Subscribe

Sign up for free

  • Get quick access to your favorite articles

  • Manage alerts on breaking news and favorite drivers

  • Make your voice heard with article commenting.

Motorsport prime

Discover premium content
Subscribe

Edition

Global

Assessing Super Formula's main title contenders at halfway

With five races down and four to go, the Super Formula title battle is heating up as we begin the second half of the season this weekend at Fuji Speedway. It's the perfect time to reflect on the season up to now and assess the merits of the four title protagonists who are vying for the crown.

Ritomo Miyata (TOM’S), 1st, 75pts
Wins: 2, Poles: 0, Qualifying average: 4.4

Yellow flag controversy at Sugo aside, Miyata has been the revelation of the season so far in his third year at TOM’S. Although he has always been regarded as one of the more promising talents in the Toyota junior stable, at the start of the season you would still have had long odds on him winning multiple races and leading the championship at this point. But it’s clear it’s going to take a herculean effort to stop the 23-year-old going all the way.

Although it wasn’t announced until after his Suzuka win, Miyata came into the 2023 season knowing he was a member of the Toyota WEC Challenge programme, something that will have boosted his confidence immensely. At Fuji, the same issues that blighted his 2022 campaign - good one-lap speed but a lack of race pace - reared their head again, but the knowledge gained there allowed him to come back stronger at Suzuka, where losing his best lap in Q2 for a track limits violation, forcing him to start 12th, seemed to fire him up.

While that first victory owed something to the timing of the safety car, at Autopolis he had the pace to win on merit, only to hesitate with his pitstop and hand the initiative back to Lawson. At Sugo, Miyata was undeniably lucky to get away with keeping his fastest lap in Q1 and thus avoid a back-of-the-grid start, but it was still up to him to make the most of the chance he was given. And with a mesmerising 22-second win, he demonstrated in no uncertain terms why he has been chosen as Kamui Kobayashi’s likely Toyota WEC successor.

 

Liam Lawson (Mugen), 2nd, 63pts
Wins: 2, Poles: 0, Qualifying average: 4.6

If coming to Super Formula was a risk in his bid to prove to Red Bull once and for all he deserves a shot at Formula 1, it would be fair to say it’s already paid off spectacularly. While his historic debut win at Fuji bagged him the headlines and put him firmly on the F1 radar, he’s backed that up with strong performances in every other race since, giving him the very real possibility of becoming the first rookie champion since Ralf Schumacher back in 1996.

One area where Lawson still lacks is one-lap speed. While that’s not so much of an issue at Fuji, at Motegi and Suzuka he can’t realistically afford to be off the first couple of rows if he wants to take the fight to Miyata. Additionally, the New Zealander can’t afford any repeat of the communication issues that doomed his race at Sugo and handed the initiative to the TOM’S driver. But his race pace at every venue so far has been remarkably consistent, again showcasing the adaptability he has showcased across many different series.

It’s no understatement to say that Lawson has breathed fresh life into Super Formula this year, in much the same way that Stoffel Vandoorne and Gasly did before him. It’s doubtful too many international fans tuning in for the first time to track the Kiwi’s progress would have known much about the likes of Miyata or Sho Tsuboi, but they certainly do now. Whether he goes on to race in Formula 1 or not, Lawson’s rookie campaign is sure to be used as a yardstick for foreign hopefuls arriving in Japan for many years to come.

 

Tomoki Nojiri (Mugen), 3rd, 58pts
Wins: 1, Poles: 2, Qualifying average: 2.0

Considering that a little over a month ago he was in hospital being treated for a collapsed lung, Nojiri can be satisfied just to even still be in realistic title contention. After being forced into the role of a mere spectator at Autopolis, it looked as if the reigning champion was in danger of dropping out of the fight, but he rebounded in impressive style at Sugo, out-qualifying Lawson and then finishing second only to Miyata despite his physical limitations.

Nojiri’s unfortunate absence from Autopolis followed a race at Suzuka that led observers to question if he was cracking under the pressure of his fast and hungry new team-mate. After all, his move to try and pass Toshiki Oyu, which ended with both men in the barriers, in the first sector smacked of desperation, as if Nojiri felt he had to risk it all to beat Lawson. In that sense, his time on the sidelines may have brought some fresh perspective.

Following his only win of the season so far at Fuji, Nojiri said that his intra-team duel against Lawson had taken on a personal dimension, admitting that he felt his body of work over the last two seasons would be devalued by a defeat to a foreign rookie 12 years his junior. Perhaps the fact that Miyata and Tsuboi have also proven they are ready to take the fight to Lawson has alleviated some of that burden. Either way, his positive Sugo result owed more to strategy than outright speed, a luxury he probably won’t have this weekend at Fuji.

 

Sho Tsuboi (Inging), 4th, 50pts
Wins: 0, Poles: 1, Qualifying average: 3.6

Tsuboi heads into the second half of the season as the outsider in the title battle, having slipped more than a win’s worth of points behind fellow Toyota youngster Miyata after a disappointing run to seventh at Sugo. The good news is that the track has always been a bad one for Inging going back to the start of the SF19 era, and that now the team heads back to a much happier hunting ground in the form of Fuji. Motegi has also been a good track for the team, while Tsuboi himself already demonstrated his strength at Suzuka earlier this year.

The bedrock of Tsuboi's challenge after a disappointing 2022 campaign has been much improved qualifying form, which has been second only to Nojiri so far. It also needs to be remembered that he was taken out by a wayward Tadasuke Makino in the very first race of the season at Fuji, which considering the strong pace he displayed in the following day’s encounter likely cost him a top-five. And stopping earlier at Sugo, where he stayed out far too long despite his lacklustre pace, also cost him valuable points with the benefit of hindsight.

While his own race pace was disappointing, there was some encouragement for Tsuboi at Sugo as his Inging team-mate Sena Sakaguchi displayed strong pace in the closing stages, enough to allow him to score a point in 10th despite starting from the back of the field. If that translates to an improved performance at Fuji, then Tsuboi - still searching for a first Super Formula win in three years - could still be a very dangerous opponent indeed.

 

The rest

If there’s one driver you’d normally expect to be in the mix every year in Super Formula, it’s Ryo Hirakawa (5th, 28pts), but a combination of continuing lacklustre qualifying form (fifth last time out at Sugo aside) and procedural blunders from the usually well-drilled Impul squad has left him facing an impossible task to stay in the hunt with four races to go. 

But the man whose tally of points is clearly nowhere near where it should be is Toshiki Oyu (9th, 11pts). Even if some of his non-scores (Fuji Race 2, Autopolis) have been at least partly self-inflicted, the ultimately terminal floor damage he picked up trying to hang on to his early lead at Sugo leaves you wondering if the youngster from Hokkaido has smashed any mirrors lately.

 

Kenta Yamashita (6th, 28pts) is enjoying a much more positive campaign at Kondo Racing now armed with Sacha Fenestraz’s old chassis and race engineer, but he’s still lacking that final percentage of speed needed to be a genuine threat for wins. Likewise, Tadasuke Makino (7th, 19pts) appears to be held back by Dandelion Racing’s struggles to get on top of the SF23 package, with his Sugo podium owing more to strategy bravery than anything.

Elsewhere, Nakajima Racing has yet to rediscover its mojo despite looking strong in winter testing, but Ren Sato (8th, 11pts) is demonstrating why Honda was right to keep him on board this year with some very strong race pace, often outclassing team-mate Naoki Yamamoto (11th, 10pts). Also showing improved form this year is Inging’s second driver Sena Sakaguchi (13th, 8pts), who is second only to Oyu in the bad luck stakes.

One-car teams Rookie Racing and ThreeBond Racing have offered some of the pleasant surprises of the season. Kazuya Oshima (10th, 10pts) proved there’s life in the old dog yet with a superb run to fourth at Sugo, his best result since 2019, while Nirei Fukuzumi (14th, 8pts) has defied his own gloomy expectations for this season by establishing himself as a regular Q2 presence and points scorer. On the other hand, KCMG has continued to be mostly underwhelming - Kamui Kobayashi (12th, 10pts) did well to eke out a sixth-place finish at Sugo, but he doesn’t seem to think this will mean much at other tracks.

 

Besides Lawson, there has been little to cheer about for the other newcomers. Kazuto Kotaka (15th, 5pts) isn’t in contention for Rookie of the Year owing to his past outings for KCMG, but he has been mostly anonymous at Kondo, a solid run to seventh at Suzuka aside. His old Super Formula Lights rival Kakunoshin Ota (0pts) has been one the major disappointments of the season so far for Dandelion, where he replaced Hiroki Otsu.

TGM’s Cem Bolukbasi (16th, 5pts) has done a better job than his results in Formula 2 suggested he was capable of, although he has had his fair share of mishaps too, not least his qualifying crash at Sugo. For HPD scholar Raoul Hyman (0pts), there’s not much to say - his B-Max car has been woefully off the pace, something that’s more down to the quality of the team (running a second car with no outside help for the first time) than the man at the wheel.

But if the rookies can be excused in such a high-quality field, there are some veterans who really should be doing better. Toyota pair Yuji Kunimoto (18th, 3pts) and Yuhi Sekiguchi (0pts) are both going to be under pressure to keep their seats without a major upturn in performance, while Nobuharu Matsushita (0pts), who is thought only to have kept his B-Max drive because Ukyo Sasahara turned it down, is also in the danger zone.

 

Be part of Motorsport community

Join the conversation
Previous article Drivers unhappy Miyata escaped yellow flag penalty at Sugo
Next article Hirakawa: Impul recovery now the focus, not faltering title bid

Top Comments

There are no comments at the moment. Would you like to write one?

Sign up for free

  • Get quick access to your favorite articles

  • Manage alerts on breaking news and favorite drivers

  • Make your voice heard with article commenting.

Motorsport prime

Discover premium content
Subscribe

Edition

Global