Opinion: Five drivers that need a big year in Super Formula

With the start of Super Formula pre-season testing looming, we pick out five competitors that need to ensure the upcoming campaign in Japan's top single-seater series is a good one.

Opinion: Five drivers that need a big year in Super Formula
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Naoki Yamamoto

Yamamoto is in a somewhat different position to the rest of the drivers on this list. As a three-time champion and darling of the Honda stable, his position is under no threat – he could probably stay in the marque’s Super Formula line-up almost as long as he likes. But, after a woeful title defence last year, what is at stake is his position as Honda’s top dog.

Tomoki Nojiri’s triumph in 2021 was, almost unbelievably, the first for a Honda-powered driver besides Yamamoto since Loic Duval in 2009. In other words, last year was the first time Yamamoto had found himself beaten to the title by a fellow Honda driver. That will have made the pain of his dismal season at Nakajima Racing, which yielded a measly 13 points and a best finish of sixth, all the harder to swallow.

To Yamamoto’s credit, he has stuck with Nakajima Racing for a second season, although arguably his reputation as a Japan single-seater great depends on making a success of the move. The task of dislodging Nojiri, who of course took over Yamamoto’s seat at Mugen in 2019, is a daunting one. But the prize if he can succeed is significant – the chance to match Satoshi Motoyama’s modern-era record of four titles. Could 2022 be the year?

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Sho Tsuboi

Besides Yamamoto, Tsuboi was the other big underperformer of the 2021 season, going from multiple race winner in 2020 to not a single top-six appearance last year. In many ways, the 26-year-old is lucky that such a dramatic fall-off in performance coincided with he and Yuhi Sekiguchi pulling off an unlikely SUPER GT title triumph for Toyota and TOM’S, but he can’t rely on lightning striking twice to keep his stock high.

Tsuboi’s first season as Inging’s de facto team leader was a flop. From early on it was clear that his new rookie teammate Sena Sakaguchi would be no pushover, but few would have predicted the youngster coming out on top over the course of the season, let alone outscoring Tsuboi by a factor of nearly six to one. After such a battering, it was no wonder that Tsuboi said at the end of the season that he had lost confidence.

With Inging maintaining the same driver line-up for 2022, Tsuboi cannot afford to be beaten so comprehensively by Sakaguchi again. And to achieve that, he should not set himself the unrealistic goal of recapturing his 2020 form but instead redouble his efforts to find set-up solutions that work for him without being distracted by what is happening on the other side of the garage.


Ritomo Miyata

 It wouldn’t be correct to label Miyata’s 2021 season as quite as big a disappointment as that of his Toyota ‘senpai’ Tsuboi, but considering the TOM’S driver was only third of the rookie cohort behind Hiroki Otsu and Sakaguchi, it arguably fell short of pre-season expectations. He also scored only four points more than Giuliano Alesi, who missed two of the seven races.

Perhaps the most concerning aspect of Miyata’s 2021 campaign was the way it tailed off at the end with two anonymous performances in the final two races. With teammate Alesi’s confidence sure to be high after his promotion to a full-time drive, it will be imperative for Miyata to start his season on the front foot if he doesn’t want to play a supporting role.

Last year, Miyata had set himself the lofty target of earning enough points for a superlicence, which meant a top-two championship placing. While the 22-year-old could feasibly earn one this year by finishing second or better, perhaps he would be better advised to forget about doing so and instead focus his efforts on impressing the Toyota hierarchy and position himself for a possible future in the marque’s Hypercar project.


Hiroki Otsu

Last year’s ‘Rookie of the Year’ should in theory have plenty of credit in the bank with his employer Honda, but things could have been quite different if it hadn’t been for Otsu’s victory at Motegi in October. Paddock whispers suggest that his place on the Honda roster for 2022 was far from secure prior to that win, which owed more than a little to fortune.

Had it not rained that weekend, opening the door for Otsu to grab pole with a tyre gamble, it’s not impossible that the Mugen driver might have found himself on the sidelines. But it did, and Otsu was chosen to fill the vacancy left at the title-winning Dandelion Racing squad by Nirei Fukuzumi going to Drago Corse. Quite the turnaround in fortunes.

Having been given this chance, especially at the expense of Dandelion super-sub Ukyo Sasahara, Otsu needs to prove this year he belongs at the top table. He’ll no longer have the benefit of low expectations, or sharing a garage with Mugen maestro Tomoki Nojiri, and he’ll have a tough teammate to crack in the form of Tadasuke Makino. Will the under-the-radar 27-year-old from Saitama prove equal to the challenge?


Ren Sato

After clattering into Yamamoto’s Team Kunimitsu NSX-GT at Fuji Speedway last November, a lapse in judgement that seems to have cost him his SUPER GT drive, Sato can consider himself fortunate that Honda has given him the chance to rebuild his reputation with a drive in Super Formula off the back of a fast, if scrappy, Super Formula Lights campaign.

Although Sato is nominally driving for a new outfit in the form of Team Goh, Servus Japan is running the operation and his crew is set to be similar to the one he had looking after him during the Suzuka rookie test, where he was at the wheel of the #15 Mugen machine that had been driven that season by Otsu. That means he could hardly hope to be in better hands, considering that Otsu was last year’s top rookie.

What will make Sato's life harder is not having an experienced teammate to measure himself against, with fellow Super Formula Lights graduate Atsushi Miyake getting the nod for Goh's second seat. Coming out on top against Miyake will therefore be pivotal, but arguably less so than ensuring he has a clean, relatively error-free start to his tenure in Japan’s top open-wheel series.

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