Top Stories from the Sports pages of the International Herald Tribune,
Friday, October 6, 2000

In Europe, New Crop of Japanese Drivers Learns the Ropes and Language


By Brad Spurgeon International Herald Tribune
PARIS - On Sunday, for the first time in 13 years, no Japanese driver will take part in the Japanese Grand Prix at Suzuka.

But thanks to a young, internationally savvy generation of Japanese drivers now training and winning in lower-level races in Europe, the country is better prepared than ever to take part at the highest level of motor racing.

Provided, that is, that the predominantly European sport will give a Japanese driver a chance to win in Formula One.

While the Honda car manufacturer has won several world titles with its engines, and the Bridgestone tires adorn the cars, only a dozen Japanese drivers have raced in Formula One, and none has won a race. Only four have scored points, and of those, only Aguri Suzuki made it to the podium, finishing third at the Japanese Grand Prix in 1990.

But none of the drivers was ever hired by the best teams. What Japanese drivers have lacked, according to many racing professionals, is the European experience of racing, language and culture from an early age.

Which is why Ryo Fukuda, 21, came to France five years ago, after Craig Pollock, Jacques Villeneuve's manager and the owner of the British American Racing team, spotted him go-karting in Japan in 1995. This year was Fukuda's best, as he led the French Formula Three championship for most of the season.

''I think that the problem for the Japanese is a problem of language. It's not the level of their driving,'' Fukuda said in perfect French before switching to fluent English. Fukuda discovered go-kart racing at age 6 while living in the United States with his uncle in Ohio to learn English. His mother is part Japanese and part American.

''As he is going up through the different levels in motor sport he's actually

getting better and better,'' said Pollock, who suggested he might give him a test in the Formula One car.

According to Andrew Gilbert Scott, a British driver who has raced in Japan for many years, and who now manages Takuma Sato, a Japanese driver racing in the Formula Three series in Britain, the Japanese are already great drivers at home.

''I know how good they can be in their own country,'' Scott said, ''and how disappointing they invariably are when they come out.''

Where they have floundered, he said, is in the transition from a successful career in Japan, with a certain comfortable lifestyle, to being dropped into an unfamiliar racing world in Europe where they could not even communicate with the team.

''You can't do it with a translator,'' he said of communicating about how a car feels to drive. ''You're not trying to talk black and white. You're painting a picture with a car, it's got to be much, much more in depth.''

Sato, 23, has won three races in the British series, where he lies third overall and races this weekend at Silverstone. He chose to come to Europe in 1998 after winning a scholarship at the Suzuka circuit's racing school, rather than racing in Japan like most of the other laureates.

''My aim is Formula One, so why not come to Europe as soon as possible?'' Sato said in the excellent English that he learned at language schools in England. ''We have to learn the European motor racing mindset.''

Toshihiro Kaneishi, 21, who also started at the Suzuka racing school, raced in Japanese Formula Three until he was noticed by a German Formula Three team at a race in South Korea last year where he qualified second in an Italian team's car. He won his first German Formula Three race in Europe last month.

All three drivers had as an instructor at the Suzuka school a driver who, although only 26, is already part of an older generation: Toranosuke Takagi carries the distinction of being the last Japanese driver to have raced in Formula One.

After two years in Formula One and scoring no points at poor teams, he quit last year to return to Formula 3000 in Japan, where he has won eight out of nine races this season.

His case highlights the fact that no Japanese driver will ever win in Formula One unless he drives for a competitive team. But does the sport really want a Japanese champion?

A top Formula One team once dropped its Honda engine rather than be forced by the company to take on a Japanese driver. And last month, Fukuda's title hopes came to an end when he was knocked off the track at the start of the penultimate Formula Three race which he started on pole by his main rival, a French driver.

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