Japan

Japanese racing scene gaining popularity

In the 1990s Japan was a viable career alternative for young drivers who found their options limited in Europe. The resident Japanese F3000/ Formula Nippon and Super GT series attracted well known names such as Eddie Irvine, Tom Kristensen, Jacques Villeneuve and Heinz Harald-Frentzen.

During the late 1990s and 2000s the Japanese racing scene suffered a lull in worldwide attention, although in recent years both Japan and America are seeing a resurgance in interest as young drivers from Europe increasingly look further afield to attain a professional racing career. The racing scene seems increasingly focused on money in the last few years, with several Formula One teams struggling for finance, leading to a situation where increasingly a driver’s ability to bring a budget with him determines who is promoted from the junior formula’s.

In response to this Japan is seeing an upturn in popularity as the best young Japanese drivers are now being joined by accomplished and high profile drivers from Europe in their Super GT and Super Formula single seater series. In recent years the quality of the Japanese racing scene has been proven in Europe as long time Super GT and Super Formula drivers Andre Lotterer and Loic Duval led the Audi attack on the World Endurance Championship and the Le Mans 24 Hours.


Andre Lotterer racing in the Super Formula single seater series last year. Photo sourced from http://www.racingblog.de

Other notable drivers to have turned their careers East to Japan include James Rossiter, Vitantonio Luizzi, Narain Karthikeyan and Andrea Caldarelli. The number of European drivers joining the Japanese scene only looks set to swell in 2015, with rumors that young drivers such as Macau GP winner Felix Rosenqvist, 2009 Formula Renault 3.5 series champion Bertrand Baguette, GP3 race winner Jann Mardenborough and 2013 GP2 champion Fabio Leimer all rumored to be looking for drives in Japan this year. Heikki Kovalainen is the latest driver to defect to Japan as he announced a deal this week to join Team SARD Lexus for the Super GT series this year.

Complementing the increasing European talent is the very best of Japanese driving talent, with the likes of Kamui Kobayashi, Kazuki Nakajima and Takuma Sato returning to race in the Super Formula and Super GT series. Alongside them are the likes of GP2 racer Takuya Izawa and former Indycar racer Hideki Mutoh show that the talent on the Super Formula grid is up there with any grid outside of F1 at the moment.


The Super Formula grid races away from the line at Twin Ring Motegi in 2013. Photo sourced from http://www.supergtbrasil.blogspot.co.uk

Japan is so attractive right now for young drivers as it promises the opportunity to become a professional racing driver rather than struggle to attract finance to continue on the young driver ladder in Europe. Alongside the chance to earn a professional driver there are also copious chances to link up with a manufacture, with Toyota running a LMP1 programme in the WEC, with Nissan joining them in LMP1 this year also. Honda is also returning to F1 and has links with Indycar also, with all of these manufactures assisting or running teams in the Super GT series. Japan is therefore the perfect shop window for young drivers to put themselves in should they wish to put aside their dreams of F1 and become a factory driver for a distinguished manufacture. The future seems increasingly bright for the Japanese racing scene, as it becomes increasingly prominent in international motor sport, returning it to it’s glory days of the past.

What are your thoughts on this article? Please feel free to leave any comments below good or bad.

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Why Andre Lotterer deserves F1 chance

Immediately following the shock announcement of Max Verstappen joining Scuderia Toro Rosso for the 2015 F1 season on Monday night, rumours began circulating that for this weekend’s Belgian Grand Prix Caterham would replace Kamui Kobayashi with stand-out Audi sportscar driver Andre Lotterer. By Tuesday afternoon it appeared almost certainly a done deal, with the final confirmation being announced by Caterham in a press release this morning, Wednesday 20th August. For the insular world of Formula One many have started scrambling around for information and analysis on this very quick German, with the results they’ll find on him being enough to show his F1 debut this weekend is long overdue.

Andre Lotterer has already been amongst the F1 circus once before, with early titles in German Formula BMW Junior and ADAC Formula BMW in 1998 and 1999 brought him to the attention of the new Jaguar team for 2000, who offered him several tests during the 2000 season to complement his 4th in the German Formula Three Championship campaign. The link to the Jaguar F1 team was made stronger in 2001 as he raced in British F3 for the Jaguar junior racing team, before stepping up to become the official test driver for the Jaguar F1 team for the 2002 season.


Lotterer testing for Jaguar in 2002.

Whilst it initially looked likely that Lotterer would be promoted to a race seat in 2003 after it was announced that both Eddie Irvine was retiring and Pedro De La Rosa was to also leave. Sadly for Lotterer the team chose 2002 Minardi stand-out Mark Webber alongside promising young Brazilian Antonio Pizzonia for the 2003 season, leaving Lotterer looking to re-build his career momentum.

Lotterer subsequently shunned Europe and went to Japan to race in their premier Formula Nippon series, now called Super Formula, and Japanese Super GT series for 2003. Impressive results in both cemented his reputation in Japan as a very fast young driver as he was a frequent title contender in Formula Nippon for the works TOM’S Toyota team, alongside two Super GT titles in 2006 and 2009.


Lotterer and Kazuki Nakajima driving for Lexus in Super GT at Okayama in 2011.

These impressive results in Japan led to some well deserved attention from Europe, although it does seem surprising looking back that despite consistently impressive Super GT results it took until 2009 for Lotterer to make his Le Mans 24 Hours. The call came from the Kolles team racing their privateer LMP1 Audi R10 TDI. After a herculean effort from Lotterer and co-driver Charles Zwolsman to complete the race without third driver Narain Karthikeyan to injury, the car came home an impressive 7th overall after completing 369 laps.

The impressive debut with the Kolles Audi in 2009 led the highly successful works Audi team to offer him a deal for the 2010 season, where his Audi R15 TDI+ came home 2nd. From here things would get very busy for Lotterer as from 2011 onwards he would have to dovetail his Japanese Formula Nippon and Super GT commitments with a full schedule in the new Intercontinental Le Mans Cup, morphing into the World Endurance Series for 2012.

The full time schedule has not affected Lotterer’s pace however as he finally claimed a first Formula Nippon title in 2011 after 8 years of trying, with a perfect 2011 being completed with a heroic first Le Mans 24 Hours victory for him, after fighting off an onslaught of Peugeot’s to claim the win. Things improved in 2012 as the Lotterer/Marcel Fassler and Benoit Treluyer partnership swept to a second consecutive Le Mans 24 Hours victory and the inaugural World Endurance Championship title also.

2013 and 2014 so far have seen a continuation of is stellar results as the Audi trio claimed a third Le Mans 24 Hours victory and currently sit 2nd in the World Endurance Championship with 5 rounds remaining. During his sportscar and single seater career so far Lotterer has regularly proven himself to be a master of wet conditions, which maybe gives some indication of why Caterham chose to give him debut in the notoriously wet Belgian GP at Spa. Another reason may be his experience of the Spa circuit this year as he’s already raced there for Audi both in the WEC and the recent Spa 24 Hours.


Lotterer at this year’s Le Mans 24 Hours for Audi.

Whatever Caterham chose they have made a bold yet good decision in my opinion to take a chance on the always quick Andre Lotterer for this weekend, as a sportscar fan I’ve seen plenty of impressive drives from him over the last few years for Audi. He has a chance to improve things for the Caterham team although despite circuit knowledge the Caterham car has proved very difficult all season. I sincerely hope he gets the chance to give a good account of himself this weekend despite the troublesome Caterham car, which I think is only fair after the wait he’s had to make his F1 debut.

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