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Kamui Kobayashi - Japan's next F1 superstar? 15 Oct 2009

Race 1 Podium and results: 1st Kamui Kobayashi (JPN) Prema Powerteam, centre. 2nd Hiroyuki Matsumura (JPN) Graff Racing, left. 3rd Xavier Maasen (NL) JD Motorsport, right. Formula Renault 2.0 Eurocup, Rd8, Monza, Italy. 22-23 October 2005. World © Sutton Kamui Kobayashi (JPN) ASM F3 Macau GP Qualifying Day, Guia Circuit, Macau, China, 17th November 2006. World © Patching/Sutton Race winner Kamui Kobayashi (JPN) Dams celebrates on the podium. GP2 Series Rd 1, Race 2, Barcelona, Spain, Sunday 27 April 2008. Kamui Kobayashi (JPN) Toyota TF108 Formula One Testing, 1-5 March 2009, Jerez, Spain. Kamui Kobayashi (JPN) Toyota Third Driver.
Formula One World Championship, Rd 15, Japanese Grand Prix, Practice Day, Suzuka, Japan, Friday, 2 October 2009

News that Toyota’s Timo Glock is to miss this weekend’s Brazilian Grand Prix after his Suzuka qualifying crash comes as a bitter blow to a driver on the hunt for a fourth podium and - if rumours are to believed - a seat for 2010. But for the Japanese team’s third driver Kamui Kobayashi, Glock’s Interlagos absence represents the biggest opportunity of his motor racing career to date. As the 23-year-old from Hyogo Prefecture prepares to make his Formula One race debut, we take a look back at how he’s progressed through the ranks…

Like most drivers, Kobayashi initially made a name for himself racing in local and then national karting tournaments in his home country. Aged just nine, the Japanese youngster finished third in the SL Takarazuka Tournament Cadet Class and over the next seven years clinched a further five junior titles. By then he’d done enough to catch the much sought-after attentions of Toyota and in 2001 landed a place in the Japanese manufacturer’s young drivers’ programme.

This led to his first full season of single-seaters in 2003, when he finished second overall in Formula Toyota. Continued financial support from Toyota saw him head to Europe in 2004, where he chose the Italian Formula Renault series to launch his international racing career. It was a brave move but Kobayashi proved up to the task, with two wins and three pole positions taking him to seventh in the final standings.

Keen for any opportunity to race, he also competed in rounds of the 2004 Dutch and German Formula Renault series, as well as the Formula Renault Asia Challenge. Clearly not afraid of hard work, Kobayashi chose to stick with Formula Renault for 2005, this time entering the Italian and Euro series. With six wins and four pole positions in each, he took both championships with ease.

From there he followed the well-trodden path into Formula Three. Racing in the 2006 F3 Euro series he scored three podiums in his first season and finished the year eighth overall. Another outing at the prestigious Macau Grand Prix saw him take a surprise pole, an impressive achievement despite only finishing the race 19th.

Kobayashi had impressed enough for Toyota to offer him his first taste of a Formula One car with three days of testing during the winter break, before returning to his ‘day job’ to compete in a second season of Formula Three Euro in 2007.

His second attempt at the series proved more promising than his first and he drove to fourth in the standings after a win and a further six podiums. Although team mate and future Renault Formula One driver Romain Grosjean took the title, with his raw speed and a growing maturity behind the wheel, Toyota had more than enough reason to offer Kobayashi a fuller F1 role and signed him up as their third driver for the 2008 season.

Wanting to keep his hand in with racing, however, Kobayashi also joined the super-competitive GP2 Asia and main GP2 Series. He enjoyed two wins in the Asian competition to finish sixth overall, before scoring a maiden main series win in the Catalunya sprint race. He went on to finish 16thin the table, a worthy performance for a debutant.

Despite competing in 30 races that season there was no let up for Kobayashi during the winter break, with the 2009 GP2 Asia series getting underway in October ’08. Driving for the DAMS team he scored two wins on his way to claiming the title, though he was unable to carry that success into the main GP2 Series that got underway in May ‘09 and finished 16th again with one podium. 2009 also saw Kobayashi continue his third driver and testing duties for Toyota. He was one of the few testers to enjoy track time in an ‘09 car, covering four days (and 165 laps) over the winter.

That meant that when Timo Glock succumbed to a heavy cold and fever ahead of the recent Japanese Grand Prix, Toyota didn’t hesitate in drafting Kobayashi in for the Friday practice sessions. Despite just a few hours’ notice, he acquitted himself well, coping with Suzuka’s wet conditions with a confidence that belied his inexperience. Although Glock returned on the Saturday, a qualifying accident ruled him out of the race. Sadly, however, Kobayashi was not allowed to compete in his place, having not practised on Saturday as required by the regulations

Then, just as it looked as though he’d missed his big chance, news that Glock has a cracked vertebra in his back means Kobayashi has been called up once more, this time for the entire Brazilian Grand Prix meeting.

It’s not known yet if Glock will be fit enough to return for next month’s season finale in Abu Dhabi, but one thing that’s certain is that Toyota desperately want a talented Japanese driver in their race line-up. And with neither Glock nor Jarno Trulli confirmed for 2010, if Kobayashi performs well at Interlagos a permanent promotion for 2010 could be on the cards. Watch this space.