How Liam Lawson’s arrival in Super Formula nearly killed one of their teams

With the arrival of Formula 2 race winner Liam Lawson, the Japanese Super Formula Championship now has a clear, new audience favourite. However, Lawson’s Team Mugen appointment nearly caused another team to go down. Feeder Series reconstructs.

By René Oudman

It’s a very curious situation. Where you’d normally say that the arrival of a globally renowned driver, who’s backed by a major company like Red Bull, can help to boost the value of a racing class, Lawson’s arrival – unintentionally – nearly brought an entire team into the financial abyss. Ironically, the very presence of Red Bull was the big catalyst in this.

Servus Japan

To understand this story, we have to look back to over a year ago. In the year 2021, a group of people who were working under the banner of Servus Japan maintained Team Mugen’s second car. Under the aegis of Red Bull Mugen Team Goh, Hiroki Otsu, a regular in the SUPER GT field, delivered a sterling debut season. Otsu crowned himself Rookie of The Year and thus earned a high-profile transfer to Kiyoshi Muraoka’s Team Dandelion.

Following that success, Team Goh opted to join forces with Servus Japan, the company that was responsible for running Otsu’s car. Servus Japan is no newcomer in Japanese top-level racing; for years, it ran the ARTA Honda machine in the SUPER GT championship. Thus, it understood the amount of work required to succeed in the highest level of Japanese car racing.

Alex Palou entered IndyCar via Super Formula | Credit: Super Formula

Team Goh’s purpose in joining Super Formula was to give young talents a shot at top-level racing that they would not otherwise get. That marketing talk was fuelled by the success Team Goh had with Alex Palou. The Spaniard entered the IndyCar Series via Super Formula, and captured the title in what was only his second year at the highest US open-wheel level. Palou moved to the United States with support from Team Goh – he officially drove for Dale Coyne Racing with Team Goh in his first season.

Initially, Team Goh wanted to attract a Japanese driver and a foreigner, but due to stringent measures, the team opted to start with two Japanese drivers in 2022. Ren Sato and Atsushi Miyake were the ones chosen to defend Team Goh’s colours.

Red Bull

Those colours were, in Sato’s case, blue, yellow and red. The young Japanese driver was added to the Red Bull Junior Team for the 2022 season and thus got to drive around in a car coloured by the energy drink brand. Sato’s goal was clear: he had to deliver, so that Red Bull and Honda could buy him a seat in the 2023 Formula 2 field. Obviously, the energy drink paid Team Goh’s bills, in exchange for an opportunity to let Sato drive one of their cars.

Initially, Sato managed to surprise everyone. During his first Super Formula qualifying, the young Japanese got his Team Goh machine on the front row, delivering a fine second-place qualifying position. However, a great race result failed to materialize thereafter.

Ren Sato was Rookie of The Year in 2022 | Credit: Super Formula

It was not Sato, but teammate Miyake, who came in first with the sterling results. In the second Super Formula race of the year, the elder of the pair crossed the line in fifth place. At the fourth round of the season at Autopolis, he even crossed the line in third place. Sato, meanwhile, was struggling. His qualifying was generally fine, but in the races he seemed too impetuous.

Thanks to a third place in the penultimate race of the year, Sato captured the Rookie of The Year title at the expense of his teammate Miyake, but it was too little, too late. Red Bull, through Dr Helmut Marko, had already voiced that they weren’t interested in the young Japanese anymore, and so Team Goh faced a quandary. Without Sato, no Red Bull… or will the energy drink brand perhaps supply the team with another talent?

Transfer madness

The short answer is: no. Red Bull headquarters in Austria determined that Liam Lawson, who broke free from training school after two Formula 2 seasons, but for whom there still wasn’t a place in Formula 1, would head eastwards to drive for Team Mugen’s Super Formula squad in 2023. Indeed, that’s the team that Goh, via Servus Japan, partnered with in the 2021 Super Formula championship.

Goh’s 2023 plans were in serious jeopardy, when Honda stablemate Nakajima Racing intervened. Toshiki Oyu has repeatedly indicated that he was ready for a new challenge – angry tongues claimed he was no longer keen to work with his outspoken teammate, Super Formula legend Naoki Yamamoto – and he wanted to force a transfer à la Nirei Fukuzumi, who moved from Dandelion to Drago’s rear-guard team last year.

Lawson F2 Carlin 2022
Liam Lawson at the F2 Paul Ricard round | Credit: Formula Motorsport Ltd

Oyu, however, shot himself in the foot. Nakajima dropped him, but there was no one eager to catch. Moreover, Nakajima handed no other than Sato a lifeline. The young Japanese, who lost the support of Red Bull, joined the successful team of former Formula 1 driver Satoru Nakajima, therefore moving from the passed-over-for-dead Team Goh.

Turkish influence

Team Goh thus seemed to be going under, as Red Bull decided to stop supporting Sato and hand Lawson a place at Team Mugen, one which is supported fully by the championship winning team. The story, however, took a new twist thanks to the interest of former Formula 2 driver Cem Bölükbaşı. The Turkish driver, who couldn’t make a lasting impression in the final step to Formula 1, started to examine his chances elsewhere.

Cem Bölükbaşı previously raced for Charouz in F2 | Credit: Charouz Racing PR

Servus Japan retained one car for Bölükbaşı to test with during the post-season test at Suzuka. It tasted like more to the former Esporter: he enjoyed the atmosphere in Japan and was positively shocked by the level of professionalism. Even though the Formula 2 door has closed, Bölükbaşı chooses to move to Japan.

And so, Servus Japan got a second opportunity. A week ago, the TGM team was presented – TGM stands for Team Goh Motorsport – and two drivers appear on the entry list. It gives the impression that Bölükbaşı has signed for what will be his first season in Japan and Oyu, as a second driver, gets the chance to redeem himself from his own stupidity of antagonizing Nakajima. Moreover, Lawson’s transfer has not cost a team its head, but rather enriched the Super Formula field.

Header image credit: Super Formula


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