Ten things to look forward to in Japanese racing in 2022
There's change in the air on the domestic Japanese motorsport scene for 2022. Here, we pick out 10 of the most notable things to watch out for in both SUPER GT and Super Formula this year.
1. The arrival of the new Nissan Z
Revealed last month, the all-new Z replaces the venerable R35 GT-R as the base model for Nissan’s GT500 challenger for this year. Under the surface, the new machine is based on the same standard Toray Carbon Magic tub as before, but in line with aerodynamic development being permitted again after a one-year freeze, the bodywork is radically different - much more akin to the low, sleek Toyota GR Supra, the main marketplace rival of the Z street car, than the high-downforce, high-drag GT-R it replaces.
The hope is that this will enable Nissan to compete on level terms with Toyota and Honda after several seasons of being very much the third force in the GT500 battle. Ronnie Quintarelli says his desire is to have a car that is strong everywhere instead of one that is fast at particular tracks like Suzuka and Autopolis but off the pace at Fuji Speedway. We’ll have to wait and see if that’s the case, but on looks alone, the Z looks like it should be much more potent on Fuji’s long straights than its predecessor.
2. Tweaked GT500 cars from Honda and Toyota
It’s not only Nissan that is introducing a new GT500 base model this year. Also taking advantage of the relaxation in the rules is Honda with its new NSX Type S, which has already been spied testing at Motegi and should be officially revealed imminently. Given that this will be the final version of the current-generation NSX street car, and a replacement appears at least a few years away, expect the Type S (distinguishable by virtue of its slightly more droopy nose) to grace SUPER GT grids for some years to come.
The Toyota GR Supra on the other hand won’t look so distinctive compared to the 2021 model, but with aero development unfrozen, last year’s title-winning car could still prove to be quite a different animal. TCD boss Kazumoto Yuasa said that, despite Toyota’s shock title success, a move to a higher downforce concept could be on the cards, which is likely to mean a reduction in performance at Fuji in favour of increased speed elsewhere.
3. A continued resurgence in the GT300 ranks
The last couple of seasons has seen a true renaissance for SUPER GT’s homegrown GT300 (formerly JAF-GT300) cars, with the arrival of the GR Supra in 2020 and the new Subaru BRZ last year giving the previously-dominant FIA GT3 cars some serious competition. So it should be no surprise that we’re set to have even more GT300s on the grid this year, with the car count potentially on course to break into double figures.
Toyota’s new 86 will become the latest new model to join the subcategory, with constructor apr planning to field one of the new machines alongside a single example of its Prius PHV GR Sport. Up to three of the new cars could be on the grid in 2022, while we also know that Tsuchiya Engineering will become the fourth team to use the GR Supra, ditching its Porsche 911 GT3 R in the process. Given how competitive the car has been in the hands of other teams, it would be little surprise to see the 'Hoppy Supra' in the thick of the action this time around.
4. Fenestraz and Makino back to full strength
The start of the 2021 SUPER GT season unusually saw two of the previous year’s title-contending crews start off without one of their two regular drivers - Sacha Fenestraz in the case of the #37 TOM’S Toyota crew, and Kunimitsu Honda’s reigning champion Tadasuke Makino. Fenestraz ended up missing five races due to visa troubles, while Makino missed the opener as he recovered from meningitis, which cost him the chance to contend for a second title alongside his teammate Naoki Yamamoto.
This year, Fenestraz and Makino will be back at full strength in both SUPER GT and Super Formula. Fenestraz has something of a point to prove in the latter category after being passed up for a TOM’S seat in favour of Giuliano Alesi, while in a GT car he’ll be paired with a new teammate Ritomo Miyata following Ryo Hirakawa’s exit. For Makino, 2022 will be his first real chance to fight for top honours in Super Formula with Dandelion Racing after having to sit out the first two races last year and then use the following races just to get his eye in.
5. Alesi making an early step up to GT500
After a year in the GT300 ranks with Team Thailand, Alesi has been handed a dream ticket to join the two-car TOM’S stable in GT500 for 2022. And not only that, but he’ll be sharing the car that won last year’s title, the au-branded #1 machine, with Sho Tsuboi, with erstwhile number one driver Yuhi Sekiguchi being shunted over to the SARD team as a result. It’s a decision that has raised eyebrows in some quarters, but how both Alesi and Sekiguchi get on in their new squads promises to be one of the storylines to follow this year.
Alesi’s promotion to a GT500 seat with TOM’S follows his impressive performances for the team in the Super Formula paddock, as he won in just his second outing in the single-seater series at Autopolis as a stand-in for the now-retired Kazuki Nakajima, and came within a whisker of the title in the supporting Super Formula Lights series. In GT300, Alesi was a strong qualifier at the wheel of the uncompetitive Lexus RC F GT3, and the step up to a higher-downforce GT500 machine is likely to suit his driving style even better.
6. Matsushita returning to the Honda fold in SUPER GT
It’s not official just yet, but all the signs suggest that Nobuharu Matsushita will be reintegrated as a full member of Honda’s factory roster in 2022, taking the spot at the Real Racing SUPER GT team alongside Koudai Tsukakoshi. He’ll be taking the place vacated by Bertrand Baguette, who announced his Honda departure in the days following last year’s Fuji season finale and appears to be heading in the opposite direction to join Nissan, even getting the chance to test the outgoing GT-R before heading back to Europe for the holidays.
Matsushita and Tsukakoshi on paper is one of the most formidable line-ups in GT500, with Matsushita having shown his prowess in his debut season last year with starring performances for the Impul squad - and helping Kazuyoshi Hoshino’s team end a five-year win drought. And in Super Formula, it will be fascinating to see how Suzuka finale polesitter Matsushita and his engineer Yasuhiro Tasaka (also the engineer at Real Racing) can build on their impressive progress of 2021, when they started off by missing the first race.
7. More races in Super Formula
One of the most frequent criticisms heard in the Super Formula paddock in recent seasons has been the relatively small number of events, an issue compounded by the move to shorter race distances in response to COVID in 2020. Indeed, with only seven races on the calendar in 2021, and the Autopolis race being cut short due to poor weather, in total there were barely six hours of race action across the season, including safety car periods.
The good news is that’s set to change in 2022, with the series having outlined plans to include more double-headers on this year’s schedule. That’s likely to mean a 10-race calendar in total, with three of seven events featuring a Saturday race as well as one on Sunday (the exact schedule details remain to be confirmed). And the good news doesn’t end there - as announced this week, the hated dropped scores points system, which has baffled fans and pundits alike since 2020, is gone as well.
8. Fukuzumi throwing in his lot with Drago Corse
As of the time of writing, only half of the Super Formula grid has been confirmed, with Honda having not yet joined Toyota in revealing its 2022 roster. However, one change we can be sure of is Nirei Fukuzumi leaving title-winning outfit Dandelion Racing in favour of a tie-up with the one-car minnow Drago Corse team, which hasn’t managed to score points since its 2020 comeback with either Tatiana Calderon or Koudai Tsukakoshi.
On the face of it, the move seems like a bizarre one. But when you consider the success that Matsushita has had with the one-car B-Max outfit, suddenly the idea of an established top-liner trying to upset the odds with an unproven team doesn’t seem quite so wacky. Certainly, a repeat of the wins that Fukuzumi scored last year are very unlikely, but the more family-like atmosphere of Ryo Michigami’s tight-knit squad might just bring out the best in the 24-year-old ex-GP3 and Formula 2 racer and help him unlock some much-needed consistency.
9. More long-distances races in SUPER GT
Last year, one of the most welcome developments in SUPER GT was the return of the Fuji 500km Golden Week fixture attended by an estimated 30,000 fans following a one-year absence. And GTA chairman Masaaki Bandoh spent the season consistently making noises about having more long-distance races on the agenda in 2022. At the very least, we should be getting one more long race to join the Fuji 500km this year, as well as potentially extended ‘sprint’ events of 350km at certain tracks, up from the standard distance of 300km.
Rumours last summer of a full-blown return to the Suzuka 1000km don’t seem likely to come to pass, but Bandoh spoke more recently of having a timed race of an unconfirmed length at either Fuji or Suzuka in the summer, the end of which would coincide with an evening fireworks display. Regardless of which venue that ends up being held at, such a finish would no doubt bring back fond memories of the Suzuka Summer Classic in its pomp.
10. Kobayashi full-time again in Super Formula... hopefully!
Although the omicron variant of COVID-19 has just started raging in Japan, the likelihood is that this year travel restrictions worldwide will gradually be relaxed rather than tightened further. That’s certainly what Toyota WEC drivers Kamui Kobayashi and Ryo Hirakawa will be hoping at any rate, as the continuation of Japan’s strict two-week quarantine policy would put them at risk of missing as many as three Super Formula race weekends this year.
A combination of his WEC duties and a partial IMSA programme meant that Kobayashi participated in just one of the seven Super Formula races last year, a major loss to the KCMG team and a crying shame for the many fans of the charismatic 35-year-old, who arguably remains the single-seater series’ biggest name. Fingers crossed, then, that Kobayashi this year will be on the grid for the full campaign, and perhaps can finally snare that elusive first victory.
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