The 2022 edition of the Japanese Super Formula Championship has concluded. Tomoki Nojiri defended his title in style, whilst Sacha Fenestraz earned a transfer to Formula E and several drivers had their moment in the spotlight. F1 Feeder Series takes a look at the key takeaways from the season.
By René Oudman
Two titles in a row in the Japanese Super Formula Championship – no one had ever done that before. The last time a driver won Japan’s highest open-wheel class championship in consecutive years, the competition was still known as Formula Nippon. After Tsugio Matsuda’s crowning moments in 2007 and 2008 no driver had managed to defend his championship win in this series, although Naoki Yamamoto came agonizingly close in 2019.
From the get go, Tomoki Nojiri, the 2021 Super Formula champion, did not seem as dominant as last year – when he won three of the seven races. In 2022, the 33-year-old ‘only’ crossed the finish line in first position twice out of ten races, the last of which took place after already being crowned champion.
Nojiri’s strength was in his unprecedented consistency. Since dropping out from pole position in the last race of 2020 the Japanese star driver has not finished lower than sixth. In 2022 he never even drove outside the top four when the chequered flag was shown. With only top-four finishes, Nojiri easily outclassed his closest opponents. With a phenomenal lead of no less than 65 points (where 20 are handed out for a win) Nojiri closed a memorable year the right way.
The rise of Sacha
It had been announcing itself for a while, but due to the particularly strict entry rules into Japan due to Covid-19, Sacha Fenestraz had to be patient before he could show his true nature in Super Formula. The 23-year-old Franco-Argentine had scored a podium finish in his first Super Formula season, but was not able to make a significant impact on the championship due to frequent bad luck due to frequent bad luck. Things had to change for 2022.
Fenestraz, who managed to compete in two rounds of the 2021 season after travel restrictions to Japan were eased, showed himself to be one of the biggest challengers to defending champion Nojiri right from the start of the 2022 season. The Kondō Racing driver immediately scored a podium finish in the first race of the year at Fuji Speedway and going on to finish P6 or above a further six times. The highlight of 2022 being his first victory during Round 5 at Sportsland SUGO.
Falling short to be a real threat for Nojiri’s crown, four years after leaving Europe, the talented 23-year-old has forced his way back into the western racing scene thanks to this season’s sterling performance. Because of his link with Japan, Fenestraz has been approached by Nissan to join the factory team that will make its appearance in Formula E next season. It is not yet known whether Fenestraz will combine his new job with work in the Far East.
The qualifying struggles of Ryo
One of the biggest question marks of the 2022 Japanese Super Formula Championship was the qualifying pace of Ryo Hirakawa. The winner of the 2022 24 Hours of Le Mans could effortlessly hold his own at the front in the races, but during the qualifying sessions he struggled to put his Impul car on the front row. Hirakawa didn’t score a single pole position and even had to start from the back pack several times.
In stark contrast to his qualifying performances, the Japanese racing hero really came alive on race day, who passed his opponents left, right, inside and outside. SUGO proved to be the highlight where Hirakawa overtook no less than nine opponents. Unfortunately for the Toyota works driver he started from 16th and the final result was limited to P7.
Hirakawa has the talent to take the Japanese Super Formula championship to his name. His race pace is extraordinary and the way he manages to pass competitors almost inimitable. However, qualifying performances will need to improve to give himself a fighting chance in 2023.
The biggest revelation of the 2022 season was not one of the aforementioned three drivers. Nojiri and Hirakawa were expected to perform and even Fenestraz was a known quantity as an up-and-coming talent. What no one saw coming was the surprise of the year, none other than Ukyo Sasahara.
The talented 26-year-old showed himself to be a strong substitute on several occasions in the recent past. Driving for Team Mugen’s Red Bull-sponsored entry in 2020 and two races at the start of 2021 for Dandelion. Some argued that Sasahara was more entitled to the second Dandelion seat than rookie of the year Hiroki Otsu and in hindsight that would not have been a wrong choice.
Sasahara only heard shortly before the start of the season there was a seat available for him to race in Super Formula. He had already resigned himself to a role in Super GT due to B-Max changing their plans from a two-car to a one-car team, but Team Mugen’s availability of a second car allowed the youngster to step in. Pole for the first race, a surprising and fortunate victory at Motegi and then another scorching win at Suzuka meant that the Numata native finished the year in a surprising, but well deserved, P6 in the championship standings.
Fourteen podium finishers
2022 was a strong year for Super Formula as out of the 21 drivers on the grid, each and every one one of them competed in all rounds. Not something that could be said of previous seasons. Out of those 21 drivers as many as 14 were on the podium of honour. Besides Nojiri (8 times), Fenestraz (4 times), Hirakawa (4 times) and Sasahara (2 times), there was Ritomo Miyata, Tadasuke Makino (twice), Yuhi Sekiguchi, Toshiki Oyu, Naoki Yamamoto, Hiroki Otsu, Sho Tsuboi, Ren Sato, Nobuharu Matsushita and Atsushi Miyake (once). An increase from last year, when 11 of the 25 competitors reached the podium.
Super Formula once again proved hugely exciting and extremely competitive. Nojiri stamped his authority on the championship but behind him a wonderful duel unfolded. Several young dogs – including a strong performing Makino and an equally fast-growing Miyata – were eager to push the veteran off his throne.
The start of the 2023 Japanese Super Formula Championship will take place on the second weekend of April at the Fuji Speedway in Oyama. With Liam Lawson rumoured to be around and the competition being as eager as ever to dethrone the champion, you’re not going to want to miss anything from this class next year!
Header photo credit: Super Formula
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