KAZUKI NAKAJIMA – IN DEPTH

WEC 6 Hours of FujiAs Christmas approaches fast, it’s time to sit down with Kazuki Nakajima and find out how he is enjoying life in endurance racing…

You had a busy year?

“Yeah, I’ve been racing in three different categories this year so yes, busy but I have enjoyed all of it and, particularly as a professional driver, it is much better to be busy than having too much free time. I missed the Shanghai WEC race in order to compete in the final round of the Super Formula series in Japan and won that race so there have been some real high points this year.”

And is that mix of racing, with WEC, single-seaters in Super Formula and Super GT, is that the sort of programme you relish?

“Yes and no. I love getting the opportunity to race such great cars in really competitive championships, and it is great to have encouragement for that variety but of course it’s good to be able to have a real run at a full championship too.”

The objective in the WEC 2013 has been to win races but it’s been tough…

“Yes, and yes! We took a kind of win in Fuji. The team had a great chance in China to win and that means that whilst there was big disappointment in losing, the team has regrouped. It was tough to watch what happened in China but the sign of a great team is how they respond to that kind of disappointment and our guys have stepped up. We were able to arrive in Bahrain with high expectations. As a team we were so motivated to win that one and I was happy to see the #8 achieve the victory, even if it was disappointing that the #7 wasn’t there to challenge.”

How to you assess endurance racing from a driver’s point of view?

“There is so much new technology in the car, especially the hybrid system, and that makes it a very different driving experience. It’s fast – at Fuji nearly five seconds faster than my Super GT car – and it has very good downforce but there are real challenges with visibility with the cars, ours and our rivals, and that can make it tricky in traffic. It is a rewarding car to drive but a very challenging one to race wheel to wheel. Traffic management is a very big part of it, that’s the same for our competitor, and that means that we have to be aggressive but conservative too. Physically it’s tough, you have to be in the car for a long time, stay fast and stay consistent too. It’s a real challenge for a driver.”

And then there is the compromise necessary to work with two other drivers?

“Compromise can be difficult but it is essential. It isn’t just about my speed, it’s about the speed of the car over the whole race and, coming out of single seaters, that requires you to make some pretty big adjustments in the way you work with the whole team, but particularly with their team-mates. You have to be very, very quick but you need to take really good care of the car, and particularly manage the tyres. That wasn’t something that was so important during my time in F1; it’s perhaps a bigger part of it now!

“Endurance racing is a major team effort, far more of a team sport than F1. We share the car, we share the data and, you actually have to dig deeper into your skills to adapt to a car that is compromised around the needs of other drivers as well as yourself. I would say that, particularly for a young driver, it’s a great way to improve yourself.”

Can you give us an impression of how tough the mental and physical challenge is?

“It’s a huge challenge: traffic, visibility, very strong opposition, weather and darkness too. For me, whilst you need to be in top physical shape the greater challenge is mental, managing the possible frustrations of traffic, decision making, risk management, particularly when you are chasing the Audis, good cars with good drivers.”

At Le Mans and in Bahrain you race into darkness, is that a part of endurance racing that you enjoy?

“Racing in the dark is fun for sure because the depth of visibility is less therefore the car feels faster, apexes are more difficult to spot because they are often outside the field of the lights and it presents a different mental challenge. You have to tune yourself in quickly to adjust but I enjoy that. I do feel that I need more experience of it, it’s only at Le Mans and in winter testing that I have so far had that opportunity. Of course there are guys in our team, and with our competitors, that have far more experience in that area.”

We’ve seen that drivers coming to endurance out of F1 have sometimes struggled to translate their pace to this new discipline, but that has not been an issue for you and other more recent newcomers to endurance…

“You may be right, perhaps the newer prototypes are closer in terms of performance, and more important in terms of aero, relative weight and the general dynamics now than they were before. That coupled with the need to adapt to the compromise is critical for anyone moving over. Certainly for me I found the experience of how to drive the car and how it responded pretty similar. Of course this car is heavier but the overall performance made for an easy adjustment for me I think.”

And after F1 does the prospect of driving and racing this car excite you?

“Oh yes, for sure, particularly with the high-downforce package there is a lot of grip, you can brake really late and with new tyres you can push and can play with the car a little. It is a driver’s car definitely, a fun car to race.”