of the biggest names in racing.
Aguri Suzuki was the next F1 driver from Japan. He finished third in the 1990 Japanese Grand Prix, becoming the first Asian driver to step on the podium. Unfortunately, he suffered a neck injury after a massive crash in free practice, and the 1995 Japanese Grand Prix was the last time he participated in Formula 1. He later ran the Honda-backed Super Aguri team for the 2006–2008 seasons, which intended to race with two Japanese drivers, Takuma Sato and Yuji Ide, but had to turn to reserve driver Franck Montagny due to Ide’s Super Licence suspension.
Ukyo Katayama, the most-capped Japanese driver, participated in a total of 97 races but failed to qualify for 63 of them. He managed to score five points in his six years of driving in Formula One, with sponsorship money from Japan Tobacco’s Mild Seven securing his Tyrrell drive.
Taki Inoue took part in the 1995 F1 season as a full-time driver but was known more for his hilarious accidents than his speed. He was one of the slowest drivers on the grid and kept getting in the way of other drivers. Despite his short-lived stint in the sport, he is a popular figure in motorsport nowadays.
Toranosuke Tagaki was fast-tracked to a Formula One drive with Tyrrell for the 1998 season by the legendary Satoru Nakajima but was let go after failing to impress. He managed to secure a drive with the Arrows F1 Team for the next season but left the sport, citing “organisational and communication problems” between him and the team.
Japanese Drivers in The New Millennium
Takuma Sato made his debut with the Jordan F1 team thanks to his relationship with Honda. His debut season was a rollercoaster, with mature performances beyond his age and spectacular crashes. He moved to B.A.R. for the next season and took part in the 2003 Japanese Grand Prix as a replacement for Jacques Villeneuve in the last race of the season before being promoted to full-time driver in 2004. Inconsistent performances followed over the next two seasons, including a podium in the 2004 US Grand Prix, but his team was also banned for part of the 2005 season.
Sato joined the new Japanese outfit on the grid, the Super Aguri F1 team, for the 2006 season, which was backed by Honda and run by former F1 driver Aguri Suzuki. The team had a steep learning curve in their first season, but Sato impressed the paddock despite the car’s limitations. In the 2007 season, he scored all the points for the team, including a massively impressive P6 finish in the Canadian Grand Prix. However, the team had to pull out after four races in 2008 due to financial issues, and Sato was not able to secure a seat in F1.
Yuji Ide was the other driver for the Super Aguri F1 team for the 2006 season. He was the oldest rookie of all time when he drove in the season opener. His F1 career spanned only 4 races (thankfully) before the FIA revoked his licence, and he was replaced by the reserve driver for the remainder of the season. He was a nuisance on the grid and was utterly incompetent in an F1 car. In the November 2009 issue of F1 Racing Magazine, Ide was named as one of the five worst F1 drivers in history.
Sakon Yanamoto was signed up as a reserve driver for the Super Aguri team in 2006 but failed to finish any of the last four races when he was called up. He raced for two more seasons in F1 for Spyker (2007) and then for HRT (2011). He finished his Formula One career with no points to his name and a tattered reputation.
Kazuki Nakajima, son of Sato, is the only second-generation F1 driver from Japan. His career pales in comparison to his father’s; in his three years in Formula 1 with Williams, he managed to muster nine points but was convincingly beaten by Nico Rosberg in their time together as teammates.
Kamui Kobayashi is one of the more famous Japanese drivers of this millennium. He made his debut in the 2009 campaign for Toyota, where he replaced Glock for the last two races. He was snapped up by the Sauber team for 2010. He remained with the team until 2012 and finished 3rd in the memorable 2012 Japanese Grand Prix. He would sign off on his Formula One career with a last stint in 2014 with the struggling Caterham F1 team, where he scored no points.
Yuki Tsunoda is currently carrying the hopes of the island nation. He is clearly talented and was fast-tracked to Formula 1 like a certain Max Verstappen. Yuki is hot property, and it would be foolish of Red Bull to let the young Japanese driver leave this season. He is the team leader at AlphaTauri right now, and big things are expected from him.
Japan’s Ties To F1 & It’s Future
Japan has always been involved with F1, whether through constructors such as Honda or Toyota or even independent entries such as the Super Aguri F1 team, which wanted to be an all-Japanese outfit. They have produced a lot of drivers with varying degrees of success, but a lot of them have managed to leave a mark on the sport.
The Japanese Grand Prix is always a spectacular event and has been one of the most awaited weekends in the F1 calendar. The future for Japan in F1 is extremely bright.
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