Finally, the waiting is over, and things are about to get started. After a winter break of almost six months, Super Formula’s new season is about to begin. Will reigning champion Tomoki Nojiri produce a three-peat or could Red Bull junior Liam Lawson possibly be his kryptonite? Find out that, and much more, in Feeder Series’ preview of the upcoming season of the top-tier open-wheel racing series in East Asia.
By René Oudman
Although the numbers may suggest otherwise, Tomoki Nojiri’s journey to the title was far from easy. Yes, the Japanese veteran captured the championship with a stunning margin of 65 points over runner-up Sacha Fenestraz, but the dominant fashion in which Nojiri won his first crown was less visible in 2022.
Consistency proved key for the 33-year-old, who only won two of the ten races but made the walk to the podium no less than eight times. Since his nearest rival Fenestraz has left for Formula E, it should be all fun and games en route to a third consecutive title, right?
Well, not necessarily. Besides the ever-competitive Super Formula starting field, Nojiri will have quite a challenge adjusting to a brand-new car. After four seasons of service, the Dallara SF19 has been swapped for a new model, named the SF23.
Super Formula promoter JRP didn’t leave anything to chance while talking with Dallara regarding the construction of a new car. Less downforce was the first requirement, as the actual driving needed to be harder and overtaking easier. At pre-season testing, Nojiri experienced the quirks of the new car when he made a rare mistake and crashed.
As well as the new car, the designation of the use of the Overtake System (OTS) has changed. The lights surrounding the roll hoop will no longer flash while a driver activates their OTS.
Rounds 1 and 2 – Fuji Speedway (8–9 April)
Round 3 – Suzuka (23 April)
Round 4 – Autopolis (21 May)
Round 5 – Sportsland SUGO (18 June)
In-season test – Fuji Speedway (23–24 June)
Round 6 – Fuji Speedway (16 July)
Round 7 – Mobility Resort Motegi (20 August)
Rounds 8 and 9 – Suzuka (28–29 October)
Within his tailor-made Team Mugen, Tomoki Nojiri welcomes 21-year-old Liam Lawson from Hastings, New Zealand, alongside him. Lawson has been placed in Japan to prove his qualities abroad, after racing in Formula 2 for two complete seasons. It’s the well-known Red Bull junior challenge, one that Pierre Gasly passed with flying colours.
Winning in Super Formula is certainly not going to be easy for the young Kiwi, but Lawson made a good impression during the two-day winter test. Though he’s proven to be quick, it would be quite an achievement if Lawson manages to be in the mix for race wins and podium finishes.
Next to the Team Mugen squad, there are five more Super Formula teams using Honda power. Several of the Honda-powered teams have a mix of familiar names and new faces. Dandelion Racing is one such outfit, retaining their team leader but contracting a new second driver to join them.
Tadasuke Makino may try to take that final step forward after a fine 2022. The 25-year-old Japanese driver, who is a race winner in Formula 2, has fully recovered from the meningitis that kept him side-lined during the closing stages of 2020 and opening rounds of 2021 and is now aiming for that elusive first Super Formula victory.
Following the forced leave of the disappointing Hiroki Otsu, who couldn’t build on his 2021 Rookie of the Year honours, 23-year-old Super Formula Lights graduate Kakunoshin Ota has taken the spot alongside Makino.
Nakajima Racing made two major changes during the winter. On the driver front, Toshiki Oyu left after indicating he was ready for a new challenge. That’s neat language to say that Nakajima Racing has completely adapted to the wishes and needs of three-time Super Formula champion Naoki Yamamoto. He has long proved his worth, though disappointing performances from him as well as the team did not contribute to a healthy atmosphere.
Twenty-one-year-old Ren Sato takes Oyu’s place. Having raced with Red Bull backing for the bygone Team Goh last year, Sato got lucky with Oyu’s departure, without which he might have ended up without a seat.
On Nakajima’s pit wall, there has been a significant change as well, with former Super Formula driver Takuya Izawa taking over the role of team principal from founder Satoru Nakajima. The legendary Japanese driver, who celebrated his 70th birthday during the winter, continues in an advisory role.
Team Goh is dead, but long live TGM! Team Goh Motorsport takes over after Team Goh ran into financial difficulties late last year. The team have got a very capable leader in the form of 24-year-old Toshiki Oyu, who came over from Nakajima Racing, and he could absolutely surprise this year.
Bear in mind that Sato and Atsushi Miyake scored multiple podiums last year, so the more experienced race winner Oyu could be capable of even bigger things. His teammate Cem Bölükbaşı, who is six months older, came over from FIA Formula 2 and will face the main challenge of adapting to the SF23.
Having only fielded one car last year, B-Max has grown to a two-man squad. Joining alongside Nobuharu Matsushita is the unprecedented go-getter Raoul Hyman, a driver who breathed new life into his racing career by winning the Formula Regional Americas Championship.
It won’t be easy for Hyman, but the South African–British driver managed to make neat strides during the pre-season test.
ThreeBond’s only driver and therefore team leader is, for the second consecutive season, Nirei Fukuzumi, who took a bold leap of faith by leaving Dandelion Racing.
Fukuzumi’s real ordeal starts now: last year he came away with the idea of adapting, but now he needs to show what he is capable of. Can he pull off a surprise?
Three and a half years after Nick Cassidy captured the 2019 Super Formula title, the Kiwi is still the person who won Toyota’s most recent drivers’ title. Thanks to Toyota drivers Sacha Fenestraz and Ryo Hirakawa, Nojiri did not have an easy 2022, but a big step needs to be taken if the brand is to reclaim the title from Honda.
Of course, reigning WEC champion Ryō Hirakawa, who recently celebrated his 29th birthday, is the main candidate to lead Toyota to a title for Team Impul. Surely his experience and knowledge of the circuits is promising, and he proved in his Hypercar debut last year that he is able to adapt quickly.
If he manages to fight with his teammate Yuhi Sekiguchi a bit less – or, in other words, if Sekiguchi plays the team game – then Hirakawa is a very dangerous title contender.
In the days of André Lotterer and Kazuki Nakajima, the question was not really whether TOM’S would become champion but which driver would take the title. Those times are over.
The renowned racing stable has taken a big step backwards after Cassidy’s departure. Though there is optimism: Ritomo Miyata still deserves the tag of ‘super talent’ after two full Super Formula seasons, and it seems it’s only a matter of time before he grabs his first victory.
That first Super Formula victory already features on the curriculum vitae of his teammate, Giuliano Alesi. But the Frenchman, who came over from Europe for the 2021 season and mainly filled in for the constantly travelling Nakajima in the first year, massively disappointed in his first full-time season in 2022.
Voices were raised to replace him for Honda leaver and super-sub Ukyo Sasahara, but even two stunning victories by the latter in 2022 did not convince TOM’S. Alesi is allowed to stay and does get a second chance, but with Sasahara looming on the reserve bench, he must show improvement very quick.
Last season’s big surprise was Kondō Racing, who finally won a race again thanks to Fenestraz. But now that the Franco-Argentine has left, Kondō’s in trouble. For years, Kenta Yamashita was considered the successor to Kamui Kobayashi or Nakajima in Toyota’s WEC team, but the Japanese driver consistently failed to deliver. His 2022 season looked slightly better than the year before, but with a back injury due to a Super GT test crash this winter, he did not get off to the best start in 2023.
Yamashita is joined by Kazuto Kotaka, who is about to make his full-time debut after a couple of unremarkable participations as a substitute at KCMG in 2021. Kotaka convincingly won the Super Formula Lights title last year and therefore gets his chance, though the cancellation of Théo Pourchaire’s Japan dreams helped him grip the saddle.
For Ryuji Doi’s KCMG, it is win or bust in 2023. Veterans Kamui Kobayashi and Yuji Kunimoto both know exactly what success feels like but haven’t tasted it in Super Formula for a long time. Unbelievably, Kobayashi has still not won a race in the series. He and Kunimoto desperately want to improve – Kobayashi has even stated his farewell might come soon if there is no improvement – which is one of the reasons KCMG has gone all out.
In addition to multiple champion Tsugio Matsuda, Tetsuya Tanaka will be on the KCMG pit wall this year, calling the shots for Kunimoto. Next to that, KCMG hired one of Kondō’s main engineers. This squad means business.
Inging started the 2022 season strongly: Sho Tsuboi topped the timing charts at pre-season testing 13 months ago. Did the Japanese driver, tipped by many for the Toyota WEC stable, finally find the X? The answer to that was no, he hadn’t.
As in 2021, Tsuboi and teammate Sena Sakaguchi raised question marks about their competitiveness each and every time. They are great on their best days but just couldn’t quite get Inging in the right place. Tsuboi’s second place at Fuji was a welcome boost, but Inging still has plenty to put right to revive the old glory days of Hiroaki Ishiura.
For years, Rookie Racing has been a participant in the Super Formula championship, but – unlike in Super GT – the racing stable never stands out. Veteran Kazuya Oshima, who has one Super Formula win from back in the Formula Nippon days, did not get beyond zero points and a best finish of 13th last year.
To make matters worse, Rookie lost its team boss to TOM’S. Still, there is hope: on the second morning of testing, Oshima drove the fastest time, so surely they will manage more than zero points this year.
Header image credit: Super Formula
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