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Fearless & Underrated – The man from Japan

Credit: Florent Gooden / DPPI / Michelin

In the third chapter of the series were I look at some of the best racing drivers who are still racing today, I look at Japan which in itself is a country full of hard-working people who never give up and always try their best. The person I’m about to talk about represents what his country is all about and I love his style.

Kamui Kobayashi is arguably the most underrated driver to have raced in Formula One. He was a relentless, inferior machine. His penchant for passing made for great watching and it showed his inner racer capabilities. A natural talent and a style that was super aggressive yet respectful, something that I don’t really think we have seen since he left F1.

It must be said that Takuma Sato is another great driver to have come from Japan and to conquer the international world. He is of course the only Indy 500 champion to come from Asia but he doesn’t quite have the level of Kobayashi but he’s a solid driver nonetheless.

Before we get into his F1 career and series that he did before that, we have to look at what is Kobayashi’s greatest moment in his career and one of the best moments to ever happen at that event; it was of course that special lap in the second qualifying session of the 2017 Le Mans 24 Hours.

It was the fastest ever lap around the Circuit de la Sarthe. We have to remember that nowadays, the Le Mans circuit is longer than it used to be, it’s made to slow down the cars and the speeds should be a bit lower than they’re used to be. Hans-Joachim Stuck’s qualifying run in 1985 of a 3m 14.80 at an average speed of 251.882 km/h (156.512 mph). Remember, there were no chicanes down the Mulsanne Straight and most of the corners were a bit more open. Cars would hit speeds of up to 250MPH whereas when Kobayashi did his lap, he only just got over 200MPH.

Lets get onto the lap itself then. 3 minutes and 14.791 seconds was the time it took to complete 8.469 miles of the classic Le Mans track. It was spectacular and I saw no mistakes from a lap and I tend to see even the smallest error from a driver on a hot lap. Kobayashi made all of his time through the corners which just shows how brave he was because he was right on the edge and took every bit of speed that he could into the corners. The speed of the car through the Porsche Curves is just insane, the bravery, the confidence, the trust in the car was all there. He was over 2 seconds quicker than anyone else was that weekend which is mesmerising considering there aren’t many corners on the circuit. His use of the lift and coast technique was beautiful so that he could maximise the hybrid boost to accelerate out of the corners like a rocket, he hit all of his apexes, used all of the road and put a stonking lap which I couldn’t believe at the time.

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The weather conditions were immaculate. He had a tailwind on the straights helped the car go a bit faster, and a headwind worked with the car’s aerodynamics on the Porsche Curves to keep it planted there. The perfect lap at the perfect time was made and we may never see a lap that quick around Le Mans in our life times.

For me, Kobayashi’s lap should be up there with Senna’s 1988 Monaco pole lap when he was 1.5 seconds quicker than Prost. It’s as good as Schumacher’s Monaco lap in 1996. Greg Murphy’s “Lap of the Gods” at Bathurst in 2003, Scott Mclaughlin’s stunner of a lap at Bathurst last year, any epic lap around any legendary circuit.

He’s done some supremely quick stints at various WEC rounds and loves the high-speed tracks; which is why he can deliver at Silverstone, Spa and any round on the WEC calendar because they’re all high-speed circuits. In my opinion, he’s the best Toyota driver at the moment (Alonso is an uncertainty for now) and I also think Kobayashi is having to put up with the slowest driver in the team. I don’t mean it in a bad way, but Jose Maria Lopez has yet to deliver and get on top of the Toyota and he’s made some mistakes which have cost the team and his car. But Kobayashi can recover any time that is lost from Lopez and put Toyota back in the fight. His pure speed will hopefully give Toyota that Le Mans win which they have agonisingly been waiting for.

Credit: Alastair Staley / GP2 Series Media Service

But before his WEC duties, at the age of just 19, Kobayashi won the Formula Renault 2.0 title and the Formula 2.0 Renault Italy title. He then won the GP2 Asia championship in 2009 with a round to spare but it never developed into anything special in the main GP2 series.

As soon as he got into F1 though, he stamped his authority on everyone and showed his unique character and driving style. He took points in his first ever race at Brazil in 2009 and didn’t give Jenson Button an easy ride despite Button going for the championship and needing to overtake cars as quickly as possible. Button described Kobayashi as, “absolutely crazy, very aggressive.” For a debut grand prix and to show no fear against the championship leader in a race that could give him the championship shows that he really doesn’t care who he’s up against and just wants to fight and race hard. He finished 6th in the next race but that would be the last time he drove a Toyota F1 car after they pulled out of F1 at the end of the season.

Sauber picked up the 31-year-old for the 2010 season and while it was a tough start to the year, Kobayashi improved and showed more maturity as the year progressed. Brilliant overtakes against his rivals in the midfield in Valencia and Suzuka were just spectacular to witness. I remember when he just overtook car after car at the hairpin in Suzuka and being astounded by how far back he was and passing cars up the inside and the outside.

Although he scored fewer points the following year he impressed yet again with a 5th place at Monaco and backing it up with the drive of his life in Canada in torrential rainy conditions running in 2nd place. As the track started to dry, he ended up dropping back down to 7th but it was still a fantastic drive in the rain. Murray Walker said that Kobayashi was “without a doubt Japan’s best F1 driver yet” whilst Martin Brundle praised his amazing overtaking prowess:

“He gets to the normal braking point and then goes, ‘Now, which one is the brake again? That’s right, it’s on the left,’ and he just sails past people!”

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2012 was by far Kobayashi’s best season. A 5th place in Spain and a 4th place later in the season in Germany put Kobayashi in a good place but it was teammate Sergio Perez who outshone him. He put in a stonking lap at Spa to qualify a career high second place but was one of 5 cars to be caught up in that collision which was caused by Romain Grosjean. Who knows what would have happened, had he made it through the mayhem at the first corner.

But an F1 season has its ups and downs and Kobayashi had a mega weekend at his home Grand Prix. He qualified 4th and held off a charging Jenson Button to take his only F1 podium, but for him it couldn’t come at a better venue. He’s only the 3rd Japanese driver to stand on the podium in F1 joining Takuma Sato and Aguri Suzuki. It was fully deserved and the amazing Japanese fans were rewarded with a Japanese driver on the podium at a Japanese GP. Will it ever happen again?

Ironically, his last season at Sauber came when he had his best. But it didn’t help that his new team-mate Sergio Perez was outperforming him.

Despite this he managed to secure his first F1 podium in front of his home supporters with 3rd at the Japanese Grands Prix, holding off Jenson Button. He once again finished 12th in the standings, but this time doubling his haul with 60 points. That was the end of his Sauber F1 career.

2013 was a quiet year for Kobayashi but a return to F1 in 2014 with Caterham wasn’t any better. We hardly saw him on the TV and his aggressive driving style wasn’t able to shine. It was a sad end to his F1 career as the team and himself had a poor relationship.

Kobayashi joins Mike Conway and Jose Maria Lopez for the current FIA WEC Super Season (Credit: Jean Michel Le Meur / DPPI / Michelin)

Kobayashi would go back to Japan to race in the very competitive Super Formula series. He scored 3 podiums which rewarded him a drive with Toyota in 2016 were he still races today. Staggeringly, Kobayashi only has one race win which was at Fuji in 2016 but he is now able to show his supreme speed again. The faster the car, the quicker Kobayashi goes; I think he’s found the perfect home in the World Endurance Championship.

The WEC will be his main focus again and with a “super-season” Kobayashi and Toyota will have two opportunities to win the biggest endurance race in the world, Le Mans. Surely it will happen this year with stunning drivers like Kobayashi and Fernando Alonso in each of the 2 cars.

I reiterate the importance of that pole position lap from Kobayashi last year. It defines him as a driver and whilst he hasn’t been allowed to show his credentials in F1, he has instead shown that he’s a world-class driver with incredible natural speed.

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