Commentary

Nakajima putting in solid rookie campaign for AT&T Williams

Kazuki Nakajima's F1 debut in 2007 produced a fair amount of excitement: He bowled over a crew member after driving into the pits too fast. Today, Nakajima is bowling over his bosses at AT&T Williams with his work ethic and intelligence, writes Dan Knutson.

Updated: August 14, 2008, 6:42 PM ET
By Dan Knutson | Special to ESPN.com

Kazuki NakajimaAP Photo/Oliver MulthaupKazuki Nakajima has four top-10s and is sitting 14th in the F1 driver standings.

Your first competitor in Formula One is your teammate. Given the disparity of equipment, it's difficult to directly compare the talent of a driver from the big teams against a driver from one of the little teams.

If one compares AT&T Williams Toyota average lap times over the course of the first 11 Grand Prix races of this season, rookie Kazuki Nakajima is slower -- by over half a second -- than his teammate Nico Rosberg, who is in his third F1 season.

On the other hand, in the points standings Rosberg is 13th with eight points and Nakajima is 14th with eight as well.

The bottom line is that Nakajima is having a solid but not spectacular rookie season. He's scored points on four occasions, no easy feat given that the top three teams -- Ferrari, McLaren Mercedes and BMW Sauber -- generally fill the first six places in a race, leaving the other seven teams scrambling for the final two points-paying positions.

Nakajima made his F1 debut in the final race of the 2007 season, but he embarrassingly bowled over a Williams crew member when he slid into the pits too fast.

[+] EnlargeKazuki Nakajima
AP Photo/Daniel MaurerKazuki Nakajima on his 2008 outlook: "We are fighting against Toyota, Red Bull, Renault, and they have been very competitive all season."

"It was a very bad mistake from me, but I think I learned from it," he said recently. "I take it a bit more caution in the pits now."

Nakajima redeemed himself with a sixth place in the 2008 season opener in Australia, but that race did not all go smoothly, as he collided with Robert Kubica and knocked the BMW Sauber off the track.

He followed that up with a pair of sevenths in Spain and Monaco and an eighth in Britain.

"I think it was a quite good first half of the season," Nakajima said. "We had a bit of up and down in terms of results, but at least I scored some points, maybe more than I expected. From now until the end of the season I think it is going to be very difficult for me. There is still some room to improve myself."

One reason it will be difficult is that the Williams FW30 has not kept pace with the competitive midpack. The car's strength was on street-type circuits like Melbourne, Monaco and Montreal, but it wasn't quick on the more flowing circuits.

"We are fighting against Toyota, Red Bull, Renault," Nakajima said, "and they have been very competitive all season."

The Williams team is pleased with the progress of the 23-year-old Japanese driver.

"Nakajima doesn't say a great deal, gets on with it, has scored eight points, which is really rather good since he's struggling a little bit to go as fast as his peers," team owner Sir Frank Williams said, "but he's a very good team member, works very hard and is very intelligent."

Nakajima first drove for Williams in December 2006 as a tester, and in addition to racing in GP2, in which he finished fifth in the championship in 2007, he worked as a F1 test driver for Williams.

"He is on a steep learning curve," Williams technical director Sam Michael said last year. "He is fast and consistent. I have to say that he is really, really impressed me."

With Nakajima and Rosberg, Williams is the first F1 team to have two sons of F1 drivers as its drivers.

Keke Rosberg raced 114 times between 1978 and 1986 and won five times. He was world champion in 1982.

Satoru Nakajima was the first full-time Japanese F1 driver. He competed in 74 races between 1987 and 1991, with his best finishes being a pair of fourths.

Keke goes to every Grand Prix as a commentator for a German TV channel. Satoru has attended only two races this year.

Satoru watched the Malaysian Grand Prix from the grandstands and never visited the pits because he didn't want to distract his son.

"It was good for me," Kazuki told ESPN.com. "I could be more relaxed."

The elder Nakajima also went to the British Grand Prix, where he worked for a Japanese TV station.

Neither father interferes with his son's daily driving activities.

"He gave me a bit of advice," Kazuki said. "Not for chassis setup and things like that, but things like attitude."

Kazuki was only 6 years old when his father competed in his final F1 season.

"When my father was racing F1, I was very small," said. "Actually I never thought about my father's career. As the first full-time Japanese F1 driver, he had a very important job for the Japanese. Many people were watching F1 at that point."

Satoru Nakajima is still a star in Japan. He still has strong links with Honda, which backed him in F1.

Kazuki, meanwhile, is a Toyota protégée.

"When I started motor racing in Japan, there [were] two ways to have a career in racing," he said. "You could choose Toyota or Honda, as they have some scholarships or driver programs. I spoke to my father, and he suggested to me to try to be with Toyota because in that case I could prove that he did not have any influence. I can only do the job by my credentials. I was a Toyota driver throughout my career."

The fact that Toyota supplies engines to Williams is not going to hamper Nakajima's chances of driving for the team next year. But he also knows that if he doesn't perform he won't be invited back.

"I have no idea at the moment," Nakajima said when asked if he will drive for Williams in 2009, "so all I can do is to do the best at the moment and push as hard as possible. Other people will decide at some point. But it is not up to me."

And, while your teammate is your first competitor in F1, the management at Williams takes into account the different levels of experience between Rosberg and Nakajima.

"Experience-wise, Nico clearly has an advantage because he has been driving F1 cars for much longer," technical director Sam Michael told ESPN.com. "But this is normal and expected as Kazuki has not even completed a whole season yet."

As for the remaining seven races of his rookie season, Nakajima's strategy is to get on with the job.

"I just want to keep my head down and do my best," he said.

Dan Knutson covers Formula One for National Speed Sport News and ESPN.com.