The Japanese drivers who failed to have a lasting impact in F1
There have been 21 different Japanese drivers to have graced the Formula 1 grid since its inception in 1950, but none of them ever won a Grand Prix.
Japan has a huge motorsport heritage with multiple Japanese manufacturers winning championships across the globe, including F1, MotoGP and Le Mans, but despite being brilliant engineers, they have not had the same success when it comes to racing in F1.
Last Lap looks at the Japanese drivers who arrived in F1, but failed to have a lasting impact on the series.
THE EARLY YEARS
The first Japanese drivers to enter a Grand Prix were Masahiro Hasem and Noritake Takahara, with the pair taking part in the Japanese Grand Prix in 1976.
It would be Hasem’s one and only outing in Formula 1, as he finished last and seven laps down on winner Mario Andretti, while Takahara didn’t fare much better finishing one place ahead of Hasem before returning for the same Grand Prix a year later, where he retired on the opening lap.
Satoru Nakajima was the first full-time Japanese Grand Prix driver, and he arrived on the grid with Team Lotus in 1987, at the age of 34.
He scored a point in only his second race, but was completely outshone by his young Brazilian team-mate, Ayrton Senna, and ended the season 12th in the Driver’s championship, while Senna went on to finish third to Nelson Piquet.
His debut season would be his most successful, and after three years with Lotus, followed by a further two seasons with Tyrrell, Nakajima would retire from the sport at the age of 38.
Aguri Suzuki lays claim to being the first Japanese driver to finish on the podium, having taken third place at his home race in Japan in 1990.
Suzuki made his debut in 1988 at the Japanese Grand Prix and spent 1989 with West Zakspeed Racing, but failed to qualify for a single race.
His podium at Suzuka in 1990 would be the highlight of Suzuki’s F1 career and he would only have one more points finish – at the opening round of the 1991 season in Phoenix.
He raced for Footwork for the 1992 and 1993 seasons before making sporadic appearances in 1994 and 1995.
Suzuki made a return to Formula 1 in 2006, this time as a Team Principal for his outfit, Super Aguri, but the team never managed to get a strong budget together, and folded after the fourth race in 2008.
Ukyo Katayama made 95 F1 starts across a six year career, spending the majority of the time racing for Tyrrell.
Unfortunately, Katayama found himself in cars with poor reliability and retired from more races than he finished.
His most successful season was in 1994 where he scored three points finishes at the Brazilian, San Marino and British Grand Prix.
Shinji Nakano arrived on the Formula 1 scene in 1997, racing for Prost and scored two points finishes during the season, taking sixth place at both the Canadian and Hungarian Grand Prix.
Nakano lost his seat at Prost when the team changed engine suppliers and switched to back-markers, Minardi for the 1998 season.
He had a best result of eighth at the British Grand Prix in 1998, but bowed out of the series at his home Grand Prix at Suzuka, retiring on lap 28 after a collision with his team-mate Esteban Tuero.
Takuma Sato burst on to the F1 scene in 2002, making his debut with Jordan, but had a difficult rookie year before finishing fifth in the last race of the year at Suzuka.
Sato followed Honda to BAR for 2003, spending the majority of the season as a test driver, but he replaced Jacques Villeneuve for the final race of the season at his home Grand Prix, finishing the race sixth and earning himself a permanent drive for the following year.
2004 would be Sato’s best year in F1, finishing third at the American Grand Prix, and ending the season eighth in the driver’s standings.
After two full seasons with BAR, Sato joined Super Aguri for the 2006 season but with an un-competitive car, Sato found himself confined to the back of the grid for the remaining two and a half years, bar two points finishes at the 2007 Spanish and Canadian Grand Prix.
Despite having a difficult F1 career, Sato has gone on to have a successful time in Indycar, winning the Indy 500 in 2017 with Andretti Autosport.
Kazuki Nakajima followed in his father’s footsteps to become the first second generation Japanese F1 driver.
He spent two full seasons at Williams, partnering Nico Rosberg, and had a reasonable debut season, scoring points on his debut in Australia.
Nakajima ended the 2008 season 15th in the championship, but had a difficult year in 2009, failing to score a single point and was completely out-classed by his team-mate with Rosberg accumulating 34.5 points by the end of the season.
2009 would be Nakajima’s last year in F1, although he has gone on to have a successful career in sports cars having won Le Mans with Toyota on the last two occasions
Kamui Kobayashi first arrived in F1 in 2009, filling in for the injured Timo Glock for the final two races of the season, and scored points in his second race at the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix.
His aggressive approach to racing and overtaking earned him the nickname “Kobaybashi”, and he enjoyed four full seasons in F1 racing for Toyota, Sauber and Caterham.
Kobayashi’s stand-out season was in 2012, scoring his one and only podium in his home race at Suzuka.
Unfortunately, Kobayashi was overlooked for the 2013 season and spent a year out before joining Caterham in 2014.
Caterham were un-competitive and so Kobayashi found himself confined to the back of the grid, ending the year 22nd and last in the driver’s standings having failed to score a single point.