Super Formula 2021: Mid-season driver ratings

With two months to wait for the next round of the Super Formula season, now is the ideal time to review the first half of the campaign and the performances of every driver in the field.

Super Formula 2021: Mid-season driver ratings

Four races down, three to go - it's been an unpredictable start to the 2021 Super Formula season, with a championship leader few would have chosen on the basis of pre-season testing, a struggling reigning champion and some impressive youngsters shaking up the establishment. 

There are no perfect scores here, but several come close, and equally there's no holding back for some of the series' more disappointing performers so far. Read on to find out who's top of the class in Japan's premier single-seater series at half-term and who needs to try harder.

Naoki Yamamoto (Nakajima Racing)

Best finish: 6th. Best grid position: 10th. Points: 9 (12th)

Rating: 4/10

Up until the most recent race at Sugo, there was just about enough evidence to give Yamamoto the benefit of the doubt as his reunion with Nakajima Racing got off to a rocky start. But a listless drive to 12th at the venue that kickstarted his title-winning 2020 campaign shows the problems run deeper than they first appeared. His title defence is in tatters, and he’s being shown up by a far less experienced teammate 10 years his junior, Toshiki Oyu.

Seeing Yamamoto so far off the pace of Oyu is reminiscent of the three-time champion’s hammering at the hands of then-Mugen teammate Pierre Gasly back in 2017. At least Yamamoto can take solace in the fact, back then, he turned things around to win the title the following year. Whether he can repeat that trick could come to play a role in defining his legacy.

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Naoki Yamamoto, TCS NAKAJIMA RACING

Naoki Yamamoto, TCS NAKAJIMA RACING

Photo by: Masahide Kamio

Kenta Yamashita (Kondo Racing)

Best finish: 11th. Best grid position: 9th. Points: 0

Rating: 5/10

One of the most surprising things about the 2021 season so far has been Kondo Racing’s disastrous loss of form, which has left one of Super Formula’s biggest talents with zero points to his name. Indeed, four races on the trot with no points marks Yamashita’s longest barren run since he joined the series in 2017 – and most worryingly of all, neither he nor his highly-rated engineer Kazuya Abe seem to know exactly the cause for their current woes.

Yamashita struggled at both Fuji and Suzuka, while at Autopolis he might have scored points if he hadn’t got tangled up in the first-corner melee. At Sugo, he found some speed in Sunday practice, but he couldn’t replicate that in the higher temperatures of the race, and a questionable overcut strategy probably ended up costing him positions. The only good point is that Yamashita has had the clear measure of temporary teammate Yuichi Nakayama.

Kenta Yamashita, KONDO RACING

Kenta Yamashita, KONDO RACING

Photo by: Masahide Kamio

Yuichi Nakayama (Kondo Racing)

Best finish: 14th. Best grid position: 15th. Points: 0

Rating: 3/10

With Sacha Fenestraz still unable to enter Japan due to visa problems, Nakayama – historically KCMG’s reserve of choice – was asked to step in at Kondo Racing to fill the cockpit of the #4 car. Given prior to this year he had managed just one points finish in 31 attempts, expectations were low, but even then, the 29-year-old has been totally anonymous, unable to show the speed that has taken him to two SUPER GT GT500 wins alongside Heikki Kovalainen.

Along with Oshima, Nakayama is one of only two members of the ‘yet-to-clear-Q1’ club, and while he did technically outqualify Yamashita in the Fuji season opener, he did so with a slower qualifying time (a quirk of the group qualifying system). Since then, the gap between the teammates has been huge, which can’t be doing much for Yamashita or the team in their quest to escape the doldrums. For Kondo, Fenestraz can’t return soon enough. 

Yuichi Nakayama, KONDO RACING

Yuichi Nakayama, KONDO RACING

Photo by: Masahide Kamio

Nirei Fukuzumi (Dandelion Racing)

Wins: 1. Poles: 1. Points: 34 (3rd)

Rating: 8/10

In pre-season testing, a newlywed Fukuzumi said there could be no more excuses in his third season of Super Formula with the crack Dandelion Racing squad that took Yamamoto to last year’s title. Now the sometime GP3 race winner has duly established himself as one of the category’s elite talents, and following his long-awaited first win in the series at Sugo, he appears to be the driver most likely to threaten points leader Tomoki Nojiri.

Rebounding from the disappointment of losing a near-certain win to a puncture at Suzuka, and then a costly qualifying crash at Autopolis, Fukuzumi used his #5 Dandelion machine to devastating effect at Sugo to carve through the field from fifth on the grid to win. The big question now is no longer whether he can win, but rather how he will respond to the altogether different pressures that come with trying to put together a championship assault.

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Nirei Fukuzumi, DOCOMO TEAM DANDELION RACING

Nirei Fukuzumi, DOCOMO TEAM DANDELION RACING

Photo by: Masahide Kamio

Kazuto Kotaka (KCMG)

Best finish: 15th. Best grid position: 11th. Points: 0

Rating: 4/10

This rating may seem harsh for a rookie with a team that’s far from one of the best on the grid, but, Kotaka has been by some margin the least impressive of the 2021 newcomers. Standing in for the absent Kamui Kobayashi aboard KCMG’s #7 car, he’s also not compared favourably to teammate Yuji Kunimoto. Indeed, Kotaka qualified seven places ahead of Kunimoto at Sugo, yet somehow contrived to finish four places and a massive 33 seconds behind.

It’s unclear whether Kotaka will do any more Super Formula races this year. If Fenestraz returns to Kondo Racing at Motegi, then Nakayama should move across to KCMG (assuming Kobayashi remains unavailable) and Kotaka will be sent back to TOM’S to focus on Super Formula Lights. If that’s the case, Kotaka will surely look back on his stint in the top tier with frustration.

Kazuto Kotaka, KCMG

Kazuto Kotaka, KCMG

Photo by: Masahide Kamio

Kazuya Oshima (Rookie Racing)

Best finish: 8th. Best grid position: 16th. Points: 2.5 (16th)

Rating: 5/10

Much like in SUPER GT, Rookie Racing created its own independent structure to tackle its second Super Formula season after spending last year operating under the Inging umbrella. But the first four races of the campaign have proven to be a struggle for Oshima, who for the last two races has been the second-oldest driver on the grid (behind only Koudai Tsukakoshi) and is now nearing the 11th anniversary of his one and only win in the championship.

While Oshima deserves credits for picking up points at both Fuji and Autopolis in difficult conditions, he’s yet to make it out of Q1, and at Sugo he suffered from a woeful lack of pace that resulted in the #12 NTT-sponsored machine being lapped. All the while, B-Max Racing and Nobuharu Matsushita have raised the bar in terms of what can be expected of a one-car operation. Oshima therefore needs to raise his game just as much as the team itself.

Kazuya Oshima, NTT Communications ROOKIE

Kazuya Oshima, NTT Communications ROOKIE

Photo by: Osamu Kidachi

Hiroki Otsu (Team Mugen)

Best finish: 5th. Best grid position: 8th. Points: 9.5 (11th)

Rating: 6/10

Comparing Otsu directly to Mugen stablemate Nojiri is a little unfair, as the #15 car is not maintained in-house like the #16, but rather entrusted to a service provider called Servus Japan (which also runs the ARTA squad in SUPER GT). But considering Otsu doesn’t have the sparkling record in the junior ranks of some of his contemporaries, he’s at least justified Honda’s decision to give him a shot with Mugen and proven that he belongs at this level.

In qualifying Otsu has made it to Q3 on all bar one occasion, and at times he’s shown a real turn of speed, with fifth place at Suzuka (including fastest lap) the clear highlight of his season so far. If he hadn’t hit Yuhi Sekiguchi at Turn 1 at Fuji, he would probably be well inside the top 10 of the standings, which is about as much as could be realistically hoped for given his lack of experience and the form of the Red Bull-backed #15 car in recent years.

Hiroki Otsu, Red Bull MUGEN Team Goh

Hiroki Otsu, Red Bull MUGEN Team Goh

Photo by: Masahide Kamio

Tomoki Nojiri (Team Mugen)

Wins: 2. Poles: 1. Points: 53 (1st)

Rating: 9/10

Much like Ryo Hirakawa last year, Nojiri has cracked the formula to graduate from the ranks of occasional challenger to title favourite, although, now in his eighth season in the category the transformation is arguably a little overdue. He looked near-unbeatable in the Fuji season opener, and while his Suzuka win owed something to fortune, he could have made it a hat-trick at Autopolis had the race gone the full distance, or at least further than it did in reality.

It says a lot about how high expectations for Nojiri have become that finishing sixth as he did at Sugo can be regarded as a major disappointment, and not yet just another one of the inconsistent results that have characterised the 31-year-old’s career up to now. His biggest test comes in the next two races at Motegi, where he needs to minimise the damage to his points lead, but the vagaries of the dropped scores system mean he remains the favourite.

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Tomoki Nojiri, TEAM MUGEN

Tomoki Nojiri, TEAM MUGEN

Photo by: Masahide Kamio

Yuji Kunimoto (KCMG)

Best finish: 8th. Best grid position: 12th. Points: 3 (15th)

Rating: 6/10

Coming off the back of one of his more encouraging seasons in recent times, Kunimoto will be disheartened that his KCMG team appears to have made a step backwards in 2021, with the 2016 champion scoring just one points finish in four attempts so far this year - and even then a relatively unremarkable eighth place at Fuji. The fact he's been largely well clear of rookie teammate Kotaka is likely to be of little consolation to the 30-year-old.

That said, bad luck has impacted Kunimoto more than most. At Suzuka he most likely would have finished inside the top 10 if not for his scary high-speed crash at 130R, the result of a sudden puncture, and at Autopolis he was one of several drivers to make it no further than Turn 1 amid a chaotic wet start. Much like Yamashita, Kunimoto will doubtless be hoping for a speedy return for his regular teammate Kobayashi to accelerate the team’s progress.

Yuji Kunimoto, carrozzeria Team KCMG

Yuji Kunimoto, carrozzeria Team KCMG

Photo by: Masahide Kamio

Yuhi Sekiguchi (Impul)

Best finish: 3rd. Poles: 1. Points: 22.5 (5th)

Rating: 6/10

Now in his sixth season at Impul, Sekiguchi remains one of the most exciting, yet frustrating drivers to watch in Super Formula. The talent that compelled team boss Kazuyoshi Hoshino to describe his charge as deserving of a shot in Formula 1 is clearly still there, but there are too many unforced errors for a driver of Sekiguchi’s experience – witness how he threw away second place, and the possibility to at least challenge for a win, at Autopolis by running wide behind the safety car.

At Sugo, with teammate Hirakawa absent, Sekiguchi looked as if he could be on the cusp of repeating his 2016 and ’17 wins at the track as he stormed to pole in the wet. But come race day he was overcut rather too easily by Fukuzumi before, in his own words, ‘carelessly’ conceding a further place on track to Oyu. This has been an improved campaign compared to Sekiguchi’s disappointing 2020 season, but it could have been that much better still.

Yuhi Sekiguchi, carenex TEAM IMPUL

Yuhi Sekiguchi, carenex TEAM IMPUL

Photo by: Masahide Kamio

Ryo Hirakawa (Impul)

Best finish: 2nd. Best grid position: 4th. Points: 23 (4th)

Rating: 8/10

It’s difficult to assess Hirakawa’s form based on only three races – two if you exclude Autopolis, where he was taken out at Turn 1 by Sho Tsuboi. But at Fuji and Suzuka the Impul driver was easily the best of the Toyota-powered drivers, battling gamely against the prevailing wind of Honda’s power advantage. On the downside, his advantage over teammate Sekiguchi isn’t quite what it was last year, but then again that probably says more about Sekiguchi than it does about Hirakawa.

Missing the Sugo race to partake in a test in the GR010 Hypercar in Portugal obviously hasn’t done Hirakawa’s title hopes much good, and in normal circumstances you wouldn’t give him much hope of catching Nojiri. But the saving grace for the 27-year-old is that his favourite track, Motegi, is hosting the next two races. With the title pressure now off to an extent, he’s well positioned to add to his tally of two Super Formula wins.

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Ryo Hirakawa, TEAM IMPUL

Ryo Hirakawa, TEAM IMPUL

Photo by: Masahide Kamio

Giuliano Alesi (TOM’S)

Wins: 1. Poles: 1. Points: 17 (8th)

Rating: 7/10

Winning just your second Super Formula race is an achievement that deserves enormous praise, whatever the circumstances, and Alesi’s unlikely Autopolis triumph is no exception. Either side of that shock result, the Frenchman has registered a pair of ninth-place finishes: the first of these at Suzuka was arguably on par for a rookie, the second at Sugo was a touch disappointing, even if it did feature a great Daniel Ricciardo-style move on Otsu.

What’s arguably been more impressive than Alesi’s performances in the TOM’S car is his attitude out of it. Two disappointing seasons in F2 have clearly had an effect on him, and he never passes up a chance to remind the world of how grateful he is for the chance to rebuild his career in Japan. Alesi now has to wait and see if he’ll get another go in the Super Formula car this year, but either way he’s surely a leading candidate for a full-time 2022 seat.

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Giuliano Alesi, Kuo VANTELIN TEAM TOM’S

Giuliano Alesi, Kuo VANTELIN TEAM TOM’S

Photo by: Masahide Kamio

Ritomo Miyata (TOM’S)

Best finish: 4th. Best grid position: 2nd. Points: 19 (6th)

Rating: 7/10

There’s been little to choose between the TOM’S teammates so far this year, hence their identical ranking. You could argue that Miyata deserves the better score as he has been the more consistent of the pair, but then again it was Alesi who got the job done when the real opportunity to shine presented itself at Autopolis. On that occasion, Miyata squandered his front-row start by running wide into the gravel at Turn 1, ending up a disappointing fourth.

Elsewhere though, Miyata has been rock solid, and like Alesi has a perfect record of Q3 appearances so far this year. At Fuji he did about all that could be asked of him as he was second of the Toyota contingent behind Hirakawa, leaving teammate Kazuki Nakajima in the dust, and he was again the marque’s second-best finisher at Sugo. He’ll be hoping that two races at Motegi offer a chance for what now must be regarded as an overdue first podium.

Ritomo Miyata, Kuo VANTELIN TEAM TOM’S, Sena Sakaguchi, P.MU/CERUMO・INGING

Ritomo Miyata, Kuo VANTELIN TEAM TOM’S, Sena Sakaguchi, P.MU/CERUMO・INGING

Photo by: Masahide Kamio

Sho Tsuboi (Inging)

Best finish: 7th. Best grid position: 5th. Points: 4 (14th)

Rating: 4/10

“There were no good points” is how Tsuboi summed up a miserable Sugo race, but he could just have easily been talking about his season so far. For a driver that won two races last year, just four points is a catastrophic return in his first four races as Inging’s unofficial lead driver. Whether he's feeling the pressure following Hiroaki Ishiura’s retirement, after spending two years as the two-time champion’s understudy, isn’t exactly clear.

The season started off poorly at Fuji – where Tsuboi won in December – as he spun off unaided in the closing stages. Suzuka offered some respite as he finished seventh, but then at Autopolis he caused his own downfall at Turn 1 as he clattered into Hirakawa, before condemning himself to another weekend to forget by going off in the wet in qualifying at Sugo. Tsuboi has plenty of soul-searching to do to escape the rut he finds himself in right now.

Sho Tsuboi, P.MU/CERUMO・INGING

Sho Tsuboi, P.MU/CERUMO・INGING

Photo by: Masahide Kamio

Sena Sakaguchi (Inging)

Best finish: 2nd. Best grid position: 3rd. Points: 14.5 (9th)

Rating: 6/10

After two abortive substitute appearances, Sakaguchi was finally handed the chance to race in Super Formula full-time as the replacement for Ishiura at Inging, and so far the driver named after the great Ayrton Senna has settled in nicely into life in the top tier. He’s outqualified teammate Tsuboi three times out of four, and despite his experience deficit he’s made fewer errors too, being responsible for 75 percent of Inging’s points haul so far.

Sakaguchi’s first podium finish at Autopolis was arguably fortuitous as he ran off-track exiting Turn 1, which by rights should have sent him tumbling down the order – but so many drivers had either done the same thing (or ran into each other) that he got away with it, and he partly made up for it by repassing Otsu following the safety car restart. Falling from third to grid to a slightly disappointing eighth at Sugo stops him from being rated even higher here.

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Sena Sakaguchi, INGING MOTORSPORT

Sena Sakaguchi, INGING MOTORSPORT

Photo by: Masahide Kamio

Nobuharu Matsushita (B-Max Racing)

Best finish: 3rd. Best grid position: 12th. Points: 13.5 (10th)

Rating: 7/10

It’s been feast or famine so far for one of Super Formula’s most reliably entertaining-to-watch drivers. A limp run to 13th at Suzuka didn’t bode well for the now independent B-Max operation, but since then Matsushita and the team led by four-time Formula Nippon champ Satoshi Motoyama have turned things around, and after a strong outing at Sugo they now look as if they can be regular podium challengers for the rest of the season.

Key to Matsushita’s results have been his good starts, with his incredible Autopolis launch from 13th to third followed up by another good getaway at Sugo – which combined with a clever strategy and some seriously quick pace in clean air, came close to delivering another top-three finish. He’s realistically too far back to threaten the main title contenders, but Matsushita has the potential to be an interesting spoiler as the championship nears its climax. 

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Nobuharu Matsushita, B-Max Racing Team

Nobuharu Matsushita, B-Max Racing Team

Photo by: Masahide Kamio

Toshiki Oyu (Nakajima Racing)

Best finish: 2nd. Best grid position: 2nd. Points: 36 (2nd)

Rating: 8/10

Ever since that breakthrough first Super Formula win at Suzuka last year, Oyu has been a force to be reckoned with. In fact, the floppy-haired 22-year-old has been on the podium four times in his last six starts, more than any other driver in the series, and such is his pace in any conditions and at any track that he must be regarded as a victory threat every weekend. Only a slow pitstop denied him the chance to add a second win to his CV at Sugo.

Considering the gulf between him and teammate Yamamoto, it’s tempting to give Oyu an even higher rating, but there have still been errors to remind onlookers than the sophomore driver is not quite the finished article – notably his poor start at Suzuka and qualifying crash at Autopolis. They might end up costing him the chance to catch Nojiri in this year’s title chase, but whatever happens, Oyu has certainly marked himself out as a likely future champion.

Toshiki Oyu, TCS NAKAJIMA RACING

Toshiki Oyu, TCS NAKAJIMA RACING

Photo by: Masahide Kamio

The rest (Drivers who have taken part in two races or fewer)

Ukyo Sasahara was drafted in for the opening two races of the season at Dandelion Racing while Tadasuke Makino continued to recover from meningitis. The ex-Mugen man made a big impression, finishing a creditable fifth at Fuji and then finishing on the podium at Suzuka, albeit on a weekend that he couldn’t touch teammate Fukuzumi for pace.

Makino meanwhile has had hardly any dry running in the Dandelion car, with Sunday morning practice at Sugo marking his first non-weather affected session with his new team. Therefore, his lack of pace relative to Fukuzumi can be excused for now, but he’ll be hoping that the upcoming Motegi races offer a chance to settle in properly and close the gap to his teammate.

Tadasuke Makino, DOCOMO TEAM DANDELION RACING

Tadasuke Makino, DOCOMO TEAM DANDELION RACING

Photo by: Masahide Kamio

Kazuki Nakajima managed just a single outing for TOM’S before his WEC schedule started getting in the way, and it has to be said it wasn’t terribly impressive. The two-time champion was outqualified by rookie teammate Miyata and finished out of the points in 11th after getting waylaid by the aftermath of the Sekiguchi-Otsu contact at Turn 1.

Likewise, Mitsunori Takaboshi has made just one appearance this year, replacing the absent Hirakawa at Impul last time out at Sugo. Like Nakajima, he finished 11th, but this can be considered a qualified success for a driver that had just one previous Super Formula start to his name, Takaboshi and Impul using the undercut to good effect to vault up the order.

Mitsunori Takaboshi, carenex TEAM IMPUL

Mitsunori Takaboshi, carenex TEAM IMPUL

Photo by: Masahide Kamio

Tatiana Calderon is another driver combining Super Formula with WEC who has been caught out by travel restrictions. She showed glimpses of potential in the season opener at Fuji, where she made it out of Q1 for the first time and qualified a creditable 11th. But a broken radio meant she couldn’t convert that into points, and at Suzuka she was back to her 2020 form.

The sole Drago Corse car has been occupied by Super Formula stalwart Koudai Tsukakoshi since Autopolis, where the #12 machine was on the cusp of a top five until Tsukakoshi spun away that chance in the tricky conditions. But at Sugo, Tsukakoshi couldn’t do anything to lift the team’s form, dropping out in Q1 and finishing a distant 16th in the race.

Koudai Tsukakoshi, ThreeBond Drago CORSE

Koudai Tsukakoshi, ThreeBond Drago CORSE

Photo by: Masahide Kamio

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