Sakon Yamamoto, 2010
In F1-crazy Japan, it is not surprising that the exploits of Ayrton Senna in a McLaren Honda at Suzuka inspired a host of young children to pursue similar exploits of the drivers whom they idolised. Sakon Yamamoto’s story is no different, and he forged a successful junior career and made the right contacts to forge a path to Formula 1.
Yamamoto’s motorsport career started at the age of 14 at the Suzuka Kart Racing School, and by 1999 he had taken the national title. Moving up to Formula 3 with TOMs, he finished fourth in the standings at his first attempt.
To get into F1 as a Japanese driver, venturing to Europe is a must, and Sakon went to the European championships in 2002, racing for the Gronemeyer/Muller team before jumping ship mid-season to the Kolles-run F3 team. It was there that Sakon started his working relationship with the successful team manager, Dr Colin Kolles, with the Romanian-born dentist later becoming the team figurehead at the Jordan team and its subsequent iterations of Midland, Spyker and Force India.
It has not been at all surprising to see Yamamoto’s name associated with Kolles’ in the subsequent years. As Sakon went back to Japan in 2004 for more running in the Japanese F3 series – and later the Formula Nippon championship – he was called up as the Friday test driver for the Jordan team at the 2005 Japanese Grand Prix.
Despite his limited experience and results in top-shelf high-powered machinery, Sakon surprised all in sundry with an outstanding performance at the Suzuka circuit, a track he knows extremely well.
Negotiations with the debutant Super Aguri team for the 2006 season seemed to fall through, with the second race seat alongside Takuma Sato going to the hopeless Yuji Ide, leaving Sakon on the sidelines. However, the cards would fall his way in now time: Ide was dispensed with after four rounds and the team’s test driver, Franck Montagny, was called up to replace him. This in turn left a vacancy in the Friday test driver role, which Sakon happily took on. With Montagny bringing little in the way of sponsorship and results, Sakon was able to get the budget together and was promoted to the race seat for the German Grand Prix, retiring on the opening lap.
Indeed, he would retire a further three times before registering his first finish at the rain-hit Chinese Grand Prix. The next race at Japan was a masterclass in patriotism: two Japanese drivers in a Japanese team on their home circuit was an emotional homecoming for Sato and Yamamoto, who registered an emotional double-finish in front of their adoring fans.
It was at the season-ending Brazilian Grand Prix where Sakon showed his innate speed to its fullest extent, setting the seventh-fastest race lap and the second-quickest time in the middle sector of the bumpy Sao Paulo circuit, all in what was little more than a modified 2002 Arrows chassis! An amazing result!
But he was inexplicably not retained by Super Aguri for the 2007 season, which opted for Anthony Davidson instead. Sakon was left to bide his time in GP2, but received a mid-season call-up from Dr Kolles to drive the Spyker from the Hungarian Grand Prix onwards, rekindling his association with the team boss that has largely continued uninterrupted to this day. The Spyker was hardly a world-beating car in 2008, but Sakon acquitted himself generally well.
Again, he was not called up to a full-time role for the following season, and has lately spent his time honing his craft in GP2, without the results to justify his enthusiasm and passion.
With Kolles now steering the ship at the newly-formed tail-enders at the Hispania Racing Team, he needed a few experienced pilots to evaluate the Dallara-designed chassis and help guide the rookie drivers, Bruno Senna and Karun Chandhok. It was certainly no surprise to us that Sakon got the call-up to the team as one of its official test and reserve drivers, alongside the very experienced Christian Klien.
Sakon kindly accepted our interview request and candidly answered our questions about his time to-date in motorsport, his long association with Colin Kolles, and how he moonlights as a DJ in his spare time! Sakon’s given Richard’s F1 a great interview that we’re really excited to be able to share with you, and for that, Richard’s F1 is extremely grateful to Sakon and the HRT media team for their time and support in making this happen.
How did you become involved in motorsport? Was it always your ambition to race in Formula 1?
When I was 7 years old, my parents took me to the Japanese Grand Prix in Suzuka. I was really impressed by the F1 cars, which were very quick and the atmosphere at the circuit was just amazing. Then I decided really wanted to be a Formula 1 driver.
Growing up, did you have any motorsport idols?
Ayrton Senna was my idol. He was very quick and he drove a McLaren Honda, which was very special and significant for Japanese people.
You graduated through the junior categories and were appointed as the Friday test driver for the Jordan team at the 2005 Japanese Grand Prix. How did the opportunity come about?
Colin Kolles was running Jordan GP at that time, and I drove for his team in the German Formula 3 series three years before, and therefore I knew him. At that time we talked about the opportunity for a test and finally we made that happen, and I became test driver at the Japanese Grand Prix.
Yamamoto made his debut in F1 as the Jordan team’s Friday test driver at the 2005 Japanese Grand Prix. (Image © Formula1.com)
Making your debut Grand Prix appearance on your home circuit must have been an incredible experience, particularly on a circuit as challenging as Suzuka. Did you have any concerns leading into the practice session, such as coping with the rapid acceleration and braking of a Formula 1 car?
It is well known that Suzuka circuit is one of the most challenging circuits in the world and you need huge amount of concentration when driving there. It is so easy to lose your lap time if you make a mistake in one corner. But basically I love Suzuka circuit as I drove there a lot when I was racing in Japan.
What were your initial impressions of the Jordan team and the car?
It was really impressive. When I visited the factory for my seat fitting, it was very exciting for me. All the mechanics and engineers made me feel very welcome, and they were soon like a family. I had a good time with all of them.
In June 2006, you were signed to Super Aguri as their test and reserve driver, and represented the team in Friday sessions for four events. How did this role come about and how did the Super Aguri car (essentially a modified 2002 Arrows) compare with the Jordan you drove the year before?
After I drove with Jordan, we held negotiations with Super Aguri to become a race driver for the 2006 season. Aguri Suzuki wanted me to be part of the team and we were really looking forward to racing with them. But he decided to give the seat to Yuji Ide and I initially lost my opportunity to race in a Super Aguri.
However, I did some Friday drives for the team and then I got the call up mid-season to replace Franck Montagny in the race seat, who in turn had replaced Yuji Ide.
It is very difficult to compare the Super Aguri with the Jordan because the engines were very different. In 2005 with Jordan, we had a Toyota V10, and in 2006 there was a Honda V8 engine.
But I was very lucky to drive both engine types before V10s were taken out of f1. I could feel the power of a V10 which was a very powerful engine and a lot of fun to drive.
Your opportunity to race came at the German Grand Prix, but it was a tough baptism for you. Can you talk about the weekend from your perspective?
My debut race was really tough as we had a new, updated chassis (the SA06) for the first time. It was much easier to drive than with the old car. On Saturday morning, I went off at the end of the session which was bad as it was just before qualifying. We couldn’t fix the car until qualifying and so I had to run in the old car (the SA05) again.
In the race, the team decided to start from the pit lane. But I only could run one lap as the team couldn’t refix everything as the car was completely new and untried. So, my debut race was finished after one lap. But that’s racing.
Were you given any advice from other figures in the pit lane?
I got a really nice advice from Sir Jackie Stewart that weekend.
Being part of an all-Japanese team, working for Aguri Suzuki and driving alongside Takuma Sato would undoubtedly be special. What was the atmosphere like in the team and how was your relationship with these two men?
It was a funny relationship with the two Japanese guys. I know Aguri Suzuki for ten years because I was driving for his go kart racing team when I was in Japan. I knew Takuma when he was in England for British Formula 3, but we only had one or two races together.
For me it was completely new to be part of a Formula 1 team as a race driver. Aguri and Takuma gave me some great advice which was very useful.
You endured a run of four consecutive DNFs before you finally saw the chequered flag at the Chinese Grand Prix. What did it feel like to complete a full race distance after the frustration of the previous rounds?
The early races were very frustrating because I hadn’t been finishing the races.
In China, it was also a tough race as it was raining a lot. We had three or four pit stops and changed between intermediates and rain tyres. But we could finish the race which was a big moment for the team and myself. One week later, there was the Japanese Grand Prix and I felt good to go back to my home GP.
Next stop was Japan, where both you and Takuma saw the finish line again. The atmosphere at Suzuka must have been unbelievable. How was the weekend for you?
It is difficult to describe in words what the atmosphere in Japan was like. At that time, they had announced they would move the Japanese GP from Suzuka to Fuji, meaning that this would be the last Suzuka race.
The fans like the Fuji circuit as well but since 1987, the GP has been in Suzuka and it was very much a spiritual home, a sanctuary, if you will!
Additionally, in a Japanese team having two Japanese drivers you can imagine how the atmosphere is. It was great for me to look at the crowd as there were 350,000 spectators through the weekend. So, it was a really really good memory for me and also for the team.
With no drive in the offering for 2007, you received a call-up to join Spyker from the Hungarian GP onwards. What was it like to be back on the grid once again?
I went down to GP2 because we knew at the end of 2006, that we couldn’t stay with with Super Augri again. They decided to race with Anthony Davidson.
In GP2 races, we were surrounded by Formula 1 and I tried to get back to F1. We didn’t expect that I suddenly would have the chance to return to F1 so quickly.
At Spyker, Christijan Albers had gone and the German Markus Winkelhock did the race in Germany.
And then I joined Spyker from Hungary!
Sakon’s final appearance with Spyker saw him collide with the Renault of Giancarlo Fisichella on the opening lap of the Brazilian Grand Prix (above, © Bleacher Report). It is no doubt a little ironic that he would find employment at Renault the following year, as the team’s test driver. Here he is in a demonstration run for fans (below, © Flickr)
You achieved your best race finish (12th) at that year’s wet Japanese Grand Prix at Fuji. What were the conditions like that day?
In my motor racing career, this has been the worst race conditions I ever experienced, for sure. It was raining so much that you even couldn’t see the ten meters front. We started with safety car but we had aqua planning even on the straight with safety car. How can you drive with this kind of conditions?
When the rain had eased slightly, the race was restarted. You can imagine how everyone was scared of the first flying lap on the straight because you couldn’t see anything. So it was a very tough race but luckily I could finish it with my best result.
After your Spyker foray, you returned to GP2 with ART Grand Prix, and took a podium in the opening round of the 2008-9 championship at Shanghai. How does GP2 compare to Formula 1, given the uniformity in equipment?
It is quite different from the electronic side because at that time there was traction control or all the electronic devices in the F1 car. But we didn’t have any in GP2 so the parts of physical demands were even higher. Especially for the arms it is hard because steering is heavier than in F1. But for the neck, GP2 is not as hard as F1.
You’ve recently signed to HRT as the team’s test driver. What will be your duties within the team?
I am here as test driver I am going to do some Friday practice session. Also because of my experience in past, I could give some data to engineer when I was running. I am here to support the team and to help to improve.
This is now your third employment stint in F1 working for Dr Colin Kolles. What is he like to work for?
I have known Dr Colin Kolles since 2002. He’s like a family member to me. We trust each other and have a good relationship.
You’ve only been with the team for a short time, what are your impressions of the HRT operation?
My impression is that the boys and everyone else has a lot of motivation.
In this moment, we stand in the back row but I know that we will improve during this season.
What are your aims in Formula 1 and with HRT in 2010?
I am here for giving good data to the engineers. I want to concentrate on my job and also want the team to improve during the season.
You also moonlight – like Jaime Alguersuari – as a DJ. Can you tell us more about what you do and where you’ve played?
When I was child I loved music as well. I have always been keen on listening to music anytime. Then this is natural thing, when you want to listen to good music you have to buy vinyl. I collected some vinyls and just started as a DJ like the others. Last time, I played in Monaco at the Kingfisher Party of Vijay Mallya (pictured).
And I had a gig in the past with David Morales, Shuya Okino who as well known as Kyoto Jazz Massive, DJ Kawasaki so on.
What would you say were your best and worst moments of your motorsport career so far?
The best moment was the Brazilian Grand Prix in 2006. We achieved the seventh-quickest lap time in the race and I had second-quickest time in the second sector. That was an amazing result for our team. Even when you are driving you can feel how quick you are. When I went back to garage after the race, everyone was very happy to finish with this result.
The worst moment was the Japanese Grand Prix the same year. In qualifying, I was quicker than other guys in Sector 1 and suddenly car stopped with gear problem. That was a really bad moment for the team and for me.
What is your favourite racing circuit in the world?
For any Japanese driver, it is always the Suzuka circuit.
Are you happy with the latest rule changes that have been brought in to improve the racing? What is your opinion of the current state of F1?
Sometimes you would better to have changes, but only if it makes the racing more spectacular.