INTERVIEW

Aguri Suzuki

The Australian Grand Prix was a complete disaster for Aguri Suzuki. He qualified 24th after a catalogue of disasters in practice and he was the first retirement in the race - after just six laps.

"It's really too bad," he said afterwards. "We had finally found the right set-up for this track. I had decided to go for a wise race and to move up gradually, but the transmission broke."

But if Suzuka's Australian race was a let-down, his season still ended on a high note. Despite the disappointment in Adelaide he was bubbling with enthusiasm and excitement.

Suzuki's third-placed finish at the recent Japanese Grand Prix marked the first time a Japanese driver had made it onto an F1 podium.

When the F1 circus reconvened at Adelaide, Aguri's name was being mentioned in connection with drives with both Benetton and Brabham-Yamaha for the 1991 season.

"Yes, he said with his big toothy grin. "I have a big problem now. I have signed too many contracts. I have deals with Benetton, Brabham and Larrousse. I have signed them all." Then he laughs loudly. It is a joke.

"No, I have a two-year contract with Larrousse. I think the team has done a fantastic job this year. I have a very good relationship with Larrousse. I think that this year the progression of team has been one of the best in F1."

It seems odd to remember that at the start of the year the two Larrousse drivers were pre-qualifying. At Monaco Eric Bernard finished sixth and the point gained was enough to guarantee that the team would escape pre-qualifying after the British GP. At Silverstone, having pre-qualified with ease the Lolas were flying: Bernard finished fourth and Aguri scored his first point in F1, finishing sixth. There would be another point at the Spanish GP, moving the team to sixth in the World Constructors' Championship.

Then came Suzuka. For Aguri it was return to the scene of his F1 debut in 1988 when he substituted for Yannick Dalmas -- who was suffering from Legionnaires' Disease -- with the Larrousse team.

With Dalmas returning to Larrousse for the 1989 season, Aguri had to look elsewhere and he joined the Zakspeed-Yamaha team. It was a disaster -- with Suzuki failing to pre-qualify at all 16 races.

"I look on this year as my first season of F1 racing," he said. "Last year I went to the circuits that was all. I was just looking...

"This year with Larrousse I have had a good year, I have scored points and been on the podium. I am very happy with the progress. Eric (Bernard) has been a very good team mate. He has been giving me pressure at every race and in every qualifying session, pushing me. That was good.

"I have learned that the World Championship is not so far away. I want to win races, get podiums and win the World Championship. We are all the same. We all believe that we can be World Champion, but I know now that it is not impossible."

To become the first Japanese driver to finish on the podium at a Grand Prix is obviously a great source of pride.

"Being on the podium in Japan was the best moment in my career," he said. "It was better than winning the Japanese Formula 3000 championship. Before me there were a lot of F2 and F3000 champions of Japan, but to be the first Japanese driver on an F1 podium was very special.

"I think it is a very important step for Japanese drivers. Maybe now more good young Japanese drivers will come to F1.Grand Prix racing is very popular in Japan and I have proved we can be successful. I don't know how long it will take, but there will be more Japanese drivers. Perhaps not next year no, but in two or three years, there will be other young Japanese drivers. I don't know the names of who will come -- but they will come."

The success of a Japanese driver in F1 has long been a dream, but somehow it has not happened before. Many thought it impossible because of the ways of Japanese society and because of the cultural difficulties of Japanese drivers abroad.

"I don't know why," explained Aguri, "but right from the beginning, 10 or 15 years ago when I used to watch F1 on television I thought: 'I must be in F1'. Always I was thinking I want to drive Grand Prix cars, so I thought I must win the Japanese F3000 championship and then I must go to Europe."

As a successful pioneer, following in the footsteps of the less successful Satoru Nakajima, Aguri has a huge followin in Japan. Across the country there are posters of a bare-chested Aguri clutching a Toshiba computer. Japanese engine technology has long been dominant, but today F1 success has a human face.

"Whenever I go to a restaurant and shopping in Japan people say 'Are you Aguri Suzuki? Will you sign this!' I do not mind. I do not feel the pressure.

"I am living in Europe most of the timeand it is impossible to give something to the Japanese fans. At Suzuka I gave them something. It is better to be really busy with fans than to have no fans at all."

Suzuki's gift to the Japanese fans, however was unexpected -- not least for the man himself.

"I didn't think I could be third place. I thought it might be possible to get points, but not to get onto the podium. I was in the points from the seventh lap -- there were 46 laps to go -- but I didn't begin to think about the podium until 10 laps from the end of the race. I was ahead of Riccardo Patrese and we were doing the same times. I was very relaxed and very happy."

Even before Suzuka Aguri had been contacted by a number of teams about future drives.

"I had been approached by quite a lot of other teams," he said, "but they did not know what kind of contract I had with Larrousse. One day I will have a drive in a top car. In F1 you must have a good car. In something like Indycars every driver has the chance to win. F1 is different. If you get a good car you can do well. If you are with a bad team you can do nothing. In Indycar racing everyone has more chance.

"I think when I get a better car, I will get more results. Looking back over this year I think most of the races have been the same for me. I have had the same motivation. That is all past.

"I only look to the future."

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