The Ben Evans Column: Go East

Oliver Jarvis, A1 Grand Prix, Sepang, 2006Oliver Jarvis had an excellent debut season in British Formula Three last year, sneaking past the hotly-tipped Bruno Senna to claim second in the title behind Mike Conway.

But although many expected to see him continue in the British season for another year he’s defected to the Japanese series. Why?

Actually the quetion should by ‘why not’ – because the Japanese scene has proved an excellent proving ground for F1 talent.

Perhaps the golden era for European drivers in Japan was the early to mid 1990’s where it seemed as if you had to have raced in Japanese F3000 to get into F1: Mika Salo, Ralf Schumacher and Eddie Irvine were the highest profile graduates.

More recently, Adrian Sutil landed a race seat at Spyker for this season after winning the Japanese F3 series last year.

Indeed it’s arguable the Japanese F3000 series produced more top line F1 drivers than the FIA-sanctioned International F300 championship in that period. Japan seemed to be churning out race winners on a regular basis, while the FIA series amongst others provided F1 with the likes of Taki Inoue and Jean-Marc Gounon.

Why was Japan such a successful proving ground for young talent?

Unlike 99% of European motorsport, most drivers in Japan get paid, and get paid well. To illustrate – Eddie Irvine was reluctant to take one off ‘rent a drives’ with Jordan because he was earning so much in Japan he had no incentive to try and break into F1.

Also the investment in racing at that time was such that it outstripped racing at a similar level in Europe. F3 races were dominated by works cars from Toyota and Mugen, while the F3000 series had substantial backing and was played out in front of huge crowds of devoted fans.

This made a stark contrast to European F3 and F3000 races where marshals, mechanics and family members plus their pets provide the bulk of the attendees.

Today the competition in Japan is intense with a number of experienced locals providing ample challenge to any foreign youngsters. Anyone who has seen a Formula Nippon race on Sky Sports will testify to this. To succeed in Formula Nippon or Japanese F3 is a good indicator sign of talent and adaptability.

Strangely, although Japanese single seater racing has produced a number of cracking F1 drivers (and Ralf Schumacher) it has not produced many home grown talents, and certainly none that have easily made the transition to F1.

Takuma Sato, clearly, the best Japanese F1 driver to date, did his motorsport schooling in the UK. But compatriots Satoru Nakajima and Tora Takagi, genuine Japanese F3000 talents fared poorly in F1.

Certainly in Takagi’s case the culture shock of moving to a traditional English team was felt to be too great, and he didn’t help matters by refusing to learn English.

Yet drivers such as Jacques Villeneuve immersed themselves in Japanese culture when racing there (as Oliver Jarvis seems keen to), and this enjoyment of the lifestyle translated into racing success.

Sebastian Vettel, F3 Euroseries, Hockenheimring, 2006In a sport where money equals track time and success Japan is an attractive option for non-Red Bull funded drivers and those who do not benefit from the kind of backing McLaren bestowed upon Lewis Hamilton.

Although it is not the goldmine it was a decade ago, for a number of European drivers (Richard Lyons, Andre Lotterer) it is still a hugely attractive, and lucrative, racing alternative and hopefully it will continue to provide an avenue for talented drivers like Oliver Jarvis to ply their trade.

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