Ahead of this weekend’s Japanese Grand Prix, we take a look at the top-five F1 talents to emerge from the Land of the Rising Sun.
5: UKYO KATAYAMA
Uko Katayama: F1 driver and mountain climber. That’ not a bad CV by anyone’s standards.
After winning the Japanese Formula 3000 title in 1991, Katayama made his F1 debut the following year with Larrousse, then switched to Tyrrell for the next four seasons. He enjoyed a particularly strong 1994 campaign, taking three top-six finishes in the Yamaha-powered car, though there was little else to shut about during his spell with the British squad. His final season came at Minardi in 1997 where he was comprehensively outperformed by rookie Jarno Trulli.
In 1998 he competed for Toyota at Le Mans, finishing second overall in ’99 after a tyre blowout cost his crew a shot at the win. He has since made sporadic appearances in various series, but is no longer competing professionally.
Katayama was indulging his passion for mountain climbing during his F1 career – something you can’t imagine being condoned today – and has scaled some of the planet’s most fearsome peaks, including Kilimanjaro and Mont Blanc.
It’s not always been a happy pursuit. In December 2009 Katayama and two friends went missing on Mount Fuji. Ukyo was found alive but both of his companions had perished. Nevertheless, he has since returned to climbing.
4: SATORU & KAZUKI NAKAJIMA
Satoru Nakajima was the first Japanese driver to get an extended run in the sport: his forerunners had largely made one-off appearances on home turf, but he was in it for the long haul.
Nakajima Sr. had won a hatful of titles on home soil, prompting Honda to place him alongside Ayrton Senna at Lotus for 1987. But he was no fresh-faced rookie: Satoru was already 34, seven years older than his experienced team-mate.
He acquitted himself well given the circumstances, scoring points in four races (including Japan) and remained at Lotus for three seasons. He then spent two years at Tyrrell, continuing to pick up points here and there.
His son Kazuki did things rather differently. Firstly, he was a Toyota protege; secondly, he came up through the European junior ranks and made his F1 at 22.
Nakajima Jr finished a very credible fifth during his rookie GP2 campaign in 2007, leading to a one-off Williams drive at the F1 season finale in Brazil. Despite knocking over his front jackman, Nakajima landed the seat full-time for ’08. It certainly helped that the team ran customer Toyota engines.
His maiden year was very respectable, with points on his debut in Australia and at four subsequent grands prix placing him just two places behind team-mate Nico Rosberg in the standings.
But 2009 would be very different. While Rosberg became a near-permanent fixture in the points, Kazuki failed to score at all. When Toyota quit the sport at the season’s end his F1 career was over at 24. But the manufacturer took care of their young charge: he is now a mainstay of their sportscar and GT programmes, and won the Formula Nippon title using Toyota engines in 2012.
3: AGURI SUZUKI
Suzuki’s F1 career did not start well. After a one-off appearance at his home race in 1988, the Tokyo-born driver joined Zakspeed for ’89. Unfortunately the car was a pig and, with 16 failures to qualify from 16 attempts, his future looked bleak.
But a switch to Larrousse the following year brought much better results. Suzuki netted his first F1 point with sixth at Silverstone and repeated the feat at Jerez.
Then came his career-defining drive at Suzuka. He had qualified an excellent ninth, and the infamous turn one clash between Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost helped the local hero move up still further.
A non-stop strategy eventually allowed him to finish a brilliant third; Suzuki had become the first Japanese driver to stand on the Formula 1 podium and he had done so on home turf, earning him instant legend status.
He never hit those heights again, contesting three more full seasons and then the odd race in ’94 and ’95. Nevertheless, Suzuki had made history. He later took a podium finish at Le Mans, then moved into team ownership in Japan. He eventually returned to F1, running the Super Aguri team between 2006 and 2008.
2: TAKUMA SATO
When Sato won the ultra-competitive British F3 title and Macau Grand Prix in 2001 it seemed that Japan had finally found its great racing hope.
His first season in F1 didn’t live up to billing. Driving for Jordan, Taku crashed a little too often – including an embarrassing collision with team-mate Giancarlo Fisichella in Malaysia.
But after a year on the sidelines he returned in an excellent BAR-Honda, allowing the Japanese to score his first podium at Indianapolis and end the season eighth. However when the 2005 car wasn’t up to the same standards he struggled and was dropped for Rubens Barrichello at the season’s end.
Sato then found a home at the newly-formed Super Aguri outfit. Led by the aforementioned Aguri Suzuki, this was a shoestring-budget Honda ‘B team’ who some believed were created solely to keep Taku in F1. The first season was a challenge but, with a much better car in 2007, he was able to deliver some sterling drives, not least his Fernando Alonso-slaying act in Canada.
Sadly the team folded the next year. Taku crossed the Atlantic to race in IndyCar in 2010, winning his first race at Long Beach in 2013. This year he also made his Formula E debut, appropriately enough driving for Aguri Suzuki’s team.
1: KAMUI KOBAYASHI
Given his current machinery, it is perhaps difficult to believe that Kobayashi is his country’s greatest racing export.
But during his three-year spell at Sauber the Amagasaki-born driver showed enough to convincingly earn the mantle. He is not always the best qualifier, but there are few racier drivers than Kobayashi. His overtaking is usually bold, always ambitious, and never dull.
That’s not exactly world champion material, but from the fans’ point of view it’s fantastic entertainment.
His podium on home turf two years ago was richly deserved, and let’s not forget that he was largely the equal of Sergio Perez at Sauber, who’s no amateur behind the wheel of an F1 car.
Of course, Sergio has something Kamui doesn’t: money. It’s fair to say that he lost his Sauber drive due to a total absence of sponsorship and, unfortuntalty, he has been unable to show much in this year’s Caterham, meaning he is likely to exit the sport for good at the end of the season. That is a real shame, as there is no reason Kobayashi couldn’t score plenty of points for a midfield team – and keep the fans entertained in the process.