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Interview

Interview: Super Formula's vision for an international future

Overseas races, winter series, 30-car grids, scholarships and more - there are plenty of ideas floating around as Super Formula plots a path from being Japan's premier single-seater series to something more pan-Asian. Jamie Klein discusses those in-depth with JRP boss Yoshihisa Ueno in this exclusive interview.

Liam Lawson, TEAM MUGEN

With the COVID-19 pandemic finally in the rear-view mirror and Japan opening itself up to the world again, Super Formula's quest to achieve a more international following has returned to the top of the championship's agenda.

The series hasn't hosted a race outside Japan for almost two decades, and the number of non-Japanese drivers on the grid (four out of 22) remains small by historical standards. But. as Ueno-san explains below, there are plans afoot to change all of that. Read on to find out exactly what's in store.

Ueno (left) pictured with newly-appointed JRP chairman Masahiko Kondo

Ueno (left) pictured with newly-appointed JRP chairman Masahiko Kondo

JK: With Japan opening up to the world again after the COVID-19 pandemic, how do you imagine Super Formula changing in the coming seasons? Do you have an image of what the championship will look like in five or 10 years’ time?

YU: At the top of the motorsport pyramid in Europe, we have Formula 1, and in America, we have IndyCar. So our goal is to represent the top of the pyramid in the Asian region. That’s a big goal we have. But in order to do that, just taking the product we have now overseas is not enough in itself.

We would like to attract many drivers from other countries, from Europe, from Asia, from Oceania, and create a high-quality race that is attractive to drivers from all over the world. Then we will be in a position that tracks from other countries will step forward and will want to hold our races. But the first step is to increase the number of cars on the grid and bring in more foreign teams and foreign drivers, to create an attractive platform.

JK: It’s been a decade since the name of the series changed from Formula Nippon to Super Formula, but the championship is still very ‘Japanese’ and is heavily influenced by Toyota and Honda. So how do we move away from this and towards the goal?

YU: As I said earlier, I think one of the keys to being successful in a certain country is to have a good team or driver from that country participating in the series. Going back to when Japan’s ‘F1 boom’ [the period in the late 1980s to early 1990s when F1 went from obscurity to being extremely popular in Japan - ed] started, Honda was participating, [Satoru] Nakajima-san was there as a driver, so having them there was the impetus for F1 becoming very popular in Japan.

If we just take our series as it is now to another country, it would be very difficult to make that a popular event because there’s not much representation from other countries. So the first step is to open our doors and create a platform that is welcoming of competitors from other countries. And then, with them, we can go and race in other countries.

Formula Nippon last raced outside Japan way back in 2004 - Andre Lotterer pictured here leading

Formula Nippon last raced outside Japan way back in 2004 - Andre Lotterer pictured here leading

JK: How do you attract more drivers from Asian countries? Could there be a scholarship system, or a way of increasing chances for Asian drivers to race in Super Formula Lights?

YU: There are many different ways. We could do a scholarship, or maybe we could even directly provide the team and the mechanics ourselves, but first we need a stable business platform. I’m not sure yet what we will do specifically.

As you know, to get a seat in Super Formula is very difficult for an overseas driver. So it’s very important that we work to improve that situation, and as a company, it’s one of our responsibilities and something we have to work towards.

Of course, we have the support of two big manufacturers, Toyota and Honda, but we are not 100 percent reliant on them. There has to be teamwork. I think expanding into the Asian market is also a good thing for Toyota and Honda.

So whether it’s in the form of a scholarship, in the same way that drivers that have been successful in our series go on to race in other categories overseas, eventually we want to further support Super Formula Lights and the Formula Regional Japanese Championship so that drivers from those series can step up. It’s not only with our own category; we want to spread the same philosophy to our feeder series so that we can all aim for the same goal.

JK: JRP chairman Masahiko Kondo said recently that he wants to see more foreign drivers and less Toyota and Honda junior drivers in future. What do you think about that?

I think there was a little bit of Kondo-san’s personal opinion. Depending on how you interpret what he said, it could sound like he wants to get rid of the Japanese drivers. I want to create a level playing field. But of course, simple maths dictates that if you bring in a foreign driver, there is one less spot available on the grid for a Japanese driver.

At the moment, we have 22 cars, but in the future I want us to have about 30 cars. I think having more cars is an important factor in becoming more appealing overseas. For example, I would like to have 10 drivers with a lot of experience, 10 young Japanese drivers, and 10 drivers from overseas. I think that combination would make a very interesting series.

One of the biggest things for us is to increase the number of cars, and the number of teams, so JRP has to consider how we are going to support the teams to achieve this goal. If we can make more money, we can support the teams more. And we also need to control costs. These two pillars are important.

Could HPD's scholarship for Raoul Hyman provide a model for Super Formula to follow?

Could HPD's scholarship for Raoul Hyman provide a model for Super Formula to follow?

JK: If there’s a 30-car grid, will all cars still be powered by either Toyota or Honda?

YU: I don’t want to dismiss the possibility of attracting another engine supplier. But the quality of the series and the costs are two important points. If there are more manufacturers and the costs increase, then that creates more problems, which we don’t want. We have to find a way to not increase the costs. It’s not a definite ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to having a third manufacturer.

JK: How do you expand overseas without dramatically increasing costs?

YU: Firstly it’s a question of arranging the calendar. One thing is how we export the cars, the logistics. We can ship by sea or air, and the costs vary a lot. This is just an idea that came to me, but you could have the main season in Japan from April until October and then have the overseas races all together in the winter and create a ‘seamless’ season.

We also have to consider testing, because this year there are not many chances for young drivers to drive. They need to build up their mileage to become fast drivers, so having a ‘winter’ series for them would be a nice idea. 

JK: Have you thought about having a high-profile guest driver to liven up the series? There’s the classic example of Tony Kanaan doing a race in Formula Nippon…

YU: For the fans, I think it’s important that we have a driver like Liam [Lawson], who can provide a benchmark of the level of a top driver from overseas. In the past, we had Kazuyoshi Hoshino providing the benchmark - if you can be faster than Hoshino-san, then you are good enough for Formula 1. I think there’s a lot of value in having a driver who is in that position.

We’ve had drivers like Ryo Hirakawa, Kamui Kobayashi, Kazuki Nakajima, Naoki Yamamoto, who have driven in F1 and the WEC. Then we’ve had Alex Palou, Felix Rosenqvist, Pierre Gasly, Nick Cassidy… I think the level of the championship is well understood overseas. So the presence of big names is important for the fans to understand the level of the drivers.

In terms of guest drivers, it’s more of a thing for Honda and Toyota to consider, but having Liam is great for us.

He may be a rookie, but Lawson is setting the standard in Super Formula now, says Ueno

He may be a rookie, but Lawson is setting the standard in Super Formula now, says Ueno

JK: How do you want Super Formula’s relationship with F1 to be in future? More like F2, a stepping stone to F1, or more like IndyCar with drivers going back and forth?

YU: I don’t have a specific idea of seeing drivers going back and forth between F1 and Super Formula. But rather, I want drivers that succeed here to be able to go on and be successful in any other category worldwide that they race in.

It’s not about becoming a stepping stone to F1, or to WEC, or IndyCar, or SUPER GT. It’s about the champions of Super Formula being able to perform in any category they go to subsequently. That is the quality we are aiming for, so that Super Formula will become an attractive destination for Asian drivers.

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