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Kazuki Nakajima - home hero with a point to prove at Suzuka 03 Oct 2009

Kazuki Nakajima (JPN) Williams.
Formula One World Championship, Rd 15, Japanese Grand Prix, Preparations, Suzuka, Japan, Thursday, 1 October 2009 Kazuki Nakajima (JPN) Williams FW31.
Formula One World Championship, Rd 15, Japanese Grand Prix, Practice Day, Suzuka, Japan, Friday, 2 October 2009 Kazuki Nakajima (JPN) Williams.
Formula One World Championship, Rd 15, Japanese Grand Prix, Practice Day, Suzuka, Japan, Friday, 2 October 2009 Kazuki Nakajima (JPN) Williams FW31.
Formula One World Championship, Rd 15, Japanese Grand Prix, Practice Day, Suzuka, Japan, Friday, 2 October 2009 Kazuki Nakajima (JPN) Williams.
Formula One World Championship, Rd 12, Belgian Grand Prix, Qualifying Day, Spa-Francorchamps, Belgium, Saturday, 29 August 2009

His Williams team mate Nico Rosberg may have been in the running for a podium, but Kazuki Nakajima endured a frustrating ninth-place finish in Singapore. To make matters worse, the Marina Bay race marked a full year since Nakajima last scored Formula One points. With the FW31 acknowledged as one of the strongest cars on the 2010 grid, it was an inglorious anniversary.

This weekend Nakajima is back home to race at Suzuka. With his enthusiastic and knowledgeable Japanese fans urging him on, and in such dire need of results that his very Formula One future may be at risk, the 24 year-old will be out to impress. But is he really up to the task?

A superficial glance at his progress this season might suggest not. Rosberg has racked up Williams’ first fastest lap since 2006, finished 10 races in the top eight, taken two fourth-place finishes and, most importantly, has scored all 30.5 of the team’s points. Nakajima, meanwhile, has finished in the top ten on just three occasions - and never in the critical top eight. It really has been a tale of two seasons.

Looking back through their post-race comments, the differing fortunes of the duo are stark. Whilst the German’s quotes contain more than a few mentions of ‘happy’, ’fantastic’, and ‘pleased’, Nakajima’s are littered with ‘disappointments’, ‘difficulties’ and ‘frustrations’. Down the whole length of the grid you won’t find two team mates with more contrasting results.

And in the cut throat world of F1 racing, being so far adrift of your team mate - a man racing in identical machinery - never bodes well for your future. This year Toro Rosso’s Sebastien Bourdais and Renault’s Nelson Piquet have both been ousted after failing to meet expectations. Williams, however, have been publicly supportive of Nakajima, and with good reason too.

True, his F1 debut was far from auspicious - running over your mechanics after a botched pit stop, as he did at the 2007 Brazilian Grand Prix, is not ideal - but over the course of last season he slowly and surely justified the team’s decision to hire him. Unflappable performances in Australia, Monaco and Singapore secured him nine points and bagged him a contract for 2009.

Nakajima is well aware of the links between his Williams drive and the team’s engine deal with Toyota (he remains a member of the Japanese company’s young driver programme). He also knows Rosberg remains Williams’ star turn and a driver many tip as a future world champion. He is, however, one of the hardest workers on the grid, with enough modesty to accept his flaws and enough determination to set them right.

Over the ‘08/’09 winter his efforts went into resolving the weaknesses that had let him down during his debut year. Qualifying had been a sticking point and he made great strides in getting more out of one lap - he qualified fifth at Silverstone, setting the quickest Q1 lap in the process at Silverstone. Qualifying that well at one race and then starting as low as 18th at another (Belgium) may smack of inconsistency, but it’s worth bearing in mind that the FW31’s performances also fluctuated between circuits.

Nevertheless, it seems that as the season has progressed Nakajima has found qualifying tougher and tougher. And when he struggles on Saturday, the 2009 field is so close that his poor grid slot often leaves him hamstrung in the race. Sandwiched in the chasing pack in Spain and Germany, he was involved in first-lap collisions, while in Monaco and Hungary he was constrained by surrounding traffic.

Often Nakajima has had the pace, but for a variety of reason things simply haven’t worked out. At Silverstone he was clearly quick in qualifying, but the lap that secured his career-best P5 grid slot also cost him an additional lap’s worth of fuel. So come Sunday he got caught behind heavier cars after his first stop and failed to score. Then in Turkey, in what Nakajima described as ‘the best race of my career so far’, his second pit stop was ruined when a wheel nut became stuck. He finished 12th.

Indeed, he does seem to have suffered more than his fair share of bad luck. Though the FW31 has been a lot more reliable than its predecessor, Nakajima has born the brunt of any issues. In China a transmission problem caused him to retire, as did an oil pressure issue in Bahrain, while in Valencia a puncture wrecked his chances. Rosberg, meanwhile, is yet to record a retirement.

Of course Nakajima can’t be completely absolved of blame for his lack of points - there have been critical mistakes too, like his error at the season opener in Australia. His team mate took full advantage of the Williams’ pace to finish sixth, but he ran wide and span into a high-speed crash. It’s slip-ups like this that show Nakajima’s clearly still learning the ropes, and it’s arguably this inexperience that is proving his biggest problem.

Where does it leave him for 2010, in a driver market just freed up by the confirmation of Fernando Alonso at Ferrari? With veteran drivers hoping to return to a revitalised Formula One, reserve drivers keen for some race action, and young drivers hoping to make their debut, the teams are spoilt for choice.

At Williams, test driver (and recently crowned GP2 champion) Nico Hulkenberg is snapping at Nakajima’s heels. As one of the few reserve drivers to test a 2009 car, the team clearly set a lot of stall by the young German. The rumour mill has Rosberg considering a move elsewhere and Williams eyeing old hand Rubens Barrichello as a worthy replacement. And with the British team also set to ditch Toyota power for 2010, Nakajima looks to be on even shakier ground. On the plus side, Toyota have made no secret of the fact that they are considering driver changes, which could yet provide another option.

As his own harshest critic, Nakajima knows full well that time is running out for him to prove his worth. He needs results now and he’ll certainly be trying everything to eek something out of his home advantage and his extensive knowledge of Suzuka this weekend. Will it be too little too late, or it could it just secure his Formula One future? Here’s hoping it’s the latter.