WTCR JVCKENWOOD Race of Japan will be a second homecoming for Dutchman Tom Coronel following May’s WTCR Race of Netherlands.
Between 1996 and 1999 Coronel raced and won in Japan with great aplomb, taking the country’s Formula 3 and Formula Nippon titles before he eventually set out on the path to a career in touring cars that continues to this day with Comtoyou DHL Team CUPRA Racing in the WTCR – FIA World Touring Car Cup presented by OSCARO.
Ahead of the Suzuka race weekend, the Dutchman looks back on his career in Japan and reveals how it almost didn’t happen.
Japan played a big part in your career but why did you go there in the first place?
“I did not have the budget to continue in Europe and Jan Lammers advised the TOM’S Toyota team to talk to me. When they called me to ask if I wanted to race Formula 3 in Japan [in 1996] I said ‘no, sorry, no interest’ and put the phone down. Then 10 minutes later Jan Lammers called me and said ‘Tom, I think we need to talk. This is professional motor racing, it’s a good step for your career so I’m advising you to go to Japan to race there’. He had a professional career in Japan and was a good advisor to me in The Netherlands so I thought maybe I have to start to listen to him and talk to TOM’S. And it was quite funny because TOM’S called me back and said ‘did you already speak to Jan, don’t hang up on us directly’. That was nice! Of course, it was the start of my career as a professional race car driver because they offer you a salary, an apartment and a nice racing career started from there.”
But it was a long way from home and a change of lifestyle. What was that like?
“That was one of the reasons at the beginning why I said I had no interest. Japan of course is a different culture and you have to get used to the Japanese lifestyle, the way of working. But I started to respect it a lot, basically that was the next step in life to understand a different way of living, of respect, and to also become a little less wild because when I was younger I was quite a wild person! It gave me time to think about life itself and the next step and it worked.”
Was it the right move?
“It was the perfect move because this was the next adventure and it worked out very well. I won all the championships there – Formula 3, Formula Nippon, two times the All-Star race in GT. I was second in the GT championship in 1998 as a privateer Honda entry. We were always the fastest Honda with the best results but we had a driveshaft break before the last race and that’s why we lost the championship.”
Apart from the success how else did your move to Japan help you?
“Career-wise it was the best move, full concentration on one thing. You spent 100 per cent of the time on motor racing, not having to earn a living doing other things. The focus was only on that but it was good to be there with other race car drivers – Michael Kruum, Pedro de la Rosa, Ralf Schumacher, Norberto Fontana, Marco Apicella, so many drivers. We were always together and this was also nice because some good friendships started there.”
Was part of your hesitation of going to Japan linked to a fear the F1 door would close?
“It opened my Formula One door because Formula Nippon at that stage was much stronger than Formula 3000. Formula One drivers came from Japan – Irvine, Takagi, Schumacher, de la Rosa. The cars had more downforce, more grip. There was a test but no money to race.”
Did you miss home?
“Absolutely. There were the positive and negative things. Your social life is completely gone, your friends, family, normal habits. Your history is zero, they were hard times. Once in a while when you went home you speak to your friends but you lose the connection and you didn’t have the internet or the social media like you have now. They were completely different times.”
But there were many happy times, so going back to race in WTCR / OSCARO must be nice?
“My first win in WTCC was in Okayama in the rain in 2008 when I did the special tyre choice, slicks on the front, wets on the back. My second win was in Suzuka, so clearly the home feeling is a very important one because it gives you more power, more focus and you feel more comfortable with everything around you. This was the feeling I had when I went to Japan; I was young but you learned respect, trust and honesty in Japan.”
You have quite a few Japanese fans, right?
“I’ve always had fans there because of the successes and I keep in contact with them through social media. It’s always nice to have their support.”
And Suzuka gives you a connection to home?
“It’s designed by a Dutchman, John Hugenholtz, the same designer behind Zandvoort in my country. Mr Honda liked Zandvoort so much with the up and downhill so he asked Mr Hugenholtz to do the same for him when creating Suzuka.”
Speaking of Suzuka, you obviously know the East Course. What do you think of the layout?
“I won at the East Course in 2011 and 2013 so I have good memories. It’s a good track for the show and that’s part of what we do. The layout is a good style for the fans. When I won in 2013, Mehdi Bennani was leading but I overtook him in Turn 2 by approaching the attack in Turn 1 and teasing him. The last corner, which is uphill to the right, is also quite interesting. Unlike the other medium-speed corners, there’s a type of swing and if somebody makes a mistake you can overtake them.