Formula One returned to Japan in 1987 after a 10-year absence with its debut at the Honda-owned Suzuka Circuit and every year since, has had either a Japanese driver or a Japanese engine manufacturer to root for. Often times, both. In 2013, tragically, that’s not the case.
With last year’s Suzuka third-place finisher Kamui Kobayashi gone to the FIA World Endurance Championship, the Japanese won’t have any driver to root for in this year’s Japanese Grand Prix. Not having a home engine to root for either makes for a double blow to a fervent Formula One fan base; there’s no Honda until 2015 when it returns with McLaren, and Toyota has long since left the building after its eight-year underperforming run.
The last Japanese GP at Suzuka ran without one of its native sons was in 2001. Although there wasn’t a true Japanese driver in the field, the spiritual hero that day was Jean Alesi, in his 201st and last grand prix. Alesi’s Japanese wife made him a crowd favorite; it also didn’t hurt he was driving a Jordan with Honda power. Unfortunately, an early race collision with then-rookie Kimi Raikkonen took him out of the race.
In the two off years of 2000 and 2001 without Japanese drivers, there was Japanese engine participation in the form of Honda.
Since the 2001 race, Takuma Sato (2002-’07), Sakon Yamamoto (2006-’07, ’10), Kazuki Nakajima (2008-’09) and Kobayashi (2010-’12) have flown the flag in the “Land of the Rising Sun.” Sato’s fifth in 2002 for Jordan – as Alesi’s replacement, no less – was also a high point along with Kobayashi’s podium.
When you go back into the ‘90s, names like Toranosuke Takagi (1998-’99), Ukyo Katayama (1992-’97), Shinji Nakano (1997-’98), Taki Inoue (1994-’95), Hideki Noda (1994), Satoru Nakajima (1987-’91), Toshio Suzuki (1993) and the legendary Aguri Suzuki (1988-’93, ’95) were all in the field. Suzuki’s third at Suzuka in 1990 was the original high-water mark.
Suzuki also dipped his toes back into F1 with the popular, underdog Super Aguri team – which fielded Sato and Yamamoto in 2006, and Sato and Anthony Davidson in 2007.
In a new era of F1 populated by tracks designed by Hermann Tilke, Suzuka is a true throwback in the second half of the season. The track is celebrated by fans and drivers alike; it’s a shame that this year, the local fans won’t have one of their own to support.