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Sakon Yamamoto: the long journey home 26 Sep 2007

Sakon Yamamoto (JPN) Spyker walks back to the pits.
Formula One World Championship, Rd 14, Belgian Grand Prix, Practice Day, Spa-Francorchamps, Belgium, Friday, 14 September 2007 Sakon Yamamoto (JPN) Spyker F8-VII.
Formula One World Championship, Rd 14, Belgian Grand Prix, Race, Spa-Francorchamps, Belgium, Sunday, 16 September 2007 Sakon Yamamoto (JPN) Spyker F8-VII.
Formula One World Championship, Rd 14, Belgian Grand Prix, Practice Day, Spa-Francorchamps, Belgium, Friday, 14 September 2007 Sakon Yamamoto (JPN) Spyker.
Formula One World Championship, Rd 14, Belgian Grand Prix, Preparations, Spa-Francorchamps, Belgium, Thursday, 13 September 2007 Sakon Yamamoto (JPN) Spyker F8-VII.
Formula One World Championship, Rd 13, Italian Grand Prix, Qualifying Day, Monza, Italy, Saturday, 8 September 2007

This weekend's Japanese Grand Prix will be a very special occasion for Spyker’s Sakon Yamamoto. For the 25 year-old from Toyohashi, a city located between the major hubs of Tokyo and Osaka on Japan’s main island, this will be his first ‘home’ race with Spyker and the first time he has driven a Formula One car round the Fuji Speedway.

For Yamamoto the journey to this point has been one fuelled by a strong determination and persistence to get to the top. “My parents aren’t involved in motorsport, but my mother is a really big fan of Formula One, so at the end of the '80s we went to the Suzuka circuit to watch the race,” Yamamoto explained. “I was hooked. Suddenly I knew what F1 was about and how good it was! I knew this was what I wanted to do.”

Like any small boy who wants to become a racing driver, his parents were initially sceptical and unwilling to help their son participate in something they viewed as fun, but ultimately dangerous. “My mother loves motor racing but also didn’t want me to race,” he said. “It took a lot of work from me to persuade them that I should at least try karting. At the time I was reading motorsport magazines and I knew that 90 per cent of F1 drivers started karting before they were 12 years-old. I was already 10 so I didn’t have much time left if I wanted to start. I tried to explain it to my parents but they still didn’t want me to be a driver, so I couldn’t get started when I wanted to.”

Undeterred, Yamamoto tried again and again to convince his parents they should at least give him a chance. “For two years I tried to explain and finally they decided they gave me a chance for one year. That was 1994 which meant I was 12 years-old, so I just got in with the deadline!” he explained.

The deal had one catch, however: his parents agreed to let Yamamoto try karting for a year, but he had to prove that he could manage his school work and do well in karting. If his school work slipped, he would have to stop. Equally, if his karting skills weren’t up to scratch, he would have to give up. “Our agreement is only for one year,” Yamamoto remembered. “For the whole year, I just wondered what my parents thought. When I asked them they said they didn't want me to continue. I did use an instructor to explain to them that I did have a talent and I could do well. When they understood and saw I really wanted to continue, we made another deal.

"They said, okay you can go to karting, but you have to go to school too. Stay in school and get an education and then you can do both. If you have a good education and get good results in your exams, then we’ll let you do it.”

For the remainder of his high school years, Yamamoto combined karting and racing with studying and revising. Saying he’d missed a grade due to a race over the weekend was not an option: “I was really worried about losing a credit at school as my parents had said I couldn’t lose a credit because of motorsport. The deal was to do well in school and well in the racing.”

It was a tough time for Yamamoto. Not wanting to miss out on races and not wanting to miss out on grades, he struggled for any free time. “It was a tough year in my final year of school. High school was hard as for three years I was travelling to Europe for karting and also started in small Formula school. I couldn’t go to high school enough, but even in this stage I tried to do my best in exams had to do well and pass my course.”

Amazingly Yamamoto did do more than okay - he raced in the All Japanese Kart Competition, finishing third in 2000, passed his exams and got into University where he studied social politics. In a time where racing drivers predominantly go from cradle to kart without passing through the usual educational channels, it’s refreshing to hear that one did go into further education and, what is more, chose to study a subject that evaluates one person’s position within the world, not how the world revolves around one person.

All the same, the call of motorsport was too strong and Yamamoto eventually moved to Europe in 2002 to follow his motorsport career after spending 2001 commuting between the UK and Japan to compete in both the Japanese and British Formula Three championships. He lived in Germany for two years as he competed in the German and then European F3 series, but then moved back to Japan for 2004 to compete in national F3.

The following year, 2005, would also be the first time he would drive a Formula One car, fittingly at the circuit he had first experienced Formula One racing first-hand - Suzuka. “I drove the Jordan in 2005 at Suzuka,” Yamamoto explained. “It was very tricky as the average speed was completely difficult, way faster than an F3 or F3000 car. As a result, the way you approach the circuit is different, as the lines of sight vary. The speed was so quick and it was amazing how much fun it was to drive. I really enjoyed it as a third driver and appreciated Colin Kolles’ efforts to give me a drive in F1.”

That 2005 season would also be the first time Yamamoto was to drive the newly reopened Fuji Speedway, this time in Japanese GT and Formula Nippon. “The track is quite an interesting circuit as one side has a very long straight but through sector three it becomes very technical and you need a good direction on the set-up,” he said. “If you want to gain time on the straight you will need a lower downforce but you will lose coming through sector three. It’s tough for drivers but also for engineers. It should be a good race and I am really looking forward to it - to drive in F1 in Japan is always really special for me.”