The 2008 newcomers - Kazuki Nakajima 11 Mar 2008
As Formula One debuts go, consigning some of your team to hospital after running them over during a pit stop is not the ideal start. But thats just what Williams reserve driver Kazuki Nakajima did at the end of last season, when he stepped into Alexander Wurzs race seat for a one-off opportunity at the season-ending Brazilian Grand Prix.
While the incident certainly garnered Nakajima worldwide headlines, it was not quite the maiden appearance the young Japanese driver had hoped for. Williams, however, chose to overlook the mistake, focusing instead on his tenth-place finish and fifth-fastest race lap. Overall they believed he had performed with speed and skill, and eventually the team took the plunge and signed him up as the retired Wurzs permanent replacement for 2008.
It was a plucky move for the British squad. Not only had they lost the dependable and experienced Wurz, they had taken on a raw talent, who had already established a reputation as bit of a wildcard. Even team boss Sir Frank Williams recently called the decision to sign the 23 year-old as a bit of a gamble, which begs the question - why do it?
Indeed some believe Williams, currently celebrating 30 years of Formula One competition, are taking a real risk by signing such an untried driver. While he ended the 2007 GP2 season as rookie of the year, he was also involved in a fair few controversial incidents, including a coming together with Karun Chandhok at the Turkish race. After knocking Chandhok out of the lead, Nakajima was served with a drive-through penalty. You could argue that wayward moments like this prove that while quick, Nakajima is perhaps not yet ready for a full-time Formula One race seat. Williams, however, disagree, and believe his positives far outweigh his talents rough edges.
They certainly know him well enough to have made an informed decision. Aside from his race outing for the team, Nakajima also covered over 7,000 testing kilometres in 2007. He has been backed by the teams engine supplier, Toyota, since winning the Formula Toyota championship in 2003 and can also claim true racing pedigree - his father Satoru was the first Japanese driver to earn a full-time Formula One drive in the late 1980s.
Of course, his team mate Nico Rosberg also has racing in his blood and keeping up with the German will be a stern challenge for the young Nakajima. Rosberg is one of Formula One racings brightest hopes and, for the moment at least, is considered the star of Williams show. Nakajima will have to work hard to step out of his shadow. More likely he will focus his efforts on learning from his more experienced colleague and laying the groundwork for the future. Indeed he cant really lose from the situation. If he beats Rosberg, hes beaten a potential world champion; if he doesnt, hes lost out to one of the grids most respected new talents.
So far the signs are good. Although its early days, Nakajimas speed and conscientious attitude over the winter testing period has impressed Williams. And with the FW30 being praised for its pace and reliability, the young Japanese star should have the tools at his disposal to make an impact during his maiden season. If he can keep the car on track, this diamond in the rough may well become one of the seasons biggest sparklers.