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How Toyota's brightest Super Formula hope got his groove back

Having won the SUPER GT title for the TOM'S Toyota squad last year, Sho Tsuboi endured a miserable Super Formula campaign alongside, managing just six points all year. But after going back to basics with the Inging team over the off-season, Tsuboi looks revitalised in his pursuit of Japan's top single-seater crown

Sho Tsuboi, P.MU/CERUMO・INGING

“I’m so glad I don’t drive in Super Formula anymore,” says one alumnus of Japan’s top single-seater championship. “I spent so much time trying to work out how to go fast in that car and I just couldn’t figure it out. It was so, so frustrating.”

There are several Super Formula racers who could have sympathised with that driver last year. Three-time series champion Naoki Yamamoto, Kenta Yamashita and Sho Tsuboi were among those to inexplicably struggle in 2021, with their woes made even more baffling by the fact that all three were competitive in Japan’s other top series, SUPER GT.

But it was Tsuboi’s season that has to rank as the biggest mystery. In Super Formula, he was a miserable 15th overall with a best finish of seventh, a far cry from his breakout 2020 campaign in which he won two races on his way to a strong third in the drivers’ table.

Conversely, in SUPER GT, he was undoubtedly one of the star performers of the year, eventually winning the title for the TOM’S Toyota squad alongside Yuhi Sekiguchi.

With the start of the new Japanese racing season fast approaching, it looks like the old Tsuboi is back in Super Formula. The Inging driver topped both days of the opening pre-season Suzuka test last month, before finishing second in the more recent test at Fuji Speedway – where he might have gone even quicker if not for a last-minute red flag.

Such has been Tsuboi’s consistent speed in testing that the words “title” and “favourite” have been uttered by some in the paddock in reference to the 26-year-old, who admitted last year that a lack of results had taken their toll on his confidence.

Speaking at Suzuka, Tsuboi referred both to his SUPER GT title triumph, which came a month after the conclusion of the Super Formula season, and changes made within the Inging stable for the 2022 season as factors behind his apparent transformation.

Tsuboi won the SUPER GT title on board the #36 TOM'S Supra, partnered by Yuhi Sekiguchi

Tsuboi won the SUPER GT title on board the #36 TOM'S Supra, partnered by Yuhi Sekiguchi

Photo by: Masahide Kamio

“During the off-season I discussed everything with the team, we decided to go back to basics and changed the system inside the team and the set-up, and I think this has led to this result,” the Inging driver said.

“Because I was able to win the championship in SUPER GT, I was able to remind myself I’m not such a lousy driver. And even at this test I was able to get the top time, so in a sense I regained some confidence, and I think I went back to being my usual self.”

Tsuboi’s race engineer from last season, Yoshinari Suganuma, remains the same. But what has changed is that Kotaro Tanaka, who in 2021 engineered Tsuboi’s rookie teammate Sena Sakaguchi, has moved into a chief engineering role overseeing both of the Inging cars this year.

This appears to have boosted Tsuboi significantly after a season in which he seemed on one hand riled by the speed of his younger teammate Sakaguchi, and somewhat lost on other hand without the guidance of two-time champion Hiroaki Ishiura in the sister Inging car.

It seems [Tsuboi is] close to the situation he was in two years ago, when he was fast, and I have the impression that he is using last year’s struggles as fuel

Kotaro Tanaka, Inging chief engineer

The importance of Tanaka’s role in Tsuboi’s sudden turnaround can’t be overstated. The veteran engineer certainly knows how to win in Super Formula, having taken Tom Coronel (1999), Ralph Firman (2002) and Loic Duval (2009) to title success in the series’ forerunner, Formula Nippon, so he knows when a driver is on to a good thing.

Motorsport.com had the chance to speak to Tanaka about Tsuboi’s red-hot pre-season form, which also includes three of a possible four fastest times across last month’s two official pre-season SUPER GT tests in the TOM’S Toyota GR Supra he’ll share this year with Giuliano Alesi.

“I have the feeling that winning the SUPER GT title allowed Tsuboi to regain his confidence,” says Tanaka. “During the winter meetings he clearly said what he wanted to say, so I think he’s gained mental strength.

After ringing the changes over the off-season, Tsuboi looked strong in Super Formula testing

After ringing the changes over the off-season, Tsuboi looked strong in Super Formula testing

Photo by: Masahide Kamio

“As for the car, he had a lot of discussions with Suganuma-san to clearly identify the problems of last year, and returning to the path of ‘our idea of a fast car’. This worked well at Suzuka, and the car also worked well as expected at Fuji.

“Without wanting to boast, I have a lot of experience, so I can tell when things are on the right track, and they seem to be on this path. Probably, his speed is real.”

Tsuboi has shown glimpses of the massive speed he possesses on several occasions in the past. In 2015, he prevailed against Tadasuke Makino in a tense duel for the honour of being Japan’s inaugural FIA Formula 4 champion, and three years later he would absolutely obliterate the competition in All-Japan Formula 3, winning every race bar two.

He picked an unfortunate time to move up to Super Formula with Inging, which had won three successive titles in 2015-17 with Ishiura and Yuji Kunimoto only to lose its way in the first year of the new SF19 chassis, but the following year the team was back on song and Tsuboi was the only repeat winner of the campaign. His defeat of teammate Ishiura at Okayama signified a passing of the baton, as Ishiura would step down at the end of the season.

“It seems close to the situation he was in two years ago, when he was fast, and I have the impression that he is using last year’s struggles as fuel,” adds Tanaka. “I think he’s understood ‘this way isn’t good’ because he made those mistakes last year.”

The testing timesheets are a notoriously unreliable guide to who will eventually prevail in Super Formula. Last year, Team Mugen driver Tomoki Nojiri was only fifth-fastest on both days of testing at Fuji and wasn’t on many peoples’ lips as a title contender, only to embark on the most dominant campaign any driver has produced in the series for a decade.

Indeed, the final day of pre-season running at Fuji produced a particularly unusual-looking leaderboard, partly because of the cool conditions making it hard to get the tyres warmed up properly, partly because the opening day had been a write-off, meaning drivers had new sets of tyres to burn (with some opting to use two new sets at the end of the session instead of just one), and partly because of a last-minute red flag that scuppered some drivers' efforts to improve.

Tsuboi couldn't show his best after a late red flag ended his quest for a quick time

Tsuboi couldn't show his best after a late red flag ended his quest for a quick time

Photo by: Masahide Kamio

“At the end of the session there was a lot of traffic and a red flag, so in the end I couldn’t do a satisfactory attack lap,” Tsuboi admitted after the session. “But before that I set the fastest time and I ended up second, so considering I am in the top group and not far behind the fastest time, I think it’s going well.

“We won't know [who is on top] until the season starts. At the testing stage, we still don't know what the top teams will be, so we will not let our guard down and will work to improve even more for the start of the season.”

More than his position on the final timesheets at Fuji, it’s the fact that Tsuboi has been consistently up there in every session this pre-season in a way that none of his rivals really have that has to make him a clear threat. He is also among the beneficiaries of Toyota’s intensive efforts to get its engine back on level terms with Honda, which appear to have paid off on the evidence of the testing times.

Such was Honda’s advantage last season that only the wet race at Autopolis, which barely featured a handful of green flag laps in the appalling weather, was won by a Toyota driver. For the marque’s last Super Formula win in the dry, you have to go back to the 2020 season finale at Fuji – where the victor was none other than Tsuboi.

In that sense, Tsuboi’s poor 2021 season has to be viewed as an aberration rather than the beginnings of a long-term slump. And it would be no surprise at all to see the talented 26-year-old pick up where he left off that day at Fuji a little over a year ago when the season gets going this weekend.

Sho Tsuboi, P.MU/CERUMO・INGING

Sho Tsuboi, P.MU/CERUMO・INGING

Photo by: Masahide Kamio

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