Spotlight on... Kotaro Sakurai

This month we take our spotlight into the world of motor racing! Kotaro Sakurai is a 17 year old Japanese national who has recently made the UK his home to concentrate on his racing career. After winning the British Formula 3 series for his class last season at only 16 years old, this year he has taken a step-up into the global GP3 series and is hoping for further success!

Where in Japan are you from?

I’m from Tokyo – it’s a really big city like London and a really cool place. I love it! City life is really convenient for everything – school, gym, training. I live in the UK right now though. To be honest I don’t see any real big differences between London and Tokyo. They are both big enough for me!

How did you become interested in motor racing? How old were you when you competed in your first major competition?

I think most boys like cars and I started driving kids go-karts when I was nine years old. I started driving at an amusement park where there was a little circuit - and once a boss from a team was there scouting and he picked me up for a real race! I drove for two seasons in the All Japan championships for go-karting and then in 2009 I won a scholarship at BMW. Then from 2010 I started driving real formula BMW cars. I won the rookie class in the Macau Grand Prix support event. In 2011 I stepped up to British Formula 3 where I won the rookie class title also so it’s been a big jump!

Kotaro started racing go-karts at 9 years old and at 17 is now
driving in the GP3 series

Did you play any other sports at school?

I played football at school, but I’ve been playing golf and tennis and swimming since I was a young child - from about three years old. I didn’t start motor racing until I was nine so it was comparatively a late start. I like to try any kind of sport because I love sport. In the UK I enjoy following football but I can’t really understand cricket. Baseball is quite popular in Japan so the rules of cricket confuse me.

As you mentioned, you live in the UK now? When did you come here and how has your experience been so far?

I moved to Milton Keynes last summer. It’s a nice place – a new town – there’s a great shopping mall within walking distance. I love it! It’s quite a mixture of city-life and country-life, and it’s only about 40 minutes from London by express train. British people are really kind. We had a big disaster in Japan last year and when I came here, everywhere I went people were really concerned and kept asking me about it – how things were. In 2007, when I graduated from Junior High School, I moved to Australia so I have experience of living outside of Japan before – I don’t get too homesick!

You won the Formula 3 rookie class championship in 2011. Can you tell us about that season and how you felt to win the title?

The British Formula 3 series is really long. It’s one of the most popular and famous motor racing series because it has over 60 years of history. Lots of famous Formula 1 drivers have come from the Formula 3 series. When I won the title it was the happiest moment I’ve ever had! The best thing about British Formula 3 is that we have lots of races in one year – 30 races in 52 weeks! It costs a lot but it’s a really big experience. For junior drivers like me, we need experience in order to move up to the next step – for example in the GP3, GP2 series the drivers are a lot more experienced than us.

Were most of the drivers in formula three around the same age as you?

I was the youngest because I was only 16 when I started Formula 3, which is really young! Most of the drivers are 18 or 19, but last year was my first year and I won the rookie class title! I was driving in the rookie series which is a bit of a different car to the F3 A class car (I was driving a B class car because I was too young to get a licence for the A class). But still it's really competitive. We always have about 25 to 30 cars on the grid for each race and although I was just fighting for the title in my class, a race is still a race and I wanted to compete with all drivers! Sometimes I finished in the top 10 across all drivers which was a big achievement with my type of car. For my title I won 15 out of 30 races which is a record result for my age group.

On the back of your success you made your debut in GP3 this year with Status Grand Prix. How has your experience racing at this level been?

The biggest difference is that although we have F3 series in each country – Japan, Spain, UK – and there are hundreds of F3 car drivers, the GP3 series drivers have all graduated from F3 cars – so it's like a world series of the F3 series. All drivers are champion drivers so it's a lot more competitive. It's a really big fight! The cars are also very different. We have turbo engines which are a lot bigger than F3 cars so a lot of horsepower which means more speed. The races are a lot quicker. We have 30 drivers on the grid with 10 teams – 3 drivers for each - so I race with 2 other drivers for the Status Grand Prix team, but I would say I'm the quickest and strongest!

Kotaro winning the British F3 title

Kotaro racing in the GP3 series

You have your British race coming up in July at Silverstone and I believe it's at the same time as the Formula 1 Grand Prix?

The GP3 series races are at the same time as all Formula 1 events. We race on the same track so most of the big teams are looking at us too. There's lots of pressure but it's also lots of fun! I have tested a couple of times at Silverstone with the GP3 series and with the British F3 series so I have a little experience there already. I will go into the race with lots of confidence so it should be fun!

What are your personal expectations for the season?

Well it's my first year, and as I said before, all Formula 1 teams will be looking at us so it's really important for me to do a good job in all races. But it is only my first year so I have everything to gain and nothing to lose. I need to keep pushing myself but I can't take any risks – I need to find a good balance. But I think I have a lot of potential - I'm driving for Status Grand Prix which is a really strong team and quick team. I have a great opportunity to try new things and I think we can win a lot of races. I'm hoping for some podium finishes!

Which race are you most looking forward to?

I'm looking forward to the 'home' grand prix for me at Silverstone because I'm living here now! I live very close and know everything about the course at Silverstone – it's a really tricky circuit – it's really high speed and has lots of challenging corners – but I think we have a great chance. Just fingers crossed for the weather!

Which racing drivers do you admire?

I admire the Japanese F1 driver Kamui Kobayashi because he is a fighter. I like his driving style and I think he's very smart. For example, he takes care of his own tires – always looking at everything by himself. But my hero is Michael Schumacher. He is such a special driver for me. When I watched him on TV as a kid he was just flying! I wanted to be just like him. I've not met him in person yet but I've seen him racing on the track since we are so close to F1 when we are racing. One day I would like to drive with him!

What are your hopes for your racing career?

GP3 is a big series so I think I can gain a lot of experience from it and I think it will affect my future very strongly. I need to try very hard because I know I can do better and win races. If I can win some races in GP3 as a rookie driver that would be great and aim to get offers for F1 tests from that. We have a rookie test at Silverstone too – maybe not this year but for next year maybe I could try! I'm still young – only 17 years old – but only a few steps away from Formula 1 so I'd like to try for that. Also I'm a Japanese driver and have moved from Japan to the UK, but I have so many people cheering for me across Japan so I would like to do well and give something back to them too through my results and fighting spirit, and I hope and I can inspire more youngsters to fight for their dreams! Anything is possible!