SUZUKA, Japan Oct 9 Sauber driver Kamui Kobayashi has gone from race-day spectator in Japan to his country's rising son of Formula One in the space of a year.
Kobayashi was the Toyota team's reserve at Suzuka last year behind Italian Jarno Trulli and Timo Glock, making a fleeting appearance in Friday practice when the latter was laid low with sickness.
He went on to replace Germany's Glock, who was hurt in qualifying for that Japanese race, for the last two rounds and secured sixth place in the Abu Dhabi finale before Toyota pulled out of the sport and left him seeking a drive.
"That Saturday (at Suzuka) I couldn't take Timo's car but this year in Suzuka is different," the 24-year-old told Reuters after heavy rain washed out practice and qualifying.
Kobayashi has picked up 21 points this season and started the campaign as the only Japanese driver in Formula One.
He has since been joined by Sakon Yamamoto at struggling Hispania, a team who have yet to come close to finishing near the points.
"It's my first time back to Japan to race but there's no pressure. I will just do my race," said Paris-based Kobayashi. "Taking points constantly is my goal."
Kobayashi, who hates raw fish despite his father running a sushi delivery shop in Amagasaki, has made rapid progress since Suzuka last year.
He has scored all but six of Sauber's points this season and the Swiss-based team recently confirmed him for 2011.
With no Japanese teams, and tyre supplier Bridgestone also pulling out at the end of the year, Kobayashi is aware of how important he is to the future of F1 in Japan.
"That's why I promote the sport. I'm not looking for sponsors as it's still a tough environment," said the youngster who once dreamed of becoming a comedian but found he was not funny enough.
On Saturday Kobayashi was presented with a number of Japanese flags signed by a growing legion of fans in the country.
Some 3,000 waited in an unrelenting downpour at "Kamui Kobayashi Corner", a sold-out fan section between turns two and three at the circuit, for a chance to cheer their countryman.
Yuuki Miyashita said he arrived at 7am after driving two hours from central Nagano Prefecture.
"I'm very happy as I wanted to see a Japanese in the sport," he said. "He's different from Takuma Sato."
Sato, Japan's most successful Formula One driver, has not raced in the sport since the Super Aguri team folded in 2008.
The exit of Sato, as well as nearly all Japanese corporates except for the Honda-owned Mobilityland which operates the Suzuka facility, has left one of the world's great car producing nations in search of a reason to care about the sport.
Mobilityland managing director Itaru Yamada said Kobayashi had been a boost for the Japanese fan base.
"His grand prix success has been very helpful in bringing fans," he said.
At the "Kamui Kobayashi" concession stand, goods ranging from pins to jackets saw brisk demand even in the unrelenting rain.
Suzuka local Asuka Hino, working at the retail booth, said Kobayashi's No. 23 hats had been the top sellers, but admitted her following of the nation's rising son was mostly commercial.
"I have an interest but I'm not a supporter," she said.
(Editing by Tony Jimenez. To query or comment on this story email firstname.lastname@example.org)
Our top photos from the past week.