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GP Week : Issue 71
empty seats. There was a chance for Sato to be back in F1 this season, racing for Toro Rosso, but the team ultimately plumped for Bourdais, only to replace him mid-season. Had the Honda-backed Suzuka circuit and Mobilityland done the sensible thing and swallowed their pride to help the Japanese driver's budget, they might not be staring such poor ticket sales in the face. As it was, Suzuka in 2009 remained half empty, with banners flying calling for Sato's return. Even Mobilityland itself had to admit Sato's return would help: "Obviously, Takuma Sato is one of the most popular Japanese drivers and many fans are still waiting him to comebacktoF1soitiseasyto assume that his comeback will make many fans to return to the circuit," Kazumasa Tsuchiya, Mobilityland Director of Motorsports told GPWeek. So what's more important? Japanese teams or drivers? "As many people know in F1, Japanese fans have always supported not only Japanese but also drivers like Raikkonen, Alonso, and Vettel," Imamiya continues. "Ayrton Senna was the most loved driver in Japanese F1 history. But since 2002, Takuma Sato has been bringing so many new fans to F1 as you could see through the all yellow (Jordan) Suzuka circuit 2002 and so on. It is different now ... even Alonso's supporters need Taku. Raikkonen's fans love to see Taku on track because the general atmosphere is completely different without Takuma Sato. "As for Japanese teams, the only team they cared really for was Super Aguri. Even based in UK, this small team had real racing spirit. Japanese fans found the spirit of Mr. Soichiro Honda more in SAF1 than HRF1. And when they saw Honda abandoned SAF1 while the company was spending 10 times more money for HRF1 without result, Honda's popularity, which the company had held since Senna's era, disappeared." And Toyota? "Toyota has been running since the beginning their world strategy with a Cologne based team, never giving a chance to a Japanese driver until the latest moment, so Japanese fans have always felt a kind of distance between themselves and the Toyota F1 team. Also Toyota taking the Japanese GP away from Suzuka to Fuji was not at all appreciated. "Running Kamui [Kobayashi] who has done so well, we were hoping Toyota understands better why they are doing F1, which could make their team more popular in Japan but it was too late." Too late indeed. Toyota is out of F1. Their withdrawal leaves the only two Japanese F1 drivers of 2009 with a mountain to climb. Kazuki Nakajima is a lovely guy but has completely failed to shine in his second season of F1. His F1 career would appear to be at an end. After just two F1 races, however, there is a huge buzz around Kamui Kobayashi. A Toyota driver, like Nakajima, Kobayashi has had two forceful and impressive races. But one swallow does not a summer make. He is still unproven and as such his shot at a full-time seat in F1 next season remains in doubt. So is there a future for F1 in Japan? One could argue there certainly needs to be. Japan remains one of the most vibrant and important economies in the world. Its link with Formula 1 is crucial for the future. But who can save it? If not the major motor manufacturers then is there a hope? Imamiya has no doubts: "Takuma Sato's comeback is the only and the best solution to keep Japan's interest in F1. Otherwise we will see a more difficult situation than 2000-2001 when we had no Japanese driver, because Takuma was really a fantastic ambassador of F1 for the people who hadn't known the sport and his racing spirit brought also F1 fans of 90s back to the circuit. "They still cannot understand Toro Rosso's decision not taking Sato and F1 is getting more and more unfair image. If he gets a seat just by his talent in 2010, his team will be enormously appreciated like a knight on a white horse relieving F1 in Japan." The chances are high. With new teams on the lookout for drivers with experience, Sato's work with Super Aguri may yet see him make a return to the sport in 2010. With no Japanese teams left in the sport, and Japan's young drivers either too inexperienced or having underperformed to the extent that they hold no appeal for F1 2010, Sato is the only genuine hope for Japan's love affair with Formula 1 to continue. Never then has Takuma Sato's Formula 1 future been more vital. It is no over exaggeration to state that without his return to racing, Japan's withdrawal from motorsport could prove total and permanent. If Japan's motorsport community is to remain in competition and if Japan is ever to see a reason for returning to the sport its pioneers and investors have helped to shape, it needs a beacon of hope to stem the flow of exodus. It needs Takuma Sato. 34