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Why luckless Japanese youngster Natori deserves a break

Luck has always played a role in the way that most motorsport careers pan out, but if there’s one driver who has suffered more misfortune than most in the last two years, it has to be reigning Super Formula Lights champion Teppei Natori.

Teppei Natori, Carlin Buzz Racing

From having to sit out his Super Formula debut due to dehydration to being flipped upside in the wall at Suzuka’s 130R in SUPER GT due to a loose wheelnut, the ex-Honda junior has well and truly been put through the wringer.

And now his career has suffered another major setback following the news that his plans to race in Formula 2 this year have fallen through.

Natori looked well set to become the third Japanese driver on the F2 grid in 2022 (after Virtuosi’s Marino Sato and DAMS man Ayumu Iwasa) following his test outing for Trident in Abu Dhabi in December.

In fact, in a recent interview with Motorsport.com’s Japanese edition, Natori clarified that a contract with the team had been signed in November, something Trident has also confirmed to Motorsport.com.

Unfortunately, neither Natori nor Trident were willing to go into detail about how their deal fell apart, with the former only reiterating what he wrote in his statement about his situation on social media: that he and his management company, Buzz, were “looking for different things”.

Natori edged out Giuliano Alesi for Super Formula Lights title glory last year, but is set for a year on the sidelines in 2022

Natori edged out Giuliano Alesi for Super Formula Lights title glory last year, but is set for a year on the sidelines in 2022

Photo by: Masahide Kamio

But what makes his situation all the harder to swallow is the fact Natori turned down offers to race in Japan in 2022, understandably so given he was thinking that he was on his way to a spot on the F2 grid.

“At the start of November, I did an ‘audition’ for a manufacturer,” Natori revealed, albeit refusing to name the manufacturer in question. “I was the fastest, and I was about half a second up on the second-fastest, and I was made an offer by that manufacturer.

“At the time plans to race overseas [in F2] were progressing… I didn’t know what to choose. But the overseas opportunity seemed like it was going to happen, and I wanted to race abroad, and I signed [with Trident].

“I had a great offer from that manufacturer, so I was sorry to have to turn it down, but they understood the situation.”

No doubt Natori wishes in hindsight he had made a different decision, especially as he now faces a year on the sidelines following the collapse of his F2 plans.

But it’s hard to blame any young Japanese driver for making such a decision, let alone one that had already once had the carrot of a shot on the European scene dangled in front of him by Honda.

Natori may have only mustered a single point in FIA F3, but Carlin teammates Sargeant (5pts) and Drugovich (8) didn't do that much better despite knowing most of the tracks already

Natori may have only mustered a single point in FIA F3, but Carlin teammates Sargeant (5pts) and Drugovich (8) didn't do that much better despite knowing most of the tracks already

In 2019, Honda sent two of its proteges, Natori and a certain Yuki Tsunoda (who narrowly beat Natori to the 2018 Japanese F4 title), to contest dual campaigns in FIA F3 and Euroformula Open.

While Tsunoda impressed enough to progress to F2 and subsequently a seat in Formula 1 with AlphaTauri, Natori struggled in FIA F3 with just one points finish – although it should be noted that Carlin teammates Logan Sargeant and Felipe Drugovich didn’t fare much better.

Natori was nonetheless kept on Honda’s books for a season of Super Formula Lights in 2020 with Toda Racing, then still using its underpowered self-built engine. Despite that handicap, he still finished fourth in the standings behind a trio of Toyota proteges, Ritomo Miyata (who won 12 of the year’s 17 races), Sena Sakaguchi and Kazuto Kotaka.

This was broadly comparable to Toshiki Oyu’s performance at Toda in 2019, which was enough for him to be rewarded with a drive in Super Formula.

But Natori was instead dropped by Honda altogether, left to assemble a dual campaign in Super Formula Lights and SUPER GT’s GT300 class for 2021 with no help from the manufacturer, even resorting to a round of crowdfunding to get his SF Lights deal with B-Max Racing over the line.

While Natori only just beat TOM’S driver Giuliano Alesi to the prize, he still won six races and proved himself worthy of a graduation to Super Formula, especially as two other drivers he beat besides Alesi, Ren Sato and Atsushi Miyake, will both be on the grid in 2022 with new squad Team Goh.

Natori was rapid in UpGarage’s NSX GT3 in SUPER GT too, scoring pole at Motegi, although it was typical of his recent fortunes that the car conked out after just a handful of laps come the race.

Wretched unreliability restricted Natori and UpGarage teammate Takashi Kobayashi (left) to a lowly 22nd in the standings

Wretched unreliability restricted Natori and UpGarage teammate Takashi Kobayashi (left) to a lowly 22nd in the standings

Photo by: Masahide Kamio

Looking back, Natori admits that his F2 test outing for Trident probably ended up working against him when it came to finding a drive in Japan, as it gave off the impression that his plans for 2022 were all sorted.

“A lot of people told me, ‘good luck in F2’,” he said. “They all thought I was going to F2 and they didn’t know that I’d abandon plans to race abroad. I think that had a negative effect.

“I already turned down one offer [to race in Japan], and the seat that was offered to me has already gone to somebody else. So it will be hard for me to race in SUPER GT or Super Formula this year.

“Joining Super Formula Lights last year was a decision made with one eye on racing overseas. But now it has turned out like this, I want to race in Japan.

“And while I know there is still a lot for me to work on, I won the championship in Lights and in GT300 I was able to show my speed in qualifying, so I am confident I can be fast and I want to do something with that.”

With Natori seemingly doomed to a season on the sidelines in 2022 barring a late turnaround,  fingers crossed that the speed the 21-year-old has displayed isn’t forgotten and he finally gets the break he deserves next year.

Teppei Natori, B-MAX RACING TEAM

Teppei Natori, B-MAX RACING TEAM

Photo by: Masahide Kamio

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