Japan has hosted many great Formula 1 Grand Prix. Japanese automotive companies like Honda and Toyota are well known for being innovators of the sport. However not everybody realizes that Japan has also generated some great F1 drivers as well. Here is a list of the top 5 Japanese Formula 1 drivers of all time.
In 2009 Kamui Kobayashi was a test driver for the Toyota Formula 1 team when Timo Glock suffered an injury in a crash. Kobayashi replaced him at the Brazilian Grand Prix where fellow driver Jenson Button described him as "absolutely crazy, very aggressive." He also competed in the final Grand Prix of the season and finished sixth which scored him first point of his F1 career. Unfortunately for Kobayashi the Toyota team disbanded the following year.
In 2010 Koybayashi signed on with the newly reformed Sauber team who he would stay with for three seasons. It was with Sauber that he quickly developed a reputation for having the uncanny ability to brake late in the corners to overtake other cars. In 2011 he would score his first podium finish in none other then the Japanese Grand Prix. This made him only the third Japanese driver ever to finish a Grand Prix on the podium. In all three seasons he would finish 12th in the overall standings with his highest points total being 60 in 2012.
Kamui Kobayashi racing for the Sauber F1 team
Following the 2012 season Kobayashi was dropped by Sauber. He opted out of F1 for a year in hopes of landing a competitive ride the following season. That chance came when Kobayashi signed with the newly formed Caterham F1 team. However things did not go as well as they had his first stint in F1. The car struggled to compete and Kobayashi was replaced as a driver mid way through the season.
Kobayashi has continued his racing career by signing with Team LeMans for the 2015 Super Formula season. A case could be made that he is the greatest Japanese Formula 1 driver ever since he has scored a total of 125 points. That's more points then all other Japanese drivers combined. However the points system used during his era was for more generous than previous years. Nonetheless Kamui Kobayashi is indisputably among the greatest Japanese Formula 1 drivers of all time.
Aguri Suzuki's Formula 1 career is defined by determination. He made his F1 at the 1988 Japanese Grand Prix for the Larrousse team. The following year he signed to race with the Zakspeed team however he failed to qualify for a single race. This did not deter Suzuki.
Suzuki returned to the Larrousse team in 1990 where he would finally experience success. In 1990 he had the best home coming imaginable by finished on the podium at the the Suzuka Grand Prix in Japan. This made him the first ever Japanese driver with a podium finish in F1. Suzuki was now considered to be a national racing hero in Japan just year removed from a season in which he did not qualify for a single race
Aguri Suzuki racing in Japan.
In 1992 Suzuki moved to the Footwork team. However he never found the same success that he had with Larrousse. In 1995 he moved to the Ligier team part time where he ended up crashing heavily at the very Suzuka circuit that once hosted the greatest moment of his career. He suffered a neck injury and announced he retirement shortly there after.
Even though Suzuki struggled with uncompetitive cars he managed to race in 64 F1 Grand Prix over a total of eight seasons. It was during that time he shared the paddock with some of the greatest drivers to ever compete in the sport. He will be best remembered as the first Japanese driver to get a podium finish in Formula 1.
Satoru Nakajima's path to Formula 1 began when he developed a relationship with Honda engines while competing in Formula Japan. He became the test driver for Honda's F1 engine. Honda was ready to move to F1 they were sure to bring their top driver with them. The pressure the Williams team to drop their driver Nigel Mansell and bring on Nakajima, however the team opted out of dropping their future champion.
In 1987 Nakajima signed to race for Lotus-Honda and became the first Japanese driver to secure a full time ride for with an F1 team. In his first year Nakajima experienced moderate success racing at the sports highest level. He finished the season with 8 GP points which would also be the most of any season of his career. The cars performance declined in future years.
Satoru Nakajima in his Lotus Honda.
At the end of 1989 Nakajima moved to the Tyrell team with the backing of Honda. He would race there for two more seasons but the car was not competitive. He spent most of his last few years at the back of the grid before he retired at the end of 1991.
Satoru Nakajima only had a couple of truly competitive years in F1 but that hasn't impacted his legacy at all. He was popular enough to endorse three video games based on his career. He will forever have the distinction of being the first Japanese driver to have a full time ride in Formula 1.
Takuma Sato began his Formula 1 Racing career with the Jordan team in 2002. He struggled like many rookies do but was still able to score a fifth place finish at the Japanese Grand Prix.
In 2003 he signed on as the test driver for BAR-Honda and was promoted into a full time driver role when Jacques Villeneuve quit the team late in the season. Sato would remain driver with the team for six more years.
Tamura Sato racing for BAR-Honda
While Sato's BAR-Honda was not always strong enough to compete with the front runners it didn't stop him from having some memorable finishes. He finished on the podium in the U.S Grand Prix in 2004. In 2007 he finished sixth at the Canadian Grand Prix after passing defending champion Fernando Alonso to the cheers of the crowd.
After the 2008 season Takuma Sato was unable to secure a ride in Formula 1 and made a move to the CART series where he experienced more success. His accomplishments in F1 alone rank him among the top Japanese drivers.
Ukyo Katayama is remembered for both his lengthy Formula 1 career and eccentric personality. After finishing sixth in the 1985 Formula 3 national series he moved to Paris because he thought Paris was in England. After bouncing between racing series in Europe and Japan he gained sponsorship from Japan Tobacco who wanted to back a Japanese driver in Formula 1.
In 1992 Katayama got a Formula 1 seat with the uncompetitive Larrousse team. In 1993 he moved to the Tyrrell team that was racing with an outdated engine. Despite driving cars he was improving as a driver with two full seasons of racing experience at the highest level.
In 1994 the Tyrrell bounced back and Katayama could prove what a talented driver he was. He often outpaced his more experienced teammate Mark Blundell. Katayama would consistently drive in the top six but the car still suffered many mechanical failures. He only finished in a total of four Grand Prix but still ended up with 5 championship points.
F1 Japan GP 1994 Ukyo Katayama Q1 Lap
Following his 1994 season Katayama was allegedly offered a contract with a top team. In a seemingly erratic decision he turned down the contract. It would later become public that this decision was made partly because he was suffering from a non-fatal form of cancer in his back.
Ukyo Katayama would race for two more seasons with Tyrrell but never reached his previous form. He would race one more season with Minardi before retiring. Katayama raced in a total of 97 Grand Prix which is more than any other Japanese driver.
Formula 1 racing by Ukyo Katayama