Nakajima - Japans bright hope for Fuji and beyond 02 Oct 2008
With the demise of Super Aguri and the accompanying departure of Takuma Sato earlier this year, all eyes will be on Williams Kazuki Nakajima at next weekends Japanese Grand Prix. The sole Japanese entrant, Nakajima will be out to impress as he races a Formula One car in front of his fellow countrymen for the first time.
Is the 23 year-old up to the task? A cursory glance at the seasons scoreboard would suggest yes. Not only has he finished 13 of the 15 races run this year, but he has also scored nine points - no mean feat in a debut season, especially one with what is currently a midfield team.
At the start of 2008 team principal Frank Williams described Nakajima as having pace and the right aptitude to develop into a competitive Formula One racer. It was a glowing assessment and one that Nakajima has gone a long way to fulfilling. From his unruffled drive to sixth at the action-packed season opener in Australia to his Monaco run to seventh, Nakajima has more than justified Williams faith.
He has genuine speed - he bettered more experienced team mate Nico Rosberg around Silverstones twists and turns by a full half a second during the British Grand Prix. Of course, two-time podium winner Rosberg remains the British squads star turn. Nakajima, however, has dealt with his de facto team leader maturely - watching, learning and occasionally outperforming.
Thats not to say 2008 has been a bed of roses for the Japanese youngster. From his poor start in Bahrain to his double spin in Germany, he has committed a number of rookie howlers. He has also been involved in his fair share of high-profile collisions, including his first-lap clash with local hero Fernando Alonso in Valencia and his accident with Red Bulls David Coulthard after an overambitious overtaking move at Monza.
But a debut season is supposed to be a learning curve and while some incidents have clearly been slip-ups, others have been simply down to bad luck. Compare Nakajima to fellow 2007 GP2 graduate Nelson Piquet (another son of a famous racing father) and most would say it is the former that has coped better with the transition to Formula One racing.
Admittedly, he doesnt have the pressure of a double world champion for a team mate, but whereas speculation still abounds concerning Piquets future, Nakajima has already done enough to be retained by Williams for 2009. Indeed, he looks to be right at home with the Grove team - a relationship surely aided by his test driver role in 2007. Williams certainly believe hes got more pace in reserve - and the new contract is his reward.
Nakajimas Singapore showing would no doubt have aided Williams decision. His best qualifying performance to date - 10th - meant the team got both cars into Q3 for the first time since 2006. He went even better in the race, passing several cars during a proficient drive to seventh and another world championship point, backing up Rosbergs second place. If the FW30 looks anything like as quick at the Fuji event, Nakajima may be poised for a career-best finish.
Could it even be a podium? The Japanese Grand Prix does enjoy something of a precedence of this - Mika Hakkinen (1993), Roberto Moreno (1990) and local legend Aguri Suzuki (1990) all scored their maiden F1 podiums on Japanese soil. So will fortune favour Nakajima next weekend? Either way, with that 2009 contract deservedly in the bag, he at least now knows his first home race wont be his last.