Japanese motorsport is not easy to follow from outside the country. In an exclusive interview with Radio Le Mans’ John Hindhaugh for Mobil 1 The Grid, Kazuki Nakajima explains what it takes to be BIG IN JAPAN.
For aspiring single-seater racing drivers in Europe, the path to the top has been pretty stable and well-defined for decades – Karting, then some form of single manufacturer-supported formula cars (F3 or equivalent), then an ‘international‘ junior series or two and, after that, Formula 1 superstardom. Easy!
But for many years, motorsport in Japan has ploughed its own furrow. Yes, there have been drivers who have got themselves to the very top of the sport internationally, but many more have stayed at home – largely unknown outside the national boundaries, joined at various stages by a handful of enterprising Europeans, and had extremely competitive and financially rewarding careers.
I’ve been doing the international TV commentary on Japanese Super GT for a couple of years now and, even during my research into that subject, I still feel somewhat under-informed on the Japanese ‘scene’.
A chat with second generation driver Kazuki Nakajima form the Toyota Gazoo Racing Team at the WEC Fuji round gave me the opportunity to fill my knowledge gap.
“I started karting when I was 10 or 11, and racing when I was 12/13. We have the ‘All Japan’ Championship and, below that, several regional series. There are many kids and young guys competing in karting”, explains Kazuki.
Keen to never be seen riding on the reputation of his father – former F1 driver Satoru – the young Nakajima eschewed anything supported by ‘Honda’, and chose Formula Toyota as his first foray into car racing.
Not that it was a straightforward move. Indeed, as Nakajima recalls, there was plenty of choice at that time.
“There was FJ series, which was a bit like Formula Ford, though it now has wings. I did Formula Toyota (1600cc), which was a little like Formula Renault in Europe. There was also F3 – organised by Honda – and a few different junior formula series, all organised by different manufacturers.”
Individual branded series were something that the Japanese system relied on, but junior formula clutter meant that it was not easy to see the best talent competing against one other.
“They [the Japanese manufacturers, Honda, Nissan and Toyota] started Formula Challenge Japan – same engine, same car; it was for all the young drivers from the different manufacturers series [to compete] together.”
I put it to Kaz that the manufacturer support available in Japan was a big difference to what drivers in the West might expect in their early careers. Having had experience of the European system, he points to driver development schemes from the likes of Renault, Mercedes, Bed Bull and others.
“In a way, it’s similar to Europe. But there’s fewer drivers in Japan compared to the whole of Europe, so for the manufacturers to pay to have one series [with] all the drivers together, was better.”
Nakajima’s prodigious talent was spotted by Toyota at an early stage, and he has been with them ever since. Clearly, it has been a great boost to his career.
“It was very important… same as in Europe, to race properly [in Japan] you need quite a big budget; a budget a family can’t provide. We need that help from the manufacturer… that’s how I started. It was a big, big influence on my career. Without the driver development programme, I wouldn’t have been able to go to Europe and reach F1. Even now, to race in WEC, I don’t think that would have happened without the driver programme.”
Here’s where things are changing though, as Nakajima explains.
“After karting, the target for young drivers is to get into FiA Formula 4. It’s basically replaced that [Formula Challenge] series, and now they have more than 30 cars. I think it’s becoming a good series for drivers.”
It certainly helps that FiA Formula 4 is on a very prominent platform.
“The races are held with Super GT, so there’s a lot of spectators, a lot of manufacturer representatives, a lot of people from big teams. So it really is more like GP3 in Europe in terms of visibility.”
Another recent change to the system allows for young Japanese talent to get themselves into F4 cars at 15/16 years old. That wasn’t an option when Kazuki was pursuing his career.
“I was 18. The problem then was [that] you could only start driving formula cars when you had your [road] driving licence. In a way, that was a disadvantage [for me], but I was happy with my career. I think each driver, each person, has a different way of growing up. To start Formula Toyota at that time was right for me because, at that time, I was finally mature enough to start racing. If a driver starts too early and he’s not ready, it can destroy his career.”
To put that into perspective, by the time Kazuki was allowed into his first car event, Max Verstappen would already have won his first F1 race! It’s a point that Nakajima hadn’t missed.
“I was, of course, impressed by him… I didn’t see much of his racing before he got to F1.. .but from what I heard and read, he’s very good.
“The F1 car now is different to the old F1 car, where you had big power and big downforce; big grip from the tyre. Now, they have big power but the car is always sliding. You have to drive under the limit of the car. I think the driving style of the [current] car is easier for the younger guys coming from F3 or GP2.”
Talk of current F1 inevitably brings us to the venues available for racing in Japan. Although there are a few other smaller venues, there are essentially five tracks at which the majority of national racing takes place.
“Suzuka and Fuji are the two biggest tracks in Japan. Then you have Motegi, which is known in Europe for Indycar and WTCC, and then you have three other reasonably big tracks – Okayama (TI Aida), a former F1 track; Autopolis in the South is a nice track as well. Then there’s Sugo, in the North. It’s small but very challenging; a European-style track.”
And what of the quality of Japanese national racing, especially for those drivers who don’t attract manufacturer support?
“There are drivers who manage to have good careers without support. A good example is Yuhi Sekiguchi, who is leading the Super Formula Championship as a rookie.”
I commentated on Sekiguchi as he drove immaculately to score the first GT500 win for WED Sport Lexus in the Super GT round at Chang Circuit a few weeks ago. He was the 2006 Formula Toyota Champion in 2006, and took the Japanese F3 title in 2011.
“He was a part of the Toyota programme but was dropped”, Nakajima explains. “He still found a way to keep racing, finding his own sponsors to raise enough budget for racing. He was also involved in a Nissan programme, but then he was out [on his own] again.
“He’s had a tough career but now he’s racing in Super GT500 and Super Formula, and he’s won 2 races this year. It’s a rare case, but there is a way to make a career without a manufacturer.”
Given that the scene is so different in Japan, I’m interested to know where young drivers’ ambitions lie as they start out on their career path.
“When I was younger, it was Formula 1. Most of the young drivers’ target was F1. Manufacturers like Toyota and Honda were competing in F1. It was very big when I was a child, and before that… Massive, very popular. Especially for anyone around 40 to 50 years old, they love it… so all their kids, who are my age, our target was always to become a Formula 1 driver. We saw Japanese drivers there. It started with my dad and Aguri Suzuki, then Ukyo Katayama and Takuma [Sato]. We watched them, and so it as normal for us to target F1.”
But the TV coverage moving to pay per view and the financial requirements are inevitably changing the landscape, leading to Japanese drivers’ focus moving closer to home.
“Now it’s a little bit different. In Japan, it’s not easy to watch F1 racing because we don’t see it on normal channels. We have less information, less coverage. We know that, to get into F1, you need a big budget. Many of the young drivers now target Super GT or Super Formula, which is more realistic. It’s a sad moment.”
That said, the suggestion from Nakajima is that the future may be a little brighter for drivers with international ambitions.
“Now that Honda [have] restarted the F1 project, and us [Toyota Gazoo Racing] doing the FIA World Endurance Championship, it’s a good sign for the young drivers. They can aim for world class racing. As long as they are good enough, and they get involved with [manufacturer] driver programmes, they can now target those [series].”
It seems not that long ago – well, not for an old bloke like me – that European drivers would often disappear to the Land of the Rising Sun for a few years or more, tempted by a change of culture and, more importantly, the large financial rewards available from racing series like Formula Nippon, the Japanese version of F3000. Indeed, rumours at the time suggested that, when Eddie Irvine moved from Formula Nippon to F1 in 1993, he actually took a pay cut.
So, can a driver still make a decent living by staying in Japanese national racing? Kaz is unequivocal.
“I have to say ‘Yes!’… Of course, not as good as before – you cannot compare to 20-30 years ago – but, still, you can live well. It’s a bit like DTM: You need to be with a manufacturer, so you race in Super GT, that’s the main source of salary. Super Formula is more for the honour and the pride, and for ourselves… Not for the money. But the competition level is very high. As you’ve seen this year with Stoffel [Vandoorne] who has dominated GP2, but he couldn’t dominate our race. The level of racing is that high. We’ve started to see some interest from young European drivers again.”
One thing that really stands out as a difference in Japanese racing is the dedication of the fans.
“That’s something which is exciting [about racing] in Japan. Every time the foreign drivers come to Japan to race, they are surprised by this. They are very loyal fans, at almost every race. There are fans for particular manufactures or drivers; the fanbase is very big in Japan.”
And with that, Kazuki is certain of the importance of the supporters trackside.
“Without the fans… [racing] doesn’t happen. The fanbase is very important to us and we give a lot of effort to expand it. That’s why we have two autograph sessions this weekend [at Fuji], instead of just one [as is the case at other venues]. We have to work hard to make [the WEC fanbase] even bigger. But it’s growing, so that’s a positive sign.”
Racing in Japan – highly competitive racing relevant to the marketplace; national motor manufacturers supporting local talent, potentially for their whole careers; events that are spectator friendly; and, finally, drivers and teams that understand the importance of growing that fanbase… It’s not rocket science, is it?
John Hindhaugh was writing exclusively for Mobil 1 The Grid. For more from John & Radio Le Mans, follow the team on Twitter (@RadioLeMans) and visit www.radiolemans.com. For a weekly round-up of news, discussion, interviews and analysis, you can also follow John’s Midweek Motorsport show (@Specutainment), which airs every Wednesday on the channel between 8pm-10pm GMT.