Yuki Tsunoda is set to become the 21st F1 driver from Japan after joining the AlphaTauri team for 2021, following a successful Formula 2 campaign in which he finished third, classifying as the best rookie.
Despite Japan’s rich love and passion for motorsport, its success in F1, some may argue, has been limited. Tsunoda, backed by Red Bull and Honda, has been nominated as its latest hopeful as he looks to add to the nation’s accomplishments in the championship.
Japan’s driver history with F1 stretches back to 1975, when Hiroshi Fushida had a short, unprosperous career with the Japanese Maki Engineering team, while the likes of Taki Inoue and Yuji Ide have also gained notoriety – but not always for the right reasons.
Since then, there has been more illustrious careers that Tsunoda will surely aim to replicate – and better.
Nakajima became the first Japanese driver to score Championship points in just his second career race start in 1987. Partnering Ayrton Senna, who at the time was not a World Champion but carried a heavy reputation nonetheless, Nakajima finished sixth at the San Marino Grand Prix, before following it up with fifth in Belgium one race later.
Although he was out-classed by Senna throughout the year, Nakajima took fourth at the Belgian Grand Prix, before taking a final points finish of the year at his home race in Japan, the first world championship event to take place at the famed Suzuka circuit.
Nakajima remained at Lotus for two more years alongside Nelson Piquet, scoring another fourth place and a fastest lap at the 1989 Australian Grand Prix – his last race for the Lotus team.
In 1990, he switched to Tyrrell, however his maiden F1 season of 1987 with Lotus proved to be his most successful, as he scored just five more points finishes in the final four years of his career.
Suzuki made his debut for Larrousse at the 1988 Japanese Grand Prix but then failed to make it through pre-qualifying at all 16 events in 1989 thanks to dreadfully uncompetitive Zakspeed machinery.
Suzuki returned to Larrousse in 1990, securing his first points at the British Grand Prix, and added another sixth-place finish in Spain’s Jerez round.
The penultimate event of the campaign in Japan, which followed the round at Jerez, witnessed the infamous opening lap collision between Senna and Ayrton Prost. The absence of the title contenders from the rest of the race opened the doors for lesser-fancied drivers and Suzuki claimed a famous podium in front of his home supporters.
A two-year, uninspiring stint with Footwork followed his time with Larrousse, before he made a smattering of appearances with Ligier in 1995, claiming fifth in Germany. In his post-driving career, he founded the Honda-backed Super Aguri team that competed in F1 from 2006 to 2008.
Throughout the ‘90s, Japan continued to produce a respectable quantity of F1 drivers, though none grabbed widespread attention.
In 2002, the highly-rated Sato joined Jordan but had to wait until the final round of the season, in Japan, to pick up his first career points.
It would be a whole year before Sato raced again, when he stepped into the BAR seat at the final round of the 2003 season at Suzuka after 1997 World Champion Jacques Villeneuve quit the team.
His first full season with BAR in 2004 proved to be the most prolific of his seven-year F1 career. After two fifth-place finishes early in the year, Sato finished third at the US Grand Prix, taking his one and only F1 podium, and scored in six of the last seven rounds.
Such form would not greet Sato again, who joined Super Aguri in 2006, scoring the team’s only points in Spain and Canada in 2007. Following his F1 career, Sato found a drive in IndyCar, with his career in the United States continuing to flourish at the age of 43, having added a second Indianapolis 500 triumph in August.
Nakajima’s presence on this list may raise some eyebrows given his limited success in Formula 1 but his time in the championship was followed by a trophy-laden career elsewhere.
The son of Satoru joined Nico Rosberg at Williams for 2008 and 2009, having made his debut with the team at the final round of the 2007 season.
Nakajima scored all nine of his career Championship points in 2008 as a dismal 2009 campaign sealed his fate, though not before an attempted return with the bizarre Stefan GP entry in 2010 led nowhere.
His racing career didn’t slow down however, as he found instant success in Super Formula in 2011, coming second in the Championship before topping the standings the following year in 2012.
He took the Super Formula title again in 2014, and at that stage, was making a name for himself in Endurance racing, having joined Toyota in the LMP1 class of the World Endurance Championship.
Although Toyota’s competition in WEC has decreased in recent years, Nakajima is still a three-time winner of the 24 Hours of Le Mans, and the 2018-19 WEC Champion.
Tsunoda’s most recent predecessor, Kobayashi was quick to establish himself as a real prospect in F1, flying onto the scene in late 2009 with some wild driving as a replacement for the injured Timo Glock.
Sauber noted its interest and recruited Kobayashi for 2010, posting some respectable results in the second half of the campaign, remaining for 2011, where he continued to put in some entertaining drives. Sauber built a rapid car in 2012, with Kobayashi starting from the front-row in Belgium, where he was wiped out in the multi-car pile-up. He captured a well-received podium on home soil in Japan but dropped off the grid for 2013 as Sauber was forced to seek funding.
Kobayashi returned in 2014, albeit with the backmarker Caterham team, with which there was little to cheer about, remaining outside of the points.
Kobayashi followed in Nakajima’s footsteps, finding success in Endurance racing with Toyota, but is still awaiting a first 24 Hours of Le Mans win, despite finishing second on three occasions.