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Engine disparities back on the agenda in Super Formula

After a year and a half of relatively even engine competition in Super Formula, the collective performance of the Honda teams in last month’s Fuji round raised eyebrows.

Ryo Hirakawa, ITOCHU ENEX TEAM IMPUL, Kakunoshin Ohta, DOCOMO TEAM DANDELION RACING

For the first time this year, Honda-powered cars locked out the front row in Round 6, as Tadasuke Makino beat Liam Lawson to pole, but you had to go all the way down to fifth-place man Ritomo Miyata to find the first of the Toyota engine users.

It was by far the most one-sided qualifying session of the year so far, and indeed for quite some time - in fact, you have to go all the way back to the opening race of last year, also at Fuji, to find the last time that there wasn’t a Toyota-powered car on the front row.

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For the last all-Honda top four, you have to go back a race further to the 2021 season finale at Suzuka, which capped off an utterly dominant season for the Sakura marque.

That year, there were no dry-weather Toyota poles and no wins either, with only Giuliano Alesi’s victory in torrential conditions at Autopolis standing in the way of a clean sweep of wins for Honda drivers. And for some in the Toyota camp, qualifying at Fuji was reminiscent of that season as Honda-powered cars filled six of the first seven grid slots.

Title contender Ritomo Miyata, who has been leading the charge for the Toyota users this year, couldn’t hide his frustration at the situation after his worst qualifying session of the season, excluding his Suzuka penalty. “Maybe this is the real world,” he mused after a year and a half of something close to parity between the two engine manufacturers.

 

Interestingly, there was little to choose in the speed traps at Fuji, and the way Ryo Hirakawa sliced his way through the field from 20th to finish fourth showed there wasn’t too much wrong with the Toyota power unit in race trim. Likewise, Miyata was able to climb from fifth to third, and save Toyota’s blushes by preventing a Honda sweep of the podium.

Instead, it was in the slower parts of the track where the Honda advantage told. In Q2 at Fuji, Miyata shipped a full three tenths to Lawson in the final sector (although he was only a tenth shy of poleman Makino), while in Q1A, Lawson was four tenths faster in the same part of the track than Hirakawa, accounting for two-thirds of the deficit between the pair.

One driver who should know about the differences between Honda and Toyota engines is Ukyo Sasahara, who crossed the floor to join Toyota last winter after losing his Team Mugen drive to Lawson. He was back on the grid last month at Fuji for his new team TOM’S after getting the call-up to replace Giuliano Alesi for the second half of the season.

“It’s the pick-up [throttle response],” noted Sasahara, who dropped out in Q1 to line up 16th for his race return. “At low-to-medium speed, [the two engines] feel totally different. You really notice it in Sector 3, when the revs drop and rise again.

“We have tried doing a lot of things to counter this somehow in terms of set-up and driving. I think Ritomo has come up against that limit as well, and it’s very difficult to deal with.”

 

Honda’s power advantage goes back to at least 2018, when it started making huge strides with its engine, also used in SUPER GT, under the leadership of Masashi Yamamoto. But Toyota’s power deficit became a more noticeable feature in the 2019 season, when it introduced the Biz-01F (now TRD 01F) engine. That coincided with new rules mandating one engine for the whole season, instead of two units as previously, and Nick Cassidy said at the time he felt Toyota had to sacrifice power to guarantee reliability as a result.

That became a much bigger issue in 2020 when the COVID-19 pandemic prompted Super Formula to shorten races and scrap refuelling, making qualifying a far more important component of the weekend. But it wasn’t until 2021 that matters became so acute that it felt like the Toyota runners had no chance against the Hondas, except in the wet.

“I have the impression that Honda produces more power at any rev range,” explained Miyata when pressed for further detail on where the Toyota engine is lacking. “For the last two season, I feel like Honda has been strong in this area at every circuit. 

“For example, if there is no power below a certain rev range, you can try adjusting the gear ratio to keep it in the power band, or failing that, we have to be creative with adjusting the car or way of driving to ensure we can take more speed into the corners. But even this has limits. If there’s a corner where you can’t accelerate properly unless you stay above 80km/h, but even on new tyres you can’t take it at more than 70km/h, there’s nothing you can do.

“Even if the Honda cars are taking turns at low speed, the loss is comparatively small, and if the driver can stay in the proper power band, they are very fast. That’s how it feels.”

 

One thing that appeared to help level the playing field somewhat in 2022 was the expansion of the calendar from seven races to 10. This meant a return to the previous two-engine rule, which may have allowed Toyota to extract some more performance safe in the knowledge that one engine could be replaced during the season with no penalty.

However, some drivers have their doubts as to whether Toyota really improved or whether Honda may have actually dropped its performance slightly in the interests of creating closer competition - only to turn up the wick again last weekend at Fuji.

One Toyota driver said: “Honda originally has more power, so I think they just dropped down to suit our level… so when Toyota gets a bit better, Honda turns up the dial again. I think that happens over and over. It would be nice to be able to compete on a level playing field.”

For the sake of the finely-poised title battle between Miyata and Lawson, neutral observers will have to hope that the Fuji weekend was merely a blip and not the re-emergence of an unwelcome trend of one manufacturer having things all its own way.

Motorsport.tv is showing all Super Formula qualifying sessions and races live in 2023. Click here for further information and to sign up today.

 

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