After eight exciting races in the Japanese Super Formula Championship, the season finale is just around the corner. This weekend at the Suzuka Circuit will decide who’ll be crowned the 2022 champion. There are still three drivers who could win the title: Will it be a prolonged reign for the most consistent of the trio, or will one of the young stars seize power?
By René Oudman
If there is anything to be said about the 2022 Super Formula Championship, it is that it has been unpredictable. Superpowers Honda and Toyota, the sole participating manufacturers in this championship, have split the wins neatly so far, both winning exactly four races each. Both championships are led by Honda, but this year’s revelation is driving a Toyota machine. Of the three title contenders, two race with Toyota power; only one defends Honda’s honour.
In the second weekend of April, the 2022 Super Formula championship kicked off with a double-header at the legendary Fuji Speedway, the lightning-fast circuit located near the eponymous holy mountain. Ukyo Sasahara surprised everyone and everything by grabbing pole position. The Team Mugen driver was initially not supposed to participate in the Super Formula season until a late shift in the transfer market ensured he got a spot after all.
However, the hapless Sasahara could not enjoy his clear view at the front for long because of a faltering clutch. Immediately after the red lights went out, he was overtaken by all of his opponents. Reigning champion Tomoki Nojiri took over the lead but couldn’t enjoy his position for long. Ryo Hirakawa, an official Toyota works driver in the World Endurance Championship since the start of the season, heroically passed him around the outside to take victory in the first race of this year.
In the Sunday race at Fuji, the roles were reversed, with Nojiri winning ahead of Hirakawa, while the latter’s teammate, Yuhi Sekiguchi, flew through the field in inimitable fashion. The Japanese veteran drove from P16 to P4 and provided Team Impul with more of those sweet, valuable points to add to those collected from Hirakawa’s podium finish.
Two weeks later, the third race of the year literally fell into the water as Suzuka was virtually flooded. In a chaotic race, Nobuharu Matsushita of B-Max Racing stormed to his first Super Formula victory, Nojiri being the best-scoring title contender with P2.
At Autopolis, Hirakawa blitzed to his second win of the year. Kondo Racing’s Sacha Fenestraz and rookie driver Atsushi Miyake of Team Goh were the other stars of the show, as they finished a great second and third. Nojiri crossed the finish line in fourth to remain at the top of the standings.
Moreover, Nojiri by then had already racked up quite a few bonus points. In the first four races, he was on pole three times, scoring three points each for a total of nine extra points. Hirakawa, on the other hand, isn’t blazing fast over a single lap; he regularly qualifies in the middle of the pack and therefore seldom nets a bonus score.
In the summer months, something long awaited by the Super Formula community finally occurred: at Sportsland SUGO, the popular French-Argentine Fenestraz scored his first SF victory. Meanwhile, Hirakawa stole the show by making up no less than nine places, but he once again ran into his biggest shortcoming: his qualifying performance had been far below par. The Le Mans winner started only 16th and finished seventh despite making up the most positions. Nojiri, third behind Fenestraz and Toshiki Oyu, consolidated his lead in the standings.
At Fuji Speedway, where a third race was held in July, Sho Tsuboi’s season finally seemed to be turning around. Cerumo’s Tsuboi had been blazing fast in the test days leading up to the season but strangely failed to get there in the races—a repeat of 2021, when Tsuboi did not fare particularly well either. That was despite his finishing third in the final standings of 2020 after heroically winning two races.
Tsuboi fell into a trap under the safety car, one that actually helped a lucky Sasahara to victory. Nojiri finished third again, underlining his role as Mr Consistency. In the championship standings, the veteran profited from nil scores by Fenestraz and Hirakawa. After the summer race at Fuji, Nojiri actually already had one hand on the championship trophy. In the teams’ championship, Team Mugen was doing great business thanks to their P1 and P3 finish in the race.
The summer adventure of the 2022 Super Formula championship ended at Motegi, where a doubleheader was scheduled on the third weekend of August. The order was firmly shaken up in both races, with Nojiri, Fenestraz and Hirakawa all failing to win even though the last of those came particularly close in the second race of the weekend, only failing to take victory because of a lack of team orders.
At Motegi, an old hero arose. It hadn’t been smooth sailing for three-time champion Naoki Yamamoto since his move from Dandelion Racing to Nakajima Racing ahead of the 2021 season. As a matter of fact, by 2022, it had become customary for him to shower and change after Q1, so a few points was often the most he could realistically earn. But at the Twin Ring Motegi, or the Mobility Resort Motegi as it was recently renamed, Yamamoto showed a flash of his old might. The Nakajima Racing driver flew to his first victory of 2022 and his first win in almost two years. A day later, Sekiguchi triumphed after a tough duel with none other than his own Impul teammate Hirakawa. The latter lost valuable points because race veteran and Impul team boss Kazuyoshi Hoshino encouraged his drivers to battle it out on track and refused to interfere.
After eight out of ten races, reigning champion Nojiri is the only driver to have accumulated more than 100 points. The count of the driver with number 1 on his nosecone already stands at 113. Nojiri’s closest rival is Fenestraz. Thanks in part to a win, two second places and a third position, the French Kondo Racing driver has 81 points. Hirakawa occupies third place with 79 points.
Nojiri’s task is quite easy: if he wins this Saturday’s race, the title race is over, and the Japanese driver will be able to call himself a two-time Super Formula champion. Hirakawa, on the other hand, will have to pull out all the stops to have a shot at the title and, on top of that, will have to pray for other people to have bad luck. If Hirakawa takes pole twice and wins twice, he will score 46 points. Since he trails by 34 points, Hirakawa cannot allow Nojiri to get more than two fifth places, worth 12 points total. In case of a draw, Hirakawa wins on countback as he has won two races against Nojiri’s sole victory.
Fenestraz, placed second in the standings between the two Japanese rivals, must hope for a miracle as well. The particularly consistent Nojiri is 32 points ahead of the Frenchman, so Fenestraz is mathematically on a 14-point margin. Nojiri may finish fourth once and fifth once if Fenestraz wins both races from pole. Or, in other words, with a first or second place in the first race, Nojiri will already have decided the championship, and with a third place in the first race, he must not be lower than eighth or tenth on Sunday in the event of a double pole and race win from Fenestraz or Hirakawa respectively.
He is on almost nobody’s radar, but that is not entirely justified. Tadasuke Makino is doing a great job this year as Dandelion’s lead driver. Sure, the former Formula 2 driver has yet to win a race, but he has already been on the podium twice, including in the last round at Motegi. Makino is defending fourth place in the standings and, with a perfect weekend, could even capture the position of vice-champion.
The same goes for Ritomo Miyata of TOM’S. The once dominant racing stable has been in decline for a while, but led by Miyata, the green brigade seems to be clawing its way forward. Miyata too has been on the podium, albeit only once, and he too can hypothetically still finish second in the final standings if there is a lot of chaos. His current fifth place is a good reflection of the balance of power and a big pat on the back for a strong season.
Ren Sato will have to push extra hard this weekend. The Red Bull junior knows that Helmut Marko’s eye is on him, and if he wants to earn another chance in Europe, he’ll have to shine bright at Suzuka. Sato was surprisingly on the front row of the grid at the first race this year and regularly showed strong race pace, but he still gets involved in incidents too often. With only 14 points to his credit, he occupies a disappointing 15th place in the standings. If Sato dreams of a future in F1, he will have to work hard this weekend.
Watch out, for in many countries, the clocks will go back an hour next weekend because of the reversal of daylight saving time.
Race 9 (Saturday, 29 October) start time: 2:30 pm JST = 7:30 am CEST
Race 10 (Saturday, 30 October) start time: 2:30 pm JST = 6:30 am CET
Header photo credit: Super Formula
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