F1: Japanese F1 Drivers – A potted history

Yuki Tsunoda is the first Japanese driver on the F1 grid in seven years. He shone on his debut, scoring points in the 2021 Bahrain Grand Prix. © Lars Baron/Getty Images

For the first time since 2014, Japan has a competitor on the Formula One starting grid.

Rookie Yuki Tsunoda is the 21st driver from his country to reach the pinnacle of motorsport. He has already impressed in the Scuderia AlphaTauri team.

Tsunoda scored points on an impressive debut in Bahrain and looks the standout of the three racers making their F1 bow so far this season.

From Takuma Sato and Aguri Suzuki to no-hopers like Hideki Noda and Yuji Ide, Japan has a chequered history when it comes to drivers.

Here’s a potted history of the country’s successful stories and drivers who were quickly forgotten about.

Early starters

Japan’s early starters in the sport were Hiroshi Fushida and Masahrio Hasemi. Both had a brief flirtation with F1 in the 1970s.

Fushida qualified for the 1975 Dutch Grand Prix but never made it to the starting grid. A blown engine meant he didn’t participate.

Hasemi became the first Japanese driver to reach the grid. He started only once; on home soil at Fuji in 1976.

He finished seven laps down but crossed the line 11th in appalling conditions.

Several other drivers had one-off events, including Kunimitsu Takahashi who finished ninth on home soil in 1977.

It wasn’t until the late 1980’s though that there became a more serial competitor from The Land of the Rising Sun.

Nakajima the breakthrough

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. © Kaneko Hiroshi.

The big breakthrough star for Japanese motorsport was Satoru Nakajima.

A five-time champion in the series now known as Super Formula, Nakajima was heavily backed by Honda. Subsequently, the manufacturer pushed to get him at Williams for 1987 at the expense of Nigel Mansell.

Ultimately though, this manouvere was vetoed by team owner Frank Williams. Instead, Nakajima was given a seat at Team Lotus alongside the legendary Ayrton Senna.

His arrival also culminated with a return for the Japanese Grand Prix to the Honda-owned Suzuka circuit.

The famous figure of eight racetrack has since seen many championship deciders.

Until the COVID-hit 2020 season, Japan had always held a Grand Prix from 1987 onwards.

Nakajima’s career in F1 was mediocre to say the least. Nevertheless, his arrival got fans in the country excited.

In only his second race, he scored points and his best-ever finish was a fourth-place result at the 1989 Australian Grand Prix.

In terrible conditions at Adelaide, Nakajima sparkled with his car control and set the fastest lap of the race.

After 80 races and five seasons, he called it a day at the end of 1991, having also competed for Tyrrell alongside his stint with Lotus.

Suzuki’s shock podium

Aguri Suzuki made history when he became the first Asian driver to finish on a Formula One podium following the 1990 Japanese Grand Prix. © Pascal Rondeau/Getty Images Europe

Japanese drivers have achieved three podiums in Formula One history; two of them have come at Suzuka.

In 1990, Aguri Suzuki drove his under-powered Larrousse Lamborghini to a shock third-place finish, behind the Benetton pair of Nelson Piquet and Roberto Moreno.

It was a stunning achievement from Suzuki, who often had a habit of overstepping the mark and finding the barriers during race weekends.

That was Suzuki’s greatest achievement. He would also race for Zakspeed, Footwork, Jordan and Ligier and went on to briefly own his own team in the mid-2000s.

Whilst Nakajima and Suzuki were making their mark, other Japanese drivers were often signed to pay the bills for struggling teams.

Larrousse were a team that often took on highly-financially backed Japanese drivers. In 1993, Toshio Suzuki raced twice and finished both his Grand Prix starts.

Hideki Noda got three chances in 1994 when Larrousse started to operate a revolving door policy around its drivers!

Noda was haplessly out of his depth. He failed to finish any of his three races.

Unlucky Ukyo

Ukyo Katayama was well-liked by his fellow drivers and the media.

His tally of five points from 95 races was a poor return for a driver with much more talent around him.

Like Suzuki before him, Katayama did often overdrive the equipment he had at his disposal.

Nevertheless, he did show natural speed on several occasions, most notably in 1994.

He finished fifth in Brazil and at the fateful San Marino Grand Prix and sixth at Silverstone.

Katayama also qualified a fine fifth for the German and Hungarian races.

Unfortunately, he couldn’t back these efforts up on raceday.

Having avoided the mass 10-car first lap pile-up at Hockenheim; a stuck throttle forced Katayama out of third place on the sixth circuit.

In Hungary, he got into a second bend tangle with the Jordan pair of Eddie Irvine and Rubens Barrichello. All three were instant retirements.

Ukyo was unlucky. He failed to finish 12 of the 16 races in 1994, largely down to poor reliability from his Tyrrell Yamaha machinery.

He soldiered on until 1997, announcing his retirement at the season’s end to take up his other hobby in climbing mountains.

Mugen-backed Shinji Nakano scored two points in 1997 for Prost but probably produced better performances in a slow Minardi in 1998.

Nakano nearly beat Damon Hill’s Jordan in Monaco, finishing within touching distance of the 1996 world champion. He also finished just outside the points in Montreal.

Tora Takagi also raced in this period but didn’t trouble the scorers for Tyrrell in 1998 and Arrows in 1999.

The lively Sato

Takuma Sato attacks and overtakes reigning champion Fernando Alonso in a much-faster McLaren at the 2007 Canadian Grand Prix. Sato remains the highest Japanese points scorer in F1 history. © Formula One Management

The best-ever finish by a Japanese driver in the world championship was by Takuma Sato, who finished eighth in the final standings in 2004.

After a crash-laden debut season with Jordan in 2002, Sato returned full-time with BAR in 2004 alongside Jenson Button.

A series of early-season engine failures could have zapped his morale.

However, Sato often qualified well and finished fourth at Monza and on home soil at Suzuka.

His best performance came at Indianapolis, outqualifying his teammate and producing some stunning overtakes to finish on the podium behind the all-conquering Ferraris.

Sato’s performances were often lively.

After a nightmare 2005 which saw him muster just a solitary point, he stayed in F1 with the newly-formed Super Aguri team.

He battled the odds with some giant-killing performances, most notably a sixth-place finish in Canada in 2007.

That event saw him overtake reigning champion Fernando Alonso in the closing exchanges.

Since his F1 days ended when Super Aguri folded, Sato has had success in Indycars and has won the Indianapolis 500 event twice.

King Kamui

Whilst Sato was shining, Yuji Ide most certainly did not.

Sadly, he must rank among one of the worst-ever drivers to compete in Formula One.

His career with Super Aguri lasted four races before having his FIA Superlicense revoked in 2006.

A spectacular crash at Imola with Christjian Albers didn’t help.

Neither Sakon Yamamoto, nor Kazuki Nakajima sparkled in their brief F1 tenures but Kamui Kobayashi certainly did.

Substituting for an injured Timo Glock at Toyota for the last two races in 2009, Kobayashi impressed, finishing sixth in Abu Dhabi.

Toyota withdrew after 2009 because of the financial credit crunch but Kobayashi remained in F1 with Sauber.

He spent three seasons with the Swiss team. The high was scoring an emotional and popular podium on his home track at Suzuka in 2012.

He returned with Caterham in 2014.

His finish in the 2014 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix was the last for a Japanese racer until Tsunoda’s appearance in the paddock this season.

With Tsunoda on the rise and a new contract recently agreed with the promoters of the Suzuka race, the future of Japanese motorsport in Formula One looks very bright.

Tsunoda fits the model DNA of his previous incumbents.

He’s fast, polite in the media and exciting. His progress in his debut season will be intriguing to watch.