Naoki Yamamoto should be in Formula 1, according to 2009 World Champion Jenson Button, referring to the Honda-backed Japanese driver who got his first taste of a F1 car at Suzuka last Friday.
The 31-year-old is Button’s teammate in the Japanese Super GT series. He is also poised to be this year’s Super Formula champion, having won that championship in 2013 and 2018 as well.
The Briton said of Yamamoto, “I personally feel this guy should be in F1. Whether he wants to or not, that’s my opinion.
“Seeing what he’s achieved in Super Formula, which I think has been a very good proving ground for Formula 1, if you look at [Pierre] Gasly and also Stoffel [Vandoorne] and many other drivers. But also his diversity in his driving.
“So [he’s] champion in Super Formula, champion in Super GT. The wealth of experience from different types of racing all of this helps when you find yourself under pressure at the top.”
Yamamoto is strongly backed by Honda, Red Bull and Toro Rosso’s works partner in Formula 1. Yamamoto made his F1 debut in Friday free practice at Suzuka, taking over from Toro Rosso’s Pierre Gasly. He was only a tenth off Daniil Kvyat’s pace.
“He’s had a very successful career racing over here and with Jenson in the GTs,” Red Bull team boss Christian Horner told Sky.
Technically, Yamamoto should not have been allowed to drive at Suzuka. He does not possess a Friday driver Super Licence, as he has not completed 300km of prior running in an F1 car.
F1 race director Michael Masi explained: “I wouldn’t call it permission, but it was a decision of the World Motor Sport Council last week.
“Even if he doesn’t take part in the final round of the Super Formula series, he will have enough points to qualify for a fully fledged Super Licence,” he said.
After his FP1 at Suzuka, Yamamoto reported: “For sure I wanted to have a better result than 17th, but the most important thing is that I didn’t crash and I provided good information for the engineers.
“I spent the session getting used to the car; the power is amazing! I was very surprised, I have never felt such power before, so that was the biggest difference between Super Formula and Formula 1.
“I learnt a few things about the car and the balance, and I gave as much feedback as possible to the team. This is my home Grand Prix and there are a lot of fans coming to Suzuka, even for FP1 on a Friday!
“I was really surprised and I would like to say thank you very much to all of the Honda and Toro Rosso fans. I wish the team a great result this weekend, especially Pierre as he gave me his car – I am grateful to him.”
At any rate, Yamamoto is not a candidate to race for Toro Rosso next year. Horner said he “doesn’t fit our criteria at the moment” for a place in the Red Bull programme. “But he’s certainly worth giving a run and having a look at,” he added.