Is Japan falling out of love with F1?

Debates and polls

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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44 comments on Is Japan falling out of love with F1?

  1. Wificats said on 4th October 2010, 9:14

    It’s always seemed to me such a shame, that though Japan can bring so much to the spectacle of F1, either through their engineering and engine building skills, the insanity of the fans (and their drivers too sometimes) or the brilliance of Suzuka circuit (or the weather at Fuji for that matter), that their incredibly bland coorporate culture is so capable of ruining it.

    We don’t want to lose Japanese support for the race, and F1 in general, because not only would Suzuka be a terrible loss, but F1 doesn’t need to lose another country that has actually contributed to and participated so much in Formula 1, only for it to be replaced by a “new market” in a country with even less interest and commitment, but a greater desire to spend tax payer’s money on prestige projects.

    • miguelF1O (@) said on 5th October 2010, 0:17

      i think that japanese ivestemets on f1 were really born from fanatism now they know they cant handle f1 and they just watch thankfully they now have a good driver on an decent team might be enough to bring new japanese fanatic with no brains nad lot of cash to lose cause f1 is europe and mostly uk its hard to be an japanese team owner or investor

  2. Ned Flanders said on 4th October 2010, 9:32

    Japan must have the worst drivers to results ratio of any country. How many drivers have they produced, 30 or so? And a grand total of 2 podiums…

    That said, there is potential, and the law of averages suggests that one day a Japanese driver will emerge who will go on to win races and championships. As much as I like him, I doubt that man will be Kobayashi, but let’s hope I’m wrong.

    And on the manufacturers, I reckon they’ll come crawling back before long. The Japanese are good at making money, and assuming F1 doesn’t completely implode in the next few years, I think it’ll be the best place for them to advertise their names

    • damonsmedley (@damonsmedley) said on 6th October 2010, 2:38

      Whilst the cost of entering is coming down I too can see more manufacturers being drawn in to supply some of the more promising up-and-coming teams. Lets hope we see Kobayashi up in the points. I remember in 2002 when Sato finished 5th in his Jordan there was a lot of excitement – so I am looking forward to seeing what Kamui can do!

  3. Ma Haokun said on 4th October 2010, 9:37

    Despite not being a Japanese, I have always been a great fan of Kobayashi since his début race. What he has displayed in his driving is something I considered missing in all Asian drivers who have participated in the sport. Unlike his predecessors who always seemed to be of a class apart, Kamui leaves me a genuinely different impression. Being an Asian myself, I sincerely hope he can progress well in Formula 1. Maybe the first win in a few years?

    • Ned Flanders said on 4th October 2010, 13:38

      I really hope so. But his poor qualifying performances continue to worry me. If he couldn’t consistently outqualify de la Rosa, how’s he going to cope against the likes of Hamilton, Alonso and Vettel?

    • I for one and also very happy with Kamui and his surprise results in the sport. He started the year with 4 straight DNF’s and began to give doubt to Saubers decision to sign him after his brilliant debut for Toyota stepping in for the injured Timo Glock. He then came back for several top 10 finishes including a very surprising 6th at Silverstone. He has also sneaked into Q3 three times this year although never able to qualify higher then tenth. The young Japanese driver has a average finsihing grid position of 9th, higher then a certain seven time world champion.

      • @Ned Umm, he did consistently out qualify his teammate, just look at the statistics page. Please double check facts before posting ^_^

    • Skett said on 5th October 2010, 21:54

      I don’t dislike him, but personally I was very unimpressed in his first race. People enjoyed it because he was entertaining but he as downright dangerous. He’s definately improved this year though, guess it was nerves

  4. Cube said on 4th October 2010, 9:41

    You forgot the fact that Honda finally decided to support the Honda BTCC team to create a Honda Works team in BTCC with the Civic Type R’s :P

    As long as there’s a Japanese driver, they’ll be happy jappy’s

  5. Sush Meerkat said on 4th October 2010, 9:54

    The Japanese fans are mental though, they go all out when supporting something, anything.

    I think it was on Andrew Bensons blog in 2007 he stated “and when Kimi showed up on a luggage cart one woman’s head exploded!”

    • Scribe (@scribe) said on 4th October 2010, 10:11

      I think we shouldn’t underestimate Japanese mentalist behaviour when it comes to being a fan. I’m not sure Japan loosing it’s manufacturers in the sport is really that much of a problem, I mean the fans aren’t weird corporate tifosi, though I don’t doubt there’s a few actual tifosi among them. I think there’s a few Button fans as well, an of course an exciting rookie. F1 was big in Japan before Toyota and Honda, an they where never the most lovable teams anyway.

      Maybe Japanese money is falling out of love with F1, mostly because it’s all going down the resscion but I shouldn’t think the fans are, or at least lets hope not

      • plushpile said on 4th October 2010, 10:25

        Maybe Japanese money is falling out of love with F1

        Yeah, I think this is probably closer to the point.

        Crowd numbers would be an easy way to settle the debate… But maybe not seeing as 1/2 of the Fuji crowd was apparently Toyota employees…

        Kobayashi is a breath of fresh air, a Japanese driver there because of talent and not his passport, it’s great to see

        • Sush Meerkat said on 4th October 2010, 11:07

          Good point Scribe with Button, since his missus is a Japanese National.

          Also remember that Bruno Senna is on the scene and the Japanese adored his uncle for various reasons, Honda and partnering a Japanese driver, those sort of things.

          • Red Andy (@red-andy) said on 4th October 2010, 11:40

            According to someone I knew in Japan at the time, by the end of Button’s time with Honda he had replaced Sato in all the Honda adverts, such was his popularity in Japan.

      • BasCB said on 4th October 2010, 11:08

        I suppose that in general, with economic downturn for the best part of the last 2 decades and deflation frequently hitting Japan, this reality is finally coming to have effect on the motorsport involvement of many Japanese companies.

        It would be great if having Kobayashi getting good results as well as the tense season (and a bit of Yamamoto) keeps the solid fanbase or even increase it. That way F1 will be good with Japan regardless of their manufacturers competing (altough it could make them come back as well).

    • Ned Flanders said on 4th October 2010, 10:23

      If anyone has a load of old magazines handy check out F1 Racing’s feature on the Japense fans from the 2006 GP. They had a journalist in the spectator areas… it sounded absolutely mental! I’d love to go to Suzuka

    • Salty said on 7th October 2010, 22:50

      Have no idea what the general take on F1 is in Japan – that’s the declaimer.

      Work at a global corp. Was in the elevator about 2 months ago with a Japnese visitor and his host.

      Visitor stated that F1 driver were “not afraid to die.” Host disagreed saying F1 had changed and was more about skill. Vistor assured – in Japan the drivers are “honourable because they will drive to death”

      Made me angry. Our sport is about team-work and driver excellence – not about abandonment of humanity in the name of ‘sport’.

      Feel same anger when see the ghoulish trashy-crashy compilation videos. I want to watch racing, not crashes.

  6. Prisoner Monkeys (@prisoner-monkeys) said on 4th October 2010, 10:31

    I don’t think the lack of Japanese anufacturers or engines is a sign of disinfatuation. Honda and Toyota failed because they were poorly managed; decisions were made in boardrooms in Tokyo by men who had very little contact with the world of Formula 1. Honda appointing Shuei Nakamoto to replace Geoff Wills was one of these examples – sure, it sounded good to have a Japense national designing race-winning cars, but it didn’t work in practice and Honda wasted two whole years. And ironically, if they had endured another year, they wuld have won championships.

    • Red Andy (@red-andy) said on 4th October 2010, 12:34

      …if having a Honda engine rather than a Mercedes hadn’t significantly impacted their competitiveness, and if the boardroom had managed to go an entire season without interfering and disrupting the teams’ set-up. Neither of which I consider particularly likely – I’d suggest that Brawn’s success in 2009 was at least partly due to the absence of Honda, not in spite of it.

      • Sush Meerkat said on 4th October 2010, 13:17

        Red Andy, the Chassis, Diffs and cooling (actually the entire car) was designed with a Honda powerplant in mind, some of the engineers reckon the Brawn would have been even faster with a Honda engine.

  7. I think there will always be the hardcore Japanese fans that follow F1 whether or not there is Japanese involvement on the grid.

    Last years race was packed which proves my point, but the race was dreadfully dull! Fingers crossed for a better race this year!

  8. dragon said on 4th October 2010, 11:09

    Throwing my love for Webber and desire to see Alonso succeed aside, I think we’d all love to see Koby put that Sauber into Q3 and then have a strong race.

  9. codesurge said on 4th October 2010, 11:33

    “Japanese car manufacturers even seem less interested in making sporty road models.”

    Actually, I’d counter that by saying that even Toyota (maker of automotive appliances) is coming back with the LF-A supercar and a future entry-level coupe in the FT-86. That’s not forgetting the GT-R, the evergreen MX-5 and the road rally reps (Evo, WRX) that have been with us for ages.

    Japan’s been mad about F1 and I don’t think it’s purely because of Japanese manufacturer/driver involvement. I think Kovalainen sums it up best when he says “the fans are pretty hardcore – they know more about the drivers than we do.”

    • I’d agree with that. There is a particularly hardcore group that comes to Melbourne every year for the race, and they know *everyone* even remotely associated with F1. They are always the first ones to spot a driver, or some random F1 person the rest of us have never even heard of.

      Talking about spotting an F1 driver, I have just been advised today that Mark Webber paid a surprise visit to one our offices on Thursday, and NO ONE thought to inform me until now ! Very unhappy Pinky.

  10. MikeSRandall said on 4th October 2010, 11:45

    [quote]But the best hope of sustaining that interest is not a tyre brand or even a car make but a driver.[/quote]

    I don’t claim to know anything at all about the Japanese culture, but I’m not entirely sure that that holds true in Japan. Senna is revered in Japan to the level of deity, having won his championships in a Honda-engined car, even whilst driving against Aguri Suzuki, Satoru Nakajima and Ukyo Katayama, probably that country’s best-ever drivers (Kobayashi notwithstanding).

    I have a feeling that were Lewis Hamilton driving a McLaren-Honda, or Vettel piloting a Red Bull-Yamaha we would be seeing Suzuka packed to the rafters with Lewis or Sebastian flags and banners.

    For whatever reason, Japanese companies have fallen out of love with motorsport on the world stage. I don’t believe we will see Japanese support for F1 like we did in the 80s and 90s until they return.

  11. Icthyes (@icthyes) said on 4th October 2010, 12:05

    I agree with Scribe it’s more that the money side isn’t enthusiastic anymore. Maybe because both Honda and Toyota threw everything they had in unilateral enterprises and got zero success. If they had stuck to being engine manufacturers then probably at least Honda would still be in there (the Toyota engine was alright at first and noted for its top speed but it was the worst in just about every aspect by the end)

  12. I can’t really pretend to know anything about it really as I’m not from Japan and don’t know how they feel. It does seem though that they are very enthusiastic about certain drivers (not all obviously, trying to avoid sweeping generalisations). The loss of Honda and Toyota will hurt as there will always be some level of national pride but also F1 will now be on the news less there which will damage awareness.

    When you look at the crowds in Japan they seem packed full of the most enthusiastic fans on the planet. Kobayashi can and probably will help attract a broad audience but their fans can always love F1 but he’ll bring in more fans. Actually, Kimi coming back would probably help too as he’s pretty popular over there I hear.

  13. Never mind F1, what about Moto GP? There was ony 49000 at Motegi for Japanese Moto GP. A very poor crowd considering the Japanese dominance in motor bikes. Motegi can be hard to get to ( no public transport as I found out the hard way a few years ago !) but that is no excuse for such a poorly attended race.

  14. newdecade said on 4th October 2010, 12:18

    Crisis, simple as.

    Almost all japanese motorsport interests seem to be backed by enormous manufacturers, with almost no privateering element. As we have seen in F1 its the manufacturers who are first to flee the scene when times get tough.

    I’m sure as things pick up, japanese corporate commitment to motorsport will increase again, once the risks to their core businesses are reduced and they have more freedom to think about ancillary projects like F1.

  15. James said on 4th October 2010, 12:37

    I dont think Japan has fallen out of with F1 and/or motorsport in general, I recon it is more to do with money. Japan was hit pretty hard by the finincial crisis. Honda and Toyota made heavy loses. In a double whammy for Toyota, their cars decided to start going wrong at a time when Toyota were reviewing their budgets. Obviously a lucklustre F1 team would always be vulnerable. Honda’s withdrawal most have been more about performance too. Several hundreds of millions only for one race win and a handful of podiums.

    2013 is an open invitation for Toyota and Honda to make a return to F1. The engine formula is being re-written and I’m sure the direction of the new engine Formula will favour Honda and be road relevant. Their road cars are of the most efficient.

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