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GP Week : Issue 71
GPWEEK: Taku, within the space of a week we've had first Bridgestone and then Toyota announce they are quitting F1. How has this been viewed in Japan? TAKUMA SATO: It's obviously a shocking situation that you never would have thought a year ago. After Honda and everything last year it was quite a surprise to see Toyota and Bridgestone confirm that they're going out of F1. It's a really hard thing although I think, as everyone is aware, the current economic situation has made life very tough on everybody in the automobile industry and in particular Toyota who have recorded a loss this year for the first time in half a century. There were rumours that the situation was difficult for Toyota but I think everybody believed that where they were with how they've built up the team and how competitive they are, that they could continue. From an unbiased point of view and looking at the economy it's maybe not such a surprise, but really you have to say that it is actually a surprise that now there is no Japanese F1 team. It's a tough time for everyone. With no Honda or Toyota it is a big hitting problem. How is F1 viewed in Japan? Is it still popular? I think it is still popular. There are a lot of people following. Obviously we had to stop racing with Super Aguri in the middle of 2008 but very fortunately I have so much support from my fans and they believe I can come back next season. Even though I am not racing currently a lot of companies support me and the fans still support me. If you look at Suzuka this year, OK it wasn't as full as 2006 but there was still an enthusiastic core of fans there. The economic issue though means that maybe people wanted to come but watched it on TV. IknowthatIhavealotof support and it is positive in Japan. Suzuka this year only sold 60% of its tickets and there were banners saying "No Taku, No Racing." There's a chance there'll be no Japanese teams, engines or drivers in F1 next season. What is it about Japan and the economy that is making the country's companies pull out so fast? I think it is purely down to the economic situation. It seems extreme obviously because you ask why is it only happening in Japan? But I think everyone is having a hard time. If you look at BMW quitting and now Renault is considering their future then the problem is clearly bigger. But in Japan a lot of workers have lost their jobs and it is difficult for big companies first not to make a loss and next not to make redundancies. So if companies are spending millions investing in sports then it is a difficult thing to do. I am sure that if the economy was not as bad as it was right now there would be no reason for Japanese companies to pull out of Formula 1. You either have to think about people's lives or you have to think about racing cars. Unfortunately that's not so great for us racing drivers, but if you have to choose then you of course choose to look after your employees and not to build a racing car. Japan has been hit hard. Some people say it will pick up soon, but I think it is close to the bottom and from there it has to come up. Toyota is having a difficult time and I think that is why they had to take this decision. Overall it is just very sad. You are Japan's biggest F1 star, but how hard has it been for you to drum up interest in Japan to get the backing to get you back into F1? The current situation is never going to help, obviously, but we are working very hard because there is never a reason to give up. I am trying to get back into F1 because I know I can be as quick as I have ever been. Yes it is currently not a very easy situation because the way that Formula 1 is going for next season is that teams need a lot of budget, and even teams who know which drivers they want can't always take them because they need the financial support. .I think especially for next year that the budget cap won't be introduced, and many teams will find it hard to reach an ideal full budget and, although I don't have huge backing at the moment, I still believe that I offer great value to the teams, in terms of speed, experience, and motivation. Hopefully in Japan things will pick up and F1 will get the backing again. It is a lot of complication, made harder by the economic situation. I'm not going to be too optimistic but at the same time I will not be pessimistic either. Formula 1 is unfinished for me and the way we had to stop racing was unfair, not just for me but for all of the team members at Super Aguri. What pleased me though was when I was in Suzuka to see so many of the boys from the team working in F1. That is rare and I think that is a reflection of how hard that team worked and that everyone in F1 knows how hard it was for us, to create a team and full operation in 100 days and go racing. It was a big, big job, and in some ways I think that there is a huge respect in F1 for the Super Aguri team members. That is probably why so many of them found jobs straight away. It is where the boys deserve to be and it made me happy to see that they are doing the jobs that they are so talented at doing. Now, I just have to find a place for myself. Japan has always been an important market for F1. Do you think that in some ways Toyota pulling out could be really good for you because JAPAN'S ONLY HOPE? As the most successful Japanese driver in F1 history, Takuma Sato's popularity continues to grow in his homeland. With motorsport left shocked by the sudden exodus of its Japanese contingent, could a return to racing for the nation's F1 hero be the only thing to save Japan's future in the sport? Taku spoke to GPWEEK about the current economic situation in Japan, and discussed his high hopes of landing an F1 seat in 2010. 36