The place Naoki Yamamoto suits in amongst Japan’s motorsport greats


Who’s the best driver of all-time? It’s a tough one to reply regardless of which championship or self-discipline you occur to be scrutinising, however issues are much more difficult when you think about who has the strongest declare to be Japan’s best-ever home racer.

Firstly, on the subject of trying on the stats, which collection do you rely? As of late, Tremendous Method and SUPER GT sit clearly on the prime of the tree, however wind the clock again 25 years in the past, when what was then often called the All-Japan GT Championship was nonetheless in its infancy, there was additionally the Japan Touring Automotive Championship, which ran to Tremendous Touring guidelines in 1994-98 and attracted loads of home and worldwide prime names in that interval.

There’s an argument to say that success within the JTC needs to be held in related regard to any achievements in JGTC/SUPER GT and Tremendous Method (and its varied predecessor collection, going again to Japanese Method 2000). However would you rely JTC simply in its Tremendous Touring guise, or embrace the Group A years as properly.

Then there’s the All-Japan Sports activities Prototype Sequence for Group C vehicles, a sort-of forerunner to the JGTC that, throughout its pomp, clearly stood because the ‘different’ prime collection on the home Japanese scene alongside Japanese F3000/F2. However in comparison with modern-day JGTC/SUPER GT, participation was much more sporadic, with driver line-ups typically altering from race to race, and by the point of its closing season in 1992 solely six vehicles participated in each spherical.

And that’s earlier than we speak about 1993, nominally the primary yr of JGTC however extra like a weird transition yr from Group C equipment to what we now name GT500 guidelines, that SUPER GT itself doesn’t recognise for the needs of historic record-keeping.

Satoru Nakajima, Kazuyoshi Hoshino

Satoru Nakajima, Kazuyoshi Hoshino

Picture by: Suzuka Circuit

The entire above makes the duty of evaluating drivers’ data throughout the generations extraordinarily powerful. Let’s take the instance of Kazuyoshi Hoshino, whose declare to be the best is as stable as anybody’s – the long-time Nissan racer was in his heyday also known as ‘the quickest man in Japan’, making him the cultural equal of Mario Andretti within the US or the late Sir Stirling Moss within the UK.

On prime of six titles in Japanese Method 2000/F2/F3000, he received the All-Japan Method Pacific collection (a short-lived breakaway from Japanese F2 within the late 70s and early 80s) twice, he was a two-time winner of the JSPC, received the JTC in 1990 and was a five-time champion of the Fuji Grand Champion Sequence. 

So, by essentially the most beneficiant definition, we might name Hoshino a 16-time home champion in Japan. However such a report can be inconceivable for a driver within the present period to even method, not to mention surpass.

There are different collection apart from Tremendous Method and SUPER GT that aren’t overt feeder classes – notably Tremendous Taikyu and the one-make Inter Proto Sequence – however these are extra like pro-am classes, attracting many gentleman drivers, and subsequently can’t be thought-about in the identical league.

To maneuver on maybe the next-strongest candidate for ‘biggest’ standing, Satoshi Motoyama rose to prominence in what we’d name the beginning of the trendy period, following the creation of JGTC in 1994 and Japanese F3000 metamorphosing into Method Nippon (now Tremendous Method) beneath its present possession in 1996.

Satoshi Motoyama, Team Impul

Satoshi Motoyama, Crew Impul

Picture by: Motorsport Photographs

Whereas Motoyama did additionally race in JTC in its dying days, for the majority of his profession he had solely two probabilities a yr to win the title. He did so on seven events – three in JGTC/SUPER GT, 4 in Method Nippon – establishing himself because the inheritor to Hoshino and incomes himself the nickname ‘The Emperor’ within the course of.

Quick ahead a bit greater than a decade from Motoyama’s closing SUPER GT title in 2008, and now there’s one other driver staking a declare to be talked about in the identical breath as Hoshino and Motoyama, or on the very least the standout driver of what we’d name the ‘post-Motoyama era’.

Naoki Yamamoto is now a five-time home champion following his second ‘double’ of Tremendous Method and SUPER GT titles final yr (in itself a singular feat), which implies he’s now solely two titles away from matching Motoyama’s haul. And in a pleasant piece of historic symmetry, he’s additionally the identical age, 32, that Motoyama was when the Nissan man scored titles 4 and 5 in 2003.

With Yamamoto nonetheless on the peak of his powers in each classes, you’d must say that the person from Utsunomiya has each probability to match and even surpass Motoyama, if not this yr then within the years to come back. And, in an interview with the Tremendous Method web site, the Honda driver didn’t beat across the bush when it got here to his ambitions.

“Once I hadn’t received any titles, I believed Motoyama’s superb achievements can be out of attain, however now that I’ve received a number of championships, I realised that equalling his report is feasible, so in fact now I actually wish to break his report,” he mentioned. “I’m aiming for that.”



Picture by: Masahide Kamio

Not withstanding a tough pre-season, if we suppose that Yamamoto made it a ‘treble-double’ this yr by successful each the Tremendous Method and SUPER GT crowns once more, wouldn’t it elevate his standing to the extent he might be thought-about because the equal of, and even higher than, Motoyama? Even that’s not a simple one to reply.

Tremendous Method, or Method Nippon because it was recognized all through Motoyama’s time within the collection, might be one of the best place to make detailed comparisons, as drivers’ outcomes aren’t affected by success ballast, the standard of their co-driver or (as a lot) by substandard equipment, given the near-spec nature of the class. Moreover titles, the opposite metric that followers have a tendency to contemplate most on the subject of evaluating drivers is their win data, and on this entrance Motoyama stays properly clear.

Throughout his 12 years within the class, Motoyama amassed 27 victories, placing him solely behind Hoshino (39 wins). Yamamoto in contrast is on solely eight wins, so even when he by some means swept the board in 2021, he’d nonetheless lag a way behind, and at his present price of progress (5 wins within the final three seasons), he’s unlikely to ever win that many races earlier than age catches up with him.

However that doesn’t inform the entire story, as Yamamoto unquestionably faces harder opposition immediately than Motoyama confronted in Method Nippon throughout his pomp. 

Taking final season for example, Yamamoto confronted 4 different champions within the area (Nick Cassidy, Hiroaki Ishiura, Yuji Kunimoto and Kazuki Nakajima) with a mixed haul of six titles. Against this, if we take Motoyama’s ‘equal’ 2003 season, he was the one title-winner within the area as most the opposite current champions (Ralph Firman, Toranosuke Takagi, Tom Coronel) had left. It was the identical story in each Motoyama’s 1998 and 2001 title-winning seasons.

Satoshi Motoyama

Satoshi Motoyama

Picture by: Hiroshi Yamamura

The truth is, solely in 2005 did Motoyama win the championship towards drivers that had achieved the identical earlier than, however even then it needs to be mentioned that one among them, Takagi, was not the identical risk after his four-year stint Stateside. 

Yamamoto in contrast has by no means received a title dealing with any fewer than three different ex-champs (in 2018), which is partly a results of his profession taking off at a time the place the highest drivers within the collection tended to alter much less from yr to yr than they did within the late Nineties and early 2000s. Whether or not that makes his three titles any extra worthwhile than Motoyama’s stays, in fact, a matter of particular person opinion. 

What in regards to the win share ratio? Motoyama is the clear winner right here as properly on 22% (27 wins from 124 begins), versus slightly below 10% for Yamamoto (eight wins from 83 begins). However the above arguments apply right here too: Yamamoto’s wins have been scored, on the entire, towards harder opposition than Motoyama.

Whichever aspect of the fence you stand on, arguments will be made. Motoyama was arguably unfortunate to overlook out on the ‘99 title after being eradicated by Coronel within the first nook within the Suzuka finale, Senna-Prost model. With out that, he would have been a five-time champion. Yamamoto however has had some pretty common years in addition to stellar ones, most notably his demolition by the hands of Pierre Gasly at Crew Mugen in 2017. And his first title in 2013 was helped in no small half by Andre Lotterer’s absence from the season finale. 

Lotterer’s instance is one other attention-grabbing one price highlighting. As explored in-depth on this article from final yr, the German by rights needs to be a three-time Method Nippon/Tremendous Method champion, which might put him on a complete of 5 titles when mixed with the 2 he scored in SUPER GT. Even disregarding that piece of counterfactual historical past, it’s seemingly that Lotterer would have added to his three Japanese crowns had he hung round longer than he did.

Even after leaving Tremendous Method on the finish of 2017, his win tally is the third-highest of all-time, leaving him solely behind Hoshino and Motoyama, and his one and solely precise title win in 2011 was about as dominant as they arrive.

Andre Lotterer

Andre Lotterer

Picture by: Hisao Sakakibara

Delving into earlier eras, there aren’t any scarcity of examples of drivers who might have achieved way more than they did in fact had they merely not chosen to race abroad. The very best instance of that is five-time champion Satoru Nakajima, who was the dominant pressure in Japanese F2/F3000 for a lot of the Nineteen Eighties, successful 5 titles and 21 races earlier than he acquired his break with the Lotus F1 staff in 1987.

Nakajima Sr’s win ratio of 31% places him properly forward of Motoyama and even Hoshino (24%), and it’s seemingly he’d have scored many extra titles and wins had he turned down the F1 alternative. However inevitably, Nakajima is best remembered for his temporary and never particularly profitable grand prix profession than his domination of the home scene, particularly as he was Japan’s first full-time F1 racer.

In the same vein, Aguri Suzuki (5 wins and one title) and Ukyo Katayama (two wins and one title) have been whisked away to F1, the place they likewise didn’t obtain a lot past cult hero standing of their residence nation, earlier than they’d probability to determine themselves correctly on the home scene. Then there’s Takagi, who unusually returned to Method Nippon after his grand prix profession fizzled out and completely dominated earlier than promptly leaving once more to race in CART.

On the time of Takagi’s 2000 title (you possibly can learn extra about that right here), he had achieved 14 wins in simply 40 races, an unimaginable ratio of 35%. Three winless return seasons in 2005-07 dragged down his closing win share to 21%, but when he had stayed in Japan as an alternative of heading to the US in 2001 it’s fairly potential that he’d have staked a powerful declare to the ‘biggest’ mantle. 

To return to the Hoshino instance from in direction of the beginning of this text, a part of the explanation he attained such legendary standing shouldn’t be solely his outcomes, and the breadth of equipment during which he attained these outcomes, however his sheer longevity. He turned 49 throughout his closing season of Method Nippon in 1996 (making him a full 28 years older than that yr’s champion Ralf Schumacher), and, extremely, he continued racing in JGTC for six years past that. 

The ceremony of race legend Kazuyoshi Hoshino, retiring this year

The ceremony of race legend Kazuyoshi Hoshino, retiring this yr

Picture by: Hiroshi Yamamura

Motoyama was 37 when he shifted his sole focus to SUPER GT (during which it stays frequent for drivers to race properly into their 40s), and Yamamoto, a loyal husband and father of two, will likewise in all probability bow out of Tremendous Method earlier than his fortieth birthday given the extreme calls for of the collection in its trendy guise.

Hoshino’s enchantment spans a number of generations of followers, and his legacy even endures to this present day because of his possession of the Impul SUPER GT and Tremendous Method staff. Nakajima Sr and Suzuki likewise stay within the public eye with their eponymous groups, Nakajima Racing and ARTA, and in any case will all the time have a spot within the collective reminiscence of the followers as Japan’s grand prix pioneers. Motoyama, now 50, can even be racing a automobile this yr bearing his identify in SUPER GT’s GT300 class, whereas additionally retaining shut ties to Nissan as an government advisor.

Coming from that standpoint, there’s an argument to say that the variety of titles and victories Yamamoto goes on to accrue is considerably irrelevant. In spite of everything, there can solely be one ‘quickest man in Japan’, and that moniker will eternally be hooked up to Hoshino. Likewise, Motoyama will all the time be the driving force often called ‘The Emperor’. Yamamoto, for his half, has already earned the nickname ‘Mr Suzuka’ together with his success on the monitor, however that doesn’t fairly indicate the identical dominance or legendary standing.

However that is not to say that the panorama might not very completely different look 5, 10 and even 20 years from now. The passage of time typically by some means makes previous achievements appear higher, and that might equally show to the case for Yamamoto and the remainder of the present era.

Maybe Yamamoto himself places it greatest when he says: “Because the historic background of earlier eras is completely different, it’s tough to match and outline my place [among Japan’s greats]. In fact, I’d be completely satisfied to interrupt these sorts of data, however personally I believe it’s tough to guage the relative worth of our achievements due to the completely different surroundings and situations up to now. However I want to work arduous to realize additional progress as I’m nonetheless far behind the achievements and performances of my predecessors.”



Picture by: Masahide Kamio

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