- Exclusive Kamui Kobayashi interview
And now for something completely differentLaurence Edmondson February 29, 2012
Kamui Kobayashi is unlike any other driver in Formula One.
That much was obvious in 2009 when, on his debut, he indulged in a heated 16-lap battle at Interlagos with champion-elect Jenson Button. After the race Button described the Japanese rookie as "absolutely crazy" and from that point on the die was cast.
His reputation continued to grow at his first home grand prix in 2010 when he battled from 14th on the grid to seventh, making up five positions into Suzuka's tight hairpin - a corner where overtaking was previously considered a taboo.
Then there was qualifying at the Canadian Grand Prix last year when he decided the best way to exit the final chicane was with a lurid, arcing power slide within inches of the wall of champions ... Kobayashi, it's fair to say, just does things differently.
The same is true away from the circuit. Up until recently he was homeless, living out of a suitcase and staying in hotels around Europe between races. He's now followed the racing-driver stereotype and bought a place in Monaco, but all that time ordering room service appears to have made him a tad agoraphobic.
"I always stay in the house," he told ESPNF1 last week. "I go to the gym and that's it. I never eat out as well. I only go to the supermarket and get only salad, it's good for the diet. Seriously, when I'm in Monaco I never go out to eat something … I only eat McDonald's, no more. I have microwave, so sometimes I microwave."
For those following Kobayashi on Twitter such revelations will not come as a surprise. He's taken a unique approach to the social networking website, with the aim of "having fun with Twitter". Recent tweets have included:
"New towel always give feeling happy (^^) But is it??? At the same time give white fibre on my body and doesn't suction water..."
And: "It's Sunday!! Take easy, I'm off in Barcelona then having sangria from lunch!! Oh feel bit drunk…"
It's utterly random but also a refreshing break from the PR-cross-checked accounts of most other F1 drivers. Kobayashi's tweeting has amassed 25,000 followers since he opened his account earlier this year, although his Twitter bandwagon was nearly thrown off course last week when a €2000 phone bill landed on his doorstep.
"It's my fault, not Twitter's," he insisted. "I was in Austria and when I do Twitter everybody sends something 'ping', 'ping', 'ping' and I put my phone on silent and didn't change the roaming settings. I didn't tell the operator for ten days so they charged me for everything."
But there is a method behind the madness. In his native Japan, live TV coverage of Formula One is on a subscription channel and interest in the sport has been dwindling for some time - exacerbated by Honda, Toyota and Bridgestone leaving the sport. Sponsorship money is scarce and NEC is the only Japanese brand on this year's Sauber, although that is part of a wider deal between Telmex, Sauber and Kobayashi's team-mate Sergio Perez. It's understandable, therefore, that Kobayashi is keen to promote himself as much as possible and Twitter is just another way of giving something back to his fans. He also has strong views about Formula One's shift to subscription TV channels, both in Japan and the UK.
"It's so stupid. Formula One is pretty popular in UK and Japan. When we go to the British Grand Prix and the Japanese Grand Prix we can see so many people. I think Japan is pretty important, because for such a long time many fans have followed Formula One, same in the UK. You ask the drivers and everybody if they like Japan and they say it is so nice and the fans are crazy [for the sport]. This is very important, you know."
He's hoping his Twitter feed boosts his profile back home, although he doesn't leave his house in Japan either so it's too early to say if he's being recognised in the street. Of course the best promotion would be victories on the track but, despite setting the fastest time at last week's pre-season test, Sauber are likely to be in the midst of a tight midfield battle again this season.
Last year Sauber had a solid start to the season with Kobayashi finishing in the top ten at the first seven races (although he was stripped of his points in Melbourne due to a technical infringement). At the British Grand Prix, however, Sauber decided not to pursue the development of its exhaust-blown diffuser and its performance relative to its competitors tailed off significantly. In 2012 the FIA has restricted how the exhausts can be used, effectively banning blown diffusers, and this is welcome news at the Swiss team.
"For this I'm very happy," Kobayashi said. "I will have to send a letter to blown diffuser saying: 'Thank you for going somewhere else'."
But quite where Sauber will stack up in 2012 is still difficult to say and, like the rest of the paddock, Kobayashi is not willing to make a prediction.
"It's too early. At this time it's easy to adjust the lap time with the fuel load. We know where we are but we don't know where the others are. We are in the midfield. Let's say we are in good shape, but for sure we cannot say we are at the top. We are not top!"
Competition may be tight in the midfield, but budgets are even tighter. Sauber's factory in Switzerland is still one of the better facilities in Formula One following four years of investment under BMW ownership, but Kobayashi admits extracting the best from it is an expensive business.
"I think our capacity compared to the competition is pretty good," he said. "We have good resources, for sure, but we don't have so much budget and this is a big problem."
But he's not complaining.
In the past Sauber has been a stepping stone for drivers working their way up the gird and there is no doubt that Kobayashi will have considered life after Hinwil. But while his exceptional car control and ballsy race craft have been noted in the paddock, he rarely enters onto the list of names to replace the likes of Felipe Massa or Mark Webber at the top teams. At 25 there's no doubt that he's still young enough, he just needs a stellar season to prove his talents in points. The good news is that he knows it.
"One day if I can be at a top team it would be great. But at the moment I'm looking to be here [at Sauber] and be successful. If I'm not successful here I have no future."
Expect more of the same in 2012 then, and make sure you follow his exploits on Twitter.
Laurence Edmondson is the deputy editor on ESPNF1