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AUGUST 1, 1990

A question of self-image: Aguri Suzuki


People have the funniest ways of achieving success in sport: last summer the Olympics suffered the Seoul-destroying assault of the pill-poppers. A few days ago in Las Vegas Frank Bruno and Mike Tyson tried to out-hypnotise each other before belting each other's brains out. Sports psychologists, dietary specialists and chiropractors have quietly become an increasing part of sport. Motor racing has its own peculiarities. In NASCAR some drivers believe they are on a mission from God, while it could be argued that some Grand Prix drivers think they are God. The new Zakspeed Formula 1 driver Aguri Suzuki has his own theories about achieving success.

"I do what I call image training," he says. "It is training myself to achieve by concentrating on images of successful achievement. It is more than what the Americans call 'the power of positive thinking'. In image training I concentrate all my efforts and energy to achieve being the image.

At first glance, it all sounds a little on the kooky side, but Suzuki is more practical that that.

"First I must gain confidence driving in F1," he says. "and I want to score points. Driving in Formula 1 is the ultimate goal of every driver, winning the World Championship is the ultimate goal of every Formula 1 driver. I have achieved the first and now I want to achieve being World Champion.

"There will be challenges and difficulties in 1989. There are in every racing season. But I am not concentrating on problems. I am concentrating on scoring World Championship points. The only thing I can tell you is that I will do my best.

"My target has always been to race faster than other drivers. The only difference now is that my targets are Formula 1 drivers. They are famous, but that is not something I think about. I only think about driving faster than them..."

That sounds more like it. Less of the ethereal and more of the nut and bolt approach. Image training may have its place, but racing is not something that can be won or lost solely with the belief that victory should be yours. There's more to it than that, but it is something which Suzuki appreciates. A lesson he learned early in his career when his father told his young son to push-start his kart. No matter how hard he tried, the kart would not go. Suzuki senior had removed a spark plug! It was a good lesson for one so young. Sucess needs more than determination and hard work, a little thinking doesn't go amiss.

"Jackie Stewart was my hero," says Aguri now, "he was always fast and drove very intelligently."

Aguri has also learnt the pitfalls of blind dedication towards a goal. "If you are always concentrating 100 percent on one thing you burn out like an engine that is always run at maximum rpm." You need time off, to keep your feet on the ground.

"I take time to read novels when I can," he says. "I will find time to learn to play golf better. My other interest has been flying ultralight planes, but I probably won't do it again until I retire from racing."

It sounds a sensible approach for a young man trying to make his name in racing, but it is a philosophy which has served him well on his way to the top.

Now 28 years of age Suzuki has been racing since he was 12 years old. As with many of the youngsters climbing the ladder to Grand Prix racing, his interest in the sport was first fired by the activities of his father, Masashi, who, in 1968, founded the Japanese Kart Association.

At the age of 8 Aguri was travelling with his father to kart races around the Far East. It was Masashi who built his son's first kart when Aguri was 10.

Since then Suzuki senior has devoted himself to promoting his son's career.

Karting success was followed by a switch to Formula 3 in 1978. Money was short and Masashi decided to sell some land he owned to help finance the venture.

"My father is the most important person in my racing career," says Aguri now. "He has often given me good advice, provided opportunities, managed to find me money when I really needed it and so much more."

The 1978 F3 venture did not succeed, but between them the two set up a small company to sell oil to raise money to go racing. Aguri won his second All-Japan Karting title in 1981 and looked again to Formula 3, finishing second in the national championship in 1983 and was hired by Nissan as a works driver.

The financial problems were over. Able to concentrate on his driving Aguri competed in Formula 3, touring and sportscar races. In 1986 he won the highly competitive Japanese Group A series.

But single-seater racing remained his priority and in 1987 he moved into Formula 3000, winning two races and finishing the year as championship runner-up. Most importantly in the light of what has happened since, he achieved this with an experimental Yamaha engine.

"When I was racing in karts," he recalls "Yamaha supplied me with engines. Since then I have been closely identified with their kart racing programme and have been part of their image programme to promote their karting."

There had been considerable talk in the middle of 1987 that Suzuki would drive a Middlebridge Benetton-BMW, but the deal never came about and for last year Aguri was back in his local F3000 championship.

As it turned out Suzuki and Yamaha swept to championship victory in the All-Japan F3000 series, and with the company looking to a future in Formula 1, Aguri was the logical choice as a driver.

Even before the decision was taken for him to graduate to Grand Prix racing, Suzuki had put a toe into the water of international single seater competition.

In the middle of last year he ventured to Europe to try his hand in the highly competitive International F3000 series. His three outings in Europe resulted in varied fortune. He qualified at Pau (no mean achievement without circuit experience) and finished an impressive 11th.

At Silverstone he failed to qualify, but was going well at Brands Hatch until he was involved in the huge accident that devastated the field. The performances, however, had been noted.

Shortly before the Japanese Grand Prix, the Larrousse-Calmels team found itself without a driver, Yannick Dalmas having been hospitalised with Legionnaires Disease. The team looked for a replacement for the weekend and, almost overnight, Suzuki found himself with the opportunity to drive in Formula 1.

And he did a good job. There were plenty of incidents throughout the weekend, but he qualified alongside his L-C team mate Philippe Alliot. He made it to the finish too, three laps down after an armful of spins, in 16th place. It was a promising debut. Clearly he had the speed, if not yet the discipline.

By that time his name was being openly linked to a fulltime drive with Zakspeed.

"A lot of people have talked about me being a Yamaha driver," he says. "Yamaha is more like a friend than a sponsor. I have raced cars with their engines and have won races with Yamaha engines. We help each other when we can, but I am not a Yamaha driver. I am a West Zakspeed-Yamaha driver."

"I am very glad to drive for the Zakspeed team. I have heard that the German character is very close to the Japanese, so I believe it will be possible to fit in well with the team."

This year will undoubtedly be difficult, with a new culture to live with in addition to the challenges in Formula 1.

Aguri's grandfather was a Frenchman, and a world traveller and his grandson will soon grow into the new role.

"Living in a different country with an unusual culture will be different -- nothing more. Racing in Europe will not be any different for me than racing in Japan. My target has always been to race faster than the others."

Suzuki is already a big star in Japan, where successful racing drivers attract a pop star-like popularity. To capitalise on this he has formed The Super Aguri Company which he plans to use as a foundation for future projects, including supporting new young Japanese talent. To put something back into the sport...