Text and photos by Cheryl Tay
After a one-year hiatus, Kazuki Nakajima has returned home to Japan to race but his sights are still set on getting back into Formula 1. CHERYL TAY speaks to him at Autopolis International Racing Circuit to find out more about his life after F1…
Finding himself without a drive for the 2010 Formula 1 season, Kazuki Nakajima stayed on in the United Kingdom for the rest of the year in wait of an opportunity to return to the pinnacle of motor racing. Having driven alongside Nico Rosberg in the Williams-Toyota team for two years in 2008 and 2009, Nakajima was then taken off the team. Plans were in place for him to drive for new entrant Stefan GP but their application to F1 was rejected by the FIA.
“My result in 2009 was quite bad, hence I couldn’t keep my place in F1. There was a chance for me to stay on in F1 with Stefan GP so I remained in the UK and waited. The 2010 F1 entry list was only confirmed at the end of March last year, when it was announced that Stefan GP was not granted permission to compete.
“It was too late to go into another racing series so I simply stayed on in the UK. It has been my base for five years now and I stayed on just in case some opportunity comes up for me; it’s easier to be there than back home in Japan,” said the 26-year-old Japanese who is the elder son of Satoru Nakajima, Japan’s first full-time F1 driver.
Completely off racing the whole of last year, Nakajima eventually returned home to Japan to race for top Japanese team Petronas TOM’S for the 2011 season. Racing in Formula Nippon for the first time, Nakajima is also racing in Super GT.
“It has always been an option for me to race in Japan. I am Japanese and supported by Toyota, so it is pretty normal to return home and race here. As a racing driver, it is my responsibility to do a good job each time I get behind the wheel. It is always important to do your best wherever you are, so I will work hard and keep my goals high and do well.”
Born to a racing driver father, it was no surprise that Nakajima and his younger brother Daisuke would get into racing too. Both the Nakajima sons are racing in the same Formula Nippon series but on different teams – Daisuke is driving for Nakajima Racing, the family-owned team.
“My dad is the reason why I got into racing. If he wasn’t a racer, maybe I wouldn’t be one and I wouldn’t get to know racing the way I do. Having been a driver himself, he understands everything and so it was probably easier for me to get into racing than others. I don’t see it so much as an advantage; yes there is more attention but there can be disadvantages too,” he said.
Is there more pressure from living in the shadows of his racing driver father?
“In the earlier stages of my career, there was some pressure but other than that it’s been cool. Once you’re in the race car on the race track, you only rely on yourself so it doesn’t matter who your father is. I want to be like him, but I didn’t make it in F1 as well as he did,” Nakajima shared.
Starting with karting in 1996, Nakajima was the Suzuka Formula ICA karting champion three years later and was then picked up by Toyota for their Young Drivers’ Programme. He attained a scholarship in Formula Toyota, won it and then raced in the Japanese Formula 3 series. In 2006 he was up in the Formula 3 Euroseries alongside the likes of Sebastian Vettel.
He got into an F1 car for the first time that same year where he drove four demonstration laps in wet conditions at Fuji Speedway. Nakajima was the test driver for Williams-Toyota in 2007, while also racing in the GP2 series where he finished top rookie despite having no race wins. He lived his dream for two years in 2008 and 2009 in F1 before he lost his place in the team. After a one-year break, Nakajima is now racing in Japan.
At Round 2 of Formula Nippon where I interviewed him, Nakajima did very well to finish the race in first place. This is his first win since 2006 in the Formula 3 Euroseries, as he clocked no wins in GP2 and F1 thereafter.
The race started in wet conditions, but Nakajima made the call to change to dry tyres after the first lap, predicting that the track will dry up. The strategy paid off and Nakajima shot up to second place as everyone else started pitting to switch tyres in later laps. Hunting down the race leader Kazuya Oshima and closing in on him lap after lap, Nakajima finally took him and gunned for the chequered flag.
“I started the race in 13th place after making a mistake in qualifying. The race conditions were difficult but the team made a great decision and our strategy worked! It’s been a long time since I won a race, like five years ago, so this feels great. Having come here from F1, there is a lot of pressure as people expect me to do a good job. However, Formula Nippon and F1 are essentially two very different race series,” Nakajima told me at the post-race press conference.
Determined to do put in his best and do well for the rest of the season, Nakajima still has that one thing on his mind.
“The ultimate goal is to get back into F1. I miss driving in F1 on the most competitive tracks in the world with the best resources and the quickest cars. To race in that world is everyone’s dream. Formula Nippon is competitive too but F1 is just different; it is a whole world of its own.”
DRIVER TRIVIA: Getting to know Kazuki Nakajima better
1. Boxers or briefs?
Boxers, more comfortable!
2. Tattoo or piercing?
I don’t have either, but since I’m a guy I would choose tattoo. If I’m a girl I would go for a piercing over a tattoo.
3. Girls with long or short hair?
I think it depends on the person and whatever style suits her best. I have a big heart and can accept anything!
4. iPhone or Blackberry?
iPhone although I don’t use one. I use something similar though – the Samsung Galaxy.
5. Sandals or slippers?
Sandals as they are more stable.
6. Jeans or berms?
7. Favourite colour?
8. Daily drive?
I drive the Lexus CT200h and I actually like it a lot. In Tokyo you don’t really need a big car and such compact cars are perfect. Fuel consumption is good and I do have fun driving this hybrid car. Such cars are not typical of racing drivers I know but hey I enjoy driving that way too!
9. How did you balance studies and racing?
I was in university for two years until 2005, but I quit to go racing full-time. I was not a great student and attending university was mainly to learn English so it would help me – and it did help a lot – when I raced in Europe.
10. Advice for aspiring racers?
Do your best at all times. Racing is a sport that requires talent but you can do a lot to prepare too. Think more than just racing, go beyond the driving and think of how you can value-add.
*This was first published in Autosport Asia.