His future at Sauber is still not clear, but Kamui Kobayashi certainly made sure that the fans in Suzuka felt part of his success, by celebrating with them last night and again this morning at another event.
Of all the F1 drivers Kobayashi is probably one of the most active at giving something back to the fans, especially in Japan. He took part in the FOTA Fans Forum at Woking last year and again in Japan this year and has organised many engagements with fans in Japan.
“I’ve been busy since the race was over,” he said in a statement issued by the Sauber team on Monday. “Last night there was a party with fans in Suzuka, and this morning I went straight back to Suzuka circuit because there was another event organised with more than 5,000 fans. In every respect it was a very intense weekend.
“I had a lot of confidence before we came to Japan. I’ve always felt that if you ever want to look back and regard yourself as a Formula One driver, you have to have been on the podium at least once. Without such a photo it’s a bit as if you had never been there. So it means a lot to me.
“It was a fantastic feeling to see all the people in my home country so emotional and happy. It gave me such a lot and I will never forget that moment. I want to thank the Japanese fans for the great support they gave to the Sauber F1 Team and to myself.”
Kobayashi has been under pressure this season to secure a podium for the Sauber team, especially after his team mate Sergio Perez had managed to get three of them in the first 13 races. This has propelled Perez into the big league with a long term McLaren contract secured from 2013.
For Kobayashi, however, prospects of retaining his seat have been quite shaky in recent weeks and it is not clear whether the podium will save his seat or whether the team has already decided to move on and this podium will be merely a sweet memory. There are other drivers sniffing around the Sauber team, which has been one of the revelations of 2012, with its class leading aerodynamics.
With the technical rules set to stay relatively unchanged in 2013, the Sauber is a highly prized seat. One rival for Kobayashi is Nico Hulkenberg, who looks likely to be disappointed by Ferrari as they look set to retain Felipe Massa for another year.
Sauber CEO Monisha Kaltenborn noticeably played down the effect this result could have on Kobayashi’s chances of staying. She kept referring to the fact that, “We know him very well. We know his strengths very well, so we don’t need these kind of results for that.”
Ironically this sounds like the rhetoric used by Williams management when letting Hulkenberg go in 2010; they had evaluated him over several years as a test driver and then a season as a racer and felt that he didn’t have what it takes at the highest level. Time will tell how accurate that assessment turns out to be in his case.
Kobayashi has now done 55 Grands Prix and Sunday was his first podium. He is a known quantity, capable of some very strong qualifying performances, such as Spa and Suzuka, but also with a history of struggling to qualify consistently well. He’s a better racer and and also very capable in wheel to wheel combat and overtaking. He has had only one retirement on technical grounds this season, so he’s certainly had a clear run at it in a very good car. Prior to Sunday’s race he had scored 35 points at an average of 2.5 points per race.
Despite the return of four podiums from 15 races, there is a feeling at Sauber that they could and should have had significantly more results with this car and some of the blame for that lies with Kobayashi, who hasn’t been as consistent as Perez.
Kaltenborn is confident that despite Perez’ departure the support of Carlos Slim Jr and Telmex will remain for next season and this could see Mexican reserve driver Esteban Guttierez being given a chance. He’s served his apprenticeship reasonably well in GP2 and Sauber has a strong record of giving rookies a chance.
Money is increasingly an issue for the midfield teams and there are other drivers around with budgets, who could be placed alongside a known quantity like a Hulkenberg.
With no sponsorship money forthcoming from Japan to back Kobayashi the question Kaltenborn has to ask herself is, can another unfunded established driver give us a more consistent return, especially if they accept that having a rookie means probably not scoring as many points from that car?