Eight storylines to follow in Super Formula this season
Super Formula’s 2022 season kicks off this weekend with a hotly-anticipated double-header at Fuji Speedway. Jamie Klein is your guide to the talking points heading into the new campaign.
With 10 races scheduled this year, up from last year’s seven, Japan’s premier single-seater series will certainly be bigger in 2022. But will it be better? The early signs are encouraging.
Tomoki Nojiri swept to a dominant first Super Formula crown last year, scoring three wins in the first five races to wrap up the title with a round to spare. While there was no doubt the Mugen driver was the class of the field, he was also able to benefit from Honda’s decisive engine advantage, as well as some of the series’ biggest names inexplicably losing their form.
After four days of pre-season testing, things look much tighter this time around, with at least half-a-dozen drivers looking like serious threats for the win at Fuji. And with 10 races and no dropped scores this year, the chances of an early coronation look to be seriously diminished.
Here’s a closer look at some of the hot topics heading into the new season:
Will Mugen schism harm Nojiri’s title defence?
Reigning champion Nojiri heads up the 2022 entry list, his Team Mugen challenger’s number one plate bearing witness to his title success last year. But behind the scenes, there’s been an important change, with Mugen splitting from service provider Servus Japan for 2022.
Having provided the crew for the #15 Red Bull-sponsored Mugen car since 2017, as well as Nojiri’s chief engineer Toshihiro Ichise for the past three seasons, Servus has gone its own way in 2022 to run the all-new Team Goh effort (more on that later). Mugen was initially set to run just a single car for Nojiri until a late deal came together for the team to lease a second car from B-Max Racing, with Ukyo Sasahara returning to the team he drove for in 2020.
Luckily for Nojiri, he gets to keep engineer Ichise, who quit Servus to join Mugen parent company M-TEC over the winter. But it remains to be seen whether Sasahara, whose crew is mostly made up of SF newcomers, will be in a position to provide support for trialling set-ups and the like in the way that his predecessor in the #15 car, Hiroki Otsu, did last year.
After posting the second-fastest time on the first day of testing at Suzuka, Nojiri has kept something of a low profile, going fifth-fastest on the final afternoon in the second pre-season test at Fuji. That said, that also happens to be where he placed in testing last year at the same track before going on to dominate the season opener. You certainly wouldn't rule out a repeat this time around.
How will Dandelion fare after another driver reshuffle?
Nojiri’s nearest title rival last year was Dandelion Racing man Nirei Fukuzumi. Indeed, with victories at Sugo and Suzuka, Fukuzumi was the only other driver to actually win a race all year in fully-dry conditions. But following his switch to the minnow Drago Corse team over the winter, it’s unlikely he’ll be featuring in the title fight this time around.
Taking up the baton for Dandelion instead will be Fukuzumi’s 2021 teammate Tadasuke Makino and his new teammate Hiroki Otsu. Both have looked solid in pre-season testing and along with Nojiri look like Honda’s strongest title hopes at this point in time, especially with Nakajima Racing duo Naoki Yamamoto and Toshiki Oyu struggling.
Makino is tackling his first full season with Dandelion after missing the first two rounds of 2021 as he recovered from meningitis. His raw speed is not in doubt, but the guidance of expert engineer Kimitoshi Sugisaki, who guided Yamamoto to the 2020 title at Dandelion, could be the final piece of the puzzle needed for the 24-year-old from Osaka to finally break his victory duck.
Last year’s top rookie Otsu meanwhile has the potential to be something of a dark horse in this year’s title fight. He’s been consistently towards the head of the field since his first run for Dandelion in last year’s rookie test, going third quickest last month at Suzuka and ending up second best of the Hondas at Fuji in seventh. “At the very least, I want to get on the podium twice and win once,” said Otsu on his targets for this weekend at Fuji.
Will Toyota gains put Hirakawa back in the picture?
Perhaps the biggest surprise of the Fuji test was that the top four, and six of the top eight, were Toyota-powered cars. After a season of being humiliated by Honda, this seemed to serve as evidence that the TRD engineers have indeed fought back, no doubt helped by drivers now being allowed to use two engines per season instead of one.
That will be music to the ears of Team Impul’s Ryo Hirakawa, who was Toyota’s top performer in 2020 and almost certainly would have been again last year if he hadn’t missed the Sugo round to attend a WEC test for the Japanese marque. While Hirakawa now has to balance his new Toyota Le Mans Hypercar duties with an eighth crack at Super Formula title glory, Japan’s loosening travel restrictions at least mean he won’t have to quarantine after any trips to Europe.
Pre-season testing hasn’t been the smoothest, as Hirakawa appeared to be one of the most affected by Yokohama’s new stiffer-construction rear tyre. He said: “Especially at Fuji, the feeling is quite different from last year. We have found out more about the differences [in the Fuji test]. But I would say that the car issue at Suzuka, compared to the sister car [of Yuhi Sekiguchi], we have a kind of lack of performance, so we still have to investigate that.”
Despite those issues, and setting only the ninth-fastest time on the final day of testing, Hirakawa heads into this weekend’s Fuji opener – fresh from another WEC test at Portimao – in a confident mood. “On the final set of new tyres, I was kind of screwed up by the traffic, so I think we could have been close to P1,” he said. “The feeling of the car is good.”
Ryo Hirakawa, carenex TEAM IMPUL
Photo by: Masahide Kamio
Is Tsuboi’s stunning testing pace genuine?
When it comes to who will be Toyota’s top dog this year, Hirakawa faces some serious competition from Inging man Sho Tsuboi, who on test pace alone has earned the tag of title favourite by topping both days at Suzuka and then finishing second only to Kondo Racing man Sacha Fenestraz at Fuji, and even then only after aborting a lap that would have likely put him at the head of the timesheets once again.
After a wretched 2021 season that left him a lowly 15th in the points, Tsuboi is seemingly a man transformed heading into the new campaign, not only by his SUPER GT title but also by changes within his Inging team. Kotaro Tanaka, previously engineer to Tsuboi’s teammate Sena Sakaguchi, is now overseeing the entire operation, and this seems to have come as a big boost to Tsuboi (as well as a hindrance for Sakaguchi).
Naturally, Tsuboi was eager not to read too much into the testing times at Fuji, where his last Super Formula win came in 2020. But veteran engineer Tanaka, who has taken Tom Coronel, Ralph Firman and Loic Duval to title success in Formula Nippon, knows a good thing when he sees it, and is convinced that Tsuboi’s testing pace will translate into a strong showing this weekend.
“I have a lot of experience, so I can tell when things are on the right track, and they seem to be on this path,” he said of Tsuboi. “Probably, his speed is real. It seems close to the situation he was in two years ago, when he was fast, and I have the impression that he is using last year’s struggles as fuel. I think he’s understood ‘this way isn’t good’ because he made those mistakes last year.”
Will Fenestraz’s return help Kondo Racing escape the doldrums?
There was only one driver that outpaced Tsuboi in dry conditions throughout the entire pre-season, and that was Kondo Racing's Sacha Fenestraz. The Franco-Argentine driver was only able to enter Japan in time for the final two rounds last year owing to visa woes, and while his return coincided with a noticeable uptick in performance, it did not come in time to rescue a disastrous season for Kondo that resulted in a lowly ninth place in the teams’ standings.
Still, both Fenestraz and teammate Kenta Yamashita seem to have maintained their improved form through December’s rookie test and last month’s official pre-season tests at Suzuka and Fuji. Fenestraz's fastest time in the latter session came in rather unusual circumstances with low temperatures and new sets of tyres to burn after the previous day’s running was written off by snow, but was nonetheless a big boost for a team that has gone winless since 2019.
While keen not to get carried away by his testing performance, Fenestraz in particular seems much happier now he has the services of ex-Formula Nippon title contender Michael Krumm at his disposal as a translator, making the task of communicating with engineer Takuji Murata much simpler and his odds of a first podium finish since his Motegi debut in 2020 a lot shorter.
Yamashita was also more confident than usual as he heads into his sixth season at Kondo and his third with engineer Kazuya Abe. “Things feel different compared to last year, like we’re back on the upward slope,” he said after ending up eighth-fastest at Fuji. “With both cars, the potential seems to be there. If things go well, we could be on the podium at Fuji. If things are not so good, maybe we can still aim for about fifth place.”
Can Alesi impress in his first full season at TOM’S?
Last year, Giuliano Alesi replaced an absent Kazuki Nakajima for five of the seven races at TOM’S, sensationally winning just his second race in treacherous conditions at Autopolis. Following two-time champion Nakajima’s retirement, Alesi steps up to take over that seat full-time, and will aim to follow in the footsteps of fellow ‘gaijin’ title-winners at TOM’S of past years like Andre Lotterer (2011) and Nick Cassidy (2019).
Besides the fact he has now experienced most of the tracks on the schedule, Alesi also has the added advantage this year of being able to focus exclusively on the main series after a season of dovetailing his replacement duties with a full campaign in Super Formula Lights. But, unlike last year, he can no longer hide behind the ‘substitute’ tag and will be expected to justify being given Nakajima's prized seat ahead of countryman Fenestraz.
Alesi was sixth-fastest in the Fuji test, three places behind his teammate Ritomo Miyata, but his last attack lap was scuppered by a red flag. Asked if he felt he had a winning car underneath him, Alesi replied: “I believe I do, so I know that I have to work hard for this whole season. Everyone is very quick, we are all so close, so the details matter. I just focus on what I can do.”
With five starts under his belt, Alesi is not eligible for the Rookie of the Year classification, although he admits that in any case his eyes have to be on the main prize: “Even if I was eligible [as a rookie], expectations would still be high when you’re with TOM’S. I know how the car is, the tyres have changed a bit, but things are more or less the same, I have enough mileage in this car, and I want to use that to my advantage. I don’t feel like a rookie anymore.”
Giuliano Alesi, Kuo VANTELIN TEAM TOM’S
Photo by: Masahide Kamio
How will Super Formula’s two rookies ‘Goh’?
While Alesi won't be eligible for top rookie honours this year, two other drivers will be - and aptly, they are both driving for a brand-new outfit in the form of Team Goh. Naturally, attention will centre on Ren Sato, the first pukka Red Bull junior to tackle Super Formula since Juri Vips back in 2019. Although he only ended up 15th-fastest in the Fuji test, he did raise some eyebrows by matching Yuki Sekiguchi’s chart-topping time on that day’s morning session to the thousandth of a second.
“[Becoming a Red Bull junior] has been an unexpected development, but I think I’ve been handed a really great chance,” said Super Formula Lights graduate Sato. “I want to focus on getting the best results possible this year, and I think if I can do that, it will lead to more chances. I want to make bold moves like a rookie. I want to show speed in qualifying that will surprise people. I want to take a pole position, and do things that will have an impact.”
Going up against Sato in the other side of the Team Goh garage will be Atsushi Miyake, who is also making the move up from Super Formula Lights. An ex-Honda junior, but dropped after losing out to Sato in the fight for the 2019 All-Japan F4 crown, Miyake is a rarity among Super Formula drivers in that he is not officially aligned with either of the series two manufacturers.
A surprise pick for the second Goh vacancy, Miyake will have the advantage of relatively low expectations and none of the pressure associated with wearing the Red Bull colours. But the youngster is still keen to make a mark. “Because I’m not with a manufacturer, I want to show people things like ‘grit' and ‘making a comeback,” said Miyake. “I want to do my best to show my strength so that I can return to being a manufacturer driver in the future.”
Ren Sato, Atsushi Miyake, TEAM GOH
Photo by: Masahide Kamio
Can Matsushita continue to upset the odds with B-Max?
Last year, Nobuharu Matsushita was unable to take part in the opening race of the season at Fuji after Honda stepped in to prevent the then-Nissan factory driver from taking up his seat at B-Max Racing. Twelve months on, Matsushita returns as a fully paid-up member of the Honda stable, and is set for his first ‘proper’ season with B-Max with a full winter of preparation under his belt.
Along with engineer Yasuhiro Tasaka and team boss Satoshi Motoyama, a four-time champion in Formula Nippon, Matsushita has assembled a tight, well-functioning team despite having no teammate as a reference. But despite an encouraging end to the season last year that yielded a pole position at Suzuka, pre-season testing was a little inauspicious, Matsushita setting only the 12th-fastest time in the opening test at Suzuka and 10th-fastest at Fuji.
“Round 1 for sure I am targeting top three,” said Matsushita after the Fuji test. “Right now, we are top five, top 10, so obviously we need to improve. I felt a lack of grip, so we need to improve on that, especially slow corners. Sector one and sector two was very competitive, just in sector three it was kind of difficult, so we need to find something there.”
However, Matsushita is convinced that his B-Max machine will be better in warm conditions. “When the temperature is cold, less than 10 degrees, the B-Max car is kind of difficult,” he explained. “Low temperatures means more downforce, more engine power, so you need to have aerodynamic stability, mechanical grip as well. We don’t have that yet. But when the temperature is high, in the 20s, it’s better for us. I’m not worried about it too much.”
Additional reporting by Kenichiro Ebii
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Nobuharu Matsushita, B-Max Racing Team
Photo by: Masahide Kamio
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