The Underdog

Kamui Kobayashi has said he won't be in F1 next season, in spite of a fan-led campaign to secure funding. Popular and quirky with it, will we see him - or his like - again anytime soon?

By Mike Wise.   Last Updated: 29/12/12 10:19am

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The news that Kamui Kobayashi has given up on securing a drive for 2013 doesn't really come as a surprise. Saying that, though, if there's been one driver with the capacity to surprise in recent times then it's been the livewire 26-year-old. Not just on the track you understand, although Kamui's ability to find gaps, and occasionally bang wheels, has always been central to his appeal.

That particular knack has seemed more muted this season just gone, with the performances of Sergio Perez inevitably casting a shadow on the other side of the Sauber garage. The Mexican managed three podiums and although Kobayashi eventually scored one of his own thanks to a display of genuine worthiness in his home race, it seems the team had already made up their minds by then not to retain him.

But on what premise? The fundamentals are these: Perez ended the season with 66 points to Kobayashi's 60; the Mexican was also 11-9 ahead in terms of qualifying. One heads to McLaren and targets the World Championship while the other becomes the subject of a Blue Peter-style totaliser appeal in his homeland. Such differing outcomes highlight F1's game of snakes and ladders in the era of the new, improved pay driver.

Of course, the fact that Perez, Kobayashi's replacement Esteban Gutierrez, and their ilk are both talented and loaded is why teams like Sauber are able to make the driver choices they do. Any trade-off between a driver who won't score points but brings sponsorship and one who will score but wants paying can be made moot by someone like Pastor Maldonado, just so long as he cuts down on the crash, bang and wallop.

But as teams try and find their way through tough economic times, we really must ponder the Kobayashi question and the fanpower he inspires. For many people, the sight and sound of fans chanting his name at Suzuka was a highlight of 2012. Such a reaction was undoubtedly down to the devotedness of Japanese fans - even Dani Clos has a fan club over there - as one of their own stood before them. For the wider world, though, Kamui's appeal surely has more to do with his unique style.

We've already mentioned his take-no-prisoners approach on track. Elsewhere he is, or was, the most different of all F1's drivers. Never mind the podium visit, Kobayashi's reaction at the Japanese Grand Prix post-race press conference - an array of comedy gurns and thumbs-ups to cameramen as race winner Sebastian Vettel spoke - told of a quirkiness that really should be encouraged not supressed. The popularity of man-of-the-moment Bradley Wiggins gives credence enough to the notion that, through the sheer brazenness of simply being oneself, a sportsperson can win the public over. Why is it that lots of them seem to lose that gift?

Unlike cycling's Ace Face, Kobayashi isn't a world beater. Neither is he seen as having that potential, ergo McLaren's decision to take a punt on Perez. But should that be a barrier to an F1 career? According to the driver market as it stands, it should. Kobayashi could perhaps win the odd race in the right car but Maldonado has already won - and he brings a reputed $55 million with him; Kamui brought nothing and was clearly proud of the fact.

Yet, as we know, he ended up relying on an online campaign. It's a turn of events that's in keeping with his career as a whole: that sudden appearance from seemingly nowhere at the end of 2009; not to mention the story that, in the wake of Toyota's withdrawal and before Sauber stepped in, Kobayashi was facing a future working in his dad's sushi restaurant. If there was ever an underdog in F1 then it was him.

By definition, very few underdogs make it and yet theirs is a powerful sporting narrative. It's also a guaranteed seller and one wonders whether Bernie Ecclestone, in his desire to entertain, has ever pondered as much. If we don't see Kobayashi again then let's certainly hope we see his like again.

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