At Suzuka on the weekend, Kamui Kobayashi was given a hero’s welcome for his home Grand Prix.
He paid his fans back by starting fourth and improving on that position during the race to take his first podium in Formula 1. He is only the third Japanese driver to achieve this feat, Aguri Suzuki and Takuma Sato reaching these heights in 1990 and 2004 respectively. Not a common occurrence by any means.
The affable Kobayashi has been popular from the off in F1. At Interlagos in 2009, Jenson Button was driving like a man possessed, trying to make up for a poor qualifying and clinch the World Championship. He swept past most drivers like they weren’t even there, but Kobayashi – making his debut for Toyota in place of the injured Timo Glock – gave him trouble.
The following year with Sauber he cemented his reputation as a vicious attacking driver, but also a clean one. His willingness to put it on the kerbs was great fun and his surprise attacks caught out many a veteran, elevating him to cult hero status.
Since then, Kobayashi has been seen to be overshadowed by team-mate Sergio Pérez, recently rewarded with a McLaren contract for next year. Several strong qualifying performances and that home podium have brought him back into the limelight, though, and have some questioning whether McLaren chose the right Sauber driver.
This kneejerk reaction might be a bit much. McLaren have got themselves a potential world class young driver in Pérez, and one with a similar style to incumbent Button.
But now the news has come out that Kobayashi might not be in F1 at all next year, let alone with Sauber. The issue of sponsorship has raised its ugly head again. Generally if a driver is booted out of F1 for lack of money, no matter his talent, it’s because he hasn’t produced the results. The same week Kobayashi confirms what we all suspected – that he could run well at the front – he’s in press conferences bemoaning his uncertain future.
It’s sad that the world of F1 works that way these days. When Niki Lauda had his issues with funding in the early ‘70s it was his work ethic in the uncompetitive BRM that landed him a Ferrari contract for ‘74. That and some kind words from an impressed and similarly Maranello-bound team-mate Clay Regazzoni. He left four seasons later the most successful driver in the team’s history.
That’s not to say Kobayashi is Lauda material. But he entered the top level as part of a manufacturer’s effort which was withdrawn two races into his career. He joined Sauber on merit and could relax as his team-mate brought in the Pesos. That funding will remain as long as reserve driver (and future team-mate?) Esteban Gutiérrez does, so why is the pressure being piled on now?
Whatever happens, Kobayashi is fast, fierce and adored by his home fans. If you think F1 could use a driver like him, get it out there on Twitter. We’ve been tweeting #giveaquidforkobayashi. Whether or not it makes a direct difference is moot, but at least it gets the idea out there. Who knows who might be watching?