New kid on the block
Kazuki Nakajima is still pinching himself after being confirmed as a Formula One driver for Williams next season. Melanie Ho reports
Kazuki Nakajima went back to the dinner table, closed-mouthed, but perhaps with a glimmer in his eyes. At a restaurant in Tokyo, Nakajima fielded a phone call.
'I had a phone call from somebody else saying, 'You should really call Frank Williams, he wants to speak to [you]',' Nakajima said. 'And I called him and he told me that the team would offer me a race drive next year and can I accept, or something like this. Of course, yes, and I just said, 'Thank you and I will do my best for next year'.'
He returned to the table with a secret. Nothing had been finalised or announced and Nakajima, 22, could not say anything. He said the entire situation was a bit strange - to continue to converse as if nothing had changed, when something, at least in terms of his racing career, had.
Nakajima kept the secret for four or five days, returning to Britain to prepare for the announcement. He telephoned his father, former Formula One driver Satoru Nakajima, just before the announcement was made.
'He was quite happy but at that moment we didn't speak much and he just said, congratulations and do your best.'
His mother had a different reaction and another son to worry about.
'I think she was quite happy and at the same time maybe afraid for the racing,' Nakajima said. 'I have a younger brother, Daisuke, now he's 18 and he just started this year, doing kind of a Formula Renault.'
Signed to replace Alex Wurz, who retired following the Chinese Grand Prix in October, Nakajima will partner Nico Rosberg, also 22, but moving into his third season in Formula One. Rosberg finished ninth in the 2007 drivers' standings; his best finish was fourth in the final race of the year, the Brazilian Grand Prix.
'I had a few good races and especially the last race was probably my best,' Rosberg said. 'I enjoyed it, beating the BMWs.'
BMW and Williams had an acrimonious split in 2005.
Now awaiting the new car, the two drivers, one based in Monaco (Rosberg) and the other (Nakajima) based in Oxford, are testing in Spain, earlier this month in Barcelona and next weekend in Jerez. In the interim, the two were in Valencia, where they were on hand for the RBS Grand Prix Challenge, the conclusion of a simulator competition run in Sydney, London, Hong Kong and Singapore.
As one of the activities, the two drivers led the winners around a karting circuit for a few laps.
'Do not touch the drivers,' warned one of the organisers before the karting exercise.
'We just signed him [Nakajima], so please don't try anything,' said another.
Nakajima started karting at 12, having thought about racing as a child but it wasn't a set goal. He didn't grow up thinking that racing would be his future.
'Actually I didn't have any idea about the future at that moment, when I was that young,' Nakajima said. 'Maybe a baseball player? I like baseball still. Even when I was a child I liked to watch the races and I didn't have any idea about the future but I was at the race track most of the time, and then I started go-karting ...'
He indicated his desire to go to Formula One following a move to Europe in 2006 after a year in Formula Japan and two years in the All-Japan Formula Three. But there wasn't always clarity. His transition from karts to formula cars involved a driving test to become a part of Toyota's young drivers' programme. The first try resulted in failure before a re-try (and a subsequent pass) the following year.
'The moment between the first one and the second one was not a hard experience, but I needed to think about the future or what I wanted to do in the future and about driving,' Nakajima said.
This past year he clocked 7,000km as the Williams test driver and raced in GP2, where he finished fifth overall and was named rookie of the year. Before the telephone call from Williams, Nakajima had been thinking of a second season in GP2.
'I didn't have any preference to do Formula One or GP2,' Nakajima said. 'I was thinking, whatever comes is going to be good. Of course, Formula One is better.'
That debut came this year at the final race in Brazil, where he finished 10th after starting 19th and, perhaps more infamously, where he hit three mechanics in his first pit stop.
'Yeah, obviously I made some mistakes but I have to learn, I just have to learn from it not to make it again,' Nakajima said.
He is now being paired with Rosberg - smart, articulate and very fast. But for any of the details in their experiences which can be plucked and likened to one another (age, racing fathers), there is nothing of substance to indicate that the two are similar people. They are not alike; they have not really worked much together. Still, their relationship is positive enough.
'It's been good to work with him because very often you have drivers who are unfriendly or political or things like that but there's none of that,' Rosberg said.
The more inexperienced Nakajima, however, also has the advantage of being able to learn from Rosberg.
'For me personally it's going to be really good to have Nico as a teammate because he has experience and he's quick, he showed potential this year,' Nakajima said. 'He is going to be a good benchmark for me. I have to aim for beating him or catching him.'