Benoît Tréluyer

Former champ Benoît Tréluyer talks Super Formula: ‘In Japan it’s important to be someone’

Racing action resumes in Japan! The legendary Fuji Speedway will host a doubleheader this weekend, kicking off the 2022 Super Formula season. F1 Feeder Series’ gets you up to speed while chatting with the 2006 season series champion, none other than three-time Le Mans 24 Hours winner Benoît Tréluyer.

By René Oudman

Bonjour Benoît, how nice of you to join me in previewing the 2022 Super Formula season for F1 Feeder Series. It’s been a while since you lived in Japan – you left after the 2009 season to focus on the WEC. Do you miss being there?

Hello René, of course I miss Japan! Japan was a great place to be, for living and racing. I liked the respect Japanese people have for each other, let’s say the lifestyle suited me pretty well. Although I love my life here over in the south of France, I absolutely miss Japan.

It’s been a while since you raced in Super Formula – in fact, you never literally raced in Super Formula, as it was called Formula Nippon at the time. Do you still follow the series?

Well, obviously it was a bit difficult to watch everything when I was still racing, but now I really aim to follow the upcoming season. It’ll still be the same teams fighting for the wins (as they were back then), I presume? I must be honest and say I don’t know every single driver on the entry list, as there have been a lot younger talents coming through the ranks. It has been a while since I followed Formula Nippon.

But, as a start, let me say this: I’ve seen the results from pre-season testing and let me tell you, do not be surprised if it ends up being completely the other way round. Especially at a track like Suzuka you’re able to drive with a lot of downforce and teams tend to be very happy in those conditions. Some drivers could be very confident regarding their testing pace, only to be completely of the pace in the first races. We absolutely shouldn’t be surprised if that’s the case this year, as Super Formula is extremely competitive.

Let’s talk about the drivers. There are, of course, a number of interesting storylines. For example, the curious case of Naoki Yamamoto. A three-time champion, who on his good day imposes his will on the entire field. Last year he only scored thirteen points, sixth place was his best result. How on earth is it possible that a former champion like Yamamoto suddenly lacks speed in a one-make series?

Yeah, that’s curious, indeed! Well, first up, every driver has their own driving style. Some drivers like a car with heavy steering to have a good feedback, others like it differently. That goes for teams as well. Some pay much attention to things like castor, while others choose to have a light steering wheel. It could very well be that the Dandelion setup, which Yamamoto got used to, is completely opposite to the one Nakajima is using. That would make it very hard for Yamamoto to adapt his driving style to the new car, because in the end, it’s down to how the driver likes his car.

Next to that, trusting your engineer and mechanics is key. It’s very important to have your own inner circle at the track. The chief mechanic, the engineer and the driver make a three-bond. If anyone breaks this, everything will change. Let it be clear that I do not have any inside information, all these things are just popping up in my mind as things which could be a factor.

Then, of course, there is Sho Tsuboi, driving for the INGING squad. He won two races in 2020 and looked to become one of last season’s title favourites, but failed completely. Tsuboi finished in the points in only two of the seven races, never reaching the top six spots. To make matters worse, his rookie teammate Sena Sakaguchi outscored him by a factor six. What should we make of this? Isn’t he able to do it anymore?

No, no – Sho’s a good driver. I can’t fathom why he just dropped back, other than something’s wrong with the car. Did he change the monocoque? Let me say, the single most important thing in Super Formula is not the engine, nor the tires. It’s the monocoque. I’ll give you an example from my days in Formula Nippon.

Late 2007, I had a pretty big incident. I was okay, but the car wasn’t. We rebuilt the car and in early 2008, I was suddenly nowhere. Now bear in mind that I won the championship in 2006. Whatever I did with the car, it just wasn’t responding. The thing is: I had experience with the car, so I was able to tell the team ‘we’ve got a problem with the monocoque’. And my team said: ‘Okay, we’ll try a new one’. The problem was, 2008 was the last year with the old chassis, so we had to use old ones instead of getting a new one. We tried different ones, but it just didn’t click.

In the end, we discovered the monocoque had cracked during the incident in late 2007. That can really make a world of different, I can tell you! Most of the time you’ll hear a driver doubt about his monocoque and you’d say they’re desperate in trying to find an excuse to hide their bad performances, but you can’t tell me someone who’s winning in Super Formula – and winning a title in Super GT – can suddenly drop ten places because his own speed is gone. For sure it’s not down to Sho, it could pretty well be he took a curb one day and he didn’t realize the monocoque cracked.

Tomoki Nojiri finally broke the spell last year, winning the Super Formula championship on his eighth attempt. Before 2021, Nojiri always looked like that one driver who’s always there, but never close enough to capture the big prize. Now he’s crawled out of his shell, I see him doing well again this year and, in a way, I sense a pattern.

Could it be that Japanese drivers, once they have scored their first title, more easily add a second, third or even fourth to their list of honours? Look at Satoshi Motoyama, who won one title after another. Or Tsugio Matsuda – two in a row in 2007 and 2008. Hiroaki Ishiura won two championship titles in three years, after being on the fence for a long time. Is this a thing? Is it possible that Japanese culture contributes to this? That you don’t win at all, or you win several times? Or am I thinking too far-fetched now?

Well, what I think is, in Japan, it’s important to be someone. When you reach a certain level, people all around you will trust you. And when that happens, you’ll transform and will start to feel even better. Life will get easier. Next to that, it’s much easier in Japan to keep that high level. Here in Europe, I’ve got the feeling like, even if you win two or three championships, if one day you do a mistake, you’re back to being shit. In Japan, they don’t tell you your days are done. So this could be very possible, indeed.

Speaking of which, Kamui Kobayashi is also competing this year, with KCMG. I think he is a top driver, I really enjoy watching him in WEC and I was very happy when he (finally) won the 24 Hours of Le Mans. Yet, in Super Formula, honestly, he doesn’t perform at all. Is his list of honours a reason for KCMG to keep him?

Exactly, there’s many drivers like that. You had Ryo Michigami, a really good driver and very, very successful in Honda. For some years he was still driving for Honda while he was not performing any more, but because he had the respect from the people. Motoyama as well, even if he’s still quick, when he’d performed less, he’d still keep the support from Nissan. This is definitely not the case in Europe, as I just pointed out. Japan is just one country, with one language. It’s like a family and that’s exactly what I love so much about Japan. It’s just down to respect for what one has already achieved.

Following in Kobayashi’s footsteps is Ryo Hirakawa, who recently made his debut for the Toyota works team in the WEC. Can good performances in the WEC give him a confidence boost to finally score that coveted first Super Formula title?

It depends on Ryo’s mentality. It can definitely help if he stays humble. If he’s able to separate success and performance, doing the double program can help. On the other hand, if he all of a sudden thinks he’s the best, because he’s now in Toyota’s top squad, and he starts to point the finger at others when the result is not there, things will go definitely go wrong.

Bottom line: racing in endurance can help Ryo in Super Formula. Things he’ll learn while driving the Toyota hypercar could be useful in for setting up the Impul car. He could be the one suggesting new setups in both WEC and SF and be even quicker.  

Next: Nirei Fukuzumi. Won races with the renowned Dandelion team, could have been champion if his tyre hadn’t exploded in the first race at Suzuka, and is now rushing off to Drago, the team that finished last in the last two seasons. What do you make of that?

That’s indeed very strange. There must be something behind that, that’s for sure. Maybe, he felt he was jumping against the wall in Dandelion and he didn’t add anything to the team, he wasn’t helping them while he needs some pay back. There are some drivers who need to feel that they are giving the team something. It may sound weird, but sometime we prefer to be in a little bit under competitive team to help them improve, that would almost feel like winning, for some drivers. This is something I can understand and I’ll give you an example.

At the end of my career in Audi in endurance, I still liked racing a lot. As I could drive the car whatever I like however I like, it would just constantly do the same lap times. When I was giving ideas engineers were saying ‘No, we did the simulation and this was better than that’, and they would be right most of the time. They could tell ‘You’ll be two tenths quicker than the Toyota’ and I would be two tenths quicker than the Toyota – no matter how I drove the car.

There was no chance to leave your own mark. When you’re racing, there has to be a part of not knowing what’s next. It’s like gambling: people tend to gamble on things because they don’t know the result and it gives you a certain vibe. If you will know, from start on, what the outcome will be, it can become less interesting. Now, when you’re in a team like Dandelion, people will expect you to end up on the podium, whereas drivers of Drago are seen as heroes when they reach the top three. So I can understand his move, if it’s down to this. Who doesn’t say the sponsor got involved, offering a good cheque?

Sacha Fenestraz and Giuliano Alesi are the foreign enclave this season. Do you have any tips for your fellow countrymen? For Alesi it will be his first full-time season in the series.

I like Sacha, he is a really good guy. We’ve met when he had the opportunity to go to Japan, he called me and we had a discussion. I told him, ‘If you have the chance to go to Japan, you should absolutely positively do it’. Sacha fits in. Sacha will be assisted by my former opponent Michael Krumm, and I think it’s really smart from him to have an advisor, a mentor. I would have needed it when I was younger!

Regarding Giuliano: I do not know him that well. It could be difficult, as he’s part of the renowned TOM’S squad. He’ll need a teammate who’s eager to cooperate. When I first arrived in Super Formula, or Formula Nippon, I was paired with multiple champion Satoshi Motoyama. A young driver – me – next to the best driver around. What we did, and I loved this, was working together very closely. We shared about everything. Therefore we improved, as a team, very quick. On the track though, we were fighting like lions, touching wheels and everything! A good working relationship with your teammate is very important. One can learn a lot from another.

Giuliano is in one of the best teams, but maybe not in the best condition, as his teammate Ritomo Miyata isn’t super experienced either. From my point of view Giuliano needs to be in his own bubble and concentrate on what he’s doing, getting the trust from his engineers. I’m sure he can do it, he’s half Japanese and half French, he knows the culture and he’s got many cards in his hands, but some of them might be dangerous cards. He’s half Japanese, so the people will scrutinize him on acting Japanese. This may sound weird, but I’ve seen Japanese people getting the public opinion against them because they were acting un-Japanese!

Finally, the calendar. Ten races this year, the biggest number since 2008. Should Super Formula eventually organise more events, or does that make it less valuable?

No, I think it would be even less. In Japan the fans from Super Formula are pretty much the same as Super GT, they go to the track because they love racing. More races wouldn’t help, because it’ll never really grow as much as we would like. We shouldn’t forget it’s a national championship and the fans who visit every race, they have a budget. If you do more weekends, the fans won’t come. In Japan, you just don’t change things like this. It’s better to do less races as they are doing now, it is working very well. If you change it, it only goes down. I don’t think it will help.

Merci Benoît for this first episode of ‘Tréluyer and René’! Enjoy the opening weekend and speak soon!

De rien René, speak soon!

Header photo credit: Benoît Tréluyer / Facebook


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