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Satoru Nakajima

23rd February 1953 (Age 67)
Okazaki, Aichi Prefecture
Most recent race (in database):

Satoru Nakajima arrived in Formula 1 thanks to the support of his long-time partners Honda. Japan’s best-known racing driver and its first fulltime Grand Prix star, he was a five-time champion in his country’s competitive Formula 2 series. However, his opportunity on the international stage came too late in his career.

Early racing career

He grew up driving on the family farm whenever his father was not looking and he started racing karts from 1970. Small of stature but with obvious talent, he switched to touring cars in 1973 with a Mazda RX-3 and he was an early winner at Suzuka. A protégé of Tetsu Ikuzawa, Nakajima made his debut in the Japanese F2 Championship in 1977 and he immediately finished third with a Nova-BMW.

Overseas excursions in the Australian Touring Car Championship and the Macau GP (when fourth) were a nod to his future but it was at home that Nakajima built his reputation. He won the Japanese F2 title five years in six from 1981 to 1986 when always powered by Honda engines – Nakajima truly was the man to beat. He also impressed in Europe during 1982 when his F2 Canon March 812-Honda was an impressive second at a wet Silverstone on the day that Stefan Bellof emerged as a star.

Formula 1 with Lotus and Tyrrell

He joined Ralt-Honda for the 1986 Formula 3000 campaign and fourth at the Osterreichring was one of three top-six finishes. However, the announcement that he would be Ayrton Senna’s team-mate in the Lotus F1 team in 1987 was a surprise driven by past associations. It came with supply of the then all-conquering Honda turbo engines with Nakajima part of that deal.

Already in his mid-thirties and perhaps past his prime, Nakajima gamely learnt the circuits and began well with points in rounds two and three. He was fourth at Silverstone as Honda engines filled the top four positions and finished a career-best 11th in the championship. Nakajima was retained for 1988 and started the year by finishing sixth in Brazil. He was ahead of team-mate and triple world champion Nelson Piquet on occasion but he could not match the promising endeavour of his maiden campaign.

The 1989 season was a disaster for Lotus without Honda and the reputations of both Piquet and Nakajima on the wane – albeit from different heights. That said, "Naka-San" matched that fourth place finish (and recorded the fastest race lap) in the monsoon that was the Australian GP. He moved to Tyrrell for the next two seasons but that was the swansong of his F1 career.

Life after Formula 1

He then ran the successful Nakajima Planning team in Japanese series and now guides the careers of his sons Kazuki and Daisuke.

Although Satoru Nakajima’s F1 career was due to commercial considerations, there was no doubt that there was more to him than that. The dominant force in Japanese F2 for a time, he arrived on the world stage too late in life but delivered a couple of moments in the limelight.