Features - Historical
AUGUST 1, 1993
Japanese drivers in Formula 1
BY JOE SAWARD
"We never thought of hiring Japanese drivers," says Yoshio Nakamura, the legendary team manager of the Honda F1 team. "They lacked the experience and the skills."
Honda pulled out of F1 in 1968 and it was six years before Europe saw further Japanese activity in Grand Prix racing. In 1974 noritake takahara raced an F1 March in the International Trophy and later in the year Kenji Mimura's Maki appeared, although Howden Ganley was unable to qualify it in Britain and Germany. At the end of the year a handful of GP cars appeared at Mount Fuji for a demonstration race and the following summer Hiroshi Fuchida and Tony Trimmer again tried to qualify Makis, but without much success.
The decision to hold a Japanese GP in 1976 acted as a big boost for Japanese racing and the event marked the first time Japanese drivers had qualified for a Grand Prix. There were three on the grid that day: Masahiro Hasemi, who had shocked everyone by putting his Kojima 10th on the grid; Kazuyoshi Hoshino who drove an old Tyrrell and Takahara who appeared in a Surtees.
The following year Kunimitsu Takahashi joined the elite band of Japanese GP drivers.
Into the 1980s Japan's involvement in F1 concentrated on engine supply with much success. It was through Honda that Satoru Nakajima was placed at Lotus - alongside no less a figure than Ayrton Senna - and although "Naka-san" scored points in his second GP - the first Japanese driver to score F1 points - he was never able to live up to that potential. He competed in 74 GPs for Lotus and Tyrrell, (with Honda assistance throughout) but he never finished better than fourth.
Aguri Suzuki was not Honda-assisted but carried considerable Japanese sponsorship when he made his debut with the Larrousse team at the end of 1988. Aguri spent 1989 failing to qualify with the disastrous Zakspeed-Yamaha operation before going back to Larrousse for 1990. At Suzuka that year he became the first - and only - Japanese driver to stand on an F1 podium. At the end of 1991 Aguri left Larrousse for Footwork and Ukyo Katayama took over with the French team.
This year neither Suzuki nor Katayama has produced much in the way of results and people are beginning to ask how it is that a country which such technical skills and financial strength has not been able to find a racing driver to personify Japan's undoubted success in Formula 1.
We asked around the F1 paddock to see if anyone has the answer to this curious question.
"It is probably because Japan hasn't yet produced the right driver," says Footwork team manager John Wickham, who ran Suzuki in European F3000. "In their early careers they tend to race mostly at Fuji and Suzuka and they do not experience a wide variety of circuits in different countries with different cultures. Obviously the Japanese series very competitive because we have seen Nakajima, Hoshino and such regularly beating Europeans, which gives an indication that they could perform well in Europe.
"Over the year if you look at the drivers from British F3 you will see that over the years it normally takes them a year or so to get properly into European F3000. I think this is because they have not spent a lot of time on European circuits. If it takes them time to adapt, it must be harder for the Japanese.
"Another small problem I have noticed is that Japanese drivers do not have the same stamina as Europeans. That is partly because of the way they race and partly because of their general physical make-up. It takes them a bit more work to become absolutely spot-on in terms of F1 performance."
So the answer is to get young Japanese drivers to Europe when they are still learning. Oddly enough, Nakajima, Suzuki and Katayama all went through this process, Ukyo being particularly immersed in the European culture with two years of national racing in France.
"I think the racing in Japan is very good," he says, "but it is similar to that in the USA and the Pacific region. Drivers stay too long trying to become champions in their own countries, instead of moving to the centre of motor racing, which is England and Europe. South Americans come over as soon as they can and that is why we see so many good Brazilians and such in F1.
"There needs to be an infrastructure in Japan to encourage Japanese drivers to venture to Europe early in their careers so they can absorb the culture of racing. The correct infrastructure does not exist in Japan to prepare a Japanese driver for European racing.
"An F1 World Champion once said to me that there are many fast drivers, but to be winner you to go beyond that. It is a broadness of vision and a reality a driver has to come to terms with. It is a realization of how to go beyond just driving fast. Because there is such a broad spectrum of racing in Europe, and so many diverse characters and nationalities there is a transfer of views and cultures which does not happen when the racing is in just one country where all the outlooks are the same and the F1 culture is a mixture of all these. You have the Teutonic, methodical, progressive and detailed view that Niki Lauda brought and Jackie Stewart's Scottish view. Alain Prost introduced a very political and mechanical view and then in late 1980s Ayrton Senna became the epitome of artistic optimization of skill and a absolutely total commitment to professionalism and exploiting every facet of racing to get the maximum. When you get these sort of cultures and personalities mingling together hey are all learning from one another, but in a single-culture exposure, like in Japan, Australia or North America that does not happen.
"The only way to get this is to face the challenge, take the risk, and come to Europe."
A good starting point for a novice in Europe is the celebrated Winfield School at Magny-Cours in France. Mike Knight runs the school which has produced 15 GP drivers in as many years. Why does he think there are no top Japanese drivers in F1?
"There is Suzuki and Katayama," he says. "What more do they want? Why isn't there a black man in F1? I don't know. Is there something different about the Japanese? I went out there in 1963 and watched the way they drove and I remember thinking they had unbelievable reactions, so if there is a problem it must be a thinking thing.
"There was a bit of an attitude that if one guy passed another, he had to be overtaken again so the other guy didn't lose face. This meant there were a lot of cars stacked up on top of one another!
"There is also a very serious language problem. We even have that problem with the Americans - even though we have English-speaking courses. It is difficult enough to communicate when everything is OK, and that must make a huge difference when there are problems.
"Last year we had about 20 Japanese students. This year we've only had one. He was a headcase from Bournemouth in England. He was a lovely fellow and I thought he was quite good but we had a communication problem because he was off at every corner. Communication is a very serious problem."
"The biggest problem?" he says. "That's easy. The biggest problem is that I don't speak Japanese and Aguri tends not to say things because it is too difficult to find the words to elaborate on the problems. I need to do an awful lot of prompting and go through almost everything to trigger off some kind of response.
"There is no way that we can go into the same kind of detail you can with a good English-speaking driver. This has its advantages and disadvantages. It means you can concentrate on the major problems - and there is a lot to be said for that because you do not get lost amid the details - but on the other hand once the car is working well you tend not to progress as far as you might.
"The other thing is that Aguri is not aggressive. This is partly because he's a very nice block and easy to get on with. In a race he tends not to get excited and develop the kind of aggression you need to have in F1."
This is an interesting point and one which Tasashi Sasaki blames on the Japanese diet.
Sasaki should know. He was a successful racer in Japan up to Formula 3 level before he came to Europe to become involved in team management. Today he is team manager of the Minardi F1 team and keeps an eye on one or two young Japanese kartists as well.
"I think it is a dietary problem," he says. "Japanese food does not produce very much adrenalin and in the first corner of a race there is not enough aggression.
'In Japan everything is very precise, from reading and writing to paintings. Fantasy is very limited. In many ways racing drivers are like painters. A painter imagines what he wants and if the brush follows his imagination that is good, but Japanese painting is quite monotone. It is very simple and natural, light and shade, without details. If a Japanese painter studies only Japanese pictures, he can become very famous in Japan. If his pictures are compared to the oil paintings of Michelangelo and Leonardo they cannot compete, no matter how skillful he is because he cannot express the same dynamism.
"It is same story with Japanese drivers. They compete only at home. Karting is very popular in Japan, but the circuits are small and narrow and youngsters do not see very competitive races. A good Japanese driver can reach Japanese F3000 but more than that is difficult because Japanese drivers do not react instantly. They must think first - even if it loses a tenth of second. Italians and Brazilians act automatically. In Japan after the first lap everyone is in one line and they follow each other. It is not very spectacular, although sometimes accidents tend to be much worse than in Europe because all the drivers are thinking and when they finally decide to act it is too late.
"Technically Nakajima was a fantastic driver, he understood how to set-up cars and construct race pace, but he was too calm. Teenagers in Japan must come to Italy or France and develop. They must eat steak, cheese, wine and afterwards they may have more aggression to race with Latin drivers.
"If they don't do that there is no way they can compete."
Ken Tyrrell, who oversaw the F1 careers of Nakajima and is now running Katayama is another who believes that international experience is vital.
"Japanese driver who come into F1 have not benefitted from the kind of schooling they would have if they took part in something like the British F3 series. This is where they can have good well-prepared cars, run by experienced team managers. The formula is very competitive and they would get to know whether they were competitive. And they pick up English which is the language of F1. If they are they can progress to European F3000, which is equally competitive. By doing that they learn about motorsport and the circuits from the practical experience of taking part and mixing with the drivers and this helps to bring together all the little elements that help a driver to move up the ladder."
Guy Edwards, former GP driver and commercial director of Team Lotus, sees Japan as "the new kid on the block" of F1. "The culture of European racing has been here since 1906 and while the Japanese have taken to it readily, it is still relatively new."
But Frank Williams does not agree with all this in-depth analysis of problems facing the Japanese.
"I think it is because the right Japanese driver has not created for himself the right circumstances in which to propel himself into the right F1 team.
"I have always believed that in every nation in the world there are a number of potential F1 World Champions, with the necessary skill, bravery and talent. they become guitar players and bus drivers, they never think about motor racing. We have to find them!"