The winners and losers of 2023’s Super Formula transfer carousel

Rarely has a winter break been as interesting as that of the Japanese Super Formula Championship. For weeks, there has been uncertainty about the participating drivers and teams. Now, there is a list of participants, but that one is far from definite. Feeder Series highlights the winners and losers of a crazy Super Formula transfer carousel.

By René Oudman

First, some background: the Japanese Super Formula Championship is East Asia’s premier open-wheel class. With Honda and Toyota, two of the country’s biggest car manufacturers are represented. The split is close to 50/50 – officially Honda supplies nine engines and Toyota eleven, but as we will note later in this article, negotiations are still ongoing.

In general, Japanese teams like stability. Certainly, drivers with a decent honours list do not have to worry too much about contract renewal. In that respect, moves are different in Japan. Great champions are allowed to stay on indefinitely, purely because they have performed well in the distant past. There is absolutely no question of a quick turnover, as in Formula 3, for example.

This is precisely why it is so special that the Super Formula entry list changed in seven areas. Former names flew out, much-discussed talents came to the side-lines, and drivers under pressure were strangely allowed to keep their spots. Who is the big winner and who lost before the Super Formula season even started?

Winners

If Red Bull buys you a seat and therefore side-lines a major talent in the process, you’re allowed to call yourself the big winner of the transfer window. Liam Lawson arrives from Europe after two full seasons in Formula 2. The New Zealander takes a place at Team Mugen, which captured both the drivers’ and teams’ championships last year.

Kakunoshin Ohta came six points short of crowning his rookie season in Super Formula Lights with a title win, but he has done enough at Toda Racing to force a contract in the premier class. The 23-year-old Japanese driver, who raced to the podium in 12 of 18 SFL races last year, claiming victory four times, joins the Dandelion Honda team. Quite a leap, but team boss Kiyoshi Muraoka considers Ohta mature enough.

 Tomoki Nojiri smiling
Lawson will go to Team Mugen, who won the championship last year with Tomoki Nojiri | Credit: Super Formula

After a year of driving around with the support of Red Bull at Team Goh, Ren Sato was in danger of disappearing into the twilight zone. Okay, his ability to race cars is just fine, but whether he is good enough for the absolute top isn’t really clear yet. Sato was suddenly given a lifeline when Nakajima Racing was in need of a driver and thus the young Japanese will join the team of Satoru Nakajima and star driver Naoki Yamamoto next year.

The results recorded by Giuliano Alesi in the 2022 Super Formula season were the definition of poor. While the Japanese-Frenchman excelled as a part-timer in 2021 with a surprising victory in his second Super Formula race at Autopolis, he did not feature in the play at all in 2022. He scored three points, all three in the same race, remaining scoreless nine times, while his TOM’S Teammate Ritomo Mitaya recorded eight points finishes and two podiums. It is a miracle that Alesi is allowed to stay, but that makes him a moral winner.

The Super Formula grid will also welcome two newcomers who have both had winning campaigns in 2022. Replacing Sacha Fenestraz at Kondō Racing will be Kazuto Kotaka from Super Formula Lights, who is the best example that the Japanese single-seater ladder works perfectly. Having clinched the 2022 Formula Regional Americas title, South African–born British racer Raoul Hyman will join the series after being granted a scholarship to join Super Formula with a Honda-powered team. He will line up alongside Nobuharu Matsushita at B-Max Racing, which will engage one car more compared to last year.

Losers

You can hardly imagine it, but the driver who won 20 per cent of all Super Formula races last year is off the track this season (again). Ukyo Sasahara’s road at Honda reached a dead end and he saw that coming, which is why he made the bold move to Toyota. However, the latter brand did not dare to put Sasahara in the second TOM’S car, and thus the Japanese has to settle for a seat in Super GT.

Hiroki Otsu was Rookie of the Year in 2021 but totally failed to make it in Super Formula last year. The 28-year-old drove to a strong second place in the last race of the year, but that proved too little, too late. He finished far outside the points four times, while his Dandelion teammate Tadasuke Makino competed with Miyata for the ‘best of the rest’ title. Otsu had to pack up, his place being given away to the aforementioned Ohta.

Blue Super Formula car crossing the line while people celebrate from the pit lane
Despite a successful 2022 campaign, Ukyo Sasahara will not compete in Super Formula in 2023 | Credit: Super Formula

In the corridors, a well-known motorsport name was repeatedly mentioned regarding a race seat in the 2023 Super Formula season. Former Formula 1 driver Roberto Merhi was said to be in talks with B-Max Racing and with Team Goh, but the former team opted for Raoul Hyman’s scholarship funds and the latter team was not certain to be on the 2023 grid. As a result, the driver nicknamed ‘Pupo’, who already drove three races in Super Formula Lights, will have to wait a little longer for his Super Formula debut.

Loser… or not yet?

Besides Sasahara, one-time Super Formula race winner Toshiki Oyu is the big absentee from the 2023 entry list. The 24-year-old driver from Sapporo has made it particularly difficult for himself by claiming to be ready for a new challenge, something that took Nirei Fukuzumi from Dandelion to Drago Corse last year.

However, teams were not lining up for Oyu, which is not entirely illogical. After a couple of hopeful seasons, the Justin Bieber of the Super Formula field was actually a bit invisible. Okay, he scored more points than his vaunted teammate Yamamoto, but the three-time champion in turn managed to win at least one race. Oyu was on the podium once in Sugo but otherwise mostly drove behind the top drivers.

Still, Oyu seems to be in line for another chance. At the end of January, it was announced Super Formula would be welcoming a new Honda-powered team: TGM Grand Prix, created out of the ashes of Team Goh. It is believed Turkish sim racer Cem Bölükbaşı, who completed a part-time Formula 2 season last year, is behind the takeover of Team Goh’s inventory.

TGM will be receiving a technical support from Servus Japan and has already announced they will be lining up two cars on the grid, which could allow Oyu to make a last-minute Sasahara-like comeback as well.

The 2023 Japanese Super Formula Championship season starts on Saturday, 8 April, with a race at Fuji Speedway.

Header image credit: Super Formula

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