x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

Kobayashi is a really fast learner at Sauber

The Japanese driver's career resurrected at this venue but such is the 24-year-old driver's pragmatic attitude that he refuses to reminisce.

Kamui Kobayashi relaxes at Yas Marina Circuit. Pawan Singh / The National
Kamui Kobayashi relaxes at Yas Marina Circuit. Pawan Singh / The National

It was at this point of the season last year - again at the Yas Marina Circuit, again during the final weekend of the Formula One calendar - that Kamui Kobayashi made his name.

Having replaced the injured Toyota driver Timo Glock in Brazil, the Japanese rookie made only the second start of his F1 career when the teams arrived in the capital for the inaugural Abu Dhabi Grand Prix. Kobayashi started 10th and drove expertly and aggressively. He passed Jenson Button, who would be crowned world champion later that night, and finished sixth.

Toyota withdrew from Formula One shortly after the season's end, but Kobayashi's performance in Abu Dhabi was enough to secure him a seat with Sauber-Ferrari for the 2010 season. He returned to Abu Dhabi this weekend with a full season of F1 experience, but such is the 24-year-old driver's pragmatic attitude that he refuses to reminisce.

"It is nice to be back, but last season is last season," he said. "I have memories, which is good experience, but I am not really interested in that. Yes, I got the chance to show what I could do here, but now I have better memories."

For somebody whose driving was labelled "crazy" by none other than Button, Kobayashi's character also has a hint of eccentricity about it. At times he appears deliberately vague and seems to prefer laughing to actually answering questions. But being the first Japanese driver to reach the pinnacle of motorsport without sponsorship, he attracts attention.

When he was here last year, Kobayashi told reporters that, were he not to secure a seat for 2010, he would return to Japan to work in his father's sushi restaurant. The story made colourful headlines around the world - "Kobayashi Relishes Taste of F1, Not Sushi" - but he told The National this week that the entire story was an invention and that he is allergic to fish.

"It was a joke, but everybody believed it and thought it was really interesting," he said. "I could never work with sushi because I cannot touch fish with my hands. I am allergic." Of course, whether that is true or another of the jester's japes is hard to prove, but it is clear the story of the boy who cried wolf has yet to reach Kobayashi's hometown of Amagasaki, an industrial and port city west of Tokyo.

He does show sincerity, however, when pressed on his future in F1. Sauber have signed a deal with Telmex, the Mexican telecoms company owned by Carlos Slim, the world's wealthiest man, and with "significant" branding on next year's cars it can be presumed the team will benefit financially from the investment.

Kobayashi endured a frustrating start to the year, being forced to retire from six of the first eight races. But he and his team have improved to collect 32 points from the past 12 races, with a best finish of sixth, at Silverstone.

Development will continue, he said, but it will take time.

"It has been a pretty good season for us and I believe we can work hard and improve next year," he said. "But it will be little steps, not big ones - although that will be enough to get us fighting in the second group. But we cannot expect big steps."

Sauber's line-up for next year is undoubtedly exciting, if inexperienced: Kobayashi's raw pace and talent is joined by newcomer Sergio Perez, the 20-year-old Mexican who joins as part of the Telmex deal and replaces the departing veteran Nick Heidfeld.

"I will pass on my experience [to Perez], but I am not here to be a teacher. I need to focus on my own job," Kobayashi said. "I am here for the team, not for the other driver, although we are the same team, so we need to work together and work for the team."

This weekend, at least, he is here to enjoy his final race of the season, a race for which he has been patiently waiting. But he is not setting targets; surpassing last season's sixth-place finish is not in his thoughts.

"Everybody is excited to be here," he said. "It's challenging and I'm sure there will be a lot of spectators because the championship will be decided here. But for me, I just want to score points.

"One point for us is good enough, a lot of points is better, but you never know. I have to believe in myself. 

"Otherwise, why am I here?"

gmeenaghan@thenational.ae