Sportsland SUGO always guarantees interesting races, as the past weekend proved once again. Sacha Fenestraz scored his first Super Formula victory and Le Mans winner Ryo Hirakawa overtook nine competitors, but what are the key takeaways from the fifth round of the championship? F1 Feeder Series lists them for you.
By René Oudman
Laughter and tears for Kondo
It wasn’t the question anymore if, but when Sacha Fenestraz would score his first Super Formula win. The 22-year old Franco-Argentine racer showed brilliant pace during winter testing which he utilised to collect podium spots at Fuji (1) and Autopolis. With a vicotry seeming inevitable, Fenestraz didn’t put a foot wrong in his quest to glory and therefore the French national anthem La Marseillaise blasted through the sound systems, breaking the streak of Japanese race wins since Sugo last year. Fenestraz and Kondo made their title intentions clear with a brilliant victory.
Thanks to Sunday’s victory, Fenestraz holds third in the championship with 57 points, only seven points adrift of second placed Ryo Hirakawa, and already more than double the points from his 2020 and 2021 campaigns combined.
While the #4 side of Kondo’s garage is soaking up the champagne, Fenestraz’ team mate Kenta Yamashita still doesn’t seem able to catch a bit of a break. After an extremely weak 2021 season, the 26-year-old – who once was poised to grab that coveted seat at the Toyota WEC factory squad instead of Hirakawa – appeared to have found the fast lane again earlier this season. At the opening weekend at Fuji, Yamashita finished a decent fourth in Round 2. However, since then Yamashita failed to score a single point and where teammate Fenestraz took the win, Yamashita left the SUGO circuit without a single point, for the fourth time in 2022, after an early retirement. Yamashita’s last podium finish – scored in August 2020 – feels like lightyears ago.
Qualifying sessions don’t win you championships, right?
A good performance on Saturday does not necessarily mean you’ll score the most points. For example, take a look at the 2022 Formula One season, in which Charles Leclerc has racked up a fine amount of pole positions, but holds only third in the World Championship standings. Over in Japan, we’ve got a qualifying monster as well. 2021 series champion Tomoki Nojiri has now scored four pole positions on the trot, approaching Tsugio Matsuda’s record of six consecutive pole positions.
Although Nojiri managed to get pole at every single event (Fuji was a double header), the 32-year old has only won one race, the second of the two at Fuji Speedway. Hereafter, Nojiri had to acknowledge Nobuharu Matsushita’s driving abilities in Suzuka’s water ballet and Hirakawa’s tactical masterclass at Autopolis. To put salt in the wounds, Fenestraz and Toshiki Oyu beat Nojiri for first and second at Sugo.
Still, Nojiri’s dominant qualifying pace could win Nojiri a second crown at the end of this year. Bear in mind, the top three in each qualifying session is awarded bonus points – a single point for third, two for P2, and a seemingly important three for the pole-sitter. Therefore, Nojiri’s four pole positions already earned him no less then twelve bonus points, contributing to his seventeen-point champoinship lead, and with things being so close, the ‘qualification points’, so to speak, could end up being the deciding factor this season.
Bold moves do win you championships, right?
On the other hand, there is Ryo Hirakawa. A week after his greatest triumph, the new 24 Hours of Le Mans winner was back on his beloved stage in front of the home crowd, and he managed to get them on their feet again. Hirakawa, who has a strange love-hate affair with qualifying either performing brilliantly on Saturdays or starting Sunday’s race with a lot of work to do, maintained this polarised form with a disappointing P16 start at Sugo. Alright, Matsushita did block him, but as a Le Mans winner, Hirakawa should be able to find gaps in traffic.
From there, the Impul driver once again showed he has what it takes to be a top echelon racing driver. With the knife in his teeth, Hirakawa fought his way forward, bravely overtaking one after another. By the time the flag dropped, 28-year-old Hirakawa had worked his way past no fewer than nine opponents. Throwing it down the inside, dancing around the outside, Hirakawa looked like he set the game on easy mode.
Still, because of that lousy sixteenth place on the grid, those nine overtakes yielded no more than a P7 at the finish. To make matters worse, championship leader Nojiri finished third, allowing himself to build the gap once more. With Nojiri also taking the aforementioned bonus points for pole, the gap has grown by ten points this weekend, which leaves Hirakawa staring at a 17-point deficit.
Influencers on track
During a motor race with professional drivers, it’s obvious that one of the drivers could end up in a gravel trap or on the grass, only to get stuck and retire. There’s no rocket science used for that thought, it’s logical and well known all around the motor racing world. Sometimes, a yellow flag is being waived, or a Safety Car joins the track. Completely understandable.
The fact that two Safety Car phases for two separate incidents – one of which being extremely mild – took up no less than fourteen laps of the race, eventually shortening it by two laps due to the time limit, is quite remarkable and foremost wrong. This race has brought about serious doubts regarding the efficiency of the Super Formula marshalling system, which may need to be reviewed after a considerable amount of racing action was stolen by seemingly unnecessary time delay. After Yamashita spun in turn one, lap one, the action only resumed a full seven laps later.
Shortly after – let’s say, twenty seconds after the green flag was shown – Matsushita spun off, providing another Safety Car phase. Again, it took the marshals a considerable amount of time to clear the stranded car, resulting in another 6-lap neutralization. Besides the chap who sprinted onto the front straight to pick up Sena Sakaguchi’s Asterix wing at the end of the race, the Sugo marshals definitely were a hinderance to the racing action.
Ren Sato should raise his game
As a direct successor to Takuya Izawa, Matsushita, Nirei Fukuzumi, Tadasuke Makino, Teppei Natori, Yuki Tsunoda, and Ayumu Iwasa, youngster Ren Sato is poised to go Europe-bound after this season, with Honda clearly intending to put the 20-year old in FIA Formula 2 if his results show he is ready for such a move.
Sato is being groomed at Team Goh, prepared to make his second trip to Europe, after the first one resulted in a strong second place in the 2020 French Formula 4 season, behind the aforementioned Iwasa. On Saturdays, Sato is proving to be quite the competitor. The youngster stood on one of the front rows of the grid more than once, with a second place grid spot at the season opener in Fuji as his personal highlight.
However, on Sundays, it still doesn’t quite work out. Sato has had a couple of great races, but on several occasions he did so after already having no chance of a top ranking, due to a spin or a collision. Therefore, Sato has ‘only’ collected five points in five races, of which two came after his great qualifying at Fuji, thanks to the bonus points system. Especially when considering team mate Atsushi Miyake collected that stunning third place in Autopolis, and given Sato’s future dreams, the young driver needs to raise his game in the second half of the season. Spinning in the closing stage of the Sugo round is definitely not the way to go.
The Sugo Curse
And of course, when racing at Sugo, it’s always there: the Sugo Curse. Nobody who starts from pole position won it in recent years, as was the case for Nojiri in 2022. In addition, Ritomo Miyata, who held the lead for most of the race, wasn’t allowed by the race gods to win either. TOM’S driver Miyata, who unlike podium finishers Fenestraz, Oyu, and Nojiri didn’t pit immediately at the opening of the pit stop window during the second Safety Car phase, had to sit idly by in the closing stages as after a late, and bad, pit stop, he was only able to manage P6.
Alright – points still are points, and every point counts, but Miyata probably expected more than a sixth place at the halfway mark. As his lead over Fenestraz, who, as said above, had already pitted, grew steadily, Miyata was probably dreaming of victory – or at least a podium finish. Due to a slow pit stop and the race time limit being reached, Miyata wasn’t able to get the most out of his class drive. It has to be said that, unlike his well-known teammate Giuliano Alesi, the man sporting number 37 is having a great season.
– Toshiki Oyu and Nakajima Racing finally on the podium again (first time in 2022)
– It’s only a matter of time before Tadasuke Makino, who finished a strong fourth, gets his first win
– Drago finally scored points thanks to Nirei Fukuzumi, who’s steadily improving
– Cerumo/INGING disappoints again, with promises made in winter testing forgotten
Results of Round 5 at Sportsland SUGO
1. Sacha Fenestraz
2. Toshiki Oyu
3. Tomoki Nojiri
4. Tadasuke Makino
5. Hiroki Otsu
6. Ritomo Miyata
7. Ryo Hirakawa
8. Nirei Fukuzumi
9. Yuji Kunimoto
10. Ukyo Sasahara
Updated points’ standings:
1. Tomoki Nojiri, 81 points
2. Ryo Hirakawa, 64 pts
3. Sacha Fenestraz, 57 pts
4. Ritomo Miyata, 32 pts
Super Formula Lights at SUGO
Round 10: 1. Kotaka, 2. Taira, 3. Hiraki
Round 11: 1. Kotaka, 2. Furutani, 3. Ohta
Round 12: 1. Kotaka, 2. Taira, 3. Nonaka
Standings in Super Formula Lights after 12 of 18 rounds:
1. Kotaka (78), 2. Ohta (74), 3. Taira (48)
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Header photo credit: SUPERSHOT