Honda are reportedly considering giving new Super GT and Super Formula champion Naoki Yamamoto an opportunity to run in an official Formula 1 Free Practice session next year in a Honda powered car.
Yamamoto clinched the Super GT series crown, alongside Jenson Button, at the Twin Ring Motegi last weekend driving for Team Kunimitsu. In addition to this, the 30-year-old claimed his first Super Formula title win since 2013 two weeks earlier driving for Team Mugen. Both titles come courtesy of Honda power.
His 2018 accomplishments have earned Yamamoto 35 Super Licence points, therefore taking him to the requisite 40 for a Free Practice outing in Formula 1.
Honda motorsport’s general manager, Masashi Yamamoto, said that the opportunity to drive a Formula 1 car at a grand prix weekend would give Yamamoto the chance to “grow even further” as a driver.
“If [Yamamoto] could drive an F1 car in FP1, he may be able to grow even further,” he suggested to Motorsport.com. “It’s not only being a regular driver that is important. The experience of F1 is important for him.
“[Nobuharu] Matsushita is the only Japanese driver who has experience of driving a current F1 car [at the 2017 in-season test in Budapest]. His driving was highly valued by [the Alfa Romeo Sauber F1 Team]; his feedback was very good.
“[Now Yamamoto has earned 40 points] I will let him get a Super Licence, because we want to have several possibilities. We never exclude any possibilities.”
Former FIA Formula 2 series driver Matsushita, who is also tied to Honda, made the switch to Super Formula for 2018 in the hope of opening up a chance for a Formula 1 drive. However, after a disappointing debut year in the series, he is eyeing a move back to F1’s premier feeder category.
Honda will power two teams in Formula 1 for the first time since 2008 next year, with Aston Martin Red Bull Racing joining Red Bull Toro Rosso Honda after making the decision to cut their fading relationship with Renault Sport.
Given Toro Rosso’s junior status amongst the pair, the Faenza-based team have been tagged as the most likely destination for Honda and Japanese F1 hopefuls, yet Yamamoto is not being considered for their remaining seat in 2019. Having recalled Daniil Kvyat in place Pierre Gasly when the Frenchman completes his promotion to Red Bull, current driver Brendon Hartley and former Red Bull junior Alexander Albon are the main candidates to partner him.
The potential reasoning behind this comes by way of Yamamoto’s age and his new role as a father. But, Masashi Yamamoto is excluding ruling anything out.
“I think that [his chances are] not zero,” he added.
“Whether it is the same feeling as when he arrived in Super Formula [for the 2010 season], I have not talked about that so far. He also got married last year, his children were born [early in 2018], his living environment has changed. There are concerns about his age too.
“But he is the number one driver of Honda now. I would like to talk with him about it.”
Naoki Yamamoto did say to Motorsport.com that he would like to discuss the issue further with Yamamoto and Honda, but his main focus for now lies in enjoying his current success. The last man to win both of Japan’s premier motorsport titles in the same year was Richard Lyons, 14 years ago.
“Honestly, it’s too early to comment on this right now. But my thoughts and intentions are strengthened,” he said.
“I think there is a chance to talk about something in the future, but for now I just want to enjoy the fact that I gained two out of two titles.”