How does Yamamoto stack up against Japan's greats?

Naoki Yamamoto's haul of five titles across Super Formula and SUPER GT mark him out as statistically the most successful driver in Japan's top two series in recent years. But can he really be considered the equal of past legends?

How does Yamamoto stack up against Japan's greats?

Who is the greatest driver of all-time? It’s a difficult one to answer no matter which championship or discipline you happen to be scrutinising, but matters are even more complicated when you consider who has the strongest claim to be Japan’s best-ever domestic racer.

Firstly, when it comes to looking at the stats, which series do you count? These days, Super Formula and SUPER GT sit clearly at the top of the tree, but wind the clock back 25 years ago, when what was then known as the All-Japan GT Championship was still in its infancy, there was also the Japan Touring Car Championship, which ran to Super Touring rules in 1994-98 and attracted plenty of domestic and international top names in that period.

There’s an argument to say that success in the JTC should be held in similar regard to any achievements in JGTC/SUPER GT and Super Formula (and its various predecessor series, going back to Japanese Formula 2000). But would you count JTC just in its Super Touring guise, or include the Group A years as well.

Then there’s the All-Japan Sports Prototype Series for Group C cars, a sort-of forerunner to the JGTC that, during its pomp, clearly stood as the ‘other’ top series on the domestic Japanese scene alongside Japanese F3000/F2. But compared to modern-day JGTC/SUPER GT, participation was far more sporadic, with driver line-ups often changing from race to race, and by the time of its final season in 1992 only six cars participated in every round.

And that’s before we talk about 1993, nominally the first year of JGTC but more like a bizarre transition year from Group C machinery to what we now call GT500 rules, that SUPER GT itself doesn’t recognise for the purposes of historic record-keeping.

Satoru Nakajima, Kazuyoshi Hoshino

Satoru Nakajima, Kazuyoshi Hoshino

Photo by: Suzuka Circuit

All of the above makes the task of comparing drivers’ records across the generations extremely tough. Let’s take the example of Kazuyoshi Hoshino, whose claim to be the greatest is as solid as anyone’s - the long-time Nissan racer was in his heyday often referred to as ‘the fastest man in Japan’, making him the cultural equivalent of Mario Andretti in the US or the late Sir Stirling Moss in the UK.

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

So, by the most generous definition, we could call Hoshino a 16-time domestic champion in Japan. But such a record would be impossible for a driver in the current era to even approach, let alone surpass.

There are other series besides Super Formula and SUPER GT that aren’t overt feeder categories - notably Super Taikyu and the one-make Inter Proto Series - but these are more like pro-am categories, attracting many gentleman drivers, and therefore can’t be considered in the same league.

To move on perhaps the next-strongest candidate for ‘greatest’ status, Satoshi Motoyama rose to prominence in what we might call the start of the modern era, following the creation of JGTC in 1994 and Japanese F3000 metamorphosing into Formula Nippon (now Super Formula) under its current ownership in 1996.

Satoshi Motoyama, Team Impul

Satoshi Motoyama, Team Impul

Photo by: Motorsport Images

While Motoyama did also race in JTC in its dying days, for the bulk of his career he had only two chances a year to win the title. He did so on seven occasions - three in JGTC/SUPER GT, four in Formula Nippon - establishing himself as the heir to Hoshino and earning himself the nickname ‘The Emperor’ in the process.

Fast forward a little more than a decade from Motoyama’s final SUPER GT title in 2008, and now there’s another driver staking a claim to be mentioned in the same breath as Hoshino and Motoyama, or at the very least the standout driver of what we might call the ‘post-Motoyama generation’.

Naoki Yamamoto is now a five-time domestic champion following his second ‘double’ of Super Formula and SUPER GT titles last year (in itself a unique feat), which means he’s now only two titles away from matching Motoyama’s haul. And in a nice piece of historical symmetry, he’s also the same age, 32, that Motoyama was when the Nissan man scored titles four and five in 2003.

With Yamamoto still at the peak of his powers in both categories, you’d have to say that the man from Utsunomiya has every chance to match and even surpass Motoyama, if not this year then in the years to come. And, in an interview with the Super Formula website, the Honda driver didn’t beat around the bush when it came to his ambitions.

"When I hadn’t won any titles, I thought Motoyama’s amazing achievements would be out of reach, but now that I’ve won several championships, I realised that equalling his record is possible, so of course now I really want to break his record," he said. "I am aiming for that."

Naoki Yamamoto, DOCOMO TEAM DANDELION RACING

Naoki Yamamoto, DOCOMO TEAM DANDELION RACING

Photo by: Masahide Kamio

Not withstanding a difficult pre-season, if we suppose that Yamamoto made it a ‘treble-double’ this year by winning both the Super Formula and SUPER GT crowns again, would it elevate his standing to the extent he could be considered as the equal of, or even greater than, Motoyama? Even that’s not an easy one to answer.

Super Formula, or Formula Nippon as it was known throughout Motoyama’s time in the series, is probably the best place to make detailed comparisons, as drivers’ results aren’t affected by success ballast, the quality of their co-driver or (as much) by substandard machinery, given the near-spec nature of the category. Besides titles, the other metric that fans tend to consider most when it comes to comparing drivers is their win records, and on this front Motoyama remains well clear.

During his 12 years in the category, Motoyama amassed 27 victories, putting him only behind Hoshino (39 wins). Yamamoto by contrast is on only eight wins, so even if he somehow swept the board in 2021, he’d still lag some way behind, and at his current rate of progress (five wins in the last three seasons), he is unlikely to ever win that many races before age catches up with him.

But that doesn’t tell the whole story, as Yamamoto unquestionably faces tougher opposition today than Motoyama faced in Formula Nippon during his pomp. 

Taking last season as an example, Yamamoto faced four other champions in the field (Nick Cassidy, Hiroaki Ishiura, Yuji Kunimoto and Kazuki Nakajima) with a combined haul of six titles. By contrast, if we take Motoyama’s ‘equivalent’ 2003 season, he was the only title-winner in the field as most the other recent champions (Ralph Firman, Toranosuke Takagi, Tom Coronel) had left. It was the same story in both Motoyama’s 1998 and 2001 title-winning seasons.

Satoshi Motoyama

Satoshi Motoyama

Photo by: Hiroshi Yamamura

In fact, only in 2005 did Motoyama win the championship against drivers that had done the same before, but even then it should be said that one of them, Takagi, was not the same threat after his four-year stint Stateside. 

Yamamoto by contrast has never won a title facing any fewer than three other ex-champs (in 2018), which is partly a result of his career taking off at a time where the top drivers in the series tended to change less from year to year than they did in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Whether that makes his three titles any more valuable than Motoyama’s remains, of course, a matter of individual opinion. 

What about the win percentage ratio? Motoyama is the clear winner here as well on 22% (27 wins from 124 starts), versus just under 10% for Yamamoto (eight wins from 83 starts). But the above arguments apply here too: Yamamoto’s wins have been scored, on the whole, against tougher opposition than Motoyama.

Whichever side of the fence you stand on, arguments can be made. Motoyama was arguably unlucky to miss out on the ‘99 title after being eliminated by Coronel in the first corner in the Suzuka finale, Senna-Prost style. Without that, he would have been a five-time champion. Yamamoto on the other hand has had some fairly average years as well as stellar ones, most notably his demolition at the hands of Pierre Gasly at Team Mugen in 2017. And his first title in 2013 was helped in no small part by Andre Lotterer’s absence from the season finale. 

Lotterer’s example is another interesting one worth highlighting. As explored in-depth in this article from last year, the German by rights should be a three-time Formula Nippon/Super Formula champion, which would put him on a total of five titles when combined with the two he scored in SUPER GT. Even disregarding that piece of counterfactual history, it’s likely that Lotterer would have added to his three Japanese crowns had he hung around longer than he did.

Even after leaving Super Formula at the end of 2017, his win tally is the third-highest of all-time, leaving him only behind Hoshino and Motoyama, and his one and only actual title win in 2011 was about as dominant as they come.

Andre Lotterer

Andre Lotterer

Photo by: Hisao Sakakibara

Delving into previous eras, there are no shortage of examples of drivers who could have achieved much more than they did in actuality had they simply not chosen to race overseas. The best example of this is five-time champion Satoru Nakajima, who was the dominant force in Japanese F2/F3000 for much of the 1980s, winning five titles and 21 races before he got his break with the Lotus F1 team in 1987.

Nakajima Sr’s win ratio of 31% puts him well ahead of Motoyama and even Hoshino (24%), and it’s likely he’d have scored many more titles and wins had he turned down the F1 opportunity. But inevitably, Nakajima is better remembered for his brief and not especially successful grand prix career than his domination of the domestic scene, especially as he was Japan’s first full-time F1 racer.

In a similar vein, Aguri Suzuki (five wins and one title) and Ukyo Katayama (two wins and one title) were whisked away to F1, where they likewise didn’t achieve much beyond cult hero status in their home country, before they had chance to establish themselves properly on the domestic scene. Then there’s Takagi, who unusually returned to Formula Nippon after his grand prix career fizzled out and absolutely dominated before promptly leaving again to race in CART.

At the time of Takagi’s 2000 title (you can read more about that here), he had achieved 14 wins in just 40 races, an incredible ratio of 35%. Three winless return seasons in 2005-07 dragged down his final win percentage to 21%, but if he had stayed in Japan instead of heading to the US in 2001 it’s quite possible that he’d have staked a strong claim to the ‘greatest’ mantle. 

To return to the Hoshino example from towards the start of this article, part of the reason he attained such legendary status is not only his results, and the breadth of machinery in which he attained those results, but his sheer longevity. He turned 49 during his final season of Formula Nippon in 1996 (making him a full 28 years older than that year's champion Ralf Schumacher), and, incredibly, he continued racing in JGTC for six years beyond that. 

The ceremony of race legend Kazuyoshi Hoshino, retiring this year

The ceremony of race legend Kazuyoshi Hoshino, retiring this year

Photo by: Hiroshi Yamamura

Motoyama was 37 when he shifted his sole focus to SUPER GT (in which it remains common for drivers to race well into their 40s), and Yamamoto, a devoted husband and father of two, will likewise probably bow out of Super Formula before his 40th birthday given the intense demands of the series in its modern guise.

Hoshino’s appeal spans several generations of fans, and his legacy even endures to this day thanks to his ownership of the Impul SUPER GT and Super Formula team. Nakajima Sr and Suzuki likewise remain in the public eye with their eponymous teams, Nakajima Racing and ARTA, and in any case will always have a place in the collective memory of the fans as Japan's grand prix pioneers. Motoyama, now 50, will also be racing a car this year bearing his name in SUPER GT's GT300 class, while also retaining close ties to Nissan as an executive advisor.

Coming from that standpoint, there’s an argument to say that the number of titles and victories Yamamoto goes on to accrue is somewhat irrelevant. After all, there can only be one ‘fastest man in Japan’, and that moniker will forever be attached to Hoshino. Likewise, Motoyama will always be the driver known as ‘The Emperor’. Yamamoto, for his part, has already earned the nickname ‘Mr Suzuka’ with his success at the track, but that doesn’t quite imply the same dominance or legendary status.

But that isn't to say that the landscape may not very different look five, 10 or even 20 years from now. The passage of time often somehow makes past achievements seem greater, and that could equally prove to the case for Yamamoto and the rest of the current generation.

Perhaps Yamamoto himself puts it best when he says: "Since the historical background of previous eras is different, it is difficult to compare and define my position [among Japan's greats]. Of course, I would be happy to break these kinds of records, but personally I think it is difficult to evaluate the relative value of our achievements because of the different environment and conditions in the past. But I would like to work hard to achieve further progress as I am still far behind the achievements and performances of my predecessors."

#1 STANLEY NSX-GT

#1 STANLEY NSX-GT

Photo by: Masahide Kamio

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