Fukuzumi’s need for change leaves Honda with squad revamp

What’s better than winning two consecutive Super Formula championships? Winning three consecutive Super Formula championships, obviously. Honda started its quest for a third straight crown by officially naming their 2022 squad at the Welcome Plaza Aoyama – confirming the rumour everyone talked about.

By René Oudman

Why change a winning team – or therefore, a winning brand? Since Nick Cassidy clinched the 2019 Super Formula title by overhauling the points tally of Honda star Naoki Yamamoto after a wild last round, Honda’s arch-nemesis Toyota has lost out on the big prize at Japan’s top level of racing. Yamamoto was able to regain his lost crown immediately, ending on top after a hard-fought, season-long battle in 2020, whereas series veteran Tomoki Nojiri celebrated his crowning achievement last year by winning the title – making it two in a row for Honda.

Considering the incredibly competitive nature of the series, it’s hard to fathom that Honda won all bar one Super Formula race last year. Only a Giuliano Alesi win in the rain-shortened Autopolis round kept Honda from sweeping the season. Champion Nojiri won an impressive three out of seven, runner-up Nirei Fukuzumi clinched two victories and Hiroki Otsu stunned everyone by keeping his opponents at bay and converting a courageous qualifying strategy into a race win at the second Motegi round.

But – there’s a but. 

It might look good on the outside, but there’s thunder on the inside. There are two causes of concern. The first cause is named ‘team internal cooperation’. In 2020 as well as in 2021, Honda lost out on the coveted Teams’ Championship. Vantelin Team TOM’S and JMS P.mu/cerumo took the win in 2020, while Carenex Team Impul drivers Yuhi Sekiguchi and Ryo Hirakawa treated their Toyota employer on a Teams’ crown last season.

However, Honda’s biggest headache has been the renowned Dandelion squad. After Yamamoto left the team last winter, Fukuzumi was asked to pull the heavy weight in 2021. He did pretty well – missing out on a title chance, after a tire blowout while leading the first Suzuka round effectively set a 25-point swing in motion. Team mate Tadasuke Makino on the other hand, who missed the first two rounds due to meningitis, couldn’t really catch a break after returning. 

You could wonder whether Dandelion’s chances would improve by keeping super-sub Ukyo Sasahara, but there’s something to be said for a team which is loyal to a driver who’s sidelined due to illness. Therefore, extra pressure was put on the shoulders of Fukuzumi, who had to cut the meat for Dandelion – a situation which has left its mark on the 2022 line-up.

While Dandelion is expected to drive at the front and fight for trophies and championships, Honda team Drago Corse with ThreeBond has exactly scored zero points in the last two seasons. Yet, as became clear at the Honda 2022 Super Formula announcement show, 2021 series runner-up Fukuzumi is actually joining the Drago side.

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The 24-year old, whose most eye-catching classification has been third overall in the 2017 GP3 Series season, said he had been  ‘grateful running for a good team’, but is now keen to focus on himself without having the pressure of driving for a top team. Taking Dandelion on his shoulders for one complete season was enough for Fukuzumi to decide in favor of a complete change of scenery, as he is not willing to feel the pressure of a renowned team for a second consecutive year.

Fukuzumi’s shock move leaves Honda to transfer Rookie of the Year Otsu from the Red Bull Mugen Team Goh squad to Dandelion, where he’ll team up with Makino. It creates an opportunity for Ren Sato, who’ll graduate from Super Formula Lights, the series in which Sato finished third last year. Goh is expected to field two cars this year, next to the Mugen entry of champion Nojiri. Sato’s team mate will be announced in due course. 

After a wild off season in 2020-21, Nobuharu Matsushita was accepted back in grace at the Honda family and the FIA Formula 2 race winner will drive for B-Max Racing again this season. No word on a team-mate still – American youngster Yves Baltas was believed to make his series debut in 2021, but he still has to make his debut.

Nakajima Racing is the only team to carry their 2021 squad over to 2022, as Yamamoto and Toshiki Oyu stay on for the second year of their partnership. Don’t forget that Yamamoto, the most successful active Super Formula driver, had an utterly terrible 2021 season and will be very happy to bounce back this year. Fukuzumi’s bombshell might have stolen the thunder, but Honda will definitely take a close look to their biggest star Yamamoto’s performances. Although no-one doubts the well-roundedness of Yamamoto, the three-time champion can’t afford to finish outside the championship’s top ten for a second consecutive season. 

Honda’s 2022 Super Formula squad

Mugen: Tomoki Nojiri (1)

Dandelion: Tadasuke Makino (5) and Hiroki Otsu (6)

Drago: Nirei Fukuzumi (12)

B-Max: Nobuharu Matsushita (50) and TBA (51)

Nakajima: Naoki Yamamoto (64) and Toshiki Oyu (65)

Goh: Ren Sato (TBA) and TBA (TBA)

Header photo credit: Honda.Racing

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