A sun-drenched Fuji Speedway hosted the first two races of the 2022 Super Formula season. Toyota star Ryo Hirakawa and reigning champion Tomoki Nojiri (Honda) secured the wins, but what are the key takeaways from the Super Formula opening weekend? F1 Feeder Series picks six.
By René Oudman
Mugen vs. Toyota
After the two pre-season tests, Honda drivers shared the same thought: Toyota has found something in the winter, which gives them a better hand than was the case in 2021. Crowds were gearing up for a Toyota party at Fuji Speedway, where the long straight makes up a third of the circuit, after all. While Honda powerhouses Dandelion and Nakajima Racing indeed took a bow, one Honda team in particular managed to keep its back straight.
Mugen drivers Ukyo Sasahara and Tomoki Nojiri scored the first two pole positions of the season. It’s common knowledge that Nojiri is fast, but Sasahara’s qualifying pace as seen on both Saturday, where he secured pole, and Sunday, when he captured P3, was a big surprise. Bear in mind that Sasahara’s package only came together about six weeks ago. However, unlike his teammate, who triumphed on Sunday, Sasahara was unable to convert his first place on the grid into a good result. Torque problems hampered Sasahara, who stood by idly while the entire field passed him. To make matters worse, this exact problem happened again on Sunday, when Sasahara started from P3 and lost all ground again.
Nevertheless, Team Mugen, and even Sasahara, can look back on the opening weekend feeling satisfied. In advance, when the Honda squad thought Toyota would demolish them, Mugen would’ve signed up for a first place in the drivers’ championship, a second place in the teams’ championship, two pole positions and a win. Those pole positions are valuable: thanks to the three bonus points a pole position scores, Nojiri holds first place in the drivers’ championship, as he accumulated more points than Hirakawa, despite both drivers collecting a first and a second place finish this weekend.
Impressive Team Impul
In the team championship, Mugen has to deal with Toyota squad Team Impul. The black-and-gold brigade of Japanese racing legend Kazuyoshi Hoshino blitzed the start of this new season. Whereas qualifying could have gone better (P3 and P8 on Saturday, P8 and P16 on Sunday), their race pace is second-to-none.
Newly WEC works driver Ryo Hirakawa heroically flew to victory on Saturday, passing champion Nojiri round the outside en route to the finish line, while teammate Yuhi Sekiguchi stormed to the front with an alternative strategy, scoring valuable points thanks to his fourth place finish.
On Sunday, Sekiguchi’s performance was perhaps even more impressive: the 34-year-old went from P16 to P1, only to be the very last to make his mandatory pit stop, visiting his crew after he kept his tires alive no less than 30 of the scheduled 41 laps. Where teammate Hirakawa finished in second place, keeping winner Nojiri in sight, Sekiguchi was able to ease the pain of his poor qualifying performance with a sixth-place finish.
TOM’S targets top
After Nick Cassidy’s departure to Formula E and the absence, and eventual retirement, of Kazuki Nakajima, TOM’S looked somewhat rudderless last year. Right – it’s not easy making strides with two rookies, but Nobuhide Tachi’s legendary stable should be expected to do more than just finish a dull sixth in the overall standings – narrowly keeping the single entry from Red Bull Mugen Team Goh at bay.
Having competed in five races last year, Giuliano Alesi officially can’t be named a rookie anymore, while Ritomo Miyata is in his sophomore full-time season. Critics claimed that TOM’S would fare better with Sacha Fenestraz, who scored his second podium finish in Super Formula this weekend after a good performance on Saturday, behind the wheel of the #36 car rather than his countryman Alesi. Whereas the latter clearly struggled to find his rhythm at Fuji – ending the weekend on a positive note with eighth place and four valuable points – Miyata, thanks in part to the strong Toyota engine, went like a bullet train.
Fifth place on Saturday was encouraging – the most points Miyata had ever scored in a Super Formula race -, but it got even better on Sunday. The talented youngster stormed to the front, constantly battling for the lead. In the end, third place was Miyata’s reward: the boy wonder (finally) got his first Super Formula podium.
Miyake mighty while Ren runs
Fresh blood is always good – but when they’re good at racing, it gets even more interesting. Goh duo Ren Sato (20) and Atsushi Miyake (23) wowed the Super Formula paddock at Fuji. Red Bull Junior Sato already had shown flashes of speed during the pre-season test, but silenced his critics with a stunning second place on the grid for the first race.
A poor start and a smack from Hiroki Otsu seemed to put a damper on a good result, but Sato did not give up that easily. After a hard fought race, the young Japanese driver finished ninth – one place ahead of teammate Miyake, who as well celebrated his debut with a points-scoring finish.
Sato qualified strongly for race two (P4), got away badly again, but was not able to turn the tide like he did on Saturday. Team-mate Miyake, on the other hand, moved towards the front: starting in ninth, the Goh-driver raced to a strong fifth place, just eight tenths shy of fourth placed veteran Kenta Yamashita. Once Sato gets it all right, he is definitely able to stunt at some point this year.
Kobayashi takes no prisoners
The saying ‘A tiger cannot change its stripes’ still resonates with Kamui Kobayashi. The KCMG driver once again showed his fighting spirit, the side he’s best known for. KCMG’s cars weren’t the best around – on Saturday, Kobayashi and teammate Yuji Kunimoto, the 2016 champion, occupied the tenth row of the grid – but its star driver didn’t go out without a fight.
Despite seeing half the field chasing him at one point, the 24 Hours of Le Mans winner held on strongly. Ukyo Sasahara and Sacha Fenestraz weren’t able to get the better of the one-time Formula One podium finisher, while Otsu and Alesi were only able to pass after a hard-fought duel. It would be nice to see Kobayashi being equipped with slightly better material, as his eagerness and drive is most certainly still there.
After a lousy 2021 Super Formula season, analysts suddenly kept an eye on Sho Tsuboi after the pre-season test. The youngster, who once achieved unwanted fame as a ski jump for an out of control Sophia Floersch at Macau, looked set for revenge. Tsuboi won two races in 2020 and was therefore identified as a title contender for 2021, but the INGING driver failed miserably, with one seventh place as his best result. Top times in the pre-season tests suggested that Tsuboi had found his way back to the front. Coupled with the rock-solid Toyota engine, ingredients for success were there.
However, Tsuboi was invisible at Fuji. A tenth place in qualifying on Saturday became starting position twelve after a penalty, from which an eighth place finish proved the highest possible. On Sunday, no points were scored from starting position eleven. In fairness, teammate Sena Sakaguchi was unable to score a single point, leaving the INGING squad with just the three Tsuboi bagged on Saturday. While Kondo, TOM’S and especially Impul had heydays in Fuji, Tsuboi and Sakaguchi’s team against all odds is lagging behind.
Fuji Race 1
1. Ryo Hirakawa
2. Tomoki Nojiri
3. Sacha Fenestraz
Fuji Race 2
1. Tomoki Nojiri
2. Ryo Hirakawa
3. Ritomo Miyata
Standings after first two races
1. Tomoki Nojiri 38 pt
2. Ryo Hirakawa 36 pt
3. Ritomo Miyata 19 pt
4. Yuhi Sekiguchi 13 pt
5. Sacha Fenestraz 11 pt
Super Formula Lights
Race 1: Seita Nonaka (TOM’S)
Race 2: Kazuto Kotaka (TOM’S)
Race 3: Hibiki Taira (TOM’S)
SFL standings after first three rounds
1. Hibiki Taira 21 pt
2. Seita Nonaka 17 pt
3. Kazuto Kotaka 15 pt
Header photo credit: Super Formula
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