Honda put a lot of faith in its top homegrown talent Yamamoto by granting him a maiden Formula 1 run with Toro Rosso during his home grand prix weekend at Suzuka. And the 31-year-old did not disappoint, lapping within a tenth of team regular Daniil Kvyat to draw the attention of the entire paddock.
In Super Formula, Yamamoto showed rare levels of consistency in the first half of the year, establishing a points’ lead nearly equal to a race win with a brand-new team, having made the switch from Mugen to Dandelion Racing over the winter. However, by his own admission, his preparations for the F1 practice outing, which involved multiple trips to Europe, forced him to take his eye off the ball at home - and in the end, he was powerless to prevent Nick Cassidy from snatching the title in the Suzuka finale.
Yamamoto’s slump in Super GT was even deeper, not helped by the dominance of Lexus and Honda's lacklustre showing in general as a result of its 2019 aero kit not working as hoped (it was dropped before the start of the season). But the sheer number of incidents both Yamamoto and his team-mate Jenson Button were involved in meant they finished lower down the points table than they should have, and only second of the Honda crews.
That said, second overall in Super Formula and a pair of podiums in Super GT with a not particularly competitive car meant that 2019 was far from a shabby year for one of the best drivers Japan has produced in recent years.
How did your F1 practice debut affect your programmes in Super Formula and Super GT? My usual style is to prepare a lot for the Japanese races. But going to Europe and spending time preparing for the Formula 1 test, I could not spend as much time in Japan as previous years and this is a problem. Only spending 70% or 80% of the normal time in Japan means I wasn’t able to prepare 100%. On the other hand, I learnt about the importance of the effort I put in. I had never driven a Formula 1 car, I had to learn about the systems, and I put in a great effort for that. And this meant I could drive well.
Did you get what you wanted from your team switch in Super Formula? At the end of last season, I chose that I would leave Mugen and join Dandelion Racing. But nobody knew, me included, if it would be a good decision. I didn’t win the championship, but I think it was the right decision. In some races, I was strong, especially at the beginning of the season, but at the end of the season, I lost some points, which was my fault, not the team’s fault. I heard in the middle of the season that [team boss] Muraoka-san was retiring at the end of the season and I wanted to get the championship in for him. I didn’t get it, so I’m really disappointed and sorry about that.
Tell us about your second season with Jenson Button in Super GT... Super GT was tough in the middle of the season. Honestly, this year’s car was not so strong. But even if we had a stronger car maybe we still couldn’t win the championship. Last year there was no contact or crashes, but this year a lot of times we clashed with a lot of other guys. The most important thing in Super GT is consistently scoring points, but this year we couldn’t. And it’s disappointing we couldn’t win a race. In Fuji perhaps without the safety car, we could have won there, but I don’t want to make excuses.
Why was the Honda less competitive than last year? We had a test for the aero package in the winter, we found one with good potential but it was really sensitive and it had a very narrow window. So we didn’t choose to use it. I couldn’t drive like last year because the car felt completely different. In round two, the Fuji race, when we did the qualifying session it was terrible because the car was bouncing a lot. There was nothing we could do to fix it. After that the team changed the car set-up, we had less bouncing but the car performance was not good. After the Fuji race, we were struggling as a team with the set-up, which is why we couldn’t win.