Champion’s Story 4: Tom Coronel (1999)
Tom Coronel came to race in Japan at age 24. He was a big guy with blue eyes, and thinning hair, who smiled when he talked, as if he was really enjoying the conversation. Jun Yamada, his engineer at the time recalls “the first time I met him, I thought he was a manager, and not a driver, because he enjoyed conversation.”
Coronel, was born in the Netherlands, into a family that loved racing. Not only his older brother Raymond, but Tom’s twin brother Tim is also widely known in Japan as a race car driver. Their middle names are Alfa and Romeo, which speaks volumes for how much their father loved the sport of auto racing.
Tom didn’t grow up learning how to drive race cars. At the age of 17, he went to a local racing school where he became to be known as the “driver with the most potential.” He first raced in the Dutch Citroen AX Cup. Then at the age of 21, he decided to focus his attention on single seaters, after driving in German Formula Ford. Following that, he raced in Junior Formula, then went on to race in German F3. Tom came to race in Japan after German F3, after being introduced by his former Euroseries Formula Opel Team.
Tom raced in Japanese F3 with TOM’S. In order to properly race in the chassis the team used at the time, Tom spent countless hours in the garage working until late with his engineers. That hard work paid off, as he won his first race after the second half of the season rolled around. But it was Juichi Wakisaka who won the championship that season. Wakisaka told Yamada that “because Tom didn’t drive in a Dallara chassis, he didn’t win.” So the next season, the team switched back to a Dallara. They had spent so much money on developing their own chassis, that it was hard to reason going back to a Dallara. But Wakisaka’s comment resonated with Yamada. And low and behold, the next season, Tom won back to back races. Of the 7 races that season, Tom won 6 of them, which of course brought him the championship. That same season in the Netherlands, Tom also won the overall championship in the Marlboro Masters. Thanks to the backing by Coronel, he took the entire TOM’S team to compete overseas, a team that had never competed in the Masters nor in Macau. This was the beginning of good things to come for TOM’S in Europe.
The following season, Tom Coronel became the first foreign driver to race with Nakajima Racing in Formula Nippon. Tom was 26 at the time and had his eyes set on competing in Formula One. In his first year, they just couldn’t find enough speed because of the engine tuner they were using in Coronel’s engine. “Even without posting good results, he kept a positive attitude and raced on” says Kotaro Tanaka, the engineer at the team for Tom. “Coronel’s philosophy was that it was the best racing drivers that kept their cool and pushed themselves and their car to the limit. And that is exactly what he did, he kept it even keel and in control– he was mentally tough” says Tanaka.
Coronel’s second season in FN was different, and so was the engine tuner they used–which gave him the same amount of speed his rivals had–which brought him a victory in the very first race of the season. This boosted Coronel’s confidence, leading him to say “even if I don’t win pole in qualifying, I can still win the race.” Tanaka said “Coronel had a certain aura about him.” Going into the latter part of the season, Satoshi Motoyama was looking to repeat as series champion. In the final race, Coronel came in P2 in qualifying and Motoyama P3. Coronel didn’t get off to a great start in the race, which left the door open for Motoyama. Coronel tried to take Motoyama from the outside in the first corner, they came into contact, causing both drivers to retire from the race. It may have not been the best way to end the last race of 1999, but Coronel went on to become season champion. That was the start to an uber successful Nakajima Racing team. Coronel of course had bigger dreams, so off he went to race in Formula One. Coronel is a racer through and through. As most of the rivals he drove with back then head into retirement, Coronel continues to races in WTCC and WTCR, where he still comes to thrill Japanese fans.