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Is it game over for Nojiri’s Super Formula ‘three-peat’ hopes?

After one of his worst performances in years at Fuji last weekend, Tomoki Nojiri’s hopes of making Super Formula history with a third straight title are now hanging by a thread.

Tomoki Nojiri, TEAM MUGEN

Nojiri trailed home a disappointing eighth in Sunday’s sixth round of the season, 26 seconds behind Mugen team-mate and race winner Liam Lawson, marking his lowest finishing position since the second round of the 2020 season at Okayama.

While Lawson closed the gap to championship leader Ritomo Miyata to just a single point with his third success of the season, Nojiri now finds himself 25 points down on the TOM’S driver with only three races to go.

And while that may not sound like an insurmountable gap with 69 points left up for grabs (including qualifying bonus points), the fact is that a serious step up in terms of performance is going to be needed to have any chance at all of threatening Miyata and Lawson.

To recap the events of Fuji: Nojiri qualified seventh, and at the start he dropped one position to a fast-starting Hiroki Otsu. He remained eighth until the start of the pitstop window, coming in on lap 12 of 41, jumping back ahead of Otsu but not making any further progress.

The undercut effect got him temporarily ahead of late stoppers Naoki Yamamoto and Ryo Hirakawa, who came in on laps 24 and 30 respectively, but on older tyres he was always going to be vulnerable to the pair. He slipped behind Yamamoto at the start of lap 32 and two laps later he fell prey to Hirakawa, dropping him back to eighth for the finish.

“It was an extremely difficult race, I didn’t have the car to fight for anything,” reflected Nojiri. “It was something we predicted beforehand to a certain extent, and that’s how it turned out.” 

 

What’s even more concerning is that Nojiri’s performance at Fuji appears to be part of an ongoing trend rather than a one-off. Yes, he finished second at Sugo last time out, but a lot of that was down to strategy rather than outright pace.

It appears that the reigning champion has never fully managed to overcome his initial unease with the SF23, with its reduction in rear downforce compared to the old SF19. Mugen coming out of the blocks strongly perhaps masked those issues to a certain extent in the opening weekend at Fuji, where Nojiri won the second race and left as the points leader. 

But now other teams have started extracting performance from the new package, with fellow Honda teams Dandelion Racing and Nakajima Racing notably making massive step forwards in the Fuji in-season test last month, the issue is more pronounced, with Nojiri finishing behind all four drivers from those two teams in last weekend’s race.

“Since the start of the season we haven’t found a good solution,” lamented Nojiri. “We tried going back to the base set-up of the opening weekend, but the bad points from that time still remained. Even by going back to that set-up, I still didn’t have a good feeling. We can’t get enough initial grip.

"Usually for some reason it works on fresh tyres for a single lap [in qualifying], but during the race the car has a ‘floating' sensation. There’s a big difference in balance between the braking phase and turning phase. It’s best when the difference is small, but at the moment it’s massive."

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Nojiri’s struggles are in sharp contrast to team-mate Lawson, who was the class of the field in terms of race pace at Fuji (although Makino ran him close), and put himself in a strong position by matching his season-best qualifying position of second.

It’s understood that Nojiri tried to copy some elements of Lawson’s set-up during the Fuji test, but differences in driving style and preferences meant this was a blind alley. The set-up avenue pursued by the Lawson camp also appears to work better in warmer conditions.

“Liam said he had the same issues, but it seems for him the difference [in balance] is smaller,” said Nojiri. “And, in his own way, he somehow makes it work. But, even when I tried copying Liam’s set-up, it doesn’t work for me.”

 

After the blow of missing the Autopolis round due to a collapsed lung, Nojiri could ill-afford to drop more points to Miyata and Lawson, and with three races to go, it's going to take a monumental effort to keep any hopes of matching Satoru Nakajima's achievement of three consecutive titles alive.

“Now I’m in a difficult position, so the next race at Motegi [in August] is a must-win race for me," he conceded. "I’ll give it my all to somehow get back to my usual place.”

Tsuboi concedes title defeat after disastrous weekend

If Nojiri doesn’t appear to be quite ready to write off his title prospects, Inging driver Sho Tsuboi has openly admitted he is now out of the running after failing to score at Fuji.

Having finished second to Nojiri in the second race of the season at the Toyota-owned venue, Tsuboi had high hopes for another strong showing last weekend. But after qualifying 11th, he finished in the same position, one place behind team-mate Sena Sakaguchi.

 

While it was largely a weekend to forget for the Toyota-powered teams, Tsuboi admits that Inging’s struggles from the in-season test carried over to last weekend, and that the 36-point deficit he now faces in relation to Miyata will be impossible to overcome.

“We had been in bad shape since the Fuji test, and since the conditions were similar to the test, the teams and drivers that were fast in the test were also fast this weekend,” said Tsuboi. “We had a lot of issues in the test, and we couldn’t solve those issues.

“I thought Fuji would be a good chance, so it hurts that we didn’t score points, and now we are even further behind, so it feels like we are completely out of the fight now. 

“We won’t be able to fight in the final three races if we don’t work out what happened with our lack of speed, so we have a lot to think about.”

Sho Tsuboi, P.MU/CERUMO・INGING

Sho Tsuboi, P.MU/CERUMO・INGING

Photo by: Masahide Kamio

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