Today marks the 30th birthday for our friend and former F1 driver, Sakon Yamamoto!
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 excellent 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 2007, but Sakon acquitted himself generally well.
Again, he was not called up to a full-time role for the following season, and spent his time honing his craft in GP2, without the results to justify his enthusiasm and passion.
With Kolles steering the ship at the helm of 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 that Sakon got the call-up to the team as one of its official test and reserve drivers, alongside the very experienced Christian Klien.
It was little surprise that he was given a handful of outings by the team over the course of the season, and once again his services remained unused the following year, despite being awarded the nominal title of being Virgin Racing’s ‘reserve driver’ for the 2011 season.
You can read our exclusive interview with Sakon by clicking on the thumbnail below:
|READ OUR EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW WITH SAKON YAMAMOTO HERE:|
This Japanese driver might well be criticised for buying his seat, but he can also drive
[Images via LAT, Motorsport.com, Sutton Images, The Cahier Archive, XPB]