Nakajima follows father’s path, chooses own route to success

by Kaz Nagatsuka

In his first campaign as a full-time pilot in the highest level of motor sports, Kazuki Nakajima is, if not rapidly but gradually, seizing a position and recognition by driving steadily and patiently.

His father once did the same thing.

And unlike many other sons who don’t like to be compared to their fathers, young Nakajima admits this trait characterizes him as well, saying there are more similarities than differences with his dad, a former Formula One racer named Satoru.

“He (Satoru) was said to drive like natto, and I think it applies to me, too,” Nakajima said in an interview with The Japan Times, referring to the description of his and his father’s racing as tenacious like fermented soybeans, on Tuesday in Tokyo.

“I think it’s . . . our characteristics.”

Nakajima, who became a regular driver for the Williams-Toyota team this year, exhibited this trait two weeks ago at the Singapore Grand Prix. In the trouble-marred race, which was held at night for the first time in F1 history, he kept his focus throughout it and scored a point with an eighth-place finish.

Nakajima, 23, has collected nine Grand Prix points from five top-eight finishes (tops among all rookies), placing 15th through 15 races this season, and has revved up his intensity and said the success in the last event came at exactly the right time — in the event before his home race, which will be held at Fuji Speedway in Oyama, Shizuoka Prefecture, on Sunday.

“The Singapore Grand Prix was what I call the best race,” said the native of Okazaki, Aichi Prefecture. “The race flow wasn’t favorable, but I was able to keep my pace steady and won a point. So entering Fuji I think it was a race that gave me some momentum.”

A full-time F1 debutant, Nakajima will be competing behind the wheel of the F1 car at the Toyota-organized track for the first time, although it is a home circuit for him because he’s supported by the giant auto company and has competed there so many times.

“Simply I’m looking forward to going back there as an F1 driver and how it feels like to drive an F1 car there,” said a smiling Nakajima, who last raced at the course in 2005, when he was competing in different categories, including the All-Japan Formula Three championships.

There will be numerous fans awaiting the eighth regular Japanese F1 driver at the circuit at the foot of Mount Fuji, and in Sunday’s final race maybe many of them will be waving the Hinomaru, rooting for him because they supported his father in the late 1980s and early ’90s.

“That’s the merit,” Nakajima jokingly said of the advantage of being a celebrity’s son.

Nakajima has always been linked to his father, who was credited with playing a major role in the huge “F1 boom” along with other superstars like the late Ayrton Senna and French Alain Prost in Japan in the previous two decades. Nakajima was 2 years old when his father made his F1 debut, and he said he doesn’t clearly remember the performance of his dad, who drove for Team Lotus and Tyrrell.

“As far as my memory that I actually saw his race, his final race (as a racer) in the Australian race in 1991 is almost the only thing I have in my memory,” Nakajima said.

Nakajima’s memory of his father’s races may be a bit sketchy, but he does recall visiting tracks and team factories with his father.

“I liked watching races, and watching them I was cheering my father,” added Nakajima, who began cart racing at age 10.

In the meantime, one of the biggest differences between the two men’s careers is that Nakajima sat behind the wheel of an F1 machine much earlier than his dad. Satoru Nakajima made his F1 debut in a Lotus at age 34.

Also, Nakajima has been powered and supported by Toyota and its engines since he enrolled in Formula Toyota Racing School (FTRS) at age 12, while his father had strong connections with Honda.

Asked if he disliked the fact that people may say he wouldn’t want to achieve anything because he was riding his father’s coattails, Nakajima said: “A bit.”

“If I’d attended a Honda-related school and tried to step up, I would’ve had irrelevant pressure. It’s an unchangeable fact that my father was an F1 driver, and it will always stick with me.

“I more or less talked (with my father) about which (between Toyota and Honda) I should go with, though. But I received a scholarship at the Toyota school in my second year there, and have come where I am now (with Toyota).”

His father has always been his top role model. But Nakajima almost independently and firmly climbed up the ladder to motor sport’s summit.

For Nakajima, whose younger brother Daisuke is also a pro racer, the taste of the F1 world, including how it feels to drive a monster car with more than 900 horsepower was within his reach, thanks to his experience as a test driver while competing in the GP2 Series, a training ground for potential F1 drivers, at Williams last year and his prudent mind-set.

“It wasn’t all that much different,” said Nakajima, who also idolized seven-time F1 world champ Michael Schumacher as a youngster.

“I’m not optimistic and came in (F1) thinking it would be hard to some extent. I tried not to expect impossible things from myself.”

Although he got off to a promising start by finishing sixth with three points in the opening Grand Prix in Australia in March, Nakajima had tough times adjusting to the new environment earlier in the season.

But working tenaciously and patiently — like sticky natto — Nakajima was eventually able to drive how he would like to after acclimating to the circumstances and getting near to where he wanted to be.

In fact, Nakajima has made steady progression as a driver because he had early struggles.

“I think I’m showing better driving now, and as far as points I’m reaching my objective,” said Nakajima, who has already overtaken his father’s first-year total (seven). “That’s because I could firmly gain points in tough and rough races earlier in the season.”

After entering Japan from Singapore, there was more good news for him before the home race. Williams announced on Oct. 1 that both Nakajima and his German teammate Nico Rosberg (whose father is the 1982 world champ Keke) will retain their seats for 2009.

“Kazuki is getting stronger all the time and has more to offer,” team principal Frank Williams said.

Asked if it’s fate that both he and his teammate are sons of former F1 stars, Nakajima rejected the idea, saying: “Although maybe it is easier for the team to promote us, for me, and probably for him as well, having an ex-F1 driver as our fathers doesn’t affect our performance on the track, and you have to race depending upon your own talent and effort in the circuit.”