The Driver Files: Satoru Nakajima
IN A NEW regular series, I will be profiling the careers of those drivers who won races and championships and those who either didn’t get the luck, or just failed at the top level of motorsport. All drivers featured will have competed between the years 1991-2011.
The next entry was a breakthrough driver and gave Japan its first sight of the sport, which has continued to grow ever since. A pioneer for Japanese motorsport; Satoru Nakajima.
NAME: Satoru Nakajima
TEAMS: Lotus (1987-1989), Tyrrell (1990-1991)
GP STARTS: 74
BEST FINISH: 4th (1987 British GP)
BORN from a farming family, Satoru Nakajima had a passion for motorsport from an early age. His success in Formula One was largely modest but he set the path for a flux of Japanese drivers like Ukyo Katayama, Takuma Sato and his son Kazuki to have all appeared in the sport.
Nakajima dominanted the Japanese Formula Two series but was a very late entrant into F1 at the age of 34. He debuted for the famous Lotus team in 1987, part of a new package which included Honda engines and Camel tobacco sponsorship. Nakajima drove alongside Ayrton Senna in his first season and was determined to be known for his own qualities rather than just a pay driver. Of course, he couldn’t compete with Senna but he showed flashes of natural speed. Scoring a point in only his second event at the 1987 San Marino Grand Prix was a good start and Satoru was part of a Honda grand slam at Silverstone, finishing fourth behind Nigel Mansell, Nelson Piquet and Senna. A further point in the inaugural Japanese event at Suzuka sent his home supporters mad and he finished a creditable 12th in the championship, having scored seven points in total.
As Senna moved onto McLaren and the bitter rivalry with Alain Prost began, Nakajima stayed with Lotus for 1988 and was partnered by the defending champion Piquet. The season started prominsingly with a point in Brazil but Nakajima’s shock failure to qualify for Monaco was the beginning of the end for the Lotus Honda partnership, compounded when Piquet crashed in the race on the first lap. Satoru was never a fan of street circuits and he repeated his Monaco abscence on raceday by failing to make the cut on the temporary and dreadful Detroit circuit for the United States round. A spate of retirements and mistakes followed in the remainder of the season and it was a case of second season syndrome. Nakajima scored just one point all season and that was in the first race.
As Honda focused on their dominance with McLaren, Lotus decline had begun. The team had to take the heavyweight Judd engine for 1989 and the failure of Nakajima and Piquet to qualify for the 1989 Belgian Grand Prix was the first time that the British make had no car on the grid in 30 years. He failed to qualify in Monaco again and Canada but it came good at the season finale in Australia. Watched by a massive Japanese audience, Satoru benefited from the filthy conditions in Adelaide to finish fourth from 23rd on the grid. In a race where staying on the circuit was a notable achievement, he set the fastest lap on lap 64 too.
Two lacklustre years at Tyrrell followed for Nakajima. He paired up with Jean Alesi for 1990 and scored three sixth place finishes in the USA, Italy and once more on his Japanese homeland at Suzuka. There was a brief link-up with Honda again in 1991 as Stefano Modena joined Satoru. Fifth in Phoenix was his only highlight of 1991 although a mechanical problem robbed him of fourth in another wet race at Imola. He announced his retirement from Formula One at Hockenheim and bowed out with the minimum of fuss.
His F1 career ended but involvement with motorsport didn’t end there. Satoru worked closely with Honda and helped develop their engines for use in the CART and IRL series over in America. He managed the brief career in F1 of Tora Takagi in 1998/1999 and he owns the Nakajima Racing entry in Japanese Formula Nippon. He helped Tom Coronel and Ralph Firman to titles in this competition. His son Kazuki raced for two seasons with Williams in 2008 and 2009 and today, Satoru still owns his own team in Formula Nippon with both of his two sons competing in the series.
Success in Formula One was limited for Satoru Nakajima but his impact put Japan firmly on the Grand Prix map for good.
NEXT TIME ON THE DRIVER FILES: Moments of glory at the Nurburgring and Monza in a largely unspectacular career and a Spaniard on the grid before the Alonso days, Marc Gene.