Formula One and Japan – What’s gone wrong?

After a faltering start in 1976 and 1977, Japan has been a constant on the F1 calendar every season since 1987, hosting no less than 13 World Championship-deciding races. Huge crowds are a given in the land of the rising sun, with fans enduring both freezing and rain-soaked Grand Prix at the Fuji Speedway and Suzuka, the two world-class circuits that have been the home of the race ever since its conception.

Despite this, Japanese manufacturers and drivers have never enjoyed great success in the sport; indeed, the country still awaits its maiden Grand Prix winning driver. Honda’s period as engine supplier to Williams and Mclaren aside, Nipponese teams have constantly been found wanting in that effort to go the final distance.

Maki were the first Japanese Formula One team, but they failed to qualify for a single Grand Prix.

Maki were the first Japanese Formula One team, but they failed to qualify for a single Grand Prix.

Amid much fanfare Honda entered the 1964 season as the first Asian rival to the established European marques of Ferrari, Lotus and Cooper – although both drivers, Richie Ginther and Ronnie Bucknum, were very much American. A shocking victory for Ginther at the 1965 Mexican Grand Prix proved to be a false dawn, resulting chassis ‘improvements’ being unwieldy and unreliable and hampering Honda’s competitiveness. A second and (for the time being) last win was captured by John Surtees at the 1967 Italian race only a year before the death of Jo Schlesser in a Honda machine prompted the team’s withdrawal from the sport.

In 1975 Hiroshi Fushida became his country’s first Formula One driver when he entered the Dutch and British Grand Prix, although things didn’t go according to plan when he failed to start both of those races. The following season Masahiro Hasemi, Noritake Takahara, Kazuyoshi Hoshino and Masami Kuwashima all made their own debuts at the inaugural Japanese World Championship Grand Prix, Takahara finishing best of the local boys in 9th place. The race also saw the final appearance of Japanese team Maki who had struggled through three seasons of pre-qualifying before disappearing, having failed to start a single race. Kojima engineering took up the fallen mantle and entered cars for the ’76 and ’77 races at Fuji, achieving 11th place in both events courtesy of Hasemi and Hoshino. Notably, Hasemi claimed fastest lap at the rain-affected 1976 event, although this was largely overshadowed by the title battle between Niki Lauda and James Hunt.

Satoru Nakajima scored points in his maiden race - the first Japanese driver to do so.

Satoru Nakajima scored points for Lotus in his maiden race – the first Japanese driver to do so.

Things went quiet for Japanese fans between 1978 and 1986, but interest surged anew when Suzuka was added to the calendar for the 1987 season. Coinciding with the announcement, Honda poured backing into Japanese Formula 2 Champion Satoru Nakajima which netted him a drive with the Lotus team. Honda were also providing powerplants to Williams at this time, with which Nakajima’s future teammate Nelson Piquet went on to claim the 1987 World title. Scoring points in only his 2nd race in Brazil, Nakajima ended the year 12th in the highly-competitive championship table, but results dwindled in 1988 as Lotus entered a period of terminal decline that cost him any chance of repeating his Formula Two heroics. 1989 was written off in much the same manner before Satoru jumped ship to Tyrell in 1990. This proved to be a bad move when the British team began to follow Lotus into oblivion, its 1970’s glory days long behind it now.

While Nakajima struggled to make his mark on Formula One, many were wishing Honda had kept their hands off of it; the Japanese engine supplier had triumphed in partnership with Mclaren during the 1988, 1989, 1990 and 1991 seasons. Ayrton Senna however could do nothing to halt the rampant Williams Renault’s of Nigel Mansell and Ricardo Patrese the following year – Honda called time on their brief F1 tenure and withdrew ahead of the 1993 season.

The hapless Taki Inoue's moment of fame - hit by a car sent to rescue him at the 1995 Hungarian Grand Prix.

The hapless Taki Inoue’s moment of fame – hit by a car sent to rescue him at the 1995 Hungarian Grand Prix.

A succession of Japanese drivers tried their luck over the next decade, the first of whom was the diminutive Ukyo Katayama. After a barren spell with the ailing Larrousse-Lamborghini squad, he joined Nakajima’s old Tyrell team in time for a brief revival of fortunes in 1994 when he scored his only points; 1995 and 1996 were the death-throes of the once grand outfit and a move to Minardi for 1997, his final year, was only a marginal step in the right direction. Aguri Suzuki, the first Japanese driver to score a podium, had also enjoyed his swansong during the same time period – after his debut in 1988 results proved hard to come by until he joined Larrousse for 1990 and promptly finished 3rd at his home Grand Prix, much to the delight of the Japanese media who flew into a frenzy the like of which has never been seen before or since. His older age played against him however and by 1995 he was sharing a Ligier drive with Martin Brundle thanks to his Mugen Honda backing, retiring at the end of the season. Hideki Noda and Toshio Suzuki were among others who tried to break into the sport between 1993 and 1997, most notably of whom was the hapless Taki Inoue whose main claim to fame was being run over by a medical car at the 1995 Hungarian Grand Prix. Inoue recently claimed he was ‘frightened’ by driving a Formula One car and ‘never felt comfortable’ behind the wheel.

The late 1990’s once again saw a regular Nipponese driver in the shape of Toranosuke ‘Tora’ Takagi take to the track at the wheel of the 1998 Tyrell and 1999 Arrows cars, although he failed to score a single point. Things went from bad to worse when Honda, who had planned extensively for a 2000 return to Formula One as in independent constructor, failed in their efforts to put a team together and were forced instead to supply engines through their Mugen performance engine branch. The engines did however power Jordan to three victories in 1998 and 1999. From 2000 until the end of the 2002 season, Honda was supplying both Jordan and the new BAR team with power. The move encouraged Jordan to take on Japanese light Takuma Sato for 2002, although he spent much of the season crashing and leaving parts of yellow cars all over the racetracks of the world. 5th place at Suzuka and 2 points was the only return Jordan would get in exchange for the millions of pounds of damage.

Toyota's F1 struggles took place between 2002 and 2009.

Toyota’s F1 struggles took place between 2002 and 2009.

Sato returned in 2004 driving for BAR after Honda had terminated their contract with Jordan, and although he scored his one and only podium at Indianapolis in 3rd place he spent the majority of the season in the shadow of team mate Jenson Button (who went on to take the only victory of Honda’s brief f1 return between 2006 and 2008). 2005 was a disaster for Takuma, and he duly lost his BAR seat ahead of 2006 to Rubens Barrichello. The development led to the creation of a Japanese team by the retired Aguri Suzuki, named Super Aguri, in order to save Sato’s career. The car was based on a combination of the 2002 Arrows and 2004 Minardi cars – old technology at best. He was partnered early in 2006 with rookie Yuji Ide, but the latter’s reckless lack of driving nous eventually cost him his superlicence; his seat taken subsequently by fellow countryman Sakon Yamamoto whose own F1 journey was to prove both harrowing and hapless.

Sato was bundled out of the sport after the collapse of the Super Aguri squad only four races into 2008, but not before he had scored his last points in spectacular style during the 2007 Canadian Grand Prix, overtaking Mclaren’s Fernando Alonso near the end of the race.

Yamamoto’s showings were respectable in 2006, but it wasn’t enough to retain his race seat for 2007 – near the end of that season he appeared in a handful of races for Dutch team Spyker. He re-appeared briefly for the cash-strapped Hispania Racing during 2010 but vanished as quickly as he had appeared.

We all know Kamui Kobayashi’s unfortunate tale; that great Brazilian debut for Toyota in 2009, the signing by Sauber for 2010 and the emotional home podium only weeks before his sacking by the team in 2012. Kazuki Nakajima’s unremarkable tenure at Williams and the Toyota team were just two of the other Japanese let-downs of the past decade.

2008 was the last season in an embarrassingly disastrous three-year campaign by Honda.

2008 was the last season in an embarrassingly disastrous three-year campaign by Honda.

So what is it that means Japanese teams and drivers fail to achieve that elusive success? It seems to be a combination of bad luck (Nakajima and Katayama arriving at once great teams in their twilight years) and bad judgement (backing drivers with a serious lack of ability to make it at the top level – think Taki Inoue, Hideki Noda and Yuji Ide). On the other hand, one would have expected Kobayashi to have delivered during 2012; his less experienced teammate Sergio Perez did after all come within a few laps of winning the Malaysian Grand Prix. The Suzuka podium, however emotional and momentous, had a tangible feeling of belatedness coming only after three podiums by the Mexican on the other side of the garage – and Perez reaped the rewards, claiming the Mclaren seat left empty by Lewis Hamilton for 2013.

Japanese teams have never really given Formula One a serious chance. Only Honda has given a noticeable amount back to the sport with the World Championships and wins as engine supplier to Williams, Mclaren and Jordan. Both Honda and Toyota largely failed in their objectives as independent constructors; the former were accused of too often relying on computer simulations when they should have listened to driver feedback, while Toyota repeatedly squandered good results with inexplicably naïve strategy calls. It seemed Japanese efficiency had long had its day.

The most damning reason may lie in the geographic isolation of Japan, a racing-mad nation, from the heartlands of competitive motorsport in Europe and North America; both Kobayashi and Sato were able to break into European single-seater series while in their teens, but they missed out on the opportunity of gaining vital karting skills that often prove the bedrock of any successful long-term F1 career. While categories such as Formula Nippon have such high prestige in the Far East there is little incentive for drivers to make the move any sooner in life.

The money is there – all it needs is spending a little more wisely.


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