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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.

Limited success, but Satoru Nakajima's time in F1 was big for Japan (datsun)

NAME: Satoru Nakajima

TEAMS: Lotus (1987-1989), Tyrrell (1990-1991)

POINTS: 16

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.

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The Driver Files: Bertrand Gachot

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 fourth driver featured in The Driver Files will be best remembered for a high-profile incident off-track which led to the big break for a certain seven time world champion.  Profiled is the Belgian, Bertrand Gachot.

Bertrand Gachot had a great time with Jordan...until his conviction in 1991 (Richards F1)

NAME: Bertrand Gachot

TEAMS: Onyx (1989), Rial (1989), Coloni (1990), Jordan (1991), Larrousse (1991-1992), Pacific (1994-1995)

POINTS: 5

GP STARTS: 47

BEST FINISH: 5th (1991 Canadian Grand Prix)

BERTRAND Gachot had a mixed career in motorsport, often driving for perennial backmarkers at its highest level, Formula One.  His peak came in 1991 and who knows what would have happened to a certain Michael Schumacher if Gachot hadn’t had an altercation with a London taxi driver.

Gachot’s main success in junior formulae was winning the British Formula Ford Championship in 1986.  He came runner-up in the British F3 series in 1987 to Johnny Herbert and there were strong second place finishes at Silverstone and Vallelunga in a single F3000 season, driving for Spirit Racing in 1988.  However in an era where there may have been more chance of getting into Grand Prix racing, Gachot certainly was not one of the leading stars in feeder categories.

Born in Luxembourg in 1962 Gachot is firmly known for his Belgian roots but did change his nationality to French in 1992.  In an interview a year earlier, he said; “I am not really one nationality. I feel very much a European, but today I have to accept that a united Europe is not yet a reality.”  This quote alone probably sums up Gachot’s Formula One career – acceptance that he would never quite reach the top.

He made his Grand Prix debut for the Onyx team in 1989, but his debut season was a real struggle as he was often a regular faller in the pre-qualifying stage on a Friday morning.  His first start and finish came in the 1989 French Grand Prix, with a 13th placed result.  12th at Silverstone a week later followed, but Gachot lost his drive to J.J Lehto before the season was out and he switched to fellow stragglers Rial for the final two races, failing to qualify on both occasions.

1990 was a total disaster with the switch to Coloni almost finishing off Gachot in Formula One.  The car was pathetic, starting with a Subaru engine that had no hope of ever making it past pre-qualifying.  A switch to Ford power from Hockenheim onwards didn’t help and Gachot only started getting past pre-qualifying when his former team, Onyx and the EuroBrun team folded before the season’s conclusion.  He failed to start a single event in 1990.

Despite his shortcomings so far Bertrand was signed up by Eddie Jordan for his debut season in F1.  1991 was looking hugely promising for all parties and Gachot matched his vastly experienced team-mate Andrea de Cesaris for much of the first half of the season.  He started Jordan’s first race in Phoenix when de Cesaris failed to pre-qualify and finished their first event too; a creditable eighth place result around the streets of Monaco.  He was a superb fifth in Canada, backing up de Cesaris fourth place result and scored points at both Silverstone and Hockenheim too.  The Hungarian Grand Prix might have brought an unspectacular ninth place race finish, but Bertrand did set the fastest lap ever at the time around the Hungaroring during the race.  During this period Bertrand was a shock winner of the 1991 Le Mans 24 Hours, alongside Johnny Herbert and Volker Weidler for the unfancied Mazda team.  His career though was about to tumble to its lowest point.

The previous December Gachot had been involved in an altercation with a London taxi driver at Hyde Park.  In the fracas that followed, Bertrand sprayed CS gas into the face of the driver who pressed charges.  Although CS gas in the UK is illegal to use, many in Formula One at the time believed that Gachot’s had only used the action in self-defence, so a fine or suspended sentence was more likely.  It was a surprise then when he was sentenced to six months in jail for possession of the gas and 18 months for causing grevious bodily harm.  The sentence was handed out immediately before the Belgian Grand Prix.

He served two months in prison before an appeal was held and although his conviction wasn’t completely quashed, he was released on October 15 and flew to Suzuka in the hope that his contract with Jordan Grand Prix was still valid.  In his absence, Eddie Jordan had hired Michael Schumacher and given the legendary German his big break before his controversial switch to Benetton.  Roberto Moreno was parachuted into the car on a stopgap basis and the young Italian, Alessandro Zanardi had raced in Barcelona.  As Gachot admitted in an interview to Joe Saward in October 1991, he was disappointed with Eddie Jordan’s lack of support; “That disappointed me a lot, it was a drive which I thought was mine, but he didn’t want to do it because he had commitments with other people. He decided to interrupt the contract. I don’t know what the grounds were but I have had enough of lawyers and things like that. I’m not going to look into that. It’s going to be my advisors who will do that. I don’t want to get involved.”

When Eric Bernard unfortunately broke his leg during qualifying for the Japanese Grand Prix in 1991, a vacancy opened up at Larrousse.  Gachot snapped it up, but failed to qualify for the final race in Adelaide.  He stayed with Larrousse for 1992 and scored a sole championship point in Monaco, but had some run-ins with team-mate Ukyo Katayama during the season too.  Fourth at Le Mans in 1992 and an unsuccessful season in IndyCars followed before his involvement with the new Pacific team in 1994.  He only finished two races in two seasons for the fledgling team in which Bertrand was involved behind-the-scenes with its existance too.  When he stepped aside for no-hopers such as Giovanni Lavaggi, it was clear that Pacific were struggling for cash and they folded at the end of 1995.

Apart from a couple of sportscar outings, his career in motorsport was over as a driver, but Gachot still has contacts within Formula One and is concentrating on his business interests nowadays, which include energy drinks beverages.  Bertrand Gachot made some bad decisions in his time within Formula One, but many believe he got a rough break from justice in 1991 too and it stalled a promising and successful year upto that point.  He always kept fighting though and that is always a solid quality to have.

NEXT IN THE DRIVER FILES: The dynamic, fiery Colombian who gave Michael Schumacher more of a fight than most in the dominant Ferrari days, Juan Pablo Montoya.

OBE award for Eddie Jordan

Eddie Jordan received an unexpected honorary OBE in midweek (Wikipedia)

TV PUNDIT and former Grand Prix team boss Eddie Jordan has been made a honorary OBE by the Queen.  Jordan, who has just celebrated his 64th birthday said to his employers, the BBC; “When it’s not something you’re expecting you dismiss it.  It came as a big shock, but I’m thrilled.”

Born in Dublin in 1948, Jordan has had a colourful involvement in the sport ever since 1991, when his team made their debut.  It took eight years for victory success, when Damon Hill led Ralf Schumacher home to a famous 1-2 finish at the Belgian Grand Prix.  After 250 events, he sold his struggling team to Midland F1 in 2005, which is now known as Sahara Force India.  He has been part of the BBC F1 presenting team since they regained UK TV rights of the sport in 2009.  He has received the honour due to his services for motor racing and also, his fantastic charity work.  Jordan is a patron of the child cancer charity CLIC Sargent.

Having been absent from the BBC F1’s team in Malaysia, it is belived that EJ will be back for the corporation first live event of the season in Shanghai on April 14-15.

The Driver Files: Erik Comas

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 first driver featured in The Driver Files is the Frenchman, Erik Comas.

Erik Comas had a frustrating career in Formula One (Speed TV)

NAME: Erik Comas

TEAMS: Ligier (1991-92), Larrousse (1993-94)

POINTS: 7

GP STARTS: 59

BEST FINISH: 5th (1992 French Grand Prix)

ERIK Comas was part of the former French generation.  He came through the junior ranks alongside the likes of Eric Bernard and Jean Alesi.  In fact, Alesi only narrowly pipped him to the F3000 championship in 1989.  Erik bounced back to win the title the following season, adding to success in winning the French Formula 3 title in 1988.

With a proven record in junior formulae, Erik had forged himself a strong reputation and was signed by a Ligier team in 1991 that was going through a period of severe decline.  He was never the most exciting or vintage competitor, but had the ability to get the job done.  The 1991 Ligier Lamborghini was not a good car, proved by him failing to qualify for his first event in Phoenix.  Thierry Boutsen, a Grand Prix winner with Williams was his team-mate and he struggled too with a poor chassis.  Comas did well to match his more experienced team-mate, but neither driver scored a point.  Erik’s best result in his debut season was 8th placed in a carnaged Canadian Grand Prix.

Ligier switched to Renault engines in 1992 and things improved for both drivers.  This season turned out to be Comas’s peak in his F1 career.  He finished seven of the first nine events and came in the points on three separate occasions.  His best ever career result was a fifth place performance at his home event in France.  Sixth in Canada and Germany meant he finished equal 11th in the drivers championship, with four points.  However, his working relationship with Boutsen took a nosedive as they took each other off in two separate races; (Brazil & Hungary).  Both were fired at the end of the season, to be replaced by English duo Martin Brundle and Mark Blundell.

Before that though, Erik had a lucky escape during practice for the Belgian Grand Prix.  He had a mammoth shunt at the flat-out Blanchimont corner, which knocked him out.  Boutsen drove past the wreckage, but Ayrton Senna bravely stopped his McLaren, got out of his car and rushed to his stricken colleague.  He held Comas’s head still until the paramedics arrived.  Luckily, he only suffered concussion but his race weekend ended there and he never finished a race for Ligier again.

Staying loyal to French teams, Erik moved to Larrousse for 1993, partnered by the French no-hoper Phillipe Alliot.  He scrambled sixth place at Monza and qualified an excellent 11th in France, ahead of Riccardo Patrese’s Benetton and Gerhard Berger’s Ferrari.  However, the accident in Belgium the previous season seemed to have knocked any forward motions in his form.  As Larrousse’s finances seriously declined, Comas went backwards and plugged away through 1994, when he was partnered by many team-mates, including Olivier Beretta, Yannick Dalmas and Hideki Noda.  If anything, his career will be remembered more for a crazy incident on the fateful Imola weekend.

Following Senna’s serious accident, a member of the Larrousse team clearly didn’t realise the situation and allowed Comas out of the pitlane underneath a red flag.  He screamed through the flat Tamburello bend and was lucky to be flagged down without clobbering the medical helicopter or track officials.  The scenes were so distressing for Erik, he didn’t feel like taking the restart.  Although he got blamed for exiting the pits, it seemed like a team communication issue was the main fault.  Nevertheless, it was a ridiculous move and just added to the nightmare that was Imola 1994.

Comas managed sixth place finishes in Aida and at Hockenheim, but said during the year that he would retire from Formula One if he would end up being outqualified by a Simtek.  In Spa, David Brabham managed this and the Australian gloated afterwards, telling media; “I wish Erik a very happy retirement!’  He was replaced by the end of the season, with Jean Denis Delatraz taking his seat for the season finale in Australia.

Since Formula One ended for him, Comas spent several years competing in GT racing in Japan, as well as focusing on driver management, promoting further French talent.  He suffered from ill health in 2006 and effectively retired from all forms of racing.  Today, he runs Comas Historic Racing, which is a service that provides customers to pay and drive historic rally driving cars.

Erik Comas ended up having a frustrating Formula One career, which promised much after success in junior formulae, but ended with little joy.

NEXT UP IN THE DRIVER FILES: An Italian whose career ended thanks to one of the worst chassis/engine combinations in history – Stefano Modena