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A history of home success in Japan 06 Oct 2006

Satoru Nakajima(J), Tyrrell 019, 6th place Japanese GP - Suzuka, Japan, 21 October 1990. World ©  Sutton. Ukyo Katayama (JPN) Tyrrell Yamaha 021 retired from the race. Formula One World Championship, Rd15, Japanese Grand Prix, Suzuka, Japan, 24 October 1993. World ©  Sutton. Masihiro Hasemi (JPN) Kojima KE007 qualified tenth and finished eleventh in his first and only GP. With Dunlop tyres, Masihiro set a remarkable fastest lap in the first race for the Kojima team. Japanese Grand Prix, Rd 16, Fuji, Japan, 24 October 1976. World ©  Phipps/Sutton. Takuma Sato (JPN) Super Aguri F1 Team signs autographs for the fans.
Formula One World Championship, Rd 17, Japanese Grand Prix, Preparations, Suzuka, Japan, 5 October 2006 A very happy Aguri Suzuki after his 3rd place at his home GP Japanese GP - Suzuka, Japan, 21 October 1990. World ©  Sutton.

This weekend’s Japanese race will be the first in seven seasons to feature more than one Japanese driver. Since 2002 Takuma Sato has been the only home-grown talent to compete at Suzuka, but this year he will be joined on the grid by team mate Sakon Yamamoto. As the home crowd wait to be introduced to Super Aguri’s line-up, we look back at how other Japanese drivers have fared in their home race…

Thirteen have raced on home soil - but the most successful by far has been Sato. Since arriving in the paddock in 2002, the former British Formula 3 champion has performed well in his home race. In his first Suzuka appearance with Jordan, he qualified seventh and then finished fifth to score his first world championship points. A year later - in his only race that season for BAR - he fought his way up from 13th on the grid to take sixth place.

But it would be the 2004 event which would afford Sato his best finish to date. Although Michael Schumacher dominated from start to finish, Sato’s performance wowed his home crowd. After qualifying fourth, he finished the race in the same position to claim five points for BAR. Those three consecutive points hauls at Suzuka made Sato Japan’s highest scoring driver at the circuit, even though a podium place remained elusive.

Only one Japanese driver has ever attained a top-three finish at their home event. Aguri Suzuki - Sato’s current team boss at Super Aguri - claimed Japan’s first, and only, podium at Suzuka back in 1990, driving for the Larrousse team. After qualifying ninth, he moved his way up the field to finish behind the Benettons of Nelson Piquet and Roberto Moreno. The result would prove to be a career best for the Japanese driver.

Indeed the 1990 event was a fortuitous one for local talent with Satoru Nakajima, then Japan’s most celebrated driver, also scoring in sixth place. It matched Nakajima’s previous best home result with Lotus in 1987. Combined with Suzuki’s third place, it made the 1990 Japanese Grand Prix the country’s most successful to date.

But for many Japanese drivers their home Grand Prix was a source of frustration rather than joy. Perhaps the unluckiest at Suzuka was Ukyo Katayama, who retired from five consecutive Japanese events after a catalogue of spins and retirements. Indeed, he only finished one home race during his six-season career and that was in his 1992 debut season, when he came home 11th for Larrousse.

Toranosuke Takagi was equally unlucky. In 1998, racing for Tyrrell, Takagi could only muster a 17th-placed grid slot before crashing out, whilst a further attempt for Arrows in 1999 also ended in retirement. Taki Inoue was similarly unsuccessful, enduring a disastrous Formula One debut at the 1994 Suzuka race for the Simtek team. After qualifying 26th, he spun out of the race on lap 3. Things improved somewhat the following year when he finished 12th with Footwork.

Before the Japanese Grand Prix arrived at Suzuka in 1987, the country enjoyed two races in the late 1970s at the Mount Fuji circuit. Some teams drafted in local drivers for one-off appearances, though many of these early pioneers failed to live up to expectations. Only Tokyo-born Masahiro Hasemi, whose 1976 appearance was his sole Formula One outing, achieved any real success. Hasemi finished 11th for Kojima Engineering, but what really impressed was his speed. His Ford-Cosworth-powered car took him into the record books when he recorded the quickest lap of the race - and to this day he remains the only Japanese driver to have set a fastest lap.

In more recent years Suzuka’s crowds have tended to cheer on Japanese teams Honda and Toyota, with Sato the only object of individual affection. But with the arrival of Super Aguri and their focus on Japanese drivers, a new wave of home-grown success could be just around the corner.