Son of sushi chef on a roll in Formula 1

Story highlights

Kamui Kobayashi thanks Suzuka fans for support after Sunday's podium finish

His third-place finish at Suzuka only the third by a Japanese driver in F1 history

Sauber driver believes he can now regard himself 'as a Formula 1 driver' after Sunday's feat

Sauber chief hopes Kobayashi feat can inspire a resurgence of Japanese interest in the sport

CNN  — 

Lionel Messi worshiped World Cup hero Diego Maradona, Roger Federer revered Grand Slam winner Pete Sampras while Sebastian Vettel idolized Formula 1 champion Michael Schumacher.

But all Kamui Kobayashi had to look up to when he was growing up was his dad – a sushi restaurant owner.

Nonetheless, determination and desire drove the 26-year-old to the top of Formula One and on Sunday, he became the first local driver to stand on the podium at a Japanese Grand Prix since Aguri Suzuki in 1990 – and only the third man from his country to finish in the top three at an F1 race at all.

“When I was growing up, I had nobody who I really wanted to be,” Kobayashi, who now lies 11th in the drivers’ championship standings, told CNN in an exclusive interview.

“I had no idea who the racers were, since my father just has a sushi restaurant and I never really watched a race. I maybe saw some Nascar races or whatever but I didn’t care who the driver was – I just wanted to drive the car. That was my only dream when I started.”

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Kobayashi’s appreciation of F1 was hindered by both the inconvenient broadcast times of many of the races (particularly those in Europe) and by being the only member of his family with any interest in motorsport.

At one point, he even turned his thoughts to entertaining a very different kind of audience.

“I wanted to become a comedian – Amagasaki is quite popular for Japanese comedians. But I found I wasn’t talented enough,” Kobayashi told the sport’s official website last month.

Instead, comedy’s questionable loss is undoubtedly F1’s gain with the ever-smiling Sauber driver – affectionately nicknamed “Cowboyashi” and “Ko-Wasabi” by sections of the media, and “absolutely crazy” by a smiling Jenson Button – proving a popular figure on the circuit.

And his exploits at Suzuka, where Vettel took the checkered flag to move just four points behind championship leader Fernando Alonso after the Spaniard retired early on, may just have inspired a new generation of Japanese drivers.

The fans who thronged the famous track on Sunday had a nervy wait to see the first podium by a Japanese driver since Takuma Sato in 2004 as Kobayashi had to fend off a determined attempt by Button to pass him in the final laps.

Chants of “Kamui” broke out from the grandstands as he was introduced at the post-race awards ceremony, before F1’s only Japanese driver was eventually chased to his garage by delirious fans who had managed to infiltrate the paddock.

“This I cannot put into words. It was a fantastic feeling to see all the people in my home country so emotional and happy,” was how the Amagasaki-born Kobayashi described his first podium to Sauber’s official website.

“It gave me such a lot and I will never forget that moment. I want to thank the Japanese fans for the great support they gave to the Sauber F1 Team and to myself.”

Prior to the race, Kobayashi had told CNN he believed the presence of so many impassioned supporters would not put him under pressure but simply give him more power.

So it proved, as he completed his greatest F1 triumph just a couple of hours’ drive from his home town – sparking a huge party at Suzuka on Sunday night, with another celebratory event at the same venue attracting 5,000 fans on Monday morning.

The timing of Kobayashi’s success was perfect, not only because the driver’s future with Sauber is uncertain but also because of Japan’s reduced investment in F1 in recent years.

Since 2008, economic reasons have prompted both Honda and Toyota to withdraw from the constructors’ championship and Bridgestone to opt against renewing its contract to supply tires to F1 teams.

“I hope that with this kind of result there is fresh impetus for companies to come in. It’s very important for the race in Japan, for F1 in the country, because now they have a driver who has given such a great performance,” says Sauber team principal Monisha Kaltenborn.

Yet Kobayashi’s place on the podium did not come easily, with a man who was appointed an international ambassador for sports and tourism by the Japanese government in September having long battled the odds to calmber to the top of F1.

Even though his parents – who choose not to own a car – had limited interest in motorsport, his father, whose sushi delivery business is based in Amagasaki, backed Kamui in the well-worn path of go-karting when he was just nine.

“Sushi restaurants are a completely different world to racing but I just really wanted to do racing and it felt like destiny when I started,” explained Kobayashi.

“My father was always supporting me but it was very difficult at the beginning because racing is quite expensive and it cost more than we expected. It was a really hard time but when I got a chance with Toyota, it was a great start and I gradually improved step-by-step until I progressed to F1.”

After signing for Toyota’s Driver Academy in 2004, Kobayashi graduated to being a Toyota F1 test driver before finally contesting his first F1 drive in 2009.

“In my time, there was a lot of support from manufacturers towards young drivers but now it’s really difficult to find that,” he says with a deep sense of gratitude.

“We had belief though, good results and kept working really hard to achieve the dream of becoming an F1 driver. In any job, talent is very important but the most important thing is to never give up.”

This quality served Kobayashi well when Toyota retired from F1 three years ago, a decision which even found him thinking about working for his father’s sushi business despite his stated dislike of raw fish.

But the Japanese’s skills, hard work and aggressive driving style were rewarded when Sauber picked him up shortly after.

“I think we’re improving every year and this year, our car is really strong even though our budget stopped. After BMW left Sauber (in 2009), we spent a really difficult time but we’re working hard every year and the car is getting more amazing,” he says.

This was proven when Kobayashi’s speed meant that only double world champion Vettel and Ferrari’s Felipe Massa finished ahead of him on Sunday, a day when he believes he came of age.

“I’ve always felt that if you ever want to look back and regard yourself as an F1 driver, you have to have been on the podium at least once,” he told Sauber’s website. “Without such a photo, it’s a bit as if you had never been there. So it means a lot to me.

“I instantly relaxed when (I crossed the line and) all the pressure came off. Without doubt it was a very important race for me in my career. And I felt: yes, now we will be having more strong races and really go for 5th place in the constructors’ championship.”

Sixth-placed Sauber’s 116 points are 20 fewer than Mercedes and while he battles for his team, Kobayashi needs a strong finish in the season’s five remaining races to not just continue his hard-fought F1 career but also to provide a hero for Japan’s next generation.