Is Japan falling out of love with F1?

Debates and pollsPosted on | Author Keith Collantine

The Japanese Grand Prix at the popular Suzuka track is the next venue on the F1 calendar.

Not only is the track a favourite of many of the drivers, but the race is well-attended by a knowledgeable and enthusiastic crowd.

But in several important respects Japan’s involvement in F1 has shrunk dramatically in recent years.

This is the first season not to feature a Japanese-engined car on the grid since the beginning of 1983. In the last two seasons first Honda, then Toyota have disappeared – though the latter’s equipment is currently being used by Pirelli to test their tyres.

Pirelli are arriving as another Japanese name departs: Bridgestone, whose participation in F1 dates back to 1997.

The disappearance of these major Japanese names from F1 has coincided with several of their domestic rivals pulling out of other championships. Suzuki, Subaru and Mitsuibishi have all reduced or abandoned their rally programmes in recent years.

Japanese car manufacturers even seem less interested in making sporty road models. The Toyota MR2 and Supra, Honda’s NSX and even the souped-up Civic Type-R are all either facing extinction or fossils already. Taking their place are thoroughly unsporty Priuses and Civic Hybrids.

The car manufacturers played a major role in advancing F1’s presence in Japan: first at Honda’s Suzuka circuit then briefly at Toyota’s revamped Fuji Speedway.

But the best hope of sustaining that interest is not a tyre brand or even a car make but a driver. And you know I’m not talking about the thoroughly uninspiring Sakon Yamamoto, but his attention-grabbing rookie countryman Kamui Kobayashi.

Many other drivers from Japan have been advanced by their sponsorship connections or marketability. Even Takuma Sato never started an F1 race powered by anything other than a Honda.

That may have helped Kobayashi’s arrival in F1 via Toyota’s driver development programme. But his continued presence in F1 is on merit.

One of the most impressive young drivers in F1 at the moment, he’s already seen off Pedro de la Rosa and won an extension on his Sauber contract.

The car and tyre manufacturers may have lost interest but Kobayashi should give his home crowd something to cheer about for many more years to come.

Here’s hoping so, because Japan isn’t just a valuable market for F1, it’s also home to one of the finest circuits on the calendar.

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