Naoki Yamamoto rocketed into the consciousness of the international racing audience in 2018 when he became only the fourth driver in history to win both the Autobacs Super GT Series’ GT500 Championship, and the Japanese Top Formula Championship, in the same calendar year – the prestigious “Double Championship” of Japan.
Now, the 31-year-old Japanese driver has been given a one-off opportunity of a lifetime as he will drive in the first Free Practice session of the Formula 1 Japanese Grand Prix at Suzuka Circuit, for Scuderia Toro Rosso Honda.
The announcement was made official on Monday, after a video with Yamamoto announcing his FP1 drive was accidentally posted on Toro Rosso’s official YouTube channel then subsequently removed upon its circulation on social media.
“I’d like to say thank you for giving me a great opportunity to Toro Rosso, Red Bull, and Honda,” said Yamamoto. “I’m going to drive a Formula 1 car in Suzuka, which is my home grand prix. I’m very excited and I’m looking forward to driving a Formula 1 car.”
“To get this chance at Suzuka, a very important circuit for all Japanese racing drivers, in front of such a big crowd of Japanese fans, will make the experience even more special. I have prepared as well as possible for this, spending time as part of the Toro Rosso team at several Grand Prix weekends and I have also worked in the Red Bull simulator.”
Toro Rosso Team Principal, Franz Tost, added: “We are sure that Naoki-san will enjoy the laps in FP1 on one of the greatest race tracks in the world. He is a talented driver, being the reigning champion in Japan’s two most important race series, and he also knows the Suzuka Circuit very well.
“Naoki-san has spent several European races as part of our team this year, getting to know the engineers he will work with this weekend and he has also spent time in our simulator.”
Bringing in Yamamoto will mean that for one session, Scuderia Toro Rosso Honda will bring in a two-time Japanese Top Formula Champion – winner of the 2013 and 2018 Super Formula Championships with Team Mugen. In that series, he switched to DoCoMo Team Dandelion Racing, and with a win and three podiums, Yamamoto is the current points leader over Nick Cassidy with just one round remaining – the JAF Grand Prix, also at Suzuka Circuit.
He has a chance to make history in the Super Formula JAF GP and join Kazuyoshi Hoshino, Satoru Nakajima, and Satoshi Motoyama as the only drivers to win the Japanese Top Formula Championship three or more times.
Yamamoto is also in his tenth season in the GT500 class of Super GT, the reigning and outgoing champion alongside 2009 Formula 1 Jenson Button at Team Kunimitsu in their world-famous royal blue Raybrig Honda NSX-GT. Naoki and JB took a win and four podium finishes en route to winning the 2018 GT500 Drivers’ Championships, securing the first Super GT title for Team Kunimitsu in doing so, and his first individual Drivers’ Championship.
In working with Button, Yamamoto gained one of the highest-profile advocates of his own individual talent: A World Champion driver with over 300 Grand Prix starts and 15 victories to his name over 17 seasons, including the fairytale 2009 title run with BrawnGP.
“I personally feel this guy should be in F1,” the 2009 F1 champion said to Autosport magazine in December 2018. “Seeing what he’s achieved in Super Formula, which I think has been a very good proving ground for Formula 1, if you look at [Pierre] Gasly and also Stoffel [Vandoorne] and many other drivers. But also his diversity in his driving: Champion in Super Formula, champion in Super GT. The wealth of experience from different types of racing helps when you find yourself under pressure at the top.”
In Super GT, Yamamoto has compiled four victories, 21 podiums, and a whopping 61 top-ten finishes in 78 career starts. In Super Formula, he’s taken seven career race victories – five of which have come at Suzuka – eleven pole positions and fourteen podiums in 75 career starts. And prior to making his debut in Japan’s top categories, Yamamoto was the 2009 All-Japan Formula 3 National Class Champion.
Yamamoto’s FP1 appearance will mark the first time that a Japanese driver has taken part in a Formula 1 official session since another accomplished sports car and single-seater ace – Toyota’s Kamui Kobayashi – took part in the 2014 season with Caterham F1 Team. Honda have been aiming to bring one of their home-grown Japanese talents into F1 by way of their Honda Formula Dream Project (HFDP) – top prospect Nobuharu Matsushita races in Formula 2, Yuki Tsunoda and Teppei Natori both race in FIA Formula 3, and teenager Ren Sato just wrapped up the FIA F4 Japanese Championship.
“We hope Naoki makes the most of this opportunity, that he learns from it and that it helps him as a racing driver,” said Katsuhide Moriyama, Honda’s Chief Officer of Brand and Communication Operations. “We also hope that seeing Yamamoto on track, will serve as an inspiration to young Japanese drivers, so that in the near future, we can once again have Japanese drivers competing in Formula 1.”
One factor that could spoil Yamamoto’s Japanese GP practice debut is the approach of Super Typhoon Hagibis, which is bearing down on central Japan with the potential for damaging winds and several centimeters of rainfall. Projections as of Monday could see Suzuka city get hit on Saturday, how it would impact Friday or Sunday running is yet to be determined.
DSC first and foremost sends its well wishes to those who may be impacted by the typhoon, and if the conditions permit, the best of luck to Naoki-san on the challenge of a lifetime.