Your season guide to the 2022 Super Formula Championship

After seven years of trying, in which he scored just three victories, 2021 was finally Tomoki Nojiri’s year. The Honda rider dominated the Super Formula season en route to his first championship title. Three wins in seven appearances, along with four more big points scoring finishes, proved sufficient for a title win. Can Nojiri repeat his achievement and double up in 2022? The 50th season of Super Formula racing is about to start and F1 Feeder Series previews.

By René Oudman

Nojiri was certainly not an underdog, but hardly anyone put the now 32-year-old Japanese at the top of their list of favourites for the championship, twelve months ago. Much was expected of the young guns. Sho Tsuboi and Toshiki Oyu had broken through in 2020, Nirei Fukuzumi had become the eye-catching star of Dandelion after the departure of Naoki Yamamoto and Ryo Hirakawa was finally going to win his first single seater title since 2012, wasn’t he?

Nothing proved to be further from the truth. From the get-go, Nojiri imposed his will on the Super Formula field. The bright, red Team Mugen car flew to pole position at the season-starting Fuji round, only to repel an Oyu attack on the way to victory. Three weeks later at Suzuka, Nojiri only had to follow: when Fukuzumi’s rear tyre failed, the Super Formula veteran took an easy second successive victory.

Nojiri’s dominant April proved to be the building block for his championship win. Despite frantic efforts, no one of the opponents came close to Nojiri’s points tally. Half points at the rained out Autopolis certainly did not help the competition, neither did the constantly changing ratios up front. With a round to spare, Nojiri clinched the title at Motegi, shortly after scoring his third win of the season at the same track. While Fukuzumi and Yuhi Sekiguchi finished the season with 55 points, Nojiri collected no less than 86.

The stars and their cars

The new year is already in its second quarter and past results no longer count. Super Formula is on the eve of a new season, in which new opportunities and new partnerships should create a new image. Defending the number 1 in his car, Nojiri will attempt to become the first back-to-back champion since Tsugio Matsuda won the title in both 2007 and 2008. 

In the person of Ukyo Sasahara, Nojiri has a ‘real’ teammate this year. Although Hiroki Otsu was officially listed as his Team Mugen team mate, Team Goh actually ran his entry. Said renowned squad opted to run an all new, own stable for the 2022 season, entering two cars, enlarging the entry list from nineteen to twenty-one cars. Team Mugen now runs two cars all on its own – which has proven a lifeline for Sasahara, the Super Formula super sub. 25-year-old Sasahara, a Honda pupil, appeared to be out of the running when Honda presented its plans at the end of January, but a late shuffle offered him an opportunity to race full-time in Super Formula. 

2021’s Team Champions, Carenex team Impul, left its line-up unchanged. Sekiguchi and Hirakawa stayed on, whereas the latter will combine his Super Formula activities with a Toyota works seat in the World Endurance Championship. Their Toyota colleagues at P.mu/cerumo ∙ INGING also kept their squad together. Tsuboi vows to bounce back after a disconcertingly weak 2021, while Sena Sakaguchi is keen to keep the momentum he build in a rock-solid debut season.

Back to Honda, where Fukuzumi has turned things around by leaving the legendary Dandelion squad. 24-year-old Fukuzumi named ‘a new challenge’ his main motive, whereas some tend to think the pressure at Dandelion became a bit (too) much. This year, Fukuzumi will be driving for Drago Corse, which has been at the bottom of the order for consecutive years. Fukuzumi’s job will be to help Drago move forward. After Fukuzumi leaving, Dandelion has hired Otsu, 2021’s rookie of the year. Tadasuke Makino stays on and will wish to finish his first full season since 2019, Nakajima Racing sticks with Yamamoto and Oyu after a very mediocre 2021. After difficult test runs, it remains to be seen if Satoru Nakajima’s stable will be able to get back to the front.

Yuhi Sekiguchi
Yuhi Sekiguchi (Carenex Team Impul) during pre-season Super Formula testing | Credit: Super Formula

Toyota pins its hopes one of the few foreigners. Frenchman Sacha Fenestraz looked nothing but sensational in the pre-season test and looks to be chasing his first Super Formula victory in the, now blue colored, Kondo Racing car. For the third consecutive season, Fenestraz teams up with Kenta Yamashita, who, after some promising years, experienced an extremely difficult 2021. Yamashita will be eager to bounce back. As two-time champion Kazuki Nakajima waved the series goodbye, Fenestraz’s countryman Giuliano Alesi got promoted to a full-time seat with TOM’S. Ritomo Miyata, the 2020 Super Formula Lights champion, stays on at the green squad for his sophomore season in the series.

Honda’s Team Goh runs two rookies: Ren Sato and Atsushi Miyake, numbers three and four of the previous Super Formula Lights championship, are gearing up for their first year in the premier class. Sato in particular attracted attention during the second pre-season test at Fuji, matching Sekiguchi’s fastest lap time by a thousandth during the morning session of day two. Whereas the pace looks promising, Goh’s struggling with tyre management: as far as their performance is concerned, much will depend on the weather.

Then there is B-Max, which actually wanted to field two cars, but once again failed to find a teammate for Nobuharu Matsushita. That failure proved to be Sasahara’s salvation, as Mugen took over B-Max’s second car. Toyota’s KCMG fields Le Mans winner Kamui Kobayashi and one-time champion Yuji Kunimoto for the third consecutive year. Now that Japanese travel measures have been relaxed, Kobayashi is likely to compete the entire season. The 2022 Super Formula starting field is completed by Rookie Racing, where veteran Kazuya Oshima prepares for his tenth full-time season in the class.

Rulebook

As there will be no third qualifying segment in 2022, the Saturday training session is completed after Q2. Super Formula’s management decided to delete the last phase of qualifying, because the entire qualifying session took over ninety minutes in recent years, adding more pressure to the drivers, who’ll have less time to get a perfect qualifying lap in. 

For the third consecutive year, there will be no refueling, whereas only a tire change is allowed in pit lane. Super Formula is pushing the NEXT 50 program, which is seen as backbone for the next fifty seasons, and with that in mind, it makes sense to think of alternative fuels and more sustainable means. That is why the races will continue to have a length of 180 kilometres, instead of the 250 as was the case until 2019.

No deleted scores in 2022: as most of the travel measures in Japan have been lifted, it should not be difficult for the inhabitants of the country (including Alesi and Fenestraz) to travel in and out. As such, the SF organisation did not find it necessary to drop scores. Every result counts for the championship.

Naoki Yamamoto
Naoki Yamamoto (Nakajima Racing) during Super Formula pre-season testing | Credit: Super Formula

Calendar

For the first time since 2008, more than nine races are scheduled. Super Formula is actually aiming for double figures this year. The calendar doesn’t look way bigger than the past few, but of those seven events, three are a doubleheader weekend. That means that no less than ten races are scheduled. The season kicks off at Fuji Speedway, where two races are being held. April concludes with a third race, at Suzuka.

In May, June and July, one race each is held at Autopolis, Sugo and again at Fuji. In August, the Twin Ring Motegi will be the battleground for rounds 7 and 8. The season concludes as usual at Suzuka, where there’s another doubleheader planned for the final weekend in October.

Other details

After two dangerous blowouts (Fukuzumi and Sekiguchi at Suzuka), tire supplier Yokohama has been tasked with making the rubber more durable, something the drivers – who’ve already driven with it during the pre-season test – have said they have succeeded in doing. One would expect more durable tires to have less grip at the same time, but that seemingly proves false. Cornering speeds did actually go up!

Both B-Max and Team Goh tried to recruit a non-Japanese driver, but this proved difficult due to the strict Japanese visa rules. After Tatiana Calderón left for IndyCar, Fenestraz and full-time debutant Alesi are the only foreigners in the field.

Veterans Hiroaki Ishiura (champion 2015, 2017 – retired after 2020) and Koudai Tsukakoshi (vice-champion 2012) will drive a test car before and after selected events. For the NEXT 50 project, a development vehicle will be sent onto the track. The aim is to develop various sustainable, technological and artificial projects.

2022 Super Formula calendar

09-10 April: Fuji
23-24 April: Suzuka
21-22 May: Autopolis
18-19 June: SUGO
16-17 July: Fuji
20-21 August: Motegi
29-30 October: Suzuka

Header Photo credit: Super Formula

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