F1 Blast From The Past: Kobayashi Stuns On Debut
A Formula 1 debut is a special thing. It’s a driver stepping onto the world stage and saying “this is who I am and this is what I can do – take notice”. Whether it be a shot in the fastest car on the grid, or just an opportunity to take part, first impressions are everything.
The 2020 Sakhir Grand Prix saw three such debuts. Two drivers who had never raced in Formula 1 before, in Williams’ Jack Aitken and Haas’ Pietro Fittipaldi, took to the starting grid for the first time. The third was George Russell, who was finally given the chance to squeeze into the coveted Mercedes seat to show the world exactly what he can do.
For Aitken and Fittipaldi, there wasn’t much to write home about.
George Russell in the Mercedes, though, was another story. Quickly ushered into the vacant Mercedes seat to fill in for seven-time World Champion Lewis Hamilton. He impressed from the get-go, easily challenging Bottas for top honours in what was surely his opening act in a Mercedes.
It was an electric performance, made all the more impressive by his lack of experience behind the wheel of the W11 – a car he’d never turned a wheel in until Friday.
His debut now stands alongside the all-time best: Hamilton in ’07. Verstappen winning first stab in the works Red Bull in ’16. Schumacher at Spa in ’91. All great performances, all great debuts.
When it comes to the ballsiest entrance in recent years though, that honour can only ever go to one man: parachuted into the Toyota for the final two races of the 2009 season, Mr. Kamui Kobayashi.
Elbows Out, No Prisoners
Kobayashi made his Formula 1 debut at the 2009 Brazilian Grand Prix. The Japanese driver was filling in for an injured Timo Glock, who had been side-lined after a heavy crash in qualifying at Suzuka the race before.
A solid effort on the Saturday put him 11th on the grid, only just missing out on Q3 in a rain-sodden qualifying session. It would be in the race, though, where Kobayashi truly came alive. After a collision on the first lap that claimed three cars, and a pass on Kazuki Nakajima’s Williams off the restart, Kobayashi was up to sixth.
Behind though, Jenson Button was carving through the field, making easy work of Romain Grosjean and Kazuki Nakajima. A few laps later, he was on to the back of Kobayashi.
But the Japanese driver wasn’t such easy pickings. An early send up the inside nearly got the move done for the World Champion-elect, but Kobayashi emphatically hung onto the position around the outside.
Button haunted his mirrors for the next 17 laps, but the young Toyota man, in his first ever Grand Prix, didn’t put a foot wrong. Despite immense pressure, Kobayashi appeared unfazed.
And when Button finally slipped through on Lap 24, Kobayashi found some more victims to play with. He immediately repassed fellow compatriot Nakajima around the outside of Turn 1 after falling victim to him on the pit-straight.
Then later on in the race, dive-bombed Giancarlo Fisichella for 10th, a move he’d put to good use in later seasons. The new kid on the block certainly wasn’t afraid to get stuck in.
Kobayashi went on to finish a respectable 10th in his maiden Grand Prix, but it was his brawl with Button in the early stages that had everyone talking. Here was a driver in his first race comfortably going wheel-to-wheel with some of the best in Formula 1. For a rookie, it was mightily impressive.
Not a flash in the pan
Two weeks later in Abu Dhabi, Kobayashi and Button found themselves fighting over the same piece of track again. This time, it was Kobayashi that came out on top.
As the chequered flag fell on the 2009 season, the young Japanese driver had well and truly established himself as one to watch for the future.
Two strong outings with Toyota were enough to land him a drive with Sauber for the following season, where he put in some stunning drives, most notably at Valencia and Suzuka. Two years later in 2012, he’d secure his first and only podium on home soil, the first Japanese driver to do so in 22 years.
Kobayashi will always be remembered for his Hollywood-style overtakes and merciless approach to wheel-to-wheel racing. But his gutsy drives at the tail end of the 2009 season will also live on as one of the greatest debut performances in recent years.
Fast. Aggressive. Ruthless. It was a perfect display of talent and style, a mix any driver looking to cause a stir in Formula 1 would do well to emulate.
Grid Talk Podcast
Want more content to preview your Abu Dhabi Grand Prix weekend? Host George Howson with panellists Mikael Kataja, Alex Booth and Garry Sloan stared in Grid Talk’s Abu Dhabi Prix Preview. Video and audio versions of the show are linked below: