Kamui Kobayashi has won many fans in his brief F1 career to date for his swashbuckling style; not just his signature bold overtaking moves, but also his defensive driving, which has also been very effective.
I’ll put my hands up and admit I love Kobayashi as a racer, he’s top quality entertainment and I love his spirit in a car, which reminds me a little bit of Jean Alesi.
Alesi made a big impression in a midfield Tyrrell car and ended up in a Ferrari, something which many fans would like to see happen with Kobayashi. It would be an amazing thing, and would align with Stefano Domenicali’s recent statement that for the future they would be looking to put a young driver alongside the experienced Fernando Alonso, who is tied to the team for five years. This is what they did with Felipe Massa, also a former Sauber driver, whom they placed alongside Michael Schumacher in 2006.
Sauber has been an important proving ground for Ferrari over the years, they take a supply of their engines and Ferrari is able to keep close tabs on the drivers’ performance. Sergio Perez is highly rated at Maranello; he was briefly, a member of the Ferrari Driver Academy before he signed his Sauber contract.
So they will be able to monitor Kobayashi in comparison with Perez and there’s a fair chance that one of them might end up in the Scuderia. Sadly, one just can’t quite imagine them taking a gamble on the Japanese driver.
As one of the world’s leading markets for luxury brands, Japan is important; it’s Ferrari’s number two market after the United States and the company opened its own office there in 2008. But it’s the strategic importance of Ferrari’s sponsors which counts for more, companies like Santander and Shell. Brazil is a critical market for both and this hasn’t done Massa any harm in recent years.
Then from the point of view of F1’s bigger picture, the sport has been in decline in Japan in recent years and could do with a shot of adrenaline, which the first Japanese driver in a top car would bring.
But above all those considerations, what a top team is looking for is speed and this is where the question mark lies with Kobayashi. He’s proved he can score points consistently and come through the field, which requires speed and racecraft.
Qualifying is an area where Kobayashi himself admits quite openly that he needs to do better if he is to get the chance to progress his career with a top team. He’s been outqualified five times by Perez, who is a rookie and although he’s had some good Saturdays, like Silverstone where he qualified 8th and Malaysia where he was 10th on the grid, he’s not been consistent or fast enough this year.
I asked him whether he can see specifically where he can improve as a qualifier, or whether he is perhaps a tenth or two too slow. His answer was surprisingly candid,
“I know that there aren’t enough strong performances in qualifying,” he said. “The thing is, when the car is good, I’m always okay. But if the car isn’t comfortable then I’m not using the whole performance. This is where I have to improve. It’s everything; confidence, warm up, balance and set up. Then I cannot make a good performance.”
Admitting a weakness is quite rare in a racing driver, even if it’s obvious to observers. But Kobayashi knows that an inability to drive around an imbalance could be the difference between him being a good driver and a great driver and that is why he says he is focussing most of his attention on it at the moment. He believes that it is something that can be learned.
To watch him on a Sunday, ripping through the field from 12th to 5th, like Monaco or 14th to 10th, as he did in Spain, (results which were not achieved by saving sets of new tyres) he clearly has the talent.
All eyes will be on Kobayashi over the remainder of this season and the first half of next. If he can show that the speed is there, he might just get that dream move up the grid.