Top Stories from the Sports pages of the International Herald Tribune,
Friday, October 29, 1999

Playing Japanese Trump Card?

Irvine Aims to Win Grand Prix Title on Favored Circuit

By Brad Spurgeon International Herald Tribune
PARIS - Japan's motor racing culture has helped to create several Formula One world champions, although none of them has been Japanese.

In the last race of the season, the Japanese Grand Prix at Suzuka on Sunday, Eddie Irvine will be counting on his experience of racing in Japan to give him an edge over Mika Hakkinen in the battle to win the drivers' title.

Irvine drove in the local Formula 3000 series in Japan from 1991 to 1993, and he started his Formula One career at the Japanese Grand Prix at Suzuka in 1993 driving a Jordan to a sensational sixth place.

''If I were to win the championship and I could choose where to win it, this is the place I would want to do it,'' Irvine said in Suzuka on Thursday. ''I came out of amateur racing in Europe into what was a very professional series at the time, here in Japan, and this is the country where I became a proper racing driver.''

Japan has not been a bad place for Hakkinen, either. Last year in Japan, he won both the race and his first drivers' title. He is popular with the Japanese fans, and has usually done well on the track there, finishing third in 1993 and 1996, and second in 1995.

But he does not have as much experience in Japan as Irvine and several other drivers in Formula One. With its large automobile industry, Japan has one of the world's strongest racing cultures, and in recent years it has become a training ground for European drivers.

''It can be a bit of a parking place if a driver's career has stalled out in Europe,'' said Harvey Postlethwaite shortly before his death this year of a heart attack while setting up a now-aborted Formula One team for Honda. ''Japanese Formula 3000 is in some ways even closer to Formula One than European Formula 3000 because you've got more freedom, more tire work, and whatnot.''

Jacques Villeneuve and Heinz-Harald Frentzen went to Japan, before entering Formula One, to try to revive careers that had stalled in Europe. And Johnny Herbert, who won the European Grand Prix at the Nurburgring last month, raced in Japanese Formula 3000 in 1991 after a false start in Formula One.

Ralf Schumacher went to Japan in 1996 and won the All Nippon Formula 3000 series, after finishing only second and third in Formula 3 championships in Europe. He then moved straight to Formula One with the Jordan team in 1997.

Frentzen raced in a Japanese prototype series in 1992 and in Formula 3000 in 1992 and 1993 before entering Formula One in 1994. Both Frentzen and Villeneuve this week said their two favorite circuits were Spa, in Belgium, and Suzuka.

''Suzuka is a very interesting and very rich circuit where you can find almost all level of driving difficulties: Quick curves, combinations of turns and straights, or long straight lines,'' said Frentzen. ''For me, it is exactly what you feel like being on when you are getting towards the end of the season.''

Villeneuve raced in the Japanese Formula 3 series in 1992, finishing second overall.

''It is a difficult and risky place,'' he said of the Suzuka track. ''The circuit adopts the shape of the landscape and its high-speed corners are very spectacular.''

But while Japan has successfully contributed to the creation of European stars the Honda Motor Company powered Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost to multiple world titles, the Mugen-Honda engine powers Frentzen's Jordan, and next year Honda will return to join Villeneuve's British American Racing team, while Bridgestone tires equip all the cars there is only one Japanese driver in Formula One.

Toranosuke Takagi is driving in with the struggling Arrows team and has yet to make his mark.

Some Japanese say that they have had no world champions because they have not yet had a driver who is good enough. But Alex Yoong, a Malaysian driver in Formula 3000 in Europe, sees it differently.

''In Japan they have such good motor sport that they're self-sufficient,'' Yoong said. ''They don't perhaps feel the need to go outside Japan. And if you want to make it you've got to have European experience. The Europeans can go anywhere and be successful. Americans have trouble going outside America, too. And I think it's for the same reason as for Japan.''

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