JUNE 11, 2004
Could Takuma Sato become the first Japanese driver to win a Grand Prix?
There has been Japanese involvement in Formula 1 since Honda entered the sport in the mid 1960s but there is still to be a Japanese driver who wins a World Championship race. Back in the 1960s when Honda was running its own cars the team manager Yoshio Takamura did not even consider the possibility of hiring a Japanese driver, despite the fact that the firm took on a couple of little-known Americans to prove the cars rather than the drivers were responsible for the success. After Honda pulled out of F1 in 1968 and it was six years before Europe saw further Japanese activity in Grand Prix racing but 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 the car 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 but 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 competed in 74 GPs for Lotus and Tyrrell but he never finished better than fourth.
Aguri Suzuki was was not Honda-assisted but he 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 and at Suzuka that year he became the first - and until Sato the 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.
To win in F1 is a very complicated business. There are plenty of fast drivers in F1 but a winner has to have more than just speed. This involves many things but includes having an experience of the different nationalities involved and learning from all of them. This is something which drivers pick up when they race in Europe where there is a broad spectrum of different nationalities and characters. Drivers who come from single-culture racing, for example Japan, Australia and to a certain extent the United States tend to struggle.
It is significant that all the Japanese drivers who made an impact in F1 had a European racing background. Even then some of the earlier drivers had serious language problems which made it tough to communicate exactly what they wanted from the car.
There has been a lot of hype about Taku since the Nurburgring but the other F1 drivers are now admitting that a victory is not out of the question.
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