SUZUKA, JAPAN // The sun had set in the land it rises, yet the grandstands remained packed and cheering. The only light in the darkness was focused on a 26 year old Japanese male holding a shimmering silver vase above his head.
Kamui Kobayashi, competing at his home grand prix, had snared his first podium in Formula One after holding off a strong and sustained challenge from Jenson Button to finish third. On the track that he dreamt of success, he celebrated.
"It hasn't sunk in yet, it is hard to believe - I achieved my first podium in Suzuka!" the Sauber driver said, having being greeted with raucous chanting during the post-race awards ceremony.
"It was a fantastic race and we have been working really hard to get to this point since we were lacking pace on Friday. The team did a great job to recover from there."
Kobayashi had started yesterday's 53-lap contest in third after Button, who had qualified third fastest behind Red Bull duo Sebastian Vettel and Mark Webber, dropped back to eighth following a forced gearbox change pre-race. The Japanese driver enjoyed a good start, and for the majority maintained his position.
However, with the chequered flag approaching, his tyres started to wear and Button, who won here last year, began closing in. Such was the fight, that as Vettel crossed the finish line ahead of Ferrari's Felipe Massa to claim victory, the majority of the thousands of fans in the stands were instead focused on the battle going on 25 seconds behind.
"I had a very long last stint and Jenson changed for fresh tyres later," Kobayashi said. "My rear tyres were really bad in the end and I had a lot of oversteer, but regardless of this, I had to push to defend my podium place.
"Only during the final lap did I allow myself to really think I can keep him behind me, because then the best overtaking opportunity at the end of the straight was over, and then I saw all the fans and the raised hand - it meant a lot to me."
Kobayashi has seen his race seat come under scrutiny after impressive performances by teammate Sergio Perez proved the car to be capable of strong results. The Japanese's best result before yesterday had been fourth in Germany, while Perez has finished on the podium three times and last week signed for Button's McLaren-Mercedes.
"The team has built a great car this year," Kobayashi said. "You can tell this from the podium finishes my teammate has had. At times I was close to that as well, but I never had the luck.
"It means so much to me that it finally worked out. Maybe from now on things will be easier."