Super Formula: Champions that Raced in Formula One

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Japanese Formula One drivers Satoru Nakajima (Tyrrell-Ford, left) and Aguri Suzuki (Espo Larrousse) in discussion during a pre-season test at Jerez in 1990. Image sourced from kaneko hiroshi (@kaneko928) via Twitter.

In the land of the rising sun, Super Formula has always branded itself as a feeder series to Formula One.

Yet, it seems that only recently that those in Europe have started to take notice, helped by the recent involvement of drivers such as Stoffel Vandoorne and Pierre Gasly, as well as the Head of Red Bull’s junior programme, Dr. Helmut Marko.

However, a more detailed look into the history of Japan’s premier single-seater series shows us that this isn’t the case.

In fact, Super Formula has produced several recognisable names that went on to compete in F1.

So, with no further ado, here are the Super Formula champions that made it into Formula One and how varied their experiences were.

Satoru Nakajima: Five-time All-Japan Formula Two Champion

Satoru Nakajima driving for the John Player Special Team Ikuzawa outfit at Fuji Speedway during the 1982 All-Japan Formula Two Championship. Image Sourced from Pinterest.

Satoru Nakajima was a trailblazer as he became one of the first Japanese drivers to earn a full-time drive in Formula One and with good reason.

Joining what was then known as the All-Japan Formula Two Championship in 1977, Nakajima would spend a decade in the series he’d dominate emphatically.

Between 1977 and 1986, Nakajima finished on the podium 45 times – 21 of which were race wins – and would go on to become the Drivers’ Champion five times with i&i Racing (1981), Team Ikuzawa (1982) and Heros Racing (1984-86) respectively.

Having received backing from Honda during this period, the engine manufacturer placed Nakajima alongside Ayrton Senna at Lotus for the 1987 Formula One season hoping that their compatriot would be able to deliver some podiums finishes.

The previous year, Honda had attempted to get a seat for Satoru Nakajima alongside Nelson Piquet at Williams, but this was blocked by team owner Frank Williams, who believed that Nigel Mansell was the better choice in their pursuit for the Constructors’ Championship and that Nakajima would struggle in comparison.

Williams’ fears proved to be correct as 1987 unfolded, as while Senna would go on to take two victories at the street circuits in Monaco and Detroit respectively to end the year third in the Drivers’ Championship, while Nakajima struggled to keep up with his Lotus team-mate as his adapted to life in the pinnacle of motorsport.

The Japanese driver managed four points scoring finishes to end up a distant 12th in the standings with just seven points, with the highlights being his fourth place at Silverstone and sixth place at his home Grand Prix at Suzuka.

For 1988, Nakajima was joined by triple World Champion Nelson Piquet, whilst Senna left for the all-conquering McLaren-Honda partnership alongside Alain Prost.

Nakajima’s season got off to a good start with sixth in the Brazilian Grand Prix at Jacarepaguá, but as the year wore on things got worse and this would go on to be the only point he’d pick up.

Despite using the same specification engines as McLaren, both Piquet and Nakajima experienced reliability issues throughout the season, with the latter failing to qualify for the Monaco and Detroit Grand Prix.

Nakajima was retained for the 1989 season, despite Lotus losing their Honda engines and instead used the underpowered Judd V8’s.

Unsurprisingly, results did not improve, as the Japanese driver was unable to qualify for a further three races in 1989 and only collected three points, thanks to his fourth-place finish in the season finale at Adelaide.

Nakajima would then go to drive for the Cosworth-powered Tyrrell team in 1990 alongside the highly-rated Frenchman, Jean Alesi.

Once again, unreliability hampered his efforts and could manage a trio of sixth place finishes.

1991 saw Tyrrell replace the Ferrari-bound Alesi with Stefano Modena and receive support from Honda to keep Nakajima in the sport.

The partnership seemed to be fruitful when he finished fifth at the 1991 United States Grand Prix in Phoenix.

Yet, this proved to be a false dawn as Nakajima failed to score another point and left Formula One at the end of the season.

Since then, Satoru returned to Japan to continue running his racing team, Nakajima Racing in the Super Formula and Super GT Championships. He also has two sons who went on enter the world of motorsport.

Kazuki Nakajima is the more famous of the two brothers, having spent two years at Williams before becoming a two-time Super Formula champion and more recently, winning the famous Le Mans 24 Hour Race with Toyota.

The youngest brother, Daisuke Nakajima, has spent most of his career racing in Japan for Nakajima Racing in Super Formula.

Aguri Suzuki: 1988 Japanese Formula 3000 Champion

Aguri Suzuki driving for Footwork International in Japanese Formula 3000. Image sourced from Yamaha Motor Company.

Aguri Suzuki first entered the series as a wildcard towards the end of Satoru Nakajima’s era of supremacy in the mid-80’s.

When Suzuki joined the series on a full-time basis in 1987 with Footwork Racing International, it was re-branded as the Japanese Formula 3000 Championship and saw him win the final two races of the season to finish second in the Drivers’ Standings.

1988 saw Suzuki go one better as recorded three wins and a further three second places to beat Japanese legend Kazuyoshi Hoshino – owner of the famous Impul team – and Italian Emanuele Pirro to the Drivers’ title.

As a reward for his success, Suzuki was given a one-off drive with Larrousse for the 1988 Japanese Grand Prix before he landed a full-time seat with Zakspeed for the 1989 season.

The Zakspeed used a Yamaha V8 engine that only produced 560bhp; for context the power output of the engines used by front runners such as McLaren, Williams and Ferrari produced 700bhp.

Consequently, Suzuki failed to pre-qualify for any of the races that year and after the German team pulled out of Formula One, the Japanese driver found refugee with Larrousse for 1990.

When the car was able to finish, it finished well and helped Aguri Suzuki to an historic third place in the 1990 Japanese Grand Prix, which made him the first Asian driver to stand on an F1 podium.

Two further sixth places in Britain and Spain aided Suzuki to 12th in the Drivers’ Championship with six points.

1991 proved to be more difficult as an unreliable Cosworth engine restricted him to just one point for the whole season and left to reunite with Footwork for the next two years.

Despite the use of V10 Mugen-Honda engines, Suzuki was unable to develop on his early promise and failed to add to his tally.

Aguri Suzuki then drove for Jordan in the 1994 Pacific Grand Prix to replace the banned Eddie Irvine.

Five more appearances for the Honda-backed Ligier team in 1995 followed, with a best finish of sixth in that year’s German Grand Prix.

Once Suzuki’s F1 career had reached its zenith, he turned his attention to endurance racing with Nissan.

Suzuki would go on to achieve a best finish of third in the 1998 Le Mans 24 Hour race in the Nissan R390 GT1 with Kazuyoshi Hoshino and Masahiko Kageyama.

After this, Aguri Suzuki focused on team management and partnered up with long term sponsor Autobacs to form the Autobacs Racing Team Aguri (ARTA) in the Super GT Championship.

Suzuki would also form the Super Aguri F1 Team which entered the 2006 Formula One Season with Honda engines.

The team achieved some respectable results – most notably Takuma Sato’s sixth place finish at the 2007 Canadian Grand Prix – before they pulled out of the sport altogether in May 2008 due to financial troubles.

Suzuki also setup another racing team in Formula E under the name Team Aguri, which competed in the series for two years before being brought out by China Media Capital and renamed Techeetah.

Ukyo Katayama: 1991 All-Japan Formula 3000 Champion

The Lola-Cosworth of Ukyo Katayama won the 1991 Japanese Formula 3000 Championship for the Cabin Racing Team by 13 points. Image sourced from diariomotor.com

After competing in France during the mid-80’s, Ukyo Katayama returned to Japan in 1988 to race in Japanese Formula 3000.

After two years which yielded little success, Katayama joined the Heros-Racing Team for 1990, who were backed by Japanese tobacco brand Cabin.

The change resulted in an immediate rise of competitiveness, with Katayama claiming three podiums to finish fifth in the standings, before taking two wins in 1991 en route to winning the Drivers’ Championship.

Continued support from Cabin helped Katayama land a seat with Larrousse for the 1992 Formula One Season.

Although the car produced respectable lap times the car was unreliable, with Katayama’s progress not being helped by team-mate Bertrand Gachot receiving priority on new parts as the No.1 driver.

Regardless, Katayama ran in fifth place during the 1992 Canadian Grand Prix and was on course for his first points in F1, only for his engine to expire eight laps from the chequered flag.

With support from Mild Seven cigarettes – another Japan Tobacco Inc. brand – Katayama joined Andrea de Cesaris at Tyrrell for the 1993 campaign.

Armed with a Yamaha V10, the Japanese driver showed promise during his four years with Tyrrell, as he regularly outpaced his team-mates in raw pace.

However, the inability to keep the car on the tarmac held him back and should’ve scored more points.

Subsequently, a pair of fifth places in Brazil and San Marino at the beginning of 1995 would be the best he could manage for the British team.

In the build-up to 1995, it was rumoured that Mild Seven had tried to negotiate with Benetton to put Ukyo Katayama alongside Michael Schumacher, and pointed to the potential their countryman had shown in 1994.

Although it is unclear how far negotiations between the two parties got, Katayama opted to stay at Tyrrell.

It wasn’t until after he’d retired that Katayama revealed that he had cancer in his back during this time, but didn’t want this to be made public out of fear of people being sympathetic towards him.

After leaving Tyrrell at the end of 1996, Katayama took his Mild Seven sponsorship to Minardi for his swansong season in 1997, with the underpowered Hart engines preventing him from adding to his points tally.

Katayama then joined Toyota’s Le Mans effort in 1998 alongside Keiichi Tsuchiya and Toshio Suzuki aboard the Toyota GT-One.

During the 1999 edition of the famous endurance race, Katayama was running in second and set the fastest lap as he closed the gap down to less than a minute to the leading BMW.

However, the Japanese driver suffered a tyre failure on the Mulsanne straight and although he recovered to the pits for repairs and re-joined the race, the chance of a famous victory was gone.

Since retiring from motor racing, Ukyo Katayama spent time as an F1 commentator for Japanese TV and hosted the motoring programme, Samurai Wheels.

Furthermore, Katayama went on setup teams in Super GT, the Dakar Rally and Cycling, all of which competed under the name, Team Ukyo.

Ralf Schumacher: 1996 Formula Nippon Champion

X-Japan Racing Team Le Mans’ Naoki Hattori (left) and Ralf Schumacher pose with team members during the 1996 Formula Nippon season. Image sourced from Reddit.

Easily the most successful driver on this list, Ralf Schumacher had a good CV in the junior categories having won races in German Formula Three and the 1995 Macau Grand Prix for WTS Motorsport, which led to tests with McLaren.

In 1996, Schumi Jr. joined Team Le Mans in Formula Nippon and was remarkably consistent throughout the season.

This helped the young German challenge team-mate Naoki Hattori and Kazuyoshi Hoshino for the championship.

Six of Schumacher’s seven finishes were in the points, which included three victories and a further third place, and led Hattori by two points heading into the season finale at Fuji Speedway.

In a bizarre twist, torrential rainfall during the race meant many drivers failed to finish, including all three title contenders, which meant that Schumacher won the title.

As a result, the German was signed by Eddie Jordan to partner Giancarlo Fisichella for Jordan in the 1997 Formula One Season.

Aided by the Peugeot V10, Schumacher’s F1 debut saw strong performances – such as his third place in Argentina – overshadowed by clumsy errors such as the one he had with Sauber’s Johnny Herbert in Italy and ended up 11th in the Drivers’ Standings with 13 points.

Jordan used Mugen-Honda power for 1998 and saw the team achieve their first 1-2 finish at the 1998 Belgian Grand Prix, albeit with Schumacher in second due to politics regarding the German’s move to Williams for 1999.

Schumacher followed this up with a third-place finish in the Italian Grand Prix to improve to tenth in the championship on 14 points.

The move to Williams saw the younger of the Schumacher brothers demonstrate why he was a sought-after talent, as he out performed his CART championship-winning team-mate, Alessandro Zanardi.

With three more podiums, which included second place in the 1999 Italian Grand Prix, Ralf moved up to sixth in the standings on 35 points.

Moreover, he was also on course for his first Grand Prix victory during the chaotic 1999 European Grand Prix at the Nürburgring, only to pick up a tyre puncture and drop to fourth at the chequered flag.

Williams teamed up with BMW for the new millennium and allowed Ralf to be the best of the rest behind the dominant rivalry between Ferrari and McLaren, with another  three more podiums en route to fifth position in the Drivers’ Championship.

2001 saw Schumacher competing against another team-mate that had achieved success stateside – Juan Pablo Montoya.

Despite the Colombian’s raw pace, it was the German who came out on top. Three race wins, including a Canadian classic where Ralf outclassed the Ferrari of older brother Michael Schumacher, allowed him to finish in a career best of fourth place in the Drivers’ Championship.

Although 2002 got off to a good start with a win in Malaysia, the combination of Michael Schumacher and the Ferrari F2002 were untouchable. Furthermore, Montoya had settled into F1 and managed to outscored the German by eight points.

A new points system in 2003 provided Ralf with what would prove to be his best chance of becoming a Formula One World Champion and started the season with ten successive points finishes.

This culminated in back-to-back victories in the European and French Grand Prix to put him 11 points behind Michael Schumacher’s Ferrari in the championship standings.

However, failure to add to his tally at Silverstone was followed by a first lap incident with fellow title contenders Kimi Raikkonen (McLaren) and Rubens Barrichello (Ferrari) at Hockenheim, before a testing accident at Monza killed off his title challenge.

F1: Looking Back at the Dramatic 2003 Season

2004 was even worse for Schumi Jr as the Williams FW26 was difficult to drive thanks to its ‘walrus’ nose design and consequently hampered his results.

His season was then put on hold after a high-speed tyre failure during the 2004 United States Grand Prix, before he recovered to claim second in the inaugural Chinese Grand Prix.

Between 2005 and 2007, Schumacher moved to Toyota with little success. Three third-place finishes and a Pole Position in wet conditions for the 2005 Japanese Grand Prix were the only bright spots during a forgettable period.

At the end of 2007, Ralf Schumacher quit Formula One to join Mercedes in DTM and eventually retired from racing in 2012.

His son, David Schumacher, was runner-up in the 2017 WSK karting series and spent the majority of 2018 in the ADAC Formula 4 Championship.

Pedro de la Rosa: 1997 Formula Nippon Drivers’ Champion

Pedro de la Rosa collects the first place trophy for his victory at Fuji Speedway during the 1997 Formula Nippon season. Image sourced from targina.net

Like Ralf Schumacher before him, Pedro de la Rosa also possessed a strong reputation in the junior formulas.

De la Rosa won the Spanish Formula Fiat series in 1989 and Spanish Formula Ford the following year.

The Spaniard added to this with success in the British and International Formula Renault Championships in 1992 and the 1995 All-Japan Formula Three Drivers’ Championship for Team TOM’s.

Pedro de la Rosa made his Formula Nippon debut in 1996 for Team Nova and was amongst the midfield runners for much of the season.

He went on to end the campaign in eighth place thanks to his second-place finish in monsoon conditions during the season finale at Fuji Speedway.

In 1997, de la Rosa obliterated the competition and finished all ten races on the podium.

This included six wins which allowed the Spaniard to cruise to the Drivers’ Championship on 82 points; for context, second placed driver Takuya Kurosawa only managed to score 28 points.

That same year, he also won the Japanese Grand Touring Car Championship (JGTC) alongside Michael Krumm for Team TOM’s; making de la Rosa one of only four drivers to date to have won the Formula Nippon and JGTC titles in the same year.

De la Rosa received backing from Repsol in 1998 and became the test driver for Jordan, before landing a full-time seat with Arrows for 1999.

His two-years with the team were hampered by unreliability and a lack of stability within the team and could only managed three sixth place finishes.

After being replaced by Red Bull junior Enrique Bernoldi, de la Rosa spent the 2001 and 2002 seasons at Jaguar next to Eddie Irvine.

Not much changed in terms of race results for the Spanish driver, with his best result being a fifth-place finish during the 2001 Italian Grand Prix.

After leaving Jaguar, de la Rosa would once again become a test driver, this time for McLaren.

This would eventually provide him with opportunities, firstly when Juan Pablo Montoya injured himself and had to miss the 2005 Bahrain Grand Prix, where de la Rosa would go on to claim fifth place.

When Montoya decided to quit F1 midway through 2006, de la Rosa was elevated to into the cockpit, and repaid the faith shown in him as he finished second in the 2006 Hungarian Grand Prix.

Even though he’d scored 19 points in a respectable seven races, de la Rosa was demoted to the test driver role and would stay with McLaren until the end of 2009, despite his involvement in the 2007 Spygate scandal.

The Spaniard was then given one more chance in F1 with Sauber 2010, but was replaced by Nick Heidfeld due to a lack of performance.

He’d make one more appearance for the Swiss team during the 2011 Canadian Grand Prix to replace the injured Sergio Perez before spending his final season with backmarkers HRT in 2012.

Pedro de la Rosa returned to the test driver role once more, first with Scuderia Ferrari between 2013 and 2014 and then with Team Aguri during Season Two of the FIA Formula E Championship.

More recently, Pedro has worked with the DS Techeetah team as a Technical and Sporting advisor.

Ralph Firman: 2002 Formula Nippon Drivers’ Champion

Ralph Firman punches the air in delight after securing the 2002 Formula Nippon Drivers’ Championship for PIAA Nakajima Racing. Image sourced from Imgrum.

After his father Ralph Firman Sr. co-founded the race car constructor Van Diemen International with Ross Ambrose, it only seemed natural for Ralph Firman to enter the world of motorsport.

The Irishman experienced success early on in single-seaters, winning nine races of the 1993 Formula Vauxhall Junior Championship for Team JLR to take the title, despite a mid-season injury to his ankle caused by a cycling accident.

As a result, he was named as the winner of the McLaren Autosport BRDC Award at the end of the season.

The following year, Firman ended up fourth in the Vauxhall Lotus series before going on to spend the 1995 and 1996 seasons with Paul Stewart Racing in the British Formula Three Championship.

Racing against recognisable names such as Oliver Gavin, Helio Castroneves and Juan Pablo Montoya, Firman was a regular race winner and went on to win the Drivers’ title at the second attempt. 1996 also saw him win the Macau Grand Prix ahead of Jarno Trulli, albeit in controversial circumstances.

In 1997, he went to Japan to and entered Formula Nippon with Team TMS and finished second at Sportsland SUGO to end the season eighth in the standings.

Firman would then spend the next three years in the series with Team Nova and added six podium finishes to his tally, which included victory in the 1999 season finale at Suzuka.

In 2001, a move to Nakajima Racing saw him record back-to-back wins at Motegi and Suzuka respectively at the close of the campaign, but a string of retirements earlier on in the year prevented him from mounting a title challenge.

However, everything came together in 2002, with eight podiums – four of which were race wins – allowed Firman to pip Satoshi Motoyama to the Drivers’ Championship by just two points. As a reward, he was given the opportunity to test for BAR-Honda team.

During his six years in Japan, Firman spent four of those in Super GT, with his most successful also taking place in 2002 for Nakajima Racing. Partnered by Tsugio Matsuda, their Honda NSX would win three times that year, only to miss out on the GT500 title to the Toyota Supra of Team Le Mans’ Akira Iida and Juichi Wakisaka by a single point.

2003 saw Firman finally get his opportunity to drive in Formula One, as he joined Giancarlo Fisichella at Jordan.

Over the course of the season, the Irishman experienced rotten luck with reliability and suffered a suspension failure during the 2003 Brazilian Grand Prix, which Fisichella would go on to famously win.

Firman would go on to score his only point of the season with eighth place in Spain before he experienced another high-speed crash at Hungary.

A rear wing failure at around 150mph briefly knocked Firman unconscious and consequently put him on the side lines for two races with a concussion and a fractured heel.

At the end of the season, Firman lost his seat to Giorgio Pantano for 2004 and after a one-year sabbatical, he returned to Japan and raced for Aguri Suzuki’s ARTA outfit in Super GT.

During his nine-year spell with the team, Firman would win the 2007 GT500 title alongside Daisuke Ito in a Honda NSX and retired from racing at the end of the 2013 season.

Since then, Firman has gone on to run a British engineering company based near Snetterton, in his home county of Norfolk.

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