Japanese racing fans have little to cheer

Japanese motor racing fans are wondering where it all went. Once, their nation was home to three Formula One teams, two grand prix tracks and several drivers but there is little left to cheer for.

Japan’s most successful F1 driver, Takuma Sato, has been out of the sport since his Super Aguri team folded in April last year; the country’s sole starting driver, Kazuki Nakajima of Williams, has scored no points this season and may be looking for work next year.

The Honda team pulled out of the expensive sport at the end of last year, to be reborn as British-based Brawn GP, while the Toyota team survive, based in Germany, but have yet to win a grand prix despite pouring money into the sport since their debut in 2002.

The picture is equally depressing for home fans in the World Rally Championship (WRC), which lost Suzuki and former winners Subaru, and in motorcycling where Kawasaki now equip only one rider, Italian Marco Melandri, in the MotoGP.

Japanese fans still hope Sato, 32, might return to Formula One and give the country a reason to cheer again.

“I like Takuma and want him to come back,” said Miko Inaba, a fan from Tokyo who was at the Japanese Grand Prix in Suzuka at the weekend. “I really don’t think much of Nakajima.”

Sato never won a race but became a national hero when he made his points debut at his home track of Suzuka in 2002.

“When Sato was with Honda, he was more popular than [then team mate Jenson] Button,” said another fan, Yuji Endo.
“For Japanese, we want to know if Sato is coming back.”

Sato, who had one podium place when he finished third at the 2004 U.S. Grand Prix, told Reuters his sudden exit had left unfinished business and he wanted to return as Japan needed an F1 hero.

“In the next few years, if they don’t have a driver to cheer, it will be difficult,” Sato said. “If there is a driver, it makes a huge difference.”

He compared Japan without a successful national in the sport to Spain before the F1 success of Fernando Alonso with Renault.

“Before Alonso, everything was motorcycles. F1 was very small.”

Nakajima, son of former racer Satoru and backed by the Williams team’s current engine provider Toyota, is willing to fill the gap but, with a glut of drivers available and weak results this season, he may not get the chance.

“This year is obviously very frustrating because I’m doing a much better job in many aspects but somehow I haven’t managed to get results,” he told Reuters. “Results are important, especially for fans’ attention.”

Toyota’s Italian driver Jarno Trulli gave the team their second successive runner-up spot at Suzuka but German Timo Glock did not start Sunday’s race after injuring his leg in a qualifying crash.

Button is close to winning the championship with Brawn but was initially left without a car at the end of last year after the withdrawal of Honda, who had scored just 20 points in two seasons despite an estimated annual budget of more than $300-million.

Nakajima finished 15th on Sunday, keeping him without points this season after he earned nine in 2008.

He said national ardour for F1 might cool without a native in the sport, adding that harsh financial conditions for Japanese firms, traditionally backers of the sport, had led to changes in commitment.

Honda, Japan’s second largest carmaker, still owns the Suzuka track but Toyota gave up its rights to host at Fuji International Speedway, citing costs. The track, where Toyota had spent $222,5-million on improvements, had been due to alternate with Suzuka each year.

“For the big car manufacturers the situation is really tough,” Nakajima said.

Kamui Kobayashi has been competing in the GP2 support series this season for Toyota and is a practice F1 driver, but says his future is uncertain next year as companies keep a tight rein on budgets.

“I’m trying to be a race driver but now it’s very difficult to say when even third drivers are changing,” he said.

For some fans, nostalgia is the only comfort.

“I liked Takuma when he was with Honda but it doesn’t seem likely he’s going to come back,” said Masayuki Kadowaki, a Toyota fan.

His 16-year-old daughter, wearing Ferrari colours, had no time for sentiment about Sato, however.

“He’s done,” she said simply.—Reuters

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