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By Alan Baldwin
SUZUKA, Japan (Reuters) - Third place felt like a victory for Kamui Kobayashi as he celebrated his first Formula One podium finish in front of home fans who had only once before witnessed such an event on Japanese soil.
Only the third of his countrymen to stand on a grand prix podium, and first since Takuma Sato was third at the 2004 U.S. Grand Prix at Indianapolis, the Sauber driver had an army of fans on tenterhooks right to the end.
With Jenson Button's McLaren reeling him in over the closing laps, it looked as if Kobayashi's hopes were destined to be dashed.
Team chief executive Monisha Kaltenborn appeared to be praying quietly on the pit wall, her hands clasped together and eyes closed, while all around the circuit fans held their breath for the 26-year-old.
"In the last couple of laps. It was within one second and really challenging for us - but I think finally we finish in the points, on the podium and that's fantastic," Kobayashi told reporters afterwards.
"Especially in my home grand prix, my first podium, that's...you know...amazing."
The only other Japanese to stand on the Suzuka podium was Aguri Suzuki in 1990, a time when the country was far more involved in the sport than now.
Honda, owners of the Suzuka circuit, and Toyota have departed and Kobayashi is now the only Japanese driver on the starting grid.
Without significant financial backing, the son of a sushi restaurant owner faces an uncertain future in the sport and needed a big result to boost his chances of returning next season.
Before the race he had hoped that maybe it was his destiny to get on the podium at home after several missed chances and having to watch Mexican team mate Sergio Perez finish three times in the top three.
Destiny or not, he did it - to the huge relief of his team mates who had already seen McLaren-bound Perez spin off.
"Praying doesn't help you in that moment," laughed Kaltenborn. "You need a mentally and physically strong driver which we luckily had. But it was a very intense situation.
"If you had been standing on the front there and you heard the people cheer, you would have thought he'd won the race. So it's very special here."
Sauber's previous podiums this season have been the result of careful tyre management, pit stops and strategy but Kobayashi's was the result of outright pace with the driver qualifying third.
Kaltenborn said the result was important for Kobayashi as much for himself as the team, who already knew what he was capable of.
"I think he's really been very unlucky this year and it's high time he wasn't unlucky," she smiled. Without being drawn on details, Kaltenborn expected the 2013 line-up to be announced before the end of the season.
Kobayashi hoped the podium would help secure his seat: "We will have a good meeting tonight to speak with our managers," said the Japanese, referring also to Ferrari's beleaguered Brazilian Felipe Massa who finished second.
Massa's future with the Italian team is also uncertain, with a big result possibly tipping the balance his way.
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