When a father was once a racing driver or is involved in motorsports in some way, it is no surprise that the son (or in some cases, the daughter even) will end up in racing too. So for the first full-time Japanese Formula 1 driver Satoru Nakajima to set up his own race team – Nakajima Racing – and have both sons as full-time racing drivers, it is only natural.
Invited to Kyushu, Japan for seven days, I got to try my hand at making umegae-mochi, soba noodles and even the traditional Japanese candle. I sat on a rickshaw, awed myself over at Kikuchi Gorge, painted a Hakata doll and gave horse meat a go. It is safe to travel to Kyushu as it is situated quite far away from the affected areas. The highlight of the trip had to be the weekend at Autopolis international racing course, which hosted Round 2 of Formula Nippon then – Japan’s top level of motor racing.
Getting to speak to Satoru and his sons at the track, I found it very heartwarming that the whole family is actively involved in racing, sharing the love for motorsports. “I retired from racing a long time ago – I left F1 at the age of 38 and I wanted to keep racing as part of my life. Now my sons are the ones racing, while I manage my team. Motorsports has become a lot more commercialised since my time but the essence of racing is still in the driving,” said Satoru.
Satoru’s elder son Kazuki Nakajima, 26, was involved in Formula 1 from 2007 to 2009, but was dropped by the Williams team at the end of the 2009 season. He was supposed to be signed for Stefan GP, an F1 team whose entry got rejected for the 2010 season. Left without a drive for 2010, Kazuki took a hiatus from racing before returning to Japan for the 2011 Formula Nippon season with TOM’S, a top racing team in Japan. When asked how he feels about it, Kazuki said, “I will work hard and try to get back to Formula 1 as there is nothing like it anywhere else.”
Racing for his father’s team, the younger Daisuke, 22, has competed at the British Formula 3 championship and is now racing against his brother in the same series. “Yes, there is pressure being the son of a former racing driver, especially with my father’s status. I didn’t really have a choice about getting into racing, but I love cars anyway so it’s ok. I was born with a racing driver as a father so I wouldn’t know how it would feel like otherwise,” Daisuke told me during the interview at their hospitality tent.
From a racing driver to a team owner, life has become very different for Satoru although he is still in the same line. He said, “It is a lot more stressful being a team owner as there is a lot of management involved and I have to take care of the staffs as well as the drivers. Compared to just being a racing driver, when all I had to do was focus on driving.” In addition, watching his sons race makes him more nervous than if he is at the wheel himself.
That weekend, Kazuki did very well and won the race after executing a strategy of changing to dry tyres after the first lap, banking for the weather to clear up and dry up the track. His last ever race win was all the way back in 2006 and it felt good being at the top of the podium finally.
“There has been a lot of pressure, having come from F1 to here. People are expecting me to do a good job. I took a complete break from racing for a year and the cars in F1 are different from Formula Nippon’s. This round I started in 13th place after I messed up qualifying and was not expecting to win. The strategy worked out wonderfully and I am really happy.” Daisuke however, made a mistake and spun himself out, ending his race prematurely.
Formula Nippon also has another star in the paddock by the name of Masahiko Kondo – the Japanese singer Matchy. Owner of the team Kondo Racing, the 46-year-old is quite a celebrity – first famous for his singing before he started racing and then set up a racing team called Kondo Racing when he stopped driving.
With an extremely busy schedule, I was only given five minutes to interview him and could only speak to him briefly. He told me, “When I stopped driving, I thought about what I can do for the industry, so I set up my own team to nurture young talent and ultimate help them to get into F1. I enjoy singing and acting, whereas racing is challenging, stressful, nervous and more troubling. For the entertainment side, I have no specific objective and I just want to maintain my current status. In this line you must put in effort to maintain status or it will decline. As for Kondo Racing, I just hope it will become the top racing team in Japan one day.”
Formula Nippon was initially planned to come to Singapore next May, but with the various issues sprouting within SG Changi, the company that won the tender for Changi Motorsports Hub, the plans have been halted until further notice. Currently only held within Japan, the aim for Formula Nippon is to expand it beyond the country so as to bring awareness of the Japanese level of racing to the world outside. Once upon a time, drivers used to progress to F1 from Formula Nippon, which was evolved from previous series Formula 3000.
Kyushu is a quiet place away from city stress, rich in culture with lots of traditional activities for one to partake. The hotels I stayed in had no internet access, truly keeping one immersed in old-time peace. Somewhere in this tranquility is the Autopolis track which has never held an F1 race before but delivers exciting high-speed action no less. At the end of the long day at the track, I looked forward most to soaking myself in the natural onsen (hot spring) at the hotel.