Super Formula 2019: Driver-by-driver season preview

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Super Formula 2019: Driver-by-driver season preview
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Apr 18, 2019, 5:01 AM

A new season of Japan’s Super Formula series gets underway at the fabled Suzuka circuit this weekend. Rachit Thukral assesses the prospects of all 20 drivers that make up the class of 2019.

Super Formula enters a new era in 2019 with the introduction of the new halo-equipped SF19 car, which has already broken one lap record of its predecessor and is touted to go even faster with time.

But perhaps the most interesting aspect of the new season is the driver line-up, with eight fresh faces joining an expanded grid. Will the young stars, both Japanese and international, break the established order? Or will experience triumph over youth?

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Naoki Yamamoto, Dandelion Racing

Naoki Yamamoto, Dandelion Racing
1/20

Photo by: Masahide Kamio

Debut: 2010
Wins: 6
Titles: 2
2018 championship position: 1st (38 points)

Naoki Yamamoto emerged from 2018 as an international star, as talks of a Formula 1 practice outing - or even more - circulated following his rare Super Formula/Super GT title double.

Yamamoto could have stayed at the front-running Mugen team for another season in his bid to win a third championship in Super Formula, but took the gamble of moving to Dandelion, a team that hasn’t won a drivers’ title in over a decade - but did enjoy some success with Stoffel Vandoorne in 2016.

The 30-year-old is known as 'Mr Suzuka', so expect him to feature strongly in the opener, but he admits he needs to up his game at other tracks - whether he is able to do so could well come to define his season.

Nirei Fukuzumi, Dandelion Racing

Nirei Fukuzumi, Dandelion Racing
2/20

Photo by: Masahide Kamio

: 2018
Wins: 0
Titles: 0
2018 championship position: 20th (0 points)

Nirei Fukuzumi endured a season to forget in 2018, as his dual F2-Super Formula campaign belied the success he achieved in GP3 only a year previously.

It’s not that the young Honda junior forgot how to drive - he qualified on the front-row on his Super Formula debut and was in a podium position until being hit by a technical failure - but the results simply failed to show up all year long, which can’t just be down to bad luck.

Perhaps by focusing exclusively on one series, away from the pressures of the Formula 1 paddock, will help the 22-year-old rediscover his old form.

Dan Ticktum, Mugen

 Dan Ticktum, Mugen
3/20

Photo by: Masahide Kamio

Debut: 2018 (two races only)
Wins: 0
Titles: N/A
2018 championship position: 19th (0 points)

Red Bull-backed Dan Ticktum faces inevitable comparisons to Pierre Gasly as he embarks on his first full season in Super Formula.

Gasly’s mid-season turnaround in 2017 was nothing short of astounding and made him a surprise title contender by the season finale. Driving for the same Mugen team, many would expect similar results from Ticktum this year.

But the British driver has already ruled out fighting for the championship - and he doesn’t necessarily need to, for a fifth place finish will earn him enough superlicence points to be eligible for an F1 seat in 2020.

Having said that, the higher he finishes in the championship, the more the chances of silencing the critics that started doubting his ability in the final stages of his European F3 campaign.

Tomoki Nojiri, Mugen

Tomoki Nojiri, Mugen
4/20

Photo by: Masahide Kamio

Debut: 2014
Wins: 1
Titles: 0
2018 championship position: 7th (12.5 points)

Tomoki Nojiri has emerged as a qualifying maestro in recent years, both in Super Formula and in Super GT.

But, as the old cliche goes, the points (or, the vast majority anyway) are given out on Sunday, and that’s when Nojiri has to step up his game if he’s finish in the top five in the championship for the first time in his career.

Stepping across from Dandelion, Nojiri is now placed with the Mugen team, which should theoretically improve his chances of moving up the order. But with a Red Bull junior on the other side of the garage, can he succeed in a situation where his predecessor Yamamoto - who famously crumbled when paired with Gasly - couldn’t?

Tristan Charpentier, Real Racing

Tristan Charpentier, Real Racing
5/20

Photo by: Jun Goto

Debut: 2019
Wins: N/A
Titles: N/A
2018 championship position: N/A

Tristan Charpentier is jumping into Super Formula this year after an up-and-down part-season in BRDC British F3.

Given his lack of experience, and his Real Racing team's lack of pedigree, not much can be expected from him this year.

And with Real operating as a single-car team, all the development work to get to grips with the SF19 will be on the shoulders of the 18-year-old Frenchman.

Lucas Auer, B-MAX Racing with Motopark

Lucas Auer, B-MAX Racing with Motopark
6/20

Photo by: Tomohiro Yoshita

Debut: 2019
Wins: N/A
Titles: N/A
2018 championship position: N/A

It’s not common for Red Bull to sign a driver well into his 20s to its junior team, although in Lucas Auer's case, his DTM form and family links (he's Gerhard Berger's nephew) surely help.

But for all of Auer’s victories in the German tin-top series, the fact remains that his last full season in single-seaters was in 2014. As such, the first few races are likely to be about shaking off the rust.

He has already racked up hundreds of laps in the SF19 over the winter though and even headed to New Zealand to compete in the Toyota Racing Series, which should serve to ease his transition.

However, question marks remain over his team B-Max - now running in cooperation with established F3 team Motopark - as it is yet to score a point after joining the Super Formula grid two years ago.

Harrison Newey, B-Max Racing with Motopark

 Harrison Newey, B-Max Racing with Motopark
7/20

Photo by: Masahide Kamio

Debut: 2019
Wins: N/A
Titles: N/A
2018 championship position: N/A

Much like Auer, Harrison Newey is returning to single-seaters this season, albeit after a much shorter time away racing in sportscars.

It’s fair to say that Newey didn’t enjoy the best of years in European F3 in 2017, but he did beat the highly-rated Joey Mawson and Mick Schumacher to the MRF Challenge title.

It will be interesting to see how he fares in Super Formula in his first season, particularly if B-Max's new Motopark tie-up helps it move up the pecking order.

Álex Palou, Nakajima Racing

 Álex Palou, Nakajima Racing
8/20

Photo by: Masahide Kamio

Debut: 2019
Wins: N/A
Titles: N/A
2018 championship position: N/A

After testing a Super Formula car for the first time in 2017, European F3 graduate Alex Palou has finally bagged a seat in the Japanese championship.

The Spanish driver has immediately marked himself out as one to watch, breaking the Suzuka lap record on the very first day of pre-season testing this year.

Palou’s arrival may also mark the revival of Nakajima Racing, which has suffered from declining fortunes in recent seasons.

Tadasuke Makino, Nakajima Racing

Tadasuke Makino, Nakajima Racing
9/20

Photo by: Masahide Kamio

Debut: 2019
Wins: N/A
Titles: N/A
2018 championship position: N/A

Some would say that it was unfair for Honda to recall Tadasuke Makino to Super Formula this year, given his fine campaign in Formula 2 and a spectacular win in the Monza feature race.

But if Nobuharu Matsushita can return to the F1 ladder after a year in exile, so can Makino if he impresses his bosses enough on home soil.

Makino will have a strong benchmark within the team in Palou, with the pair forming arguably one of the most exciting line-ups on the grid.

Kenta Yamashita, Kondo Racicng

Kenta Yamashita, Kondo Racicng
10/20

Photo by: Masahide Kamio

Debut: 2017
Wins: 0
Titles: 0
2018 championship position: 9th (11.5 points)

Kenta Yamashita may have been overshadowed by Kondo teammate Nick Cassidy last year, but he did a solid job to help secure the teams’ title.

And it shouldn't be forgotten that Yamashita romped to a fourth place finish in the prestigious Macau F3 race only three years ago.

With Cassidy departing to TOM'S, Yamashita assumes the status of Kondo team leader and is tasked with steering an outfit that enjoyed its best season to date last year.

Yuji Kunimoto, Kondo Racing

Yuji Kunimoto, Kondo Racing
11/20

Photo by: Jun Goto

Debut: 2011
Wins: 2
Titles: 1
2018 championship position: 8th (11.5 points)

Yuji Kunimoto has fallen from grace since claiming the 2016 Super Formula title and has also had to put his underwhelming Toyota LMP1 stint behind him.

Last year marked another low point for his career, as he scored just one podium all season, prompting Toyota to drop him from its front-running Inging team.

But Kunimoto remains part of the Toyota fold even after an ostensible demotion to Kondo. And perhaps a lower-pressure environment will help him find his undoubted speed again.

Artem Markelov, Team LeMans

 Artem Markelov, Team LeMans
12/20

Photo by: Masahide Kamio

Debut: 2019
Wins: N/A
Titles: N/A
2018 championship position: N/A

Artem Markelov may have been knocking on the door of F1 teams following his F2 success, but the car that he’ll race in Super Formula this season is a completely different beast to master.

Most important of all, Super Formula’s durable Yokohama tyre is in stark contrast to F2’s high-degradation Pirellis - and Markelov admitted that adapting to new rubber has proven his biggest challenge.

Testing was nothing to write home about for the Russian, but if Team LeMans can regain some of its lost competitiveness, Markelov could yet emerge as a challenger at the front.

Kazuya Oshima, Team LeMans

Kazuya Oshima, Team LeMans
13/20

Photo by: Jun Goto

Debut: 2009
Wins: 1
Titles: 0
2018 championship position: 12th (6 points)

Since returning to Super Formula in 2017, Kazuya Oshima has yet to rediscover the form that made him a race winner during his first stint in what was then known as Formula Nippon.

Team LeMans has had to deal with its own decline, but Oshima’s results against talented European teammates have also left much to be desired.

Perhaps a new car and a less daunting partner in Markelov will help the 31-year-old get his mojo back.

Kamui Kobayashi, KCMG

Kamui Kobayashi, KCMG
14/20

Photo by: Jun Goto

Debut: 2015
Wins: 0
Titles: 0
2018 championship position: 10th (7 points)

Kamui Kobayashi starred in 2018, yet somehow still finished only 10th in the championship with just seven points to his name.

A likely victory at Sugo was unfairly taken away from him by a botched pitstop, while an unforced error of his own in a rain-soaked race at Okayama cost him another possible win.

KCMG is far from Super Formula’s top team, hobbled by its single-car team status, but in Kobayashi’s hands it has the potential to score podiums on a regular basis.

Yuhi Sekiguchi, ITOCHU ENEX TEAM IMPUL

Yuhi Sekiguchi, ITOCHU ENEX TEAM IMPUL
15/20

Photo by: Masahide Kamio

Debut: 2016
Wins: 5
Titles: 0
2018 championship position: 4th (18 points)

Yuhi Sekiguchi has been consistently finishing inside the top four in the standings ever since he made a spectacular debut in the series in 2016.

But for all his success - including five emphatic race wins - Sekiguchi simply hasn’t been able to string together a championship challenge.

With three seasons of experience now under his belt, the 31-year-old must up his game if he wants to add to his Japanese F3 title.

Ryo Hirakawa, Impul

 Ryo Hirakawa, Impul
16/20

Photo by: Masahide Kamio

Debut: 2013
Wins: 0
Titles: 0
2018 championship position: 5th (17 points)

Ryo Hirakawa thrived on his return to Super Formula last year and could have even finished fourth in the championship had a puncture not robbed him of a podium finish in finale.

Hirakawa’s Super GT and ELMS exploits that he is more than capable of hanging on in a title fight - and he could very much be an outside contender for the Super Formula crown this year.

Kazuki Nakajima, Team TOM'S

 Kazuki Nakajima, Team TOM'S
17/20

Photo by: Masahide Kamio

Debut: 2011
Wins: 9
Titles: 2
2018 championship position: 6th (15 points)

Kazuki Nakajima was hurt by the TOM'S squad's fall from grace last year as the multiple championship-winning team suffered fundamental issues, particular with the tyres.

Considering the team’s struggles, and his teammates James Rossiter inability to score even a single point, Nakajima did well to finish sixth in the championship and bag a podium finish.

If TOM’S is back in the game this year, expect Nakajima to be at the front again. But new teammate Cassidy could bring back memories of his intra-team rivalry with Andre Lotterer.

Nick Cassidy, Team TOM'S

Nick Cassidy, Team TOM'S
18/20

Photo by: Masahide Kamio

Debut: 2017
Wins: 1
Titles: 0
2018 championship position: 2nd (37 points)

Nick Cassidy had to face the gut-wrenching disappointment of losing the title in a dramatic finale at Suzuka last year at the end of an exemplary campaign with an underdog team.

While Yamamoto received the plaudits for his double title success, Cassidy then suffered the Super GT title likewise slipping through his fingers just weeks later.

Not only did the Kiwi nearly overcome a faster Honda package, he also dragged Kondo to its maiden teams’ title - something few would have imagined given its previous lack of success.

Now placed with Toyota's number one team TOM’S, Cassidy will be an even more serious title threat this season, assuming the squad is back to its usual form.

Hiroaki Ishiura, Inging

Hiroaki Ishiura, Inging
19/20

Photo by: Jun Goto

Debut: 2008
Wins: 5
Titles: 2
2017 championship position: 3rd (25 points)

At 37, Hiroaki Ishiura will be the oldest driver by some way in Super Formula this year. But if his career trajectory is anything to go by, he’ll be an even more potent challenger in 2019.

With two titles and five wins in the last four seasons, Ishiura has been Toyota’s most consistent championship challenger in recent years.

And there’s nothing to suggest that he wouldn’t be in the title hunt once again, even though he faces a 2017-like onslaught of talented rookie racers, including within his own Inging team.

Sho Tsuboi, Inging

Sho Tsuboi, Inging
20/20

Photo by: Tomohiro Yoshita

Debut: 2019
Wins: N/A
Titles: N/A
2018 championship position: N/A

Sho Tsuboi absolutely annihilated the competition in Japanese F3 last season, winning all but two races in one of the most dominant displays in junior single-seater racing in recent memory.

Toyota was so impressed by Tsuboi that it straight away handed him a top drive, even sidelining a former series champion - Kunimoto - to make way for him.

Expect the 23-year-old hotshot to score podiums - and perhaps a maiden win - in his very first season in Japan’s premier single-seater category.

All Super Formula races will be streamed live and exclusively on Motorsport.tv outside Japan.

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Series Super Formula
Author Rachit Thukral
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