The Top 10 SUPER GT/Super Formula drivers of 2021
After another year of fantastic action in both SUPER GT and Super Formula, it's time to look back at the standout drivers on the Japanese domestic scene in 2021.
For a third season in a row, Motorsport.com brings you its countdown of the most impressive performers from both of Japan's two top categories. Wildly varying fortunes for many drivers across SUPER GT and Super Formula made this list even harder to compile than usual, but after much debate, this is the order we settled on. Read on to see who makes the cut.
Firstly, Sena Sakaguchi deserves credit for an excellent rookie season in Super Formula, in which he scored two podiums and put his Inging teammate Sho Tsuboi to shame. He also did a fine job as a substitute for Sacha Fenestraz in the TOM’S Toyota SUPER GT outfit, scoring pole position at Okayama and leading his opening stint like a seasoned veteran.
Sakaguchi missed out on Super Formula Rookie of the Year honours to Mugen driver Hiroki Otsu, who combined consistency (he made Q3 five times out of six, matching teammate Tomoki Nojiri) with an excellent drive from pole in tricky weather conditions at Motegi to score his first win and secure his future in the single-seater category.
Tadasuke Makino missed the opening two rounds of the Super Formula season owing to illness, but once he found his feet at Dandelion Racing, he wasn’t far off teammate Nirei Fukuzumi’s pace. He also did a commendable job as Naoki Yamamoto’s partner aboard the Team Kunimitsu Honda NSX-GT in SUPER GT, usually entrusted with the thankless task of saving fuel in the opening stints.
Elsewhere in the Honda SUPER GT stable, Bertrand Baguette had another strong campaign in what turned out to be his final year with Real Racing, even if the team’s strategic choices prevented him from starring as much as he may have done. Sometimes his aggression got the better of him, as it did in the Fuji season finale, but otherwise he generally had the measure of his teammate Koudai Tsukakoshi.
Baguette’s potential 2022 teammate Kazuki Hiramine also enjoyed an assured sophomore campaign in the Nissan GT500 ranks, scoring a richly deserved first win for Impul, while NDDP/B-Max Racing duo Kohei Hirate and Katsumasa Chiyo deserve a mention here for turning the hitherto off-the-pace #3 GT-R into the equal of the #23 factory NISMO machine in performance terms, and often the quicker of the two Michelin-shod cars.
10. Sho Tsuboi (down 4)
15th in Super Formula / 1st in SUPER GT (with Yuhi Sekiguchi)
Because this list seeks to take into account performances in both Super Formula and SUPER GT, drivers that excelled in one series and struggled in the other have proven difficult to place. And perhaps none more so than Tsuboi, who endured a frankly disastrous third season in Super Formula with Inging while taking an unlikely SUPER GT title for the #36 side of the TOM’S garage alongside Yuhi Sekiguchi.
Tsuboi went into 2021 expected to challenge for the Super Formula title, having won two races last year and finished third in the standings. But, a spin in the first race of the year at Fuji - where he had won just a few months prior - set the tone for a campaign that would yield just a single top-six finish. No longer having Hiroaki Ishiura’s set-ups to rely on on the other side of the Inging garage seemed to hurt Tsuboi, while the presence of a fast and young rookie teammate in the form of Sena Sakaguchi will have no doubt upped the pressure.
In SUPER GT though, it was clear from the Okayama opener - where Tsuboi narrowly lost out to Kenta Yamashita in a thrilling duel - that the #36 TOM’S car would be a force to be reckoned with. A likely victory was lost to a broken driveshaft in the Fuji 500km, but a solid podium at Motegi and some excellent closing stints at Suzuka and Sugo served to keep Tsuboi and Sekiguchi in contention until the final race, where the pair were able to avenge their Fuji DNF with a win and scoop the title with it.
9. Kenta Yamashita (re-entry)
14th in Super Formula / 4th in SUPER GT (with Kazuya Oshima)
For a second season in a row, Yamashita - arguably the most naturally gifted driver in the current Toyota domestic stable - fell victim to Kondo Racing’s alarming competitive decline in Super Formula. Matters were not helped by the absence of teammate Sacha Fenestraz for all but the last two races, with replacement driver Yuichi Nakayama too far away from the pace to provide much real set-up help.
Once Fenestraz was back for the final two races, the team’s fortunes increased dramatically. Yamashita finally got on the scoreboard in the penultimate round at Motegi, and a double score at Suzuka and a competitive post-season test showing at the same track suggests that the Yamashita/Fenestraz axis yet has the potential to drag 2018 teams’ champion Kondo out of its current malaise.
In SUPER GT, Yamashita was reunited with his title-winning partner from 2019, Kazuya Oshima, at the newly-independent Rookie Racing squad, and the pair showed they meant business with victory at Okayama. Unfortunately, Fuji was the only other track where the #14 car excelled, leaving the team too far back in the title battle, but pole for the finale was a timely reminder of Yamashita’s class.
8. Ritomo Miyata (new entry)
10th in Super Formula / 10th in SUPER GT (with Yuji Kunimoto)
The underdog Racing Project Bandoh Toyota team enjoyed its best SUPER GT season in five years in 2021, and rising star Miyata had a large role to play in that resurgence. Two pole positions were further confirmation of the youngster’s prodigious one-lap speed, but his tenacious pursuit of Naoki Yamamoto’s Honda at Motegi marked Miyata’s true arrival as a top-line SUPER GT racer.
That was to be the only occasion that the sole Yokohama-shod GR Supra in the field had a genuine shot at victory all season, but Miyata had done enough to convince the Toyota bosses to promote him to the TOM’S line-up for 2022 in place of Ryo Hirakawa, giving him the chance to fight on equal terms with Bridgestone rubber.
Miyata’s first full season in Super Formula for TOM’S didn’t quite live up to its early promise, even though he outqualified teammates Kazuki Nakajima and Giuliano Alesi 5-2 across the season and made Q3 on five occasions out of six. An early spin that dropped him down the order in the final race at Suzuka marked the only time he failed to score points all year, while also depriving him of the chance to fight Hiroki Otsu and Sena Sakaguchi for Rookie of the Year honours.
7. Yuhi Sekiguchi (re-entry)
3rd in Super Formula / 1st in SUPER GT (with Sho Tsuboi)
It might be a stretch to say we saw ‘vintage Sekiguchi’ in 2021, but it was certainly a considerable improvement on last season, when he was totally outshone by Ryo Hirakawa in Super Formula and rookie teammate Sacha Fenestraz in SUPER GT. This year, honours were much more even between the two Impul teammates in Super Formula, while Sekiguchi’s new SUPER GT partnership with Sho Tsuboi finally yielded the 34-year-old the coveted top Japanese domestic title he had craved.
Hirakawa’s absence from the third round for the season at Sugo seemed to give Sekiguchi some kind of boost, as he scored a first pole in almost three years. While he couldn’t convert that into a win, it marked the start of a strong run of form that almost carried him to second place in the drivers’ standings (he was pipped by Nirei Fukuzumi in the final race of the season) and helped Impul win the teams’ prize.
In SUPER GT, Sekiguchi switched to taking charge of the shorter first stints, which seemed to suit his aggressive style better, with new teammate Tsuboi handling the more arduous closing stints. More often than not he would hand over the #36 car to his partner in a better position than it started, which was critical to keeping within range of the championship leaders heading to Fuji and making a miracle title win possible.
6. Naoki Yamamoto (down 3)
13th in Super Formula / 3rd in SUPER GT
Much like Tsuboi, it was very hard to choose an appropriate spot for Yamamoto on this list, owing to his wildly varying fortunes in Super Formula and SUPER GT. If the ranking was determined solely by the latter series, Yamamoto would probably have to be #1; if by the former, he wouldn’t come anywhere close to cracking the top 10, such were his struggles as he switched to Nakajima Racing for the new season.
Sixth place for Yamamoto in the Fuji season opener was considered a disappointment, but incredibly, that was as good as it got all season. Up until the first Motegi round, things just got worse and worse as he and engineer Yuki Katoh chased their tails trying to get to the bottom of the problems the three-time champion faced. What was perhaps worse was the terrible strategy call in the second Motegi round, where inclement weather allowed Yamamoto back in contention, that cost him a chance of at least a podium or perhaps even a victory.
In SUPER GT however, Yamamoto was a paragon of consistency, taking a superb win in the summer Motegi race and then delivering some fantastic stints in a heavily-ballasted Kunimitsu NSX-GT in the following events to not only stay in the championship lead but keep extending his points advantage. A third GT500 title should have been his by rights, although his defeat may only serve to spur he and teammate Tadasuke Makino on to even greater heights in 2022.
5. Nobuharu Matsushita (new entry)
8th in Super Formula / 7th in SUPER GT (with Kazuki Hiramine)
When Matsushita’s Formula 2 dreams were finally extinguished for good last year, it was only natural for him to return to his native Japan to rebuild his career. And the 28-year-old immediately marked himself as one of the most explosive talents in both Super Formula and SUPER GT, always pushing to the limit, always on the attack. It didn’t always go according to plan, but it was damn entertaining to watch.
In Super Formula, Matsushita more or less picked up where he left off with B-Max Racing after their part-campaign last year, once Honda went back on its bizarre decision to block him from taking part in the Fuji opener. Boosted by the arrival of engineer Yasuhiro Tasaka, he redefined what was possible for a one-car team, grabbing podiums at Autopolis and Motegi and only losing out on a win in the Suzuka finale after getting a penalty for jumping the start from pole.
Meanwhile, Matsushita’s arrival at Team Impul transformed the #12 car from the perennial underperformer of the Nissan SUPER GT stable into a genuine contender and the highest-scoring GT-R crew across the season. His swashbuckling opening stint at Sugo was key to the team ending its five-year win drought, and he performed similar magic at Motegi, only for teammate Kazuki Hiramine to run out of fuel on the final lap. Nissan’s loss looks to be Honda and Real Racing’s gain for 2022.
4. Toshiki Oyu (new entry)
5th in Super Formula / 15th in SUPER GT (with Ukyo Sasahara)
There was a point not too far from the end of the season that Oyu was heading for second place in this ranking, but scoring a mere two points from the final two Super Formula races means the maverick 23-year-old slips down to fourth. Still, a season in which he shook off his reputation for constant mishaps and established himself as a true frontrunner and future ace of the Honda stable, all the while demolishing Nakajima Racing teammate Naoki Yamamoto, certainly constitutes a job well done.
Surprisingly, there was to be no repeat of the breakthrough win that saved Oyu’s drive last year at Suzuka, although he came close in the Fuji opener and at Sugo, where his speed prompted Ryo Hirakawa to declare him the biggest threat for the title. That Oyu was unable to maintain that form in the two Motegi races shows that he’s still lacking that final couple of percent needed to be a threat every weekend, but you wouldn’t bet against him finding that in the next season or two.
Driving for the Mugen team in SUPER GT meant Oyu was never likely to feature much in his rookie GT500 season, even with the team’s switch to Dunlop tyres. It was only at Autopolis where the planets aligned for a strong result, with Oyu shattering the lap record in Q1 and commanding the early part of the race until a bizarre wheelnut issue caused the Red Bull-liveried NSX-GT to shed a wheel.
3. Ryo Hirakawa (down 2)
4th in Super Formula / 6th in SUPER GT
It would be fair to say that Hirakawa wasn't quite as impressive this year as he was during his annus mirabilis of 2020, but taking Super Formula and SUPER GT together, there were few others that could match his consistency. That he went without a win in either category for the first time since 2016 shouldn’t count against him either - only Tomoki Nojiri stood on the podium more times this season in both categories, and even then only shading Hirakawa by six visits to five.
The disruption of Sacha Fenestraz being unavailable for the bulk of the season in SUPER GT made Hirakawa’s hopes of a second title look fragile from the get-go, but the 18-point gap between the two TOM’S cars at the end of the season can be accounted for with the Okayama pitlane disaster, which cost Hirakawa and Sena Sakaguchi a victory, and being eliminated at Sugo by Yuichi Nakayama’s wayward SARD machine, which saw a solid fourth-place finish go up in smoke.
In Super Formula, it’s hard to imagine Hirakawa besting Nojiri even if he had had more luck on his side, or not been forced to miss a race at Sugo. But a classy drive to second in the season finale Suzuka showed that the Impul driver still has plenty to offer in a single-seater, even as he begins his adventure as a full-time member of the Toyota FIA World Endurance Championship stable in 2022.
2. Nirei Fukuzumi (new entry)
2nd in Super Formula / 2nd in SUPER GT (with Tomoki Nojiri)
No longer in the shadow of Naoki Yamamoto at Dandelion, Fukuzumi finally started to show his true potential in 2021, opening his Super Formula victory account at Sugo and grabbing a second triumph at Suzuka at the end of the year. Without his puncture in the first Suzuka race, he could have ended up with three wins, the most of anybody, and much closer to his ARTA SUPER GT stablemate Tomoki Nojiri in the points.
Besides the puncture, what prevented Fukuzumi from giving Nojiri a harder time was his failure to score in either Motegi race, a demonstration that he hasn’t quite reached the stage where his prodigious speed can be accessed and deployed at will. Whether a switch from leading Honda squad Dandelion to the minnow Drago Corse team for 2022 can accelerate that process remains to be seen, although it would be a surprise if his results didn’t suffer in the interim.
Fukuzumi’s SUPER GT season was rather more volatile, with penalties and other mishaps leaving he and Nojiri four points shy of the championship in the final analysis. But Fukuzumi was among the strongest qualifiers and, yellow flags at Fuji notwithstanding, he was also consistent in his stints. His part in the team finishing runner-up in the standings was bigger than the man himself would care to admit.
1. Tomoki Nojiri (up 9)
1st in Super Formula / 2nd in SUPER GT (with Nirei Fukuzumi)
There wasn’t much of a contest for the number one spot this year. Not since Andre Lotterer’s 2011 Formula Nippon blitzkrieg has any driver enjoyed such a rare run of form on the domestic scene as the one enjoyed by Nojiri this year. The 32-year-old has always had the speed, but his eighth season in Super Formula was the first in which that was combined with the necessary set-up know-how, consistency and, perhaps most crucially of all, confidence to take the crown.
Nojiri’s steady emergence as a bona fide championship challenger since moving from Dandelion to Mugen in 2019 shows the importance of the team environment and especially the driver-engineer relationship in Super Formula. After achieving three wins and wrapping up the championship with a round to spare for the first time since 2009, the Nojiri/Toshihiro Ichise axis looks set to be a potent combination at Mugen for some seasons to come.
Equally, you feel like it’s probably only a matter of time until Nojiri is able to lead ARTA to title glory in SUPER GT if the team can finally have a campaign free of operational issues. The errors that plagued his 2020 season were largely eradicated this time around, and the way he pressurised Kazuki Hiramine at Motegi before the Calsonic Nissan ran dry was a joy to behold. He may have missed out on the coveted ‘double’ earned by Naoki Yamamoto in 2018 and ‘20, but on current evidence he may get another chance before too long.
To revisit last year's Top 10 list, click here. For the 2019 list, click here.
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