What could have been: The Japanese emperor who missed his calling in F1.


Satoshi Motoyama

“At that time, F1 cars were very high-tech,” says Motoyama. “They had semi-automatic gearboxes that almost felt like automatics. But what surprised me the most on my first try was the power. There was a difference of something like 300 horsepower compared to the Formula Nippon cars of the time. Driving around Suzuka, I was like, ‘Jeez, this is tight!’ »

A week after the Japanese GP, Motoyama won his third Formula Nipponese crown with a race lead at Motegi, and the following month he and his NISMO co-driver Michael Krumm offered Nissan the title in JGTC, the ancestor of the Super GT. It was this latest feat that opened the door to a second bite of F1 testing icing.

Back in 2003, the Renault-Nissan alliance was still a relatively new thing, and this connection resulted in Motoyama being given a day’s drive in the Renault R23B for a day at Jerez in early December, after the end of its two campaigns. major in Japan.

It turned out to be a much tougher test than Motoyama’s Jordan outing at Suzuka. This time he was thrown into the deep end on a totally unfamiliar track, shared with 15 other drivers, and driving a much more competitive car. To top it off, he had none other than Fernando Alonso as his benchmark in sister Renault.

Motoyama admits the prospect made him « nervous », but he did his best to complete 49 laps during the day, the fastest of which was a 1m19.992s. That puts him 12th and around 2.1s behind eventual champion Alonso, but Motoyama reckons that when he and Alonso were on the same tires he was one second behind the Spaniard.

Of his day in the R23B, Motoyama remembers: “Renault finished at the top of the championship that year. [fourth]Compared to the Jordan, it was more refined, more capable, and extremely easy to ride. I don’t really know what they [the Renault hierarchy] have thought of my performance. But I didn’t find it particularly difficult to drive.

“I understood from the start that testing for Renault did not mean that I was going to get a place at Renault. But I thought anyway that nothing would happen if I didn’t get involved in things, and if I tried different things, something good might come out of it. »

Needless to say, with Alonso and Jarno Trulli already signed up for 2004, there was no way Motoyama could lay claim to a racing wheel. And even securing a seat on a tiny team like Jordan or Minardi would still have been an uphill struggle without the financial backing those teams need to stay afloat in this manufacturer-dominated era.

« It was a really great experience to be able to drive the latest F1 cars at the time, but in terms of actually getting into the world of F1 and being an F1 driver, that’s a story. totally different,” continues Motoyama. « I thought it would be impossible to do my job in F1 properly without the proper management structure behind me, and I didn’t have one.

“Despite this, during this winter, I looked for all the possibilities I could. There were a lot of money problems, so it was a stressful and difficult winter. On top of that, I lost my seat in Japan… [with Team Impul in Formula Nippon]. »

Focusing on F1, Motoyama saw its Formula Nippon seat at Impul taken by future Super Aguri driver Yuji Ide. The triple champion must therefore find the 5Zigen (pronounced Go-zigen) team, which is seen as an outsider, which gives him new motivation.

“For several years, 5Zigen struggled,” says Motoyama, “but when I couldn’t race as part of the FIFA World Cup year, I wasn’t able to compete. do it. [All-Japan] F3, I was approached by [5Zigen boss Shoji] Kinoshita and I were able to join F3 and have a career as a racing driver. To express my gratitude, I joined 5Zigen. Winning with 5Zigen became my new challenge.

« Until then I was driving for Impuls, and in that sense, although I wouldn’t say I was able to win easily, I thought personally it would be interesting to have a new challenge. »

Motoyama manages to win a race for 5Zigen, but a title chase proves out of reach, although he and new teammate Richard Lyons (who, incidentally, was that year’s Formula Nippon champion) are able to Successfully defend Nissan’s JGTC crown.

In 2005 he returned to Impul with a third car and won his fourth Formula Nippon title, and in 2008 he and Benoit Treluyer won Super GT honors for Nissan, cementing Motoyama’s reputation as the nation’s top driver. of his generation. He continued to be part of Nissan’s GT500 team until the end of the 2018 season, not retiring until the age of 47.

“I knew I was not the type of driver who was aiming for F1. I liked the convenience and freedom of living in Japan. » Satoshi Motoyama

Realistically, testing or not, Motoyama had no chance of ending up in F1. Despite his obvious talent, he had no connections in Europe, and as a Nissan driver he also lacked the opportunities that might have come from association with Honda or Toyota. His age also played against him: after years of struggling to win in F3 All-Japan, he was already in his twenties when he claimed his first Formula Nippon title in 1998.

But Motoyama still fondly recalls his two chances to get a taste of grand prix machines, proving he could ride the fastest single-seaters in the world at a time in his career when he thought he had done everything he could. there was to do in his native country.

« F1 was not my dream, » he said.  » To be honest, [before 2003] I hadn’t really thought about the idea of ​​becoming an F1 driver.

« There are many ways for racing drivers to challenge themselves, and it’s not like everyone has to aim for F1. I knew I was not the type of driver who was aiming for F1. I liked the convenience and freedom of life in Japan.

“However, I wanted to drive an F1 car and wanted to confirm that I had the skills to do so. I thought to myself, ‘Yes, I can do it’. So it’s been a good experience. »

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