Under the Visor: Miki Koyama

Formula 1 waitresses are usually associated with serving fine foods in the paddock – but Japanese speed sensation Miki Koyama has confined that stereotype to history.

The 21-year-old wowed W Series fans in last year’s opening season, setting the fastest lap of the race during the season opener at Hockenheim, Germany and topping the time sheets of second practice at Misano, in Italy.

The young Japanese driver finished 7th in the 2019 standings and secured a place on the 2020 grid (the top 12 finishers in the championship automatically qualified).

But she hasn’t forgotten her roots as an impoverished teenager waiting tables in a Tokyo restaurant while desperate to get a foot on the racing ladder.

She said: “I’ve been crazy about racing since the age of 5 but my obsession meant I couldn’t concentrate at school and so I left Junior High School when I was 14. That’s why my English isn’t very good.

“When I left school, I started driver coaching straight away and a year later, when I turned 15, I began commuting by train from our home in Sagamihara, Kanagawa, to Tokyo, each day to work as a waitress in a Japanese restaurant. I only took one day’s holiday each month and after a year of waiting tables, I managed to save the equivalent of £23,500.

“It was a very busy restaurant and I experienced a lot of bullying because I was so young but I don’t regret it. I was always focussed on what to do with money.

“If I was going to get ahead in racing I knew I would have to speak some English so I enrolled in a language school in Cebu, Philippines, and got to work. I was given a kindergarten textbook and ridiculed for my poor English. I felt humiliated but my thoughts about racing never disappeared. The teasing only made me more determined.”

Koyama does not hail from typical, wealthy motor racing stock. Her father Ryotaro is a modest carpenter and she traces her love of speed back to him.

“My dad Ryotaro had a motorbike and he bought me one when I was four but I really became interested in engines when I was 5.”

“My mum Masayo had been to a book shop and picked up a karting magazine in amongst some others by mistake. I found it on a table in our house and was instantly hooked.

“Somehow my dad found the money to buy me a red kart and I went racing at every opportunity. But when I got to 14, I just couldn’t see a way to continue.

“My dad had spent every penny he had on helping me to get driving experience but the money eventually ran out. His clothes were frayed and his car was rusting. If I wanted to keep my dream alive I would have to work for it by myself.”

Upon her return from Cebu, Koyama had just enough fluency in English to renew her fight for a future in racing. She said: “I have not received any Yen from my parents since I quit school aged 14. Instead, I went from sponsor to sponsor and team to team begging: ‘Please give me a seat’. Eventually, a Japanese businessman believed in me and gave me the support I needed at a crucial time.”

The financial aid kick-started Koyama’s quest to further her racing career and she has since competed in the FIA F4 Japanese Championship. She has also won the all-female Kyojo Cup championship in three years in a row. In 2018 she beat guest driver and future W Series teammate Beitske Visser.

She says: “Now, with USLETE Honda and having entered F4, I’m in a great place. I want to take full advantage of this moment to grow and really show some good results.

“I didn’t know what to expect from the first W Series ever but I feel like there’s so much to gain from challenging yourself outside of your comfort zone. Since I was given this chance, I want to absorb the experience as much as I can and make it a stepping-stone to realising my dream of becoming an F1 racer.”

Koyama is philosophical about the plight of females in the upper echelons of motor racing.

She adds: “As long as you’re self-aware, it’s up to you whether something becomes a positive or a negative experience. Of course, men and women are physically different, so in that regard, women have to work harder in certain areas. On the other hand, there are many things that women can do that maybe men cannot, so I want to continue to tap into my strengths to the best of my ability.

“People will always have split feelings about things that have never been done before, so their opinions don’t bother me.

“All of the W Series participants, myself included, are grateful for the opportunity to tackle the unknown and take on this new challenge.”

“I want to learn as much as I can and become a world-class driver so hopefully I can return the favour and get the W Series name out there more. I will always be grateful to W Series because it’s for women like me who have no money; for women who wouldn’t otherwise have a chance to race. It’s about talent alone.”

Off the track, Koyama loves nothing better than snuggling up to her beloved ginger cat Meow, who was welcomed into the family after the recent death of her beloved 15-year-old Asian Spitz dog Jet.

She said: “At the moment I have no boyfriend because racing is my boyfriend. It is the one thing that is constantly on my mind and so we’re perfect partners.”

“That raw sensation of speeding on the ground is something special that only formula racing can provide. So next season I’ll be back stronger to show that there was more to learn from failure than from success.”

Throughout the interview, Koyama continually touches two identical bracelets comprised of colourful stones. She explains that each one is carefully chosen for the quality it represents. She says: “One symbolises concentration, one good luck and the others relate to insight and victory.”

With or without the bracelets, Koyama’s sheer determination to succeed against all the odds will undoubtedly help her achieve the latter.