Japan’s Honda engines have won 72 Grands Prix in over two decades of F1 competition. Another Japanese F1 product, Bridgestone tyres, which officially made their first appearance in the series in 1997, have 138 wins.
But when will a Japanese driver make it to the top step of the podium? In a two-part series guest writer Andrew Tsvyk looks at the men who have tried.
Japanese cars and engines made their first appearance in F1 in the sixties but another decade passed until the pinnacle of motosport attracted the Japanese drivers. The first of the racers from the Land of the Rising Sun to try his luck in Grand Prix racing was Hiroshi Fushida.
Born on March 10, 1946 in the family of the country’s biggest kimono producer, Hiroshi had enough cash to fund his racing forays. But unlike most of the pay drivers, Fushida became a very complete racer before attempting to make a transition to Formula 1.
Unfortunately, the native of Kyoto was unable to start the 1975 Dutch Grand Prix, his first-ever F1 race, due to a blown engine on his Maki and failed to qualify for his second Grand Prix outing in Great Britain. The British Grand Prix was also the last time Hiroshi’s name figured on a Formula 1 entry list.
Despite failing to take part in a single event, Hiroshi Fushida has his rightful place in the record books for being the first driver from Japan to go F1 racing, paving the way for many of his compatriots that would soon follow…
Masahiro Hasemi is famous for being the last driver from Japan to win his home Grand Prix. However that was in 1975, one year before the race became a world championship event.
Nevertheless, that did no harm to Hasemi’s reputation of being one of the best racing drivers in Japan. As a result, Masahiro was entered for Japan’s first-ever Formula One event at Fuji – and he did not disappoint…
Driving a Kojima KE007, Masahiro was fourth fastest in the first session, which was a terrific result. Unfortunately, the Japanese driver had a crash in qualifying, but the time he had set was good enough for tenth spot, a great result for a rookie driving a new car.
The race was run in appalling conditions and saw many retirements. Only 11 drivers were classified, with Hasemi among them. A poor start did not help Masahiro’s progress, as he dropped out of the top ten and spent the race battling among the minnows. Hasemi’s race ended with seven laps to go as a result of a blown Cosworth engine. Nevertheless, this did not prevent the Kojima driver from setting the fastest lap of the race.
Masahiro Hasemi would never participate in another Grand Prix, concentrating on local championships instead. He would keep racing till 2001, winning in everything from Formula 2 to JGTC.
Today the Hasemi name is still present in the world of autoracing, as Masahiro runs a JGTC Nissan team, Hasemi Sport.
Read more about the 1976 Japanese Grand Prix: 1976 Japanese Grand Prix flashback
The 25 year-old Noritake Takahara was one of the three local racers to participate in the inaugural Japanese Grand Prix in 1976. A couple of years earlier, Noritake made an attempt to get into F1, racing in junior categories in Europe in 1973. Unfortunately, Takahara’s program was very limited and the Japanese driver failed to impress the Formula 1 establishment.
However, Noritake was invited to take part in the 1974 International Trophy at Silverstone. Driving a March, the Japanese racer had a solid race and finished eleventh, only a lap behind the initial winner, James Hunt.
In 1976 John Surtees recruited Takahara to drive one of his TS19 at the Japanese GP. Qualifying went poorly for the local star, as he could only manage 24th fastest time, but in the race Noritake progressed steadily and finished in ninth spot.
Takahara came be back to Fuji Speedway in the following year with Kojima, racing their old car, the KE007. Qualifying resulted in nothing special and the race was even worse, as Noritake was eliminated in the first lap incident.
A native of Shizuoka, Kozuyoshi won several motorcycle championships before Nissan persuaded him to try four wheels. Hoshino did not disappoint and was immediately among the leaders, earning himself “the fastest guy in Japan” nickname in the process.
This status obliged to enter the inaugural Japanese Grand Prix, held at Fuji Speedway. Driving for Heros Racing, Kozuyoshi raced an old Tyrrell 007. The team also used Bridgestone tyres in the Grand Prix, which marked the Japanese company’s Formula 1 debut, though its products would not be regularly used for another 20 years.
Hoshino’s pace put him just 21st on the grid, which must have been a bit disappointing for “the fastest guy in Japan” as some of his compatriots were ahead.
Unfortunately for Kozuyoshi, the trend continued in the race, and the Japanese star had to call it a day on lap 27 as a result of tyre problems.
Nevertheless, Hoshino’s pace was rather strong in the early stages of the race, as the Japanese racer stormed through the field. Eighth at the end of lap one, Kozuyoshi was running as high as third before retiring.
“The fastest guy in Japan” returned to Fuji in 1977 and made it to the chequered flag in 11th position at the wheel of a Heros Racing-entered Kojima KE009.
It is a great shame that Hoshino never had a full-time drive in Grand Prix racing. Given the amount of success Kozuyoshi enjoyed in his homeland, we may only wonder what “the fastest guy in Japan” may have achieved in the World Championship.
With Fuji Speedway’s demise form the world championshp calendar, the Japanese interest in Formula 1 waned. But a decade after the last Grand Prix had been held on Japanese soil, Satoru Nakajima made his Formula 1 debut in Brazil at the wheel of a Lotus.
By that time Honda had become a major player in Grand Prix racing and had their say when Team Lotus were thinking about Ayrton Senna’s partner for the 1987 season. Of course, the 24 year-old native of Okazaki was not on the same planet with Senna in terms of speed, but nobody expected him to be.
Nakajima scored a point in his second F1 race, the San Marino Grand Prix, where he finished sixth. This was followed by a fine fifth at Spa and fourth at Silverstone. Another point score came at Suzuka, his home race. As a result, Satoru finished the year with seven points, but that was 50 points less than Senna managed.
However, Honda was more than interested in having a driver from Japan in one of their teams, so Satoru was retained by Lotus or the 1988 season. Frank Williams famously refused to have the pay driver in his team, and lost his Honda engine deal as a result.
Nakajima started 1988 strongly with a sixt-at Rio de Janeiro, but this would prove to be his only points score result of the season. Team-mate Piquet, meanwhile, did not have the best year either, but the three-times world champion did outscore Nakajima 22-1.
Nakajima stayed for another season with Lotus. But 1989 proved to be another difficult year for the Hethel-based team, as the Lotus 101 was not among the world-beaters and with Honda discontinuing the engine supply, horse power was insufficient either. Nelson Piquet remained as the leading driver but even in his hands the 101 was uncompetitive.
The Brazilian could only manage 12 points, while Satoru Nakajima’s contribution was a fourth-place finish at the season finale in Adelaide. However he impressed at the Adelaide race by setting fastest lap in the terrible wet conditions.
While the result did not earn Nakajima a new contract with Lotus, thanks to his Honda connections Satoru was not left without a drive in F1. Tyrrell became Nakajima’s new home for 1990, as the team from Ockham wanted to get Honda engines.
Satoru scored a point in Phoenix, on his debut for the team and repeated that result at Suzuka at the end of the season. Team-mate Jean Alesi scored two podiums for the team, while Satoru could only manage two points.
The following season was Nakajima’s last in Formula 1. The Japanese driver started the season strongly once again, bringing the car home in fifth at Phoenix. This was his only points score that year, as the rest of the season was marred by a series of accidents and mechanical failures. A place in F1 for the following year was hard to find and this persuaded Nakajima to hang up his helmet.
Nonetheless, Satoru still has a lot of passion for racing. Son Kazuki races for Williams today, having avoided accusations of trading on his father’s name by courting Toyota rather than Honda.
In part two tomorrow we will look at some of the more recent Japanese drivers to race in Formula 1.
This is a guest article by Andrew Tsvyk. If you want to write a guest article for F1 Fanatic you can find all the information you need here.