This year’s Japanese GP to lack local driver, engine for first time ever at Suzuka

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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.

MRTI: Keith Donegan earns Mazda Shootout Scholarship

Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography
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Dublin, Ireland’s Keith Donegan claimed a $200K scholarship from Mazda after emerging victorious at the second annual Mazda Road to Indy Shootout. The 20-year-old Donegan earned an at-large nomination for the scholarship based on his performance at this year’s Formula Ford Festival, in which he finished second in the final, and emerged from a pack of 17 drivers from across the globe to claim the scholarship.

“It really hasn’t hit me yet,” said an emotional Donegan, who earlier in his career actually spent two years away from racing as he focused on academics. “The weekend was really good and I enjoyed it. I have to say a huge thanks to Mazda and Cooper Tires and everyone at the Mazda Road to Indy. I enjoyed every moment. Throughout the weekend we were consistent and I kept the small things in check. I didn’t make any stupid mistakes and kept my head cool and that really paid off in the end.”

The two-day shootout was held at the Bondurant Racing School in Arizona and saw the nominated drivers tackle the school’s 1.6-mile circuit in Formula Mazda race cars before facing on and off-track assessments. Donegan was selected by a panel of judges that included former driver and current Verizon IndyCar Series TV analyst Scott Goodyear, Mazda drivers Tom Long, Andrew Carbonell, and Jonathan Bomarito, as well as Victor Franzoni – the current champion of the Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires – and Oliver Askew, the current champion of the Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda.

Donegan was humbled to be in the presence of drivers who have won scholarships and championships previously, and added that he is grateful to have the opportunity to continue his racing career.

“You see all these champions here today that will go on to great things in the future and I’m sure the names you see here today aren’t going to disappear,” Donegan added. “They will be back up there and I’m sure I will be racing them again some day. It is an unbelievable opportunity to be given and for Mazda to provide that for any young driver. It just gives that bit of motivation that you need because the [U.S.] is where you need to go to become a professional these days. It is such a boost to my career.”

Donegan is now slated to join the 2018 USF2000 championship, with further announcements regarding the team with whom he’ll be racing to come in the future.

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