From Schumacher to Palou and Fenestraz: Lawson’s predecessors in Japan

The year when Liam Lawson can call himself a full-time Super Formula driver is almost here. In 2023, the 20-year-old New Zealander gets to show his skills in the Far East, hoping to secure a Formula 1 seat for the following year. The alternative route via Japan has already proved a successful side-step for several drivers. Feeder Series puts the adventurers who went there, under the microscope.

By René Oudman

It might sound bizarre – a European-oriented racing driver deliberately moves to Japan, hoping to find a good seat in… Europe! Yet, it has been happening for years. In the 1980s, for example, when Japanese Formula 2 – as Super Formula was called at the time – was a fine counterpart to International Formula 3000.

Ivan Capelli was the first driver to be offered a seat in Formula 1, while racing for Leyton House in Japan. Capelli managed to follow up a season, in which he scored only a handful of podium finishes in Japanese Formula 2, with a full season for Leyton House March Racing Team in Formula 1 the following year.

At Capelli’s time, Geoff Lees, Eje Elgh and Mike Thackwell were also trying their luck in Japan. All were practically too old to have a decent chance of capturing a Formula 1 seat, with Lees and Thackwell having had a few Formula One opportunities already. Japan is, more or less, a safe haven, relishing on a new dimension thanks to Capelli’s success story.

Schumi II

When Emanuele Pirro also received a contract to race in Formula 1 after a season in Japan, young talents started to take the Land of the Rising Sun seriously. Not least due Honda having strong ties to teams in both formulas. Among others, Satoru Nakajima and Aguri Suzuki make their debuts in the premier class, because Honda, as an engine supplier, insists on having Japanese drivers behind the wheel of cars powered by their engines.

In the early 1990s, there is a veritable European settlement in Japan. Italians Mauro Martini and Enrico Bertaggia drive in the class, now renamed Japanese Formula 3000, as do Germans Volker Weidler and Christian Danner; Americans Jeff Krosnoff and Ross Cheever; the Swede Thomas Danielsson and even future Grand Prix winner Johnny Herbert. Later, Mika Salo, Eddie Irvine and a certain Michael Schumacher join the list of Western people traveling Eastwards.

Whereas Michael Schumacher only raced in a single round at Sugo (in which he finished second, behind Cheever), his little brother Ralf was seriously looking for options. The younger German has just finished second in the German Formula 3 championship and knew that the European-oriented F3000 championship is a robber’s menace. Schumi II headed to Japan, where the local F3000 has just been renamed Formula Nippon. In a rock-solid field, including the underrated Michael Krumm, future Le Mans legend Tom Kristensen and drivers such as Pedro de la Rosa, Toranosuke Takagi and Japanese race legend Kazuyoshi Hoshino, the younger Schumacher grabs the championship crown.

Tommy

During the Japanese season that his pupil competes in, Schumacher’s clever manager Willi Weber is in contact with Jordan, the team where he managed to stable Ralf’s older brother a few years earlier. When Ralf Schumacher wins the Formula Nippon title, a deal is struck to drive in Formula One the following year (1997). Jordan Grand Prix thus brings in yet another rookie straight outta Japan: after all, the Irish team let Irvine make his debut in late 1993.

When De la Rosa becomes champion in 1997 and thereby wins a test seat at, of course, Jordan, Japan becomes downright popular. One of the European drivers who has his sights set on Japan is Dutchman Tom Coronel. Thanks to a title in Japanese Formula 3 and a win at the prestigious Marlboro Masters at Zandvoort, he put himself in the picture. A title in Formula Nippon followed in 1999, after which Coronel got a brief sniff of Formula 1. He tests for Arrows, but it would not go beyond that.

However, the next move on is already there and it turns out to be a late bloomer. Ralph Firman, once successful in British Formula 3, had been racing in Japan for years when, in 2002, he manages to beat legendary Japanese driver Satoshi Motoyama in a direct duel. Firman becomes Formula Nippon champion and gets a chance in Formula 1. Naturally, Jordan’s team is the racing stable for which he gets to make his Formula 1 debut.

Endurance trio

Plans to make it to Formula 1 via Japan may well end differently. Just ask André Lotterer, Benoît Tréluyer and Loïc Duval. Lotterer and Duval headed to Japan in 2003 and 2006, hoping to revive their stalled careers in Europe and possibly earn a spot in Formula 1. For Tréluyer, who travelled to the East as early as 2001, Formula Nippon was mainly a stopgap, having no money and very few options.

The European trio grow into great friends in Japan. Growing as drivers, they are given more and more responsibility, but also as people. The standard of manners in Japan is notably different from what they are used to in Europe and that requires a certain adaptability. Lotterer, Tréluyer and Duval perform so well that they become crowd favourites.

The three friends become draw the attention of Audi who recruits them for their Le Mans programme. Each of the three – Lotterer and Tréluyer even as direct teammates – is selected to race for the German marque in the endurance classic and all three win the race in northern France as well. The success of Lotterer, Tréluyer and Duval shows that there is also a route through Japan to global success in other ways. An honourable mention goes to João Paulo de Oliveira, who has a wonderful, decades-long racing career to show for his move to Japan.

Development problems

Formula 1 teams in the 2010s have shiploads of talent, there was a shortage of places to put them all. McLaren was keen to field their development driver Stoffel Vandoorne, but with Fernando Alonso and Jenson Button, the team already has two very capable drivers for the 2016 Formula One season. McLaren’s management decides to accommodate Vandoorne in Super Formula, as Formula Nippon is now called. A logical sidestep, since McLaren was working with Honda at the time.

For Vandoorne, it turned out to be a convenient move. Racing instead of sat on the sidelines, he also boosts his market value when the Belgian manages to win a race. For those who think it wouldn’t be too much of challenge for a GP2 champion to win in Super Formula, consider for a moment that ninety per cent of the opponents have been racing for years at tracks where the European-oriented driver has never ever been in his life.

Adaptability is key for young talents sent to Japan. Think Pierre Gasly, who got to show his skills in the Far East in 2017. The Frenchman does so well that he gets to make an appearance in the premier class even during that year’s Formula One season. An honorable mention goes to Felix Rosenqvist, who proved equal to Gasly in their time in Japan.

Cassidy and Palou

Just before a global pandemic, two foreigners turned out to be taste-makers in Super Formula. Nick Cassidy, weighed down by political decisions in Formula 3, heads to Japan and shakes things up there with championship titles in Super Formula and Super GT. Álex Palou also competes in Japan in the season that Cassidy becomes champion (2019) earning him a seat in the IndyCar Series there (thanks to Team Goh.)

Giuliano Alesi tries the jump to Japan after two difficult seasons in Formula 2, but apart from a lucky, yet ironclad win at a rained-out Autopolis, he fails to make it. It just goes to show how difficult it is to switch to another country (Alesi is half-Japanese) and adapt. Sacha Fenestraz, on the other hand, does get the job done. The Franco-Argentine, who completed only his second full Super Formula season in 2022, impressively drives to the vice championship. As a result, Fenestraz is now racing for Nissan’s Formula E team.

Liam Lawson will be looking to join the special list in 2023 that includes Capelli, Irvine, Schumacher, Vandoorne and Gasly. At Team Mugen and pairing with Tomoki Nojiri, he at least has the best conceivable team and teammate at his disposal. Will Lawson succeed in Super Formula in 2023?

Header photo credit: Red Bull Content Pool

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