Why Japan has suddenly become attractive (again) for aspiring F1 drivers

Ask the average motorsports fan to name the last five Super Formula champions and chances are he or she can’t even tell you one. It’s odd, especially since Japan’s top class single seater racing category is particularly exciting, and for years has been a popular feeder series for junior talent. Recently there has been a resurgence in the attention received by Super Formula from outside Japan. F1 Feeder Series explains why.

By René Oudman

Imagine: you’re a young racing driver who’s dreaming of a future in Formula One. In the recent past, you’ve achieved strong results in the feeder series – you won, for example, a couple of Formula 2 races, you became champion in Formula 3 or you captured a Formula Regional title. Your sights is firmly set on a long career in the pinnacle of motorsport, so why would you even bother looking at the Japanese Super Formula Championship?

The answer to that question has several layers. Different factors come to mind. One of the most logical, and therefore the least interesting, is the fact that there are only twenty seats available in Formula One. Suppose you are number twenty-one, then there won’t be a spot for you – clear as it can be. The days when every well-meaning privateer signed up a five-year-old rattle car so that you could at least (try to) make your Formula 1 début, are long gone.

Comparison

If a talented young driver is in danger of being left out of Formula 1, it is in his, or her best interest to at least keep racing at a high level. This can of course be done in Formula 2 or Formula 3, but if you have raced in those classes for several years, it might be time to look elsewhere.

The great thing about Japan is: you just don’t fly in and win. That may not sound very convincing to drivers who are trying to get into the F1 picture, but this cloud has a silver lining. It’s actually better to beat a bunch of highly talented, super quick drivers, than to win a regional league cup. How come those Japanese drivers are so highly talented? The majority of the grid has raced at the same tracks for years, and years, and years. Bare in mind, there are only a handful of FIA licensed tracks in Japan.

Experience is vital in motorsport. It starts in go-karting. If you go to a karting circuit for the first time, you’ll probably need a few laps to get used to the track. A few months later upon your return the track will be fresh in your mind, knowing exactly which corner should be cut in which way, you’ll most likely lap faster than the average kart driver. Here comes the comparison with Japan: in Super Formula, some drivers have been racing at Suzuka for over fifteen years. They know every inch of the track and therefore become seemingly unbeatable for incoming talents.

Seemingly, because every now and then a driver manages to beat the veterans. Think André Lotterer, think Benoît Tréluyer, think Ralf Schumacher, think Álex Palou. Liam Lawson is the next prodigy to walk the Japanese path, one which Pierre Gasly (2017) and Stoffel Vandoorne (2016) recently trod. The task at hand is clear: as a rookie, at least stay in the wake of phenomenally fast Japanese drivers such as Tomoki Nojiri and Naoki Yamamoto, and a chance at Formula One might just be up for grabs.

Diplomatic red tape

Japan hasn’t been a haven for young talents lately with the exception of Giuliano Alesi. Japan imposed strict rules on who could enter the country during the Covid-19 pandemic. Alesi, who has dual nationality due to his Japanese mother and French father, moved from Formula 2 to Super Formula Lights before the start of the 2021 season. All those without Japanese citizenship were prohibited from entering the country.

Consider the bizarre situation surrounding Sacha Fenestraz. The Franco-Argentine headed to Japan ahead of the 2019 season to give his career a new impulse. Fenestraz won the 2019 Japanese Formula 3 Championship and got the nod from Toyota to get in one of their Super Formula machines, driving for Kondo Racing. After a difficult debut year 2020, in which Fenestraz lived in his Japanese rental place, he decided to travel back to mainland Europe around Christmas.

Sacha Fenestraz in Super Formula testing at Fuji | Credit: Super Formula

It was at that point that things went badly wrong. Despite being allowed to travel to France, as being a French citizen who handed in a negative test, and flying via his home country towards Saudi Arabia to attend the first races of the Formula E season – in his role as Jaguar reserve – Fenestraz simply wasn’t allowed back into Japan. His residency visa appeared to have expired and the Japanese government – not known for its reluctance to cooperate voluntarily – proved adamant. For months, Fenestraz, who paid rent and taxes in Japan, sat in Europe, praying his fate would eventually change.

Since Japan reopened its borders and major international sporting events appeared back on the calendar, it has become easier for athletes to travel back to the Far East. Drivers like Lawson, Formula Regional Americas champion Raoul Hyman, former Formula One driver Roberto Merhi and sim racer-turned-into-pro Cem Bölükbaşı flew eastwards to race and/or practice. David Vidales, Lirim Zendeli and Igor Fraga also made brief appearances in Japan recently.

Machinery

As discussed in a recent episode of the F1 Feeder Series podcast, in which Tatíana Calderón shed her light on Super Formula, among other things, the Super Formula car is a different animal. Cornering speeds match Formula 1 and on the straight, the Japanese single-seaters are only a few kilometres per hour down compared to the king class of motorsport.

Super Formula is the perfect intermediate step for drivers who fall between two stools after Formula 2. That’s exactly why, for example, Dr Helmut Marko sent his then pupil Gasly to Japan: if Gasly managed to hold his own in the Super Formula cars, he would be ready for action in Formula 1. With that same thought, Lawson has recently been transferred towards the East.

Calderon SF 2020
Tatiana Calderon competing with ThreeBond DRAGO CORSE in Super Formula in 2020 | Credit: ThreeBond DRAGO CORSE

Cash Moneyz

Both Gasly and Vandoorne were promoted towards Formula 1 after just one year of Super Formula. Álex Palou joined Dale Coyne Racing via Team Goh in the IndyCar Series and Felix Rosenqvist laid the foundations for his American career with a season in Japan. The foreign Super Formula brigade of the 2010s has proved extremely successful and is considered a model for new boys Lawson, Hyman and Bölükbaşı.

But there’s always an opportunity to stay in Japan and not head back to Europe. Of the 2000s batch of foreign drivers, many have opted to stay in Japan. Both André Lotterer (2011 champion), Benoît Tréluyer (2006 champion, with whom F1 Feeder Series had a long conversation earlier this year) and Loïc Duval (2009 champion) arrived in Japan with the idea of seeking an alternative route to Formula One, but ended up finding a long career in endurance racing.

Honda and Toyota, the manufacturers present in Super Formula, also race in the Japanese Super GT Series. Super GT class is regarded higher nationally than Super Formula, and Honda, Toyota and their direct competitor Nissan care deeply about their Super GT programmes. As a result, each of those manufacturers are putting in a lot of yens in their Super GT programme, therefore most of the top drivers are paid handsomely. Besides, life in Japan seems to be particularly relaxing: moreover, as Tréluyer described to F1 Feeder Series, it has helped him immensely in growing as an adult.

Conclusion

The move to Japan is not just a sporting one. Drivers like Lawson, and in the past Gasly and Vandoorne, were sent eastwards because there were simply no new roads to follow in Europe. Young drivers get quite a culture shock compared to what they are normally used to and have little time to adapt. Moreover, the cars driven regarded to be the closest thing to Formula 1 cars outside the series.

Fenestraz is the most recent graduate of the Japanese school of learning. After a pretty successful year, in which he won a race and finished second in the overall standings behind the unstoppable Nojiri, the Franco-Argentine will be allowed to show his skills in Formula E next year in the service of Nissan. It will be up to Lawson, Hyman and Bölükbaşı to master the Japanese racing culture as quickly as possible.

Header photo credit: Red Bull Content Pool

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