Aguri Suzukis long road home 05 Oct 2006
To Aguri Suzuki, one of Japans most celebrated racers, the Japanese Grand Prix was always more than just a home race. Suzuka was the setting for his first Formula One drive, for his only podium finish and for the last Grand Prix of his career. This weekend, 11 years on from his retirement and 16 races into his career as a team boss, he returns to introduce his Super Aguri squad to Suzuka fans for the very first time.
Born in 1960, Suzuki aspired to be a racing driver from an early age and like many of his Formula One contemporaries, his first foray into competition came in local karting events. Success came slowly at first but in 1978, at the age of 18, Suzuki won Japans premier karting championship. A spell in national Formula 3 followed, before a temporary move away from single-seaters saw him claim the Japanese touring car title in 1986.
But Suzuki know he would have to hone his racing skills still further if he were to have a chance of reaching Formula One, and so for 1987 turned his attentions to Japanese Formula 3000. A strong debut season featured one victory, at Suzuka, and he ended the year as series runner-up. Suzukis hard work paid off for the next season and, after winning three races (at Fuji, Nishi-Nippon and Suzuka), he claimed the 1988 title.
While Suzuki was building his reputation at home, another Japanese driver, Satoru Nakajima, was busy opening up the prospects of Japanese drivers on the international stage. Nakajimas contract to partner Ayrton Senna at the Honda-powered Lotus team in 1987 was groundbreaking and came at just the right moment for Suzukis Formula 3000 title to provide a sufficient springboard into Formula One racing.
In 1988 Suzuki was asked by the Larrousse team to replace an ill Yannick Dalmas at the Japanese Grand Prix and immediately made his mark. In qualifying, he was just 0.4 seconds slower than more experienced team mate Philippe Alliot, and found himself alongside the Frenchman on the grid, albeit in 20th position. By race day, the crowds, who had originally turned out to support the Honda-powered McLarens of Senna and Alain Prost, were also cheering for Suzuki. He didnt disappoint and finished the race 16th.
In spite of his admirable performance, the team chose to trial another F3000 driver, Pierre Henri Raphanel for the last race of the season in Australia and Suzuki returned to the bench. But he didnt have to wait long and was signed for 1989 by the Zakspeed team, who had also sealed a deal for normally-aspirated Yamaha engines following the banning of turbochargers. Unfortunately the Zakspeed-Yamaha package did not prove a competitive one and from 16 events Suzuki failed to pre-qualify for a single one.
Undeterred, Suzuki moved back to Larrousse for 1990. The combination of Lola chassis and Lamborghini engine sounded good on paper, but Suzuki endured a frustrating season, retiring from 11 of 16 races (including five of the first six). There was to be one highlight, however - at his home track of Suzuka in the years penultimate race. He qualified ninth, equaling his seasons best grid position, and then came through an eventful race to finish an impressive third, going down in history in the process as the first Japanese driver to claim a Formula One podium finish - an achievement only matched since by Takuma Sato in the 2004 US Grand Prix.
The 1990 Japanese Grand Prix would prove to be the pinnacle of Suzukis Formula One career. A second season with Larrousse brought just one championship point and in 1992 he headed to Footwork for a two-year stint. A gearbox failure at Spa in 1993 whilst running sixth ruined his best race for the team, for whom he was destined never to score.
A year later and Suzuki found himself without a Formula One seat, but it was not quite the end of the line for the Japanese racer. When Eddie Irvine was banned by the FIA in 1994 for his role in an accident in Brazil, Suzuki was Jordans first choice for a replacement driver in the Pacific Grand Prix at Japans Aida circuit. Suzuki retired after 44 laps with steering problems, but he had impressed enough to secure himself a shared seat with British driver Martin Brundle with Ligier for the 95 season.
Although Brundle proved generally the quicker of the two, Suzuki did score, with a sixth place at the German Grand Prix. Ironically, however, it was Suzuka that would ultimately prove his undoing. In qualifying for the Japanese Grand Prix, the penultimate round, Suzuki sustained a neck injury in a massive shunt. After deciding not to compete in the race, he finally called time on his Formula One racing career. More than a decade on, Japan will no doubt be delighted to welcome him back.