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Can Yamamoto succeed where Ide failed? 28 Jul 2006

Sakon Yamamoto (JPN) Super Aguri F1 Team.
Formula One World Championship, Rd 12, German Grand Prix, Preparations, Hockenheim, Germany, 27 July 2006

This weekend at Hockenheim, Sakon Yamamoto will make his race debut for Super Aguri. Understandably Yamamoto is overjoyed at the opportunity, but with only eight Friday practice sessions under his belt to acclimatise to the pressures of a Formula One race weekend, just how will the Japanese rookie fare in the hot seat?

Over the last five years Yamamoto has built up some ample racing credentials, including recent drives in Formula Nippon and Super GT in Japan, plus earlier outings in Formula 3. In 2001 - his first season in single-seater racing in Japanese Formula 3 - he was considered good enough to mix it with the world’s best F3 pilots in the Marlboro Masters and the prestigious Macau Grand Prix.

But will that be enough? Super Aguri know only too well what can happen when an inexperienced driver is promoted prematurely. The team started this, their first season, with another Formula Nippon graduate, Yuji Ide, in their second race seat. Ide arrived on the grid in Malaysia with next to no Formula One testing experience and battled unsuccessfully to get to grips with the team’s outdated SA05 machine. When the FIA finally ran out of patience and revoked his super licence, Ide was hurriedly replaced by third driver Franck Montagny.

In relative terms, Yamamoto looks far better prepared for his race debut than his luckless compatriot. Keen to return to an all-Japanese line-up, Super Aguri already had their eye on him before Ide’s departure, well aware that, unlike Ide, he already had Formula One experience - most notably a successful third-driver outing with Jordan at last year’s Japanese Grand Prix. So while the proven talents of Montagny took over race duties, Yamamoto was quietly slotted into the Friday car and the team waited patiently for him to become familiar with his new surroundings.

And after four Grand Prix weekends as third driver, Super Aguri now seem convinced that he is ready to take the final step into a Formula One race seat. Having watched his new driver develop over recent months, team principal, Aguri Suzuki is confident of Yamamoto’s ability to rise to the challenge. “I believe that his experience as third driver up to now should help him perform well in the race,” he said.

As a former driver himself, Suzuki is familiar with the plight of the Formula One rookie. Like Yamamoto, he started his debut race - the 1988 Japanese Grand Prix - in a relatively uncompetitive machine. He qualified his Lola in 20th position and made it to the end of the race in 16th. If Yamamoto can match that this weekend, Suzuki will surely be pleased.

But Yamamoto’s real benchmark at Hockenheim will, of course, be another Japanese icon - team mate Takuma Sato. With 62 Formula One starts and 40 world championship points to his name, Sato is statistically his country’s greatest-ever driver. Some may question his race craft, but his experience is sure to prove another vital asset to Yamamoto during his debut, especially as the team have also chosen this weekend to unleash their new car. The team are hoping the SA06 could lift them above Midland at Hockenheim, but with Yamamoto having had nothing more than a day of straight-line testing behind the wheel, it does add another unknown element into the mix.

Nevertheless, if all goes well, the combination of Yamamoto and the SA06 could mark a new beginning for Super Aguri. Formula One racing’s newest driver certainly seems to be taking it all in his stride. “I am really looking forward to going to Germany,” he said following last week’s Santa Pod shakedown. “I am very proud to be racing with the team and will try my best to improve, step-by-step, for everyone.”