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Japanese drivers face F1 barriers

SUZUKA, Japan (AP) — About two dozen Japanese drivers have raced in Formula 1 over almost 50 years, and success has been limited. A Japanese driver has never won an F1 race, which means Ayumu Iwasa’s goals are unbelievably high.

“I want to be in an F1 seat as a regular driver, and also be world champion,” the 22-year-old Iwasa said Friday after driving a single practice session for the RB team. “For sure it’s not easy.”

Iwasa was given the chance to perform before the home crowd in Japan, partly because of his nationality, his talent, and because Honda — which powers the RB team, formerly known as AlphaTauri, and its parent team Red Bull — also runs the Suzuka circuit.

He was filling in for Daniel Ricciardo, who is off to a slow start this season but will drive in Saturday qualifying and the race on Sunday when Red Bull’s Max Verstappen will be the favourite after going out on the fourth lap in Australia two weeks ago.

Iwasa did all right, though even with his talent there are only 20 seats available in F!.

His practice times were not far off RB’s regular driver, Japanese Yuki Tsunoda. He said he held back a bit and said his target was simply to help the team get data on the car.

Yuki Tsunoda of Japan, driver of RB, the team previously known as AlphaTauri takes part in the first free practice session at the Suzuka Circuit in Suzuka, central Japan, Friday, April 5, 2024, ahead of Sunday’s Japanese Formula One Grand Prix. PHOTO: AP

“It is a quite different feeling with an F1 car,” said Iwasa, who has driven the lower formulas of car racing. “It’s just amazing. The car has much more capacity to push and also the limit is much higher.”

Nerves? Not much he said before local fans at the circuit in central Japan.

“I didn’t feel so much pressure because I knew what to do in the car, and also we had a plan for the session,” Iwasa said. “So I was just focusing on my job. I was able to pick up the pace a bit quicker than expected.”

Tsunoda, who has driven almost 70 races in F1, was asked why Japanese drivers have struggled.

“First of all, (we are) very far away from Europe,” Tsunoda said. “And I think mainly you want to race in Europe in junior categories to get a Super Licence. And to be as close as possible to the Formula 1 teams, to get attention.”

He also said European drivers typically start racing at a younger age than drivers in Japan. He also added in cultural and linguistic barriers. Both Iwasa and Tsunoda speak English well and do interviews in English.

“You have to go to Europe to race and to compete against the European drivers, so that probably makes it a little bit difficult,” he said. “And obviously, the language as well. Japanese don’t speak as much good English.”

“So it’s hard to communicate well, and tell what you want specifically from the car — setup, for example. These things will take a little bit of time.”