Ranking the Top 5 Asian Drivers in Formula 1 History

Oliver Harden@@OllieHardenFeatured ColumnistApril 17, 2014

Ranking the Top 5 Asian Drivers in Formula 1 History

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    With six grands prix of the 2014 Formula One calendar located in Asia, the continent is playing an ever-increasing role in the sport.

    But although F1 may visit the Malaysian capital of Kuala Lumpur and the United Arab Emirates, as well as the legendary Japanese track at Suzuka, Asia is yet to repay the sport by producing a driver with the ability to compete at the summit of the sport.

    That’s not to say that F1 hasn’t been blessed by Asian talent. Some of the drivers to emerge from the East have been some of the most thrilling, eye-catching competitors that the sport has ever known.

    And with this weekend’s Chinese Grand Prix marking the final race in Asia until September, we look at the finest Eastern-based drivers to grace F1—not only in terms of performance, achievements and results but in their influence and impact on the sport.

Honourable Mentions

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    Ukyo Katayama, the former Larousse, Tyrrell and Minardi driver, can count himself unlucky to miss out, having made 95 grand prix starts between 1992 and 1997 and scoring five world championship points in the process.

    Despite competing in only 11 races between 2010 and 2011, Karun Chandhok is unfortunate to miss the cut, having performed admirably for HRT and Lotus. His former links to Red Bull, the four-time world champions, suggest that he could have become a competent grand prix driver had he been given a greater chance to impress.

5. Satoru Nakajima

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    With stints at Lotus and Tyrrell to his name, Satoru Nakajima drove for two of the most iconic names in Formula One between 1987 and 1991, acting as teammate to Ayrton Senna in his debut season at the ripe old age of 34.

    For a late starter, Nakajima enjoyed a credible career, scoring points in every season of his career and retiring with a tally of 16 points. And although he scored points on 10 separate occasions, he failed to record a podium finish in 74 starts.

    Nakajima’s son, Kazuki, also competed in Formula One for Williams between 2007 and 2009, although the less said about Nakajima Jr.’s career, the better.

4. Narain Karthikeyan

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    A strange choice, perhaps—given that he spent the entirety of his Formula One career trundling around the back of the grid—but it is Narain Karthikeyan’s impact that sees him make the cut.

    Since he made his debut for Jordan in 2005 as India’s first grand prix driver, F1 has grown from strength to strength in his homeland.

    Over the last nine years, we have seen Force India not only arrive on the grid but become regular points scorers, Karun Chandhok become the country’s second F1 driver and an Indian Grand Prix join the calendar.

    Karthikeyan has been a passionate advocate of his home event. The design of the circuit and its reception are deserving much more than three Sebastian Vettel-dominated grands prix before being removed from the calendar for this year.

    The fourth place he achieved at Indianapolis in 2005 was more of a reflection of Michelin’s difficulties over that controversial weekend than a reflection of driver skill, although his record of 46 grand prix starts is respectable.

    Karthikeyan deserves praise for opening F1’s gateway to India.

3. Aguri Suzuki

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    Aguri Suzuki retired from Formula One as the most successful driver to hail from Japan.

    His podium finish at the 1990 Japanese Grand Prix at Suzuka, the race best remembered for a first corner, title-deciding collision between Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost, was the highlight of a career that spanned eight years between 1988 and 1995.

    The second of those years, 1989, saw Suzuki fail to prequalify for a single race as a driver for the West Zakspeed Racing team. In all, he scored points on five separate occasions over the course of his F1 career, with three of those occurring in 1990, and he retired with 64 starts and eight points to his name.

    His most memorable contribution to F1 arguably came off-track, with his ownership of the plucky Super Aguri team between 2006 and 2008.

2. Takuma Sato

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    Like the No. 1 driver on this list, Takuma Sato benefited from extreme measures to keep his Formula One career alive.

    In his case, a brand new team, Super Aguri, was set up in 2006 to keep the Japanese driver in the sport after he had been dropped by Honda to make way for the incoming Rubens Barrichello.

    Sato, like the No. 1 driver on this list, had a habit of positioning his car in places where it had no right to be—but this was mostly because his car shouldn’t have been in those positions in the first place.

    His Formula One career of seven years was littered with avoidable incidents, most of which saw him clumsily launching his car down the inside of his unknowing competitors, which disguised the talent that he demonstrated on the weekend of his sole podium finish at the 2004 United States Grand Prix.

    Sato, now competing in IndyCar, displayed the kind of enthusiasm that defines Japanese F1 drivers both on and off the track, but his driving and overtaking manoeuvres always seemed to carry the air of blind hope and recklessness rather than expectation.

1. Kamui Kobayashi

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    Shizuo Kambayashi

    Kamui Kobayashi is the ultimate crowd-pleaser.

    His performances have always seemed to cross between spectacular and downright stupid, yet you can be sure of entertainment when watching him drive a Formula One car.

    In the pre-DRS era of F1, he almost single-handedly dispelled the myth that overtaking had vanished from the sport. His highly committed, opportunistic, last-of-the-late-brakers style has seen him muscle dozens of cars out of the way since making his debut in 2009. But on the occasions when his victims are less compliant, Kobayashi runs the risk of looking very foolish indeed.

    A career record of 125 points in just three full seasons of Formula One, albeit under the latest scoring system, is proof that the Japanese can be depended upon to bring the car home. However, running over half his pit crew at Silverstone in 2012 and crashing a Ferrari during an F1 demo in Moscow last year are just two examples of how wrong it can get for him.

    It is those imperfections, however, that make him so popular and why his podium position at his home race at Suzuka in 2012 was so warmly received.

    That warmth reached a whole new level at the beginning of 2014 when funds raised by his supporters allowed Kobayashi to secure a return to F1 with Caterham after a year away.