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.

Super Formula has been helped by the recent successes drivers of Stoffel Vandoorne and Pierre Gasly. In addition, the Head of Red Bull’s junior programme, Dr. Helmut Marko, has expressed his interest in the series.

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.

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 and was the first Japanese drivers to earn a full-time drive in Formula One.

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.

During this period, Nakajima finished on the podium 45 times; 21 of which were wins.

Subsequently, he 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 at Lotus for the 1987 Formula One season.

It was clear that Honda were hopeful that their compatriot would be able to deliver some podiums finishes alongside Ayrton Senna

The previous year, Honda had unsuccessfully attempted to get a seat for Nakajima alongside Nelson Piquet at Williams.

However, this was blocked by team owner Frank Williams, who believed that Nigel Mansell was the better choice in their pursuit for the Constructors’ Championship. In addition, Williams also believed that Nakajima would struggle in F1.

These fears would prove to be correct as the 1987 season unfolded.

While Senna would go on to take two victories in Monaco and Detroit respectively, Nakajima struggled to keep up.

The Japanese driver managed four top six finishes to end up with just seven points, compared to Senna’s 57. This included 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 prove to be his only point of the year.

Despite using the same specification engines as McLaren, both Piquet and Nakajima experienced reliability issues throughout the season. On top of this, Nakajima failed to qualify for the Monaco and Detroit Grand Prix.

Regardless, Nakajima was retained for the 1989 season, with Lotus losing their Honda engines and instead used the under-powered Judd V8’s.

Results did not improve, as the Japanese driver was unable to qualify for a further three races in 1989. Because of this, Nakajima only collected three points 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 claimed fifth at the 1991 United States Grand Prix in Phoenix.

Once again, this was another 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, having raced for Williams in F1. Since then, he has become a two-time Super Formula champion and more recently, won the Le Mans 24 Hours 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 Copyright 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. There, he won the final two races of the season to finish second in the Drivers’ Standings.

1988 saw Suzuki go one better with three wins and a further three second places to beat Japanese legend Kazuyoshi Hoshino and Italy’s 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. After this, he landed a full-time seat with Zakspeed for the 1989 Formula One 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. 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. This helped Aguri Suzuki to an historic third place in the 1990 Japanese Grand Prix, and made him the first Asian driver to stand on an F1 podium.

Two further sixth places in Britain and Spain helpeded 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. As a result, Suzuki left Larrouse 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 points tally.

Suzuki returned for Jordan in 1994 to replace the banned Eddie Irvine in that year’s Pacific Grand Prix. Five more appearances for the Honda-powered Ligier team in 1995 followed, with a best finish of sixth in the 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 finish 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 Formula One Season in 2006 with Honda engines.

The team achieved some respectable results, most notably Takuma Sato’s sixth place finish at the 2007 Canadian Grand Prix. The team then 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. They spent two seasons in the series, 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. The next year, two wins helped him to win the Drivers’ Championship.

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

Although the car produced respectable lap times, the car was unreliable. Alongside this, Katayama’s progress wasn’t being helped by team-mate Bertrand Gachot receiving priority 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. Unfortunately, his engine expired 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 season.

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.

Although it is unclear how far negotiations between the two parties got, it wasn’t until after he’d retired that Katayama made this revelation.

Katayama would explain 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 backing to Minardi for 1997. In what would prove to be his swansong season, the under-powered 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 with the famous Toyota GT-One.

During the 1999 race, Katayama was running in second and set the fastest lap as he closed the gap down to the BMW by less than a minute.However, he suffered a tyre failure on the Mulsanne straight.

Although he recovered to the pits for repairs and re-joined the race, the chance of 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.

‘Schumi Jr.’ had won races in German Formula Three and the 1995 Macau Grand Prix for WTS Motorsport, which led to tests with McLaren.

In 1996, he 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 Ralf’s seven finishes were in the points, which included three victories and a further third place. As they headed to Fuji Speedway for the season finale, Ralf led Hattori by two points, with Hoshino a further seven points adrift.

In a bizarre twist, torrential rainfall during the race meant many drivers failed to finish. Surprisingly, this included all three title contenders and meant that the German 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. He claimed his maiden podium in Argentina, albeit after an crash with team-mate Fisichella.

Similar incidents overshadowed his season 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. However, Schumacher finished second due to team politics regarding the his 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. That year, he out-performed former CART champion Alessandro Zanardi and scored three more podiums, to claim 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.

Bad luck occured when he picked up a tyre puncture and dropped to fourth at the chequered flag.

Williams teamed up with BMW for the new millennium and allowed Ralf to shine behind the dominant rivalry between Ferrari and McLaren. Three more podiums followed en route to fifth 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 Ferrari 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.

Having started the season with ten successive points finishes, Ralf claimed back-to-back victories in Europe and France respectively. This left him 11 points behind Michael Schumacher’s Ferrari in the championship.

After this though, his title changes began to unravel. Failure to score points at Silverstone was followed by a first lap incident with fellow title contenders Kimi Raikkonen (McLaren) and Rubens Barrichello (Ferrari) at Hockenheim.

His title challenge was then ended after a testing accident at Monza forced Ralf to miss two races.

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. Ralf would return to claim second in the inaugural Chinese Grand Prix.

Between 2005 and 2007, Schumacher moved to Toyota with little success. Three third-podiums and a Pole Position 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 (centre) 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.

De la Rosa then moved to Japan and won the All-Japan Formula Three Drivers’ Championship for Team TOM’s in 1995. Subsequently, he moved up to Formula Nippon in 1996 with Team Nova and established himself amongst the midfield.

De la Rosa ended the campaign in eighth place, thanks to his second-place finish in the dramatic season finale at Fuji Speedway.

In 1997, de la Rosa shifted up a gear and obliterated the competition. Finishing all ten races on the podium – six of which were wins – the Spaniard cruised to the Drivers’ Championship on 82 points.

For context, second placed 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. This allowed De la Rosa to join an exclusive club.

To date, he is only one of four drivers to have won both the Formula Nippon/Super Formula and JGTC/Super GT titles in the same season.

This success saw him receive backing from Repsol in 1998 and became the test driver for Jordan. He then landed an F1 drive with Arrows for the 1999 season.

His two years with the team were hampered by unreliability and a lack of stability within the team. Despite this, he still managed three sixth place finishes.

After being replaced by Enrique Bernoldi, de la Rosa joined Eddie Irvine at Jaguar.

Not much changed in terms of race results for the Spanish driver, with a best result of fifth at 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, such as when Juan Pablo Montoya injured himself in 2005. De la Rosa would go on equall his best finish of fifth place in that year’s Bahrain Grand Prix.

When Montoya decided to quit F1 midway through 2006, de la Rosa was elevated to into the cockpit. The Spaniard 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. Despite his involvement in the 2007 Spygate scandal, he would stay at McLaren until the end of 2009.

He was then given one more chance in F1 with Sauber 2010, but was replaced by Nick Heidfeld due to a lack of race pace.

He’d make one more appearance for the Swiss team during the 2011 Canadian Grand Prix to replace the injured Sergio Perez. His final season in F1 was spend racing for backmarkers HRT in 2012.

Pedro de la Rosa returned to the test driver role once more, first with Scuderia Ferrari between 2013 and 2014. He then joined 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, and won the 1993 Formula Vauxhall Junior Championship for Team JLR, with nine race wins. This is made more impressive by the fact he suffered a mid-season injury to his ankle.

As a result, he won the McLaren Autosport BRDC Award at the end of the season. Firman then finished fourth in the 1994 Vauxhall Lotus series.

In 1995, he entered the British Formula Three Championship with Paul Stewart Racing. Competing against recognisable names such as Oliver Gavin, Helio Castroneves and Juan Pablo Montoya, Firman was a regular race winner.

He won the Drivers’ title at the second attempt in 1996, and also won that year’s Macau Grand Prix ahead of Jarno Trulli. However, the race victory was tainted due to controversy surrounding a collision between the two drivers.

In 1997, Firman went to Japan to and entered Formula Nippon with Team TMS. The Irishman finished second at Sportsland SUGO finished 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. His also recorded his first victory during 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. On the other hand. several 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. However, he missed out on the GT500 title to 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. This 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. After taking 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. He then retired from racing at the end of the 2013 season.

Firman now runs a British engineering company based near Snetterton, in his home county of Norfolk.

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