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Analysis

The miscommunication that cost Lawson dearly at Sugo

Red Bull junior Liam Lawson hopes of winning the Super Formula title this year were dealt a blow with a frustrating fifth-place finish at Sugo. A miscommunication with his team lies at the heart of the Kiwi’s most disappointing weekend in Japan so far.

“I don't know what to say... how we can go from where we were to... I don't understand what the hell just happened."

Those were Liam Lawson’s words over the radio to his Team Mugen engineer Tomo Koike at the end of a frenetic Sugo race in which he started sixth, ran as high as second, dropped down to seventh and finally ended up fifth.

TOM’S driver Ritomo Miyata meanwhile romped to his second victory of the season, beating nearest rival Tomoki Nojiri by a commanding 22 seconds, in a huge boost to his title chances.

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While Miyata’s frighteningly quick pace over the course of the race played a role in the outcome, the decisive factor was the timing of the pitstops. TOM’S elected to bring in its lead driver as early as lap 17 of 51, despite the fact he was leading and in clear air after dispatching Toshiki Oyu at the start of lap 13.

It turned out to be a masterstroke. Miyata came out ahead of Tomoki Nojiri, whose early stop prompted TOM’S to react, and barely hung on to the net lead while his tyres got up to temperature.

Lawson, meanwhile, was the last of the leading group to pit, finally doing so on lap 41. On fresh tyres he was exceptionally fast, posting the best lap of the race, but such was the time had lost in the opening stint that he was jumped in the stops by not only Miyata and Nojiri, but also by Tadasuke Makino, Kazuya Oshima, Kamui Kobayashi and Yuji Kunimoto.

The New Zealander picked off a fading Kunimoto with ease, and then managed to grab fifth place from the sister KCMG car of Kobayashi with a gutsy move at Turn 1 on the final lap, helped by Kobayashi misjudging his own attempt on Oshima.

But that was as far as Lawson could recover, recording his worst on-the-road finish of the season (matching the P5 that he scored after his Fuji penalty).

What Lawson and Koike discussed in the race

Early in the race, Lawson had told his engineer Koike that he wanted to focus on his position relative to Miyata, having just been informed of Nojiri pitting on lap 12. Traffic around the short, 2.3-mile Sugo track is often an issue and is always an inherent risk with an early pitstop, but having fended off Nojiri, Miyata found himself in clean air after pitting on lap 17.

From the outside, it soon became obvious that Miyata was beginning to close in rapidly. With Lawson stuck behind the slower Inging machine of Sho Tsuboi, who took the lead when Miyata stopped, the TOM’S man was reeling in the lead pair by more than a second a lap.

After informing Lawson that Miyata had pitted, Koike added: "It's difficult to overcut him [Miyata] in a short time, so we'll stay out." But Tsuboi’s pace was so lacklustre in comparison to Miyata that it was clear that any realistic hope of making the overcut strategy work rested on Lawson passing Tsuboi on-track.

On lap 22, Lawson was informed that Miyata was faster to the tune of a second a lap. When Lawson asked whether his rival could expect to hit traffic, Koike slipped up - he told Lawson about his own situation, informing him that backmarkers Sena Sakaguchi and Raoul Hyman were just up the road, instead of telling him what Miyata was dealing with (i.e. no traffic).

 

Miyata was reeling off fast lap after fast lap, making great use of the clean air ahead of him. Lawson, meanwhile, was still holed up behind Tsuboi, albeit thinking Miyata also had his own slower cars to pass. On lap 27, he told his engineer that the tyre pressures were too low. But already by this stage, any real hope of beating Miyata was gone.

The sensible thing would have been to bring in Lawson at this stage and accept a second- or third-place finish, but Koike was under the misapprehension that Lawson wanted to beat Miyata at all costs. By this stage, the only way that was going to happen was the safety car being deployed, but it never arrived.

On lap 33, Lawson declared he was “completely stuck,” before asking, this time with a rather more aggravated tone in his voice: “Is Ritomo in traffic?” The reply from Koike must have made the Kiwi’s heart sink: “No, he isn’t”.

Lawson: "We had good enough pace"

Tsuboi finally pitted on lap 35, and Lawson’s pace picked up markedly once he finally had clear air. This allowed him to overcut Tsuboi and come out ahead of the Inging driver when he made his own stop six laps later, but that was small consolation considering the points swing to Miyata.

After the race, Lawson confided to Motorsport.com: “The hard thing is I can’t see what’s happening. I thought that the guys who had boxed early might be in traffic. I wasn’t sure why I was still driving. But later I realised that they had just been gaining time on us. 

“The first set of tyres also felt really bad. It was a mix of being held up and the temperatures dropping; we didn’t have the right tyre pressures because it was slightly cooler than we expected.

“I was faster [than Tsuboi], but not fast enough to overtake. I wasn’t fast in the right places, I struggled in the last corner, which meant I could never get close enough to have a run into Turn 1.”

Lawson was adamant that, even with the tyre pressure issue, a victory could have been in the offing. “We just clearly made the wrong strategy call,” he sighed. “I think we had good enough pace if we had done things differently. We’ll analyse it and try and not make the same mistake again."

Koike: "I misunderstood what Liam said"

For his part, Koike shouldered the blame for getting the strategy call wrong, apologising to Lawson on the cool-down lap. Post-race, he explained to Motorsport.com exactly how things fell apart.

“Liam wanted us to focus on Ritomo in particular, and that we didn’t need to worry about Nojiri or Makino [stopping early],” said Koike. “At the time, we decided we had to follow Ritomo [by staying out]. Ritomo then responded to Nojiri to avoid being undercut. 

“I misunderstood what Liam said. My focus was on beating Ritomo. But [after Miyata stopped] Liam was more focused on damage limitation, so P2 or P3 would have been ok for him.

“If Tsuboi’s pace had been better, our strategy would have been fine, but he was struggling. Also, our tyre pressures for the first stint were too low. We prepared higher-pressure tyres for the second stint, and Liam was the fastest driver.”

 

Asked why he didn’t bring in Lawson as soon as it was clear Miyata was closing fast, he replied: “It was already too late to respond to him by the time I realised. One lap later would have been fine. It’s my fault, I had to decide immediately.”

Ironically, Lawson’s fate might have been sealed at the start of the race, as Nojiri made a poor launch from third, allowing Lawson to climb from sixth on the grid to fourth. That unexpected circumstance prompted Koike to abandon plans to bring in Lawson on lap 10, which is when the pit window opens.

“If we pitted on lap 10, I think we would have won the race,” admitted Koike. “We would have beaten [Miyata] because it would have been hard for him to respond to us. At the time, he was behind Oyu and he was focused on overtaking Oyu as soon as possible.”

And so, Lawson leaves Sugo 12 points in arrears of Miyata, who has to be considered the new title favourite on the strength of his performances since April’s Suzuka round. This week, the Super Formula field heads to Fuji for a rare in-season test, before reconvening at the same venue for the sixth round of the season in mid-July.

“Miyata has been so consistent this year,” said Lawson of the current points situation. “We’ve had a couple of races where things haven’t gone so well but we maximised the result, but he’s been consistent. 

“We’ll try to make up some more points later in the year; we were strong at Fuji earlier in the year, so hopefully we can repeat that. But now everyone goes and tests at Fuji, so I imagine it will be very close.”

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