Feature: From Europe to Jordan Via Japan

Britain's Ralph Firman demonstrated again this week that the road from Europe to Jordan, in Formula One terms at least, frequently requires a detour through Japan.

Feature: From Europe to Jordan Via Japan

Britain's Ralph Firman demonstrated again this week that the road from Europe to Jordan, in Formula One terms at least, frequently requires a detour through Japan.

The 27-year-old Formula Nippon champion, signed as a Jordan driver on Tuesday, is merely the latest driver in a decade to have completed the journey to the team via the Japanese racetracks.

The Far East has long been a fertile recruiting ground for Eddie Jordan.

Firman's compatriot Eddie Irvine, who had raced in Europe for Jordan's Formula 3000 team, made the jump in 1993 after spending three years in Japan.

Ralf Schumacher arrived at Jordan in 1997 after taking the Nippon (F3000) title and Spaniard Pedro de la Rosa, later to drive for Arrows and Jaguar, was signed as a test driver in 1998 after making a reputation there. Takuma Sato, possibly the most exciting motor racing talent Japan has yet produced, made his Formula One debut with Jordan last year.

Germany's Heinz-Harald Frentzen, who went on to help Jordan to overall third place in 1999, spent two years racing in Japan before making his Formula One debut with Sauber in 1994.

Other drivers, such as Canadian Jacques Villeneuve (1992) and Finland's Mika Salo (1991-1994) and the rather less successful Malaysian Alex Yoong, also made their way to other teams on the Grand Prix grid after a spell in Japan.

Great School

Jordan, who pitched the irreverent Irvine into a 1993 Japanese Grand Prix debut at Suzuka after he had spent three seasons racing in the Japanese F3000 series, is proud of the profitable relationship.

"Our success with the Japanese Formula 3000 championship has gone on from an early stage," Jordan said as he presented Firman to the media. "Long before we were in Formula One we used to send most of our drivers to that championship because for us it is a great schooling.

"They learn so much about the tyres and of course to win there against all the odds was the key (for Ralph)," added Jordan, whose team's three race wins came with Japanese Mugen-Honda engines.

Formula Nippon, which recruits drivers on ability rather than the sponsorship they can bring, has long been seen as a haven for drivers seeking to tweak careers that might otherwise stall at home due to lack of funding.

Briton Johnny Herbert, who drove for Jordan in Formula Three, went there after losing his drive at Benetton in 1989 as he struggled to recover from the injuries sustained in an F3000 race at Brands Hatch in 1988.

Firman left Europe in 1996 after struggling to raise the funds to further his career at home despite winning the British Formula Three title and then the prestigious Macau Grand Prix. He was preparing to defend his title until the Jordan deal came along.

"There are two reasons for going there," he said of Japan, one of them obviously being the money. "(The other) is because it is a great championship and I feel the cars are much better than European ones and you also learn a lot more than in racing in Europe.

"It was a clear decision and there have been a great deal of people who have passed through there to Formula One. I'm just another person who has come through Japan which proves what an excellent place it is to go racing."

Fierce Competition

"People underestimate the talent that is actually out in Japan," added Firman. "It is as fierce as anything I have raced through anywhere in the world, including Formula Three and world karts.

"I'd say the Japanese drivers do not travel well, I think Sato is the first person to really come over to Europe and race well, but in Japan the drivers are as good as anywhere else in the rest of the world.

"I hope that people do go and race over there, it's a tremendous championship and I think it is getting bigger again."

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