Formula 1 Insight

Origins and Champions

With Takuma Sato's departure with Super Aguri from the F1 grid, Kazuki Nakajima becomes the sole Japanese representative amongst current F1 race drivers. This has been generally the case with Japanese drivers, their presence limited to one and sometimes two since Kazuki's father, Satoru Nakajima, made his debut in 1987. This steady and continuing presence is actually unusual in F1, only the United Kingdom, Italy and Brazil having at least one representative in any given period.

Kazuki Nakajima
Rising son, Kazuki Nakajima

Formula One began with Italian domination in both cars and drivers but, since the fifties, their driving presence has settled into a pattern similar to the UK's - almost always there but never outnumbering the rest. Other countries have experienced wild fluctuations in numbers of F1 drivers, rapid invasions being followed by a tailing off, sometimes to complete absence.

The first great influx of a single nationality occurred during the seventies and into the eighties, when French drivers became a must-have, this explosion being caused almost entirely by the Elf Young Drivers Scheme. Great names from this period include Jean-Pierre Jarier, Patrick Tambay, Didier Pironi, Alain Prost, Rene Arnoux and Olivier Panis.

As the Elf Scheme was cut back, this supply of young drivers waned and Sebastien Bourdais is the sole Frenchman on this year's grid. Spain is presently enjoying a moment in the sun, thanks to the amazing talent that is Fernando Alonso, but the quality of potential replacements seems to be lacking somewhat. Instead, there has been a steady increase in the number of German F1 drivers, sparked, no doubt, by the phenomenal success of Michael Schumacher. This year we have five Germans with race seats, Nick Heidfeld, Nico Rosberg, Timo Glock, Sebastian Vettel and Adrian Sutil. Add the Williams test driver, Nico Hulkenberg, and this amounts to an invasion.

It is not one that is likely to last long, however. With Michael retired, the onus is on the present drivers to prove their worth and, to date, only Heidfeld and Rosberg are delivering. Reality sets in as Glock, Vettel and Sutil struggle to assert themselves and the future may well look elsewhere for its world champions.

So where are those future stars likely to come from? Interestingly, it might be that India begins to supply a steady stream of gifted youngsters, although this will take time and will be dependent upon the success of the Force India team. If Vijay Mallya's plans bear fruit, his search for young Indian drivers in karting will produce a flood of new talent into the sport.

I used to think that there would come a time when F1 would be dominated by Japanese drivers but the inability of Japanese teams to make a big impact on the sport must decrease this chance. If either Honda or Toyota drop out of F1, opportunities for new Japanese drivers will shrink accordingly. Much rests on the shoulders of Kazuki Nakajima as a result.

Kamui Kobayashi and Sakon Yamamoto wait in the wings but do not seem to be brilliant prospects and other possibilities are not making themselves known. Young Kazuki must prove to the world, therefore, that Japanese drivers can be more than highly entertaining accidents looking for a place to happen. The signs are good that he might just manage this.

Other countries tend to provide occasional drivers, Argentina, Colombia, Mexico, the Netherlands, Sweden and others having made their contributions. Finland appears to be bidding for a regular spot but its population is probably too small to ever supply the quantity that France has achieved. They did manage to dominate rallying in the sixties and seventies, however, so cannot be completely ruled out.

It would be nice if Robert Kubica could become champion one day, however. As the solitary Pole on the grid, he would be striking a blow for the new countries to F1, places like Estonia (Marko Asmer) and Russia (Vitaly Petrov). As F1 extends its popularity to become more international than ever, the likelihood is that an increasing number of drivers will appear from countries that have never featured before. And that is how it should be.


Keith Collantine
I wouldn't discount Kamui Kobayashi just yet - he did a load of pre-season testing for Toyota and won the GP2 sprint race at Barcelona.

It looks like Hiroki Yoshimoto's dropped off the radar again after re-surfacing in GP2 Asia over the winter.

The Estonian chap you're thinking of as Marko Asmer, I believe! ('07 British F3 champ and BMW test driver).
Date Added: 08/05/2008

Alianora La Canta
It may interest you to know that Marko Esmer's PR representative is Helen Temple, who used to be PR for Jordan.

Date Added: 08/05/2008

Steven Roy
Marko Asmer has to have a big future and I expect Mike Conway who is managed by MB2 to also have a big future.

It is odd how some countries go in and out of fashion when it comes to F1 drivers. New Zealand had McLaren and Amon and nothing since although there is Brendon Hartley(?) potentially in the future. Similarly the USA has not had a real presence since the days of Phil Hill, Dan Gurney and Mario Andretti. Maybe if Marco Andretti (or Danica Patrick) makes a big impression we will have more US drivers in future.

It has always struck me as odd that Argentina had Fangio (and Marimon) in the 50s and little else since. You can't really count Norberto Fontana or Ricardo Rosset. Yet its neighbour Brazil which was much later in haing a successful driver has had a constant stream ever since.

I wonder which will be the next country to have its first GP driver.
Date Added: 08/05/2008

Keith: I haven't discounted Kobayashi yet - just not seen anything as yet to indicate an outstanding talent. There's plenty of time for him to prove me wrong, of course!

Thanks for the heads-up about Marko Asmer - fixed. :D

Alianora: Connections, connections, everywhere!

Steven: Let's not forget the enigmatic Argentinian, Carlos Reutemann. The guy was very quick at times, spoiled only by his tendency to moodiness.

As for the next country to have its first GP driver, I think we'd have to put down little Estonia as the best bet. F1 is truly an international sport!
Date Added: 09/05/2008

Steven Roy
How did I miss Reutemann. I was so busy trying to think of a third Argetinian driver from the fifties that I skipped over a few decades. I am sure there was another in the fifties but I can't think who he was. I had to resort to Wikipedia (yuk) and found out I was thinking about Jose Froilan Gonzalez. Strange how the brain works sometimes. How can I know there was another Argentinian but not have a clue who he was?

Reutemann should have been world champion had he not switched his head off in Las Vegas. A lot of people have lost lots of things there over the years but not an F1 world championship.
Date Added: 09/05/2008

Hah, great point about Las Vegas, Steven! :D
Date Added: 09/05/2008

When it comes to New Zealand drivers, surely Denny Hulme deserves a mention!?

Wonder if Alvaro Parente might become the first Portuguese F1 driver of note?

And yes, I think Asmer is perhaps a bit special...
Date Added: 09/05/2008

Certainly Denny Hulme deserves a mention as a New Zealander and champion of note. Perhaps it was the balding that makes us forget him, although it certainly didn't bother Stirling Moss...

Haven't seen enough of Parente to comment, really, but everyone seems agreed that Asmer is a guy to watch.
Date Added: 09/05/2008

Steven Roy
I was in the same position with New Zealanders as with the Argentinians in that I knew there was another around the same time but couldn't think who it was. Imagine missing the most successful driver they ever had? OOPS

Alvaro Parente was getting really good publicity when he was in F3 but kind of disappeared of the radar in the World Series. Now that he is back in a sensible championship we will find out if he is going to make it in F1 or if he will be another like Alain van der Merwe and Jamie Green who looked really good but just didn't make it.
Date Added: 10/05/2008

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