The transformation behind Super Formula's new title favourite
Long-time Honda driver Tomoki Nojiri is three races away from the biggest achievement of his career, as he leads the Super Formula standings after back-to-back wins earlier this year. But how did a driver in his eighth season in the category suddenly go from being an inconsistent also-ran to the favourite?
With four races down and three to go in the 2021 Super Formula season, a clear favourite for the crown in Japan’s top single-seater series has emerged. But it’s a name that even committed European motorsport fans would be forgiven for being unfamiliar with.
It’s been over a decade since long-time Honda man Tomoki Nojiri last contested a race outside of Japan. In that time, he’s steadily built his reputation as one of the fastest drivers in both Super Formula and SUPER GT, but – at least until now – he has nothing in the way of championship silverware to show for his efforts.
His best championship placing in Super Formula is the fourth place he obtained in 2019, while the high-water mark of his SUPER GT achievements remains the third place that he and ARTA teammate Takuya Izawa achieved in 2018, which was also the year Honda took GT500 honours with Naoki Yamamoto and Jenson Button.
Nojiri is an ‘in-betweener’ within the Honda camp. He’s not quite in the same generation as marque stalwarts Yamamoto, Izawa and Koudai Tsukakoshi, but he’s also definitely not a youngster anymore like his chief title rivals Nirei Fukuzumi and Toshiki Oyu.
Indeed, now in his eighth season in Super Formula, the 31-year-old from Ibaraki Prefecture to the northeast of Tokyo is something of a late bloomer. He’s the sixth-most experienced driver in the field (fifth excluding Kazuki Nakajima, absent for all but one race so far this year), but it’s only this year that he’s found himself in realistic championship contention.
So, what’s behind the transformation? One man who knows Nojiri better than most is Ryan Dingle, a Canadian-born engineer who currently oversees the #8 ARTA car in SUPER GT shared by Nojiri and Fukuzumi, who replaced Izawa in the squad last year.
Dingle believes that Nojiri stepping up to the lead driver role, after spending several years as the kouhai (junior) to a variety of teammates since his 2015 GT500 debut, has had a knock-on effect on his confidence in Super Formula, where he drives for Team Mugen.
“I’ve been working with him for a year-and-a-half, and I’ve finally got to know him quite well from this off-season,” says Dingle, a fluent Japanese speaker who also looks after Nojiri’s Mugen stablemate Hiroki Otsu in Super Formula.
His confidence from the first race was much higher than last year. Right from the beginning of the season, he was a different Nojiri
Ryan Dingle, race engineer to Tomoki Nojiri in SUPER GT
“He’s a very detailed person. He likes a lot of preparation, and he is very inquisitive about the car. He likes to be directly involved in the set-up and he gives a lot of detailed feedback.
“The way it works in Japan is the second driver doesn’t speak up so much, and when they become the first driver, they take the lead of the team. I think last year Nojiri took a bit of time to settle into that role in SUPER GT, but once he became comfortable in that role, that’s really helped him bring the same stance to Super Formula.
“He’s taken more of a leadership role and his confidence this year from the first race was much higher than last year. Right from the beginning of the season, he was a different Nojiri to last year. It’s been nice to see him evolve into that.”
Nojiri spent the first five seasons of his Super Formula career with Dandelion Racing, winning a race in his debut season with the team at Sugo before embarking on four erratic campaigns that yielded a handful of poles, but no race finishes higher than third.
But his fortunes turned in 2019 following a straight seat swap with Yamamoto, uniting him with current engineer Toshihiro Ichise at Mugen. Nojiri went on to break a five-year barren run that year at Suzuka, before winning again last year at Autopolis and entering the season finale at Fuji as a title outsider, qualifying on pole only for a puncture to end his hopes.
Nojiri maintained that strong late-season form into the start of 2021 as he blitzed the field in the opener at Fuji, before going back-to-back at Suzuka (albeit only after a puncture for Dandelion man Fukuzumi) to give himself a healthy lead in the championship.
“They get along very well, and they communicate well,” says Dingle of the Nojiri-Ichise axis. “I think Ichise-san has brought it out of Nojiri, and also Nojiri had that practice last year in SUPER GT to be the guy to tailor the set-up direction to what he wanted.
“I think that also ties back to Super Formula, because he gained that experience last year of how the qualifying and the race set-ups are different. In Japan now, with the levels of downforce on the car, the straights are not long enough to make up the difference in qualifying. You have to change the set-up from qualifying and the race to maximise both.
“He has come to have a good understanding of that in Super Formula, and we started doing that in SUPER GT with mixed success. It’s a shame on the GT side we haven’t been able to show it so far, but in Super Formula he’s been there.”
Since that second win at Suzuka, it’s not been plain sailing for Nojiri. After qualifying down the order in the wet at Autopolis, he could only recover as far as fifth before the race was called off, while another tough Saturday at Sugo left him only sixth at the chequered flag.
With Fukuzumi winning that day and Nakajima Racing sophomore Oyu finishing second, it means Nojiri leads by 17 points over Oyu and 19 over Fukuzumi with three races to go. But the fact that only five of a driver’s best seven scores count towards the championship means the ‘real’ advantage Nojiri holds is slightly more, as Oyu had a race that only yielded two points, and Fukuzumi already has one non-score and another one-point score.
Comparing Nojiri to his younger rivals, Dingle believes there’s one area that could prove decisive when it comes to deciding who will be crowned champion in October.
“Nojiri is not the kind of driver who needs to get good times in practice to feel like he can perform in a race weekend,” says Dingle. “But when you strap the new set of tyres on, and it’s crunch time, he usually goes straight up the leaderboard. That side of his character is very different from Nirei or Oyu (pictured below). Those guys, they just get in the car and drive it.
“Nirei is finding a little bit of a sense for adjusting the car because Nojiri is teaching him a little bit, but mainly he just drives. It can work for him, because he doesn’t overthink things, but it’s also more difficult for guys like that to get the car back when it’s gone off a little bit.
“For example, at Autopolis, they both struggled in qualifying, but Nojiri managed to get it back for the race and Nirei still struggled. Looking at the Super Formula title fight, that’s an important factor. But it’s also hard to discount the others, if they can get on a roll.”
The next two races of the Super Formula campaign will both take place at Motegi, where Nojiri has not traditionally enjoyed much success. This time around, he’ll face the added pressure of needing to find a way to improve on his previous poor form at the Tochigi Prefecture track while being regarded for the first time in his career as the title favourite.
Looking at this year’s Nojiri, I think he can do it. It might not be emphatic, but I don’t think he’s going to drop all those points
Ryan Dingle, race engineer to Tomoki Nojiri in SUPER GT
“This will probably be the defining part of his career, how he can overcome that pressure,” opines Dingle. “Mugen also needs to find something better than what we’ve had, especially for the warmer race [in August]. But, looking at this year’s Nojiri, I think he can do it.
“It might not be emphatic, like winning another two races, but I don’t think he’s going to drop all those points and I think he’ll have enough. And I don’t think Nirei and Oyu are going to be without their struggles. I think he is also aware that the dropped scores system in effect gives him a free race, so I don’t think he’ll overdo it.
“I think it will be close. It depends on Motegi, but I do think he’ll do it, if I had to bet.”
Whatever happens, it’s hard to imagine Nojiri getting a better title chance in Super Formula than this one. As well as his own strong form, he’s also benefitted from Honda stablemate Yamamoto’s torrid title defence after switching to Nakajima Racing over the winter, while neither Fukuzumi nor Oyu are quite the finished article despite their obvious talents.
Then there’s also Honda’s engine advantage that has largely left the Toyota contingent, led by Ryo Hirakawa, feeding on scraps – although Motegi has been a strong track for the Toyota runners in recent years, and especially Hirakawa, whose own title chances took a hefty blow when he sat out the Sugo race to participate in a Toyota Hypercar test.
It might be too late for Nojiri to go on to have any sort of international career, but if he does manage to win the Super Formula title, it would be no less than an achievement than he deserves after so many years of fastidiously plugging away in his homeland.
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