How Super Formula served up a pair of Fuji thrillers

Super Formula served up two sensational races at Fuji Speedway for its opening round in 2022, as Honda and Toyota's respective top dogs slugged it out for victory on both Saturday and Sunday.

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Japan's top single-seater series had gained something of a reputation for producing rather staid races since it took the decision to reduce race distances and scrap refuelling for the 2020 season, but events at Fuji proved that the SF19 can produce some proper on-track battles if the circumstances are right, as fans were treated to probably the best two races of the series' post-COVID era.

Two main factors combined to give us such great entertainment. The first is Yokohama's new rear tyre featuring a stiffer construction, which the teams have yet to understand fully, especially considering the Fuji pre-season test was limited to a day of dry running, and even then in very cool conditions. The second is the warm weather, which forced teams to overhaul the set-ups they had been running in testing - with mixed results - and even from Saturday to Sunday, as the mercury jumped by around five degrees. A clutch of less familiar faces, like Mugen's last-minute addition Ukyo Sasahara and Team Goh rookie Ren Sato, qualifying towards the front of the field added an extra layer of excitement.

Still, the cream undoubtedly rose to the top as reigning champion Tomoki Nojiri and Ryo Hirakawa split the wins between them, with Hirakawa coming out on top on Saturday before Nojiri got his revenge on Sunday. Nojiri holds a two-point lead by virtue of three bonus points for scoring pole position in second qualifying.

Podium

Podium

Photo by: Masahide Kamio

It was also refreshing to see that, after a season in which Honda drivers virtually monopolised the podium, Toyota is very much back in business, with Hirakawa's win being the first for the marque in dry conditions since Sho Tsuboi's 2020 triumph at Fuji. The parity between the two engine suppliers has also brought some of Toyota's other stars, notably TOM'S young gun Ritomo Miyata and Kondo Racing pair Sacha Fenestraz and Kenta Yamashita, into the mix at the head of the field. 

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Will every race this year be as scintillating as the ones we enjoyed last weekend? Realistically, probably not - Fuji's track layout is almost uniquely conducive to good racing as it forces teams to find a set-up compromise between the massive long straight and the rest of the track, especially the tyre-destroying final sector, while it also provides more passing opportunities than most places.

But certainly fans can look forward to some more unpredictable results as teams continue to find their feet with Yokohama's latest rubber and some of the series' younger drivers build up their experience, which will hopefully enable them to take the fight to the likes of Nojiri and Hirakawa as the season continues.

Battle of the weekend

We're spoiled for choice for this one, but it has to be the frantic battle between Kamui Kobayashi and Ukyo Sasahara (who was on the comeback trail after stalling on the grid for the second time in two days) for ninth place that raged for much of the latter stages of Race 2. Despite his KCMG car lacking pace, Kobayashi somehow held on for two hard-earned points, but not without some wheel-banging with Sasahara, who also was shown the black-and-white flag. Kobayashi wasn't impressed with the Mugen driver, telling Motorsport.com: "He just pushed me out… actually, I was lucky to not damage the car and that I managed to finish the race. I think it wasn’t clever, his behaviour."

Kamui Kobayashi, KCMG, Ukyo Sasahara, TEAM MUGEN

Kamui Kobayashi, KCMG, Ukyo Sasahara, TEAM MUGEN

Photo by: Masahide Kamio

Surprise star of the weekend

While new Red Bull junior Ren Sato putting his Team Goh car on the front row for Saturday's opener was a major statement of intent, it was his less-heralded teammate Atsushi Miyake who stole the show on Sunday, topping his Q1 group (with two times good enough to do so, one of which was deleted for track limits) on his way to a solid fifth place. Miyake doesn't belong to either of the two manufacturers, but if he keeps up this kind of form, expect plenty of offers to come his way soon.

 

Disappointment of the weekend

Plenty of candidates for this one, but considering his red-hot pre-season testing form it came as a major shock to see Inging's Tsuboi muster a mere three points across the two races for an eighth-place finish in Race 1. Conditions may have been markedly warmer since the Fuji test, but his performance doesn't exactly bode well for a major improvement on his disastrous 2021 season. The next race at Suzuka should tell us whether his winter speed was merely a flash in the pan or not.

 

Stats and facts:

  • Nojiri's Sunday win marked the seventh of his Super Formula career and his sixth in his previous 17 starts. Only Naoki Yamamoto has more wins in the current field (eight)
  • Hirakawa's victory on Saturday marked his first at a track outside of Motegi, as well as his first since the 2020 season opener and third of his career
  • Fenestraz finishing third on Saturday marked Kondo Racing's first top-three result since both Yamashita and Fenestraz made it on the podium at Motegi in 2020
  • Yamamoto finished outside of the points in the first two races of the season for the first time since 2014
  • With four qualifying bonus points and a point for finishing 10th on Sunday, Sasahara matched his entire points haul for 2020, his previous season at Mugen, in a single weekend.

Watch back the action:

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Results at a glance:

Race 1: 1. Ryo Hirakawa (Impul), 2. Tomoki Nojiri (Mugen), 3. Sacha Fenestraz (Kondo Racing), 4. Yuhi Sekiguchi (Impul), 5. Ritomo Miyata (TOM'S), 6. Tadasuke Makino (Dandelion), 7. Toshiki Oyu (Nakajima Racing), 8. Sho Tsuboi (Inging), 9. Ren Sato (R) (Goh), 10. Atsushi Miyake (R) (Goh).

Race 2: 1. Nojiri, 2. Hirakawa, 3. Miyata, 4. Kenta Yamashita (Kondo Racing), 5. Miyake, 6. Sekiguchi, 7. Hiroki Otsu (Dandelion), 8. Giuliano Alesi (TOM'S), 9. Kamui Kobayashi (KCMG), 10. Ukyo Sasahara (Mugen).

Click here to see full results

Super Formula standings after Round 2:

Pos Driver Pts Fuji* Suzuka AP Sugo Fuji Motegi*

Suzuka*

1 Japan Tomoki Nojiri 38 38 - - - - - -
2 Japan Ryo Hirakawa 36 36 - - - - - -
3 Japan Ritomo Miyata 19 19 - - - - - -
4 Japan Yuhi Sekiguchi 13 13 - - - - - -
5 France Sacha Fenestraz 11 11 - - - - - -
6 Japan Kenta Yamashita 8 8 - - - - - -

* denotes double-header

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