In recent years, feeder series entry lists in Japan have been embellished with an Irish name. 19-year-old Lucca Allen headed to the Far East in 2019, racing in Formula 4, the Formula Regional Japanese Championship and Super Formula Lights. For the 2022 season, Allen stays in Europe. However, the talented teenager is planning to return to Japan.
By René Oudman
In between all those Japanese flags, one stood out: a green-white-orange flag, that of Ireland. Lucca Allen was the only foreign driver allowed to compete in the Super Formula Lights championship in 2020, and he did a pretty good job. As Allen had to miss three weekends because of the measures, he only entered the championship from the fourth event on. As a result, the Super Formula Lights title obviously was out of reach. Nevertheless, Allen, then just eighteen years old, finished a neat ninth in the overall standings.
A full-time season in Super Formula Lights would logically be the next step. After all, Allen had proven his skills around the Japanese race tracks in a field with experienced veterans and young talents with exceptional driving skills. As so often in motorsport though, lack of funding threw a spanner in the works. Allen was able to attend only one Super Formula Lights and one Formula Regional Japanese Championship event in 2021. Currently, the Irishman is not based in the Land of the Rising Sun, but back in the beautiful Irish countryside town of Shanagarry.
Return to Japan?
Japan has attracted Allen so much, however, that he is planning a return. This return will not happen in 2022, because the young Irishman just signed an LMP3 contract in the Le Mans Cup. Behind the scenes he’s working hard to get back into Japanese racing action by at least 2024, not least because of the wonderful racing culture over there. ‘Japanese people are very eager to support racing drivers and show them their support’.
If you’re just a little Irishman asking for special deals via email, you’re not going to get many placesLucca Allen
‘I went back to Japan in 2020, after being crowned champion in F4 SEA, but it got messy due to the pandemic so I could only do the last three races in Super Formula Lights’, Allen recalls. ‘When I came back in 2021 two of my sponsors were not in a position to help out due to covid. I managed to get one race in FRJ and one race in SFL.’
‘Every team manager got an email from me every month, they know me, but yeah – I would be back there this year if I hadn’t got the drive in Europe. Actually, I was pretty close in getting a sponsor to do FRJ or Super GT, but it didn’t work out. Money is a big factor, as the living costs in Japan are also pretty high. But you need to be there – people need to see you showing effort and you need to meet certain people in person. If you’re just a little Irishman asking for special deals via email, you’re not going to get many places.’
As is the case in Europe, certain teams are calling the shots in Super Formula Lights, which makes it extremely difficult for a driver from another squad to stand out. Toyota-backed TOM’S gets the best Toyota talent shown on a silver platter, while Honda team B-Max counts on the pupils of Toyota’s biggest rivals. Because certain parts – such as the suspension – are being developed in house, differences between Super Formula Lights teams are quite big for a one-make series.
‘It’s very hard to get a good seat’, Allen acknowledges. ‘Respect to all the teams, but at this exact moment, it’s difficult to win the championship if you’re not in TOM’S or a Honda backed car. For example: the closest I got when I drove in Super Formula Lights, was about 5 tenths per lap off. If somebody in one of the top teams wasn’t driving particularly well, we were able to bring the gap down. If you simply don’t have the car to do it in, it’s hard to show what you’re capable of.’
It’s difficult to win the championship if you’re not in TOM’S or a Honda backed carLucca Allen
Japanese teams tend to breed their own, national talents. Don’t get them wrong: it is a great way to stimulate home-grown young guns. Drivers like Yuki Tsunoda and Ayumu Iwasa have reached the top classes in Europe thanks to Honda’s support, whereas Toyota junior Ryo Hirakawa got promoted to the factory World Endurance Championship squad. Foreigners, however, do tend to have a hard time getting a foot in the door.
‘There’s not really room unless you want to spend a million dollars’, Allen laughs. Still, Japan is his promised land. ‘The thing with Japan is – you get very enthusiastic fans, drivers are almost seen like superheroes. Japanese people don’t have big egos. In Europe, one might think, ‘I’m not going to support a Formula 3 driver, he’s only, whatever. In Japan it’s a bit different. They’re supporting everyone, they’re showing love. Although there are levels in motor sport, no one is looking down on you. Europe is very particulate: Formula Regional is below some other series. In Japan, Super Formula bosses could even be talking to drivers from the endurance Super Taikyu series. It’s very mixed up, everyone knows each other.’
That’s exactly why 19-year-old Allen would settle for a seat in FRJ, or even the GT300 class of Super GT, for now. ‘Super GT actually is the biggest series in Japan, then SF, then SFL. I’ve got plans to go back to Japan, I might drive in Super GT, because from there I’d be able to get a seat in Super Formula, which can lead me to start knocking on doors in Formula One. I’m young and I’m a big optimist, so you’ll never know. The main thing – as an overall theme – Japan’s a great place to make a career out of racing.’
Building a relationship
It is remarkable that the FRJ starting field, the class in which Allen drove three races in one weekend last year, is extremely small. Just nine drivers make the entry list of FRJ’s opening weekend at Fuji, five of whom are over 40 years of age and therefore members of the so-called Masters’ Class. The Super Formula Lights field is also quite thin. What does Allen, the only European to compete in both classes in pandemic year 2020, think is the reason?
‘Coming back to what Japanese people like: if I’m trying to get a sponsor, the first five meetings won’t be any money talk, it’ll be about building the relationship and gaining trust. I feel like that almost relates to FRJ. Honda and Toyota won’t invest straightaway. They’re into Super Formula Lights and Formula 4 and will support their junior drivers in said series.’
Car and competitors
According to Allen, the biggest difference between the two cars is in the aerodynamics. ‘The FRJ car is alright to drive, but it’s pretty heavy compared to the SFL. The new Dallara 320 (which SFL uses from 2020) is great, it’s nice and light, fast and hard to drive. When I stepped in the car after being out for some time – even when I went flatout in the gym twice a day for weeks – my arms and neck would be killing me! It’s a very physical car, which I love.’
The FRJ car is alright to drive, but it’s pretty heavy compared to the SFLLucca Allen
On driving against (much) older competitors Allen does not have much to say. ‘I don’t know, you won’t really be racing against the Masters’ Class drivers. You pass them and you leave them, your battles would always be with the top 5 fast guys’, laughs the Irishman, who points out that apart from the financial picture, his only headache in Japan is weight. Japanese people tend to be very light, so I’m almost ten to fifteen kg heavier (20 to 35 pounds) than my opponents. I’m a big Irish lad, you know! But now that I’m aware, I have cut the weight’.
Allen would love to return to Japan, but is currently focusing on the Le Mans Series. He was drawn to Japanese racing culture at a young age and is here to stay. With the right financial backing, the young Irishman could be flying high – his performances in FRJ and SFL have been very encouraging. Adapting to the customs of the unfamiliar culture is part of a European’s orientation to Japan. ‘They do it differently there, that’s for sure’.
Header photo credit: Super Formula Lights
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