Japan's Great Hope


No passing through my dirty air please
Japan as a nation has always embraced F1 as a sport and after having 2 Grand Prixs in the late 70's Japan eventually found a permanent home on the F1 circus in 1987 and to be fair the Japanese fans have always been given a great show. Whether it be Senna and Prost crashing into each other, Alonso and Schumacher carving their way through the field or Lewis Hamilton naviagting a monsoon when there is a race in Japan usually we're always given something to remember.

In 1990 the Japanese fans certainly got something to remember when Aguri Suzuki chose his home grand prix to become the first Japanese driver to score a podium and actually created a media roar in Japan that the country finally had a driver to be a serious contender. Of course this didn't happen as Suzuki's career fell away after due to a run of poor cars - similarly the same thing happened to Aguri's protegy Takuma Sato who after scoring a podium in the USA in 2004 and having a great year that ended his F1 career very much at the back of the grid. Japan then entered a little bit of a dark patch in F1 with both the Toyota and the Honda teams dissapearing, was the nation's love of F1 begining to dissapear with them? Well maybe it was until the 2010 Japanese Grand Prix when a series of awesome overtakes and a charge through the field for 7th place by Kamui Kobayashi left Japan once again asking if they had a series contender in F1 at the time the answer seemed yes but over a season later would most of us still give the same answer?

On the surface of it the answer appears no. Kamui has not had the greatest of end of season reviews for 2011 by the pundits. To quote Martin Brundle "Kamui Kobayashi has been strangely anonymous in 2011" and "He seems to have lost a little of the fire we enjoyed so much last year." Whilst I feel some of the slightly negative reviews of Kamui can be traced back to a souring of the English Press's love for him since the incident with Lewis Hamitlon in Spa on the face of it statements like that seem to be correct when you reflect on the fact that in the last 11 races of the season he only scored points 3 times and has finished no higher than 9th. Add that to the fact that he finished 12th in the championship for the 2nd year running and actually scored 2 ponts less than last year it appears Kamui is not progressing at all. I feel you have to dig a little deeper to find the real story though.

For starters Kobayashi was disqualified from the Australian Grand Prix on a team technicality when he finished 8th so if that result would have stood he would have ended 2 points up on last year - add to that the fact that the top teams were far more consistent this year and there were less ponts on offer for the midfield runners - even Adrian Sutil who finished best of the rest scored 5 points less than the year before - and that Kobi noticed up 9 points finishes in 2011 compared to 8 in 2010 and his 2011 season is looking far better. Add to this that 2011 was Kobayashi's first season as team-leader and it begins to look even better.

Before 2011 Kobayashi's team mates have always been more experienced drivers who were the on'e expected to get the results and lead the team. In fact to be honest it would have been harder for him to get 3 more experienced team-mates than Trulli, De La Rosa and Heidfeld unless you threw Rubens in the mix. In 2011 Sauber paired him with Sergio Perez which meant Perez was the young rookie expected to learn as the season went on and that Kobayashi was the experienced hand expected to bring home the results when Sauber needed them. You can't dispute he did that because despite the fact that Perez has a highly praised rookie season Kobi out scored him 30 points to 14 - I think I'm correct in saying thats the biggest percentage gap between team-mates. Also when it came to the last 2 races with Toro Rosso catching Sauber fast for their 7th place in the championship who was it who pulled out the results that kept them ahead? None other than Kamui with a 10th and a 9th at Abu Dhabi and Brazil respectivly.

It would be hard to argue that Kamui's season did not drop off to some extent especially after the highs of his 5th in Monoco and 7th in Canada where in both races he'd been dicing with the leaders(all be it due to safety cars) but equally it would be hard to argue that the Sauber he was driving didn't also drop of in performance from the same point. Its interesting to note that during the last 11 races of the season despite Perez getting much more glowing reviews than Kobi in that second half of the season in races they both finished Perez was still down 5-3 and whilst getting some tail end points scores Perez was nowhere near in the top 10 with the same consistancy that his team-mate was at the start of the season. Chuck in the fact that Kobi was very unlucky in both Spa and Japan after running high and really you have to conclude that the little guy had a pretty good season and is just unlucky with the media coverage that all his headline making results came at the start of the season and were long forgotten by the time we reached Brazil.

As for addressing the point Brundle made about him 'losing a little of the fire' he had to be honest as much as I respect him I think Brundle has missed the point. Kobayashi has for me something the other Japanese F1 drivers before him and actually quite a lot fo the F1 drivers around him currently don't have - a tactical brain. Its all well and good late breaking and pulling off breath taking moves every now and again and looking exciting for the audiences and another managing the car to a result, what impresses me about Kobi is 2 things, firstly he can drive to a strategy - you outline something for him to do and he'll get it done. We saw that as early as his second grand prix in Abu Dhabi where he was given a one stop strategy to run and drove it to an excellent 6th place leaving the likes of Kimi, Fernando, and Robert Kubica in his dust. Again we saw it in Europe in 2010 where he put a late stop and fresh tyres to good use by carving his way up the field to 7th including a pass on Alonso's Ferrari. It is true that his ability to run an alternative strategy may have actually played against him and Sauber in the later half of 2011 as they gambled on this too much and lost out some but its true to say that Kobi is very good at carrying out a strategy which is always something to look for in a top driver. The second thing that impresses me about Kobi is that he knows which battles to fight and when to let it go - its something he's learnt over the last few years - in his very first Grand Prix he fought tooth and nail to keep all sorts of quicker cars behind him but he was quick to realise that this was actually slowing his own race down. Whats been interesting this season is that on a couple of occasions (Austalia and Canada leap to mind) he's had quicker car's bairng down on him and whilst he hasn't jumped out the way and he's made them go round him he's not fought it to the death because he realised in the eqiptment he's in he's not racing them and it would only slow him down. This to me shows him as a pretty smart driver.

So in conclusion I urge you not to overlook the good season Kobayashi has had an on top of which not to overlook him as a quality driver. This time last year I'm sure there would have been a much larger group of people rating the guy and saying how he could be up there at the top given the right equiptment. A lot of these people have wondered away after a less headline grabbing season, the incident with Lewis and the introduction of some new exciting rookies. To me though this year only strengthens then fact that Kobayashi is a top F1 driver. I'm pretty sure that given a Red Bull, Mclaren or Ferrari he would be able to get the job done and he would bring the results home as he's proven he can do - whether he'll ever get the chance to do this I don't know.

Just to finish for those of you thinking this article is a little over the top and Kobi is good but not that good I'll just gentle remind you that Paul Di Resta who is being highly rated as a future world champ finished behind Kobi in the championship this year despite having a better car and didn't socre as many points as Kobi did in his rookie year again despite having a better car. Reflect on that next time you tip Mr Di Resta for that Merc seat.

Terrific. Sums up everything I feel about the guy's 2011 season - completely agree with your thoughts on Brundle's comments. For a guy who had absolutely no pedigree in the main GP2 series, who has no major sponsor or financial backer, he's quietly done a great job these past two years.
For me, he needs to improve on his qualifying.

Also, his first half of the season is cancelled out by his second half.

I like the guy, you make interesting points and hope to see him improve. Both Sauber drivers where anonymous this season, and I have to say, it's more down to their strategies than the drivers.
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