F1 » Sakon Yamamoto
When Aguri Suzuki, frantically put together his Honda-powered Super Aguri Racing in the early months of 2006, the reigning Formula Nippon champion Sakon Yamamoto was somewhat surprisingly not initially chosen to partner to team leader Takuma Sato. However, with first choice Yuchi Ide dropped after just four races and Franck Montagny deemed merely a stop-gap option, Yamamoto was, belatedly, finally given a chance at the German Grand Prix at Hockenheim to try and cement a full-time career in Formula 1.
Taking up karting at the age of 12, Sakon developed his skills at Suzuka, eventually taking the local class Championship in 1997. This success led to the National Kart series and Yakamoto took the FA Class in 1999. After sampling the European Karting scene the young Japanese driver graduated to the Formula 3 class and joining the TOM’S team for the 2001 season and he placed fourth overall in his debut year, that also saw him participate abroad with appearances at Brands Hatch, Zandvoort and Macau.
To progress his career, Sakon then opted to compete in the German F3 series but a ninth place at Hockenheim at the end of the 2002 season was the best result he could muster in his TOM’S Dallara-Toyota. Despite scoring no points, Sakon returned the following year for a crack at the Formula 3 Euro Series. Up against chargers such as Briscoe, Klien, Glock, Rosberg and Doornbos, he could only break into the top ten finishers occasionally. So it was back to Japan for 2004 and another crack at Formula 3, which this time brought an eighth place in the overall standings.
Sakon’s career really took off in 2005 as he graduated to the premiere Japanese single seater series Formula Nippon. Wins at Sugo, Suzuka and Motegi plus strong finishes at Fuji and Mine saw him the crowned the series Champion, ironically well ahead of runner-up Yuichi Ide. He also competed successfully in the Super GT Series taking a Nissan to victory with Richard Lyons at Sepang and sharing the winning Toyota Supra GT at Sugo with Tetsuya Kataoka. With his intimate knowledge of the Suzuka circuit, Yamamoto was drafted into the Jordan team as their third driver for the 2005 Japanese Grand Prix. He impressed onlookers with his brief performances in the Friday practice, so it was perhaps doubly surprising that Aguri Suzuki, chose to employ the totally unproven Ide.
Yamamoto continued to race in Formula Nippon until he was finally called in to the Super Aguri squad as the third driver at Silverstone, before being promoted to a race seat at Hockenheim. The twenty-four year old enjoyed a seven-race spell through to the end of the season, but was discarded for 2007 as Honda’s choice, Anthony Davidson moved into the race seat.
The Japanese driver settled on competing in the GP2 series in an attempt to push his claims for another crack at Formula 1, but his performances were pretty lackluster, rarely troubling the top ten throughout the first half of the season. It was some surprise when Spyker chose to bring him on board in Hungary. Whilst nothing tangible was achieved by way of points, the Japanese driver impressed the team with his work ethic and commitment. Indeed he made his highly touted team mate Adrian Sutil look somewhat ordinary on more than one occasion.
For the 2008 season, Yamamoto joined Renault as one of three hopefuls on their test team, but he was back in GP2 action when the front-running ART team dispensed with the services of Luca Filippi. Yamamoto did manage a fourth place in the Sprint race at the Hungaroring, but little else of note, as accidents and retirements predominated.
Sakon remained with ART for the 2008-09 winter GP2 Asia Series, where he took a third place in the opening race in Shanghai. He stalled on the grid for the second race, but set the fastest lap time to show undoubted speed. However his is only other notable results came the final round at Bahrain where he picked up fourth and sixth places.
He returned to his native Japan after failing to break back into F1, only for the top flight to come knocking again 18 months later. It may only have been the backmarking HRT team, but it was an F1 shot and Yamamoto leapt at the chance to replace, for one race, Bruno Senna, and for most of the second half of the season, the hapless Karun Chandhok. Little was expected of the partnership but, despite being off the pace of the frontrunners, Yamamoto managed, on occasion, to embarrass the highly-rated Senna before being cast back into the wilderness after the inaugural Korean GP, as Christian Klien took over his race seat for the final two rounds.