If his combative performance on his Brazilian Grand Prix debut had not already done enough, it appears that Kamui Kobayashi’s stunning drive in the inaugural Abu Dhabi Grand Prix at the weekend has all-but convinced his employer Toyota to offer him a full-time race seat in F1 2010.
Having qualified eleventh on his maiden appearance at Interlagos in place of the injured Timo Glock – and run sixth for much of the first half of the grand prix, determinedly fending off the attentions of an eager Jenson Button behind him, even if some of his defensive tactics did come in for a degree of post-race scrutiny – Kobayashi headed to the United Arab Emirates keen to stake his claim to a promotion next year. He did so in some style.
Starting from eleventh once again, the young Japanese ace made the most of a bold one-stop strategy to run as high as third before making his sole pit visit, and he engaged in another energetic and highly entertaining scrap with F1’s new world champion along the way, assertively fighting his way past his Brawn GP rival as the latter emerged from his first stop. Winding up an excellent sixth at the chequered flag – ahead of infinitely more experienced team-mate Jarno Trulli – it was beyond any doubt an eye-catching effort.
“It was a really good race for me,” enthused the reigning GP2 Asia Series Champion. “At the start I overtook [Kimi] Raikkonen, and that was important in the end because it would have been difficult to finish in the top six if I had been behind him during the first stint. When I got past I was confident I had the race pace to fight for the points, and my target was to be consistently fast.
“The team did a great job with the strategy and the pit-stop, which played a big part in helping me finish in the points. I certainly wasn’t expecting to be racing in F1 this season, and I want to say thank you to Toyota for this opportunity. My target was to finish in the points, but I am a bit surprised to be in the top six. This is a fantastic result and I am extremely happy.”
Kobayashi’s impressive speed and flair also drew strong words of praise from Toyota Motorsport President John Howett, a man who confessed that he had been unsure about the 23-year-old’s absolute potential following his failure to shine in the main GP2 Series in 2009. After the Cologne-based outfit was snubbed by both Raikkonen and Robert Kubica – and with current pairing Jarno Trulli and Glock tipped to leave for pastures new, most likely Lotus F1 and Renault respectively – Howett admitted that ‘it looks like’ the man from Hyogo is all-but a shoe-in for a race seat next season and rated his chances of full-time graduation at 80 per cent.
“We have to really seriously consider him now after this good strong result,” the Englishman told reporters in Abu Dhabi. “I think it’s a definite lesson that sometimes we all should be braver in our driver choices and not go for the safer, risk-hedged decision.”
Toyota is unable to sign any drivers at all until its 2010 budget is approved – or otherwise – at an executive board meeting in Tokyo on 15 November, but it looks likely that Trulli has competed in the last of his 90 races in the top flight for the Japanese manufacturer. That being the case, his eighth points-scoring finish of the season – exactly six seconds behind Kobayashi in seventh, after pursuing a two-stop strategy from sixth on the grid – was a pleasing way to sign off and confirm his eighth spot in the final drivers’ standings for the year.
“It was not an easy race for me,” reflected the Italian. “I made a good start and was fighting with the BMWs in the first laps, which was good fun, but I was struggling a little with traction. During the stint the rear tyres were degrading, and then later braking consistency became an issue.
“I was pushing as hard as possible and putting in some good laps to fight for the top six. In the end I was seventh, which is not bad, and for the team the result is pretty good. Obviously Kamui drove really well and I am very pleased for him; he deserved this result.”
“It was a great result for us to have both drivers in the points in the last race of 2009,” concluded team principal Tadashi Yamashina, as Toyota ended the campaign fifth in the constructors’ championship table, with the third-highest points total of its eight-year F1 career. “Kamui did a fantastic job and we are very proud of him, but Jarno also fought hard to get a strong result.
“This year the team, including everyone back in the factory in Cologne, has done a brilliant job. It’s been a tough season but we have ended it in a positive way, so thanks to everyone in the team, as well as our sponsors and fans. I would like to offer my congratulations to the race organisers, who have done a fantastic job to create this incredible venue and also to the new world champions, Brawn GP and Jenson Button, who achieved so much this season.”
Sigh… I hope Kobayashi gets to race next year, whether it’s for Toyota (since they may be pulling out) or some other team. Maybe the bigshots in Japan will be more willing to continue racing in F1 now that there’s a Japanese driver with real potential in their team!
Wonder where’s Rosberg going… I really hope he doesn’t end up in Lotus or Renault!