Super Formula’s long wait to return to action during the coronavirus pandemic came at Twin Ring Motegi last weekend, and the series didn’t feel the same as before. Elliot Wood runs through five major talking points
For a series that to some is a holding ground between Formula 2 and Formula 1, to others the pinnacle of motorsport in the ‘Eastern’ world and a fiercely competitive playground for two of the world’s biggest automobile manufacturers, and for many a half-noticed single-seater series populated by drivers they’ve never heard of, it wasn’t encouraging for anybody watching that the long-awaited first Super Formula race of 2020 ended up being a lengthy sprint race very light on overtaking.
The four Toyota-powered drivers that ran at the front from start to finish, after fourth-place qualifier Toshiki Oyu’s Honda-powered car suffered damage on the opening lap that sent him back to pitlane, all set their fastest laps within the opening eight laps of the drastically shortened 35-lap encounter. They stretched out a considerable lead as a train of cars formed behind Yuhi Sekiguchi in fifth, then they mostly just ran in formation for the remainder of the race.
All but one of the next six cars to finish, the omission being Oyu’s Nakajima Racing team-mate Tadasuke Makino who had worse tyre wear than those around him late on, set their fastest in the final three laps of the race when fuel loads were light and the track was at its grippiest.
They had all been bottled up by behind Team Impul’s Sekiguchi for the first 20 laps, and had depended on Dandelion Racing’s Nirei Fukuzumi on breaking the deadlock to up the pace. So difficult is overtaking at Motegi, despite four hairpins and another tight corner preceded by a long straight, that even Fukuzumi could only manage it after striking the rear of Sekiguchi’s car and ultimately send him on a race-ending trip to the gravel. The reality is though, that’s not new for Motegi.
But what made this year’s race so boring was its shorter distance from 51 laps down to 35, so the organising Japan Race Promotion (JRP) company could fit in the third free practice session and qualifying into the same day as the race to run a shorter weekend schedule.
The compulsory use of two tyre compounds was dropped as a regulation too (in fact the medium tyre was dropped entirely) meaning less pit crew are needed and ultimately a reduction in risk in the spread of COVID-19 by having less personnel in the circuit facility. That means no more tyre changers jumping over car noses, even for unscheduled stops.
And the loss of the strategy element – which admittedly sometimes played out in 2019 anyway as a trip to pitlane for fuel and tyres being only a first or last lap consideration for drivers happy to manage what they had for the duration – realised the current grid’s fears of a total procession in aero-heavy cars that are F1’s closest rival in downforce figures.
SF double-headers, such as the trip to Suzuka this year on December 5/6, do tend to run to the shorter format where races are fitted into an hour. But a SF race running on its own is usually nearer 85 minutes and 250km long. The current plan is for the five other tracks on the calendar to follow Motegi’s race format, but it could change.
JRP is not averse to modifying the rulebook between races, although changes do obviously feel more seismic in a series with so few rounds than when the FIA makes regulation tweaks between every few grands prix in a 21-event strong F1 season.
Having lengthy races run on one set of tyres therefore put a huge onus on qualifying, although winner Ryo Hirakawa was the only driver who finished in the same position he started from, which leads into the second major talking point.
After the first race of 2019 at Japanese Grand Prix venue Suzuka – a circuit which requires a lot of bravery, downforce and set-up knowledge to be fast on – a great amount of intrigue surrounded usual struggler Nakajima Racing after it qualified a convincing one-two with its all-rookie line-up of F2 graduate Tadasuke Makino and Alex Palou, and then looked set for victory with either of the two before both of its new Dallara SF19 cars suffered from freak wheel failures.
The pair were convincingly quickest on qualifying and race pace, which was a surprise to everyone. But that form continued, with Palou claiming three poles in the next six races and Makino a few more appearances in the final segment of qualifying.
Palou’s new IndyCar career means Oyu was brought in this year as his replacement, and he showed that once again Nakajima Racing is best over one lap. The debuting Oyu may have actually qualified in fourth, but he was the only Honda-powered car to make it into Q3 – at what is basically Honda’s home circuit given its racing department’s use of the circuit for development and the fact that Honda actually built the circuit in the late 1990s to attract IndyCar to Japan.
In the first free practice session Oyu was 0.004s short of being top Honda driver, he topped FP2 and scraped through qualifying’s second stage as the Toyota-powered drivers upped the wick. Fastest laps in the race came down to who had clean air, which Oyu had in abundance once the damage he picked up on the opening lap was fixed.
His first lap at race pace once he returned to track stood as the fastest lap of anyone until KCMG’s Toyota-powered Kamui Kobayashi pitted due to a puncture and used fresh rubber to beat him by 0.101s. The next two drivers who had the clean air advantage were also Honda’s, but half-a-second adrift.
The driver with the third fastest time was fellow debutant Ukyo Sasahara, standing in for Red Bull junior Juri Vips at Team Mugen for a one-off appearance. While his pitstop was a strategic decision to counter expected tyre wear on his first weekend driving a SF car, he then charged up to 11th, and was second best Honda driver in qualifying in 13th place.
While understeer held him back in qualifying, it was oversteer that unsettled him in the race, especially in braking zones.
“In terms of performance I think that we did the maximum this weekend,” said Sasahara. “We struggled with some things set-up-wise through the weekend. That is why my team-mate was out in Q1, I managed to get through to Q2 so I think I showed a bit the performance I’ve got.
“In the race I made a good start, up to around ninth or 10th before Turn 1. Unfortunately I got pushed out right to the outside and dropped almost to last. We made a plan before the race that our strategy would be to stop maybe once for tyres. I dropped at the start so we decided that there was nothing to lose so we would stop on lap 10 or 11.
“Actually it worked very well and I got clean air and was 1.5 to two seconds quicker than anybody else and I gained a lot of places up to P11.
“Mixed feelings but I think that if I do get the chance for the next few rounds I can do very well, definitely.”
While it would be even crueler to Vips if he doesn’t get his SF chance due to Sasahara’s adaptability, after a year of torrid luck for the Estonian that continued on his F2 debut last weekend, it is clear that 2019 Asian F3 champion Sasahara deserves to stay in the series and there is no guarantee that Vips will be able to get to Japan in time for round two in September.
The class of the rookie field when it came to finishing position was Kondo Racing’s Sacha Fenestraz. The reigning Super Formula Lights champion qualified a superb second and then finished third after his team-mate Kenta Yamashita at the start, and both were quick to seek hydration once the race ended – which actually interrupted the usual post-race procedures.
While track temperatures were beyond 45°C, which made thermal degradation of the Yokohama tyres an issue after just a few laps, it was the air temperatures which were more painful for the drivers as they surpassed a verifiable 34°C. B-MAX Racing with Motopark’s Teppei Natori – another stand-in driver – didn’t even start the race due to dehydration worries as he was on double duty racing in Super Formula Lights with Toda Racing in the breaks between SF sessions.
“Physically I didn’t struggle, but it was [mentally] mainly with the hotness,” Fenestraz told Formula Scout.
“I think I’ve never suffered that much on a race. It was just so hot in the car. I think I lost over a kilo, at one point two kilos in the race without rehydrating a bit. It was difficult.
“It was my longest race in a formula car for sure. Can’t wait for when the real long races are going to come, hopefully next season. I think that’s going to be a bit more difficult. And everyone said that Motegi is generally one of the hottest races as well, because of where the track is based.”
In the post-race press conference, Fenestraz said that within a few laps he was wondering when the race would end due to the heat, and that he needed to work on being physically more ready for such conditions in future races.
Despite the shorter races, SF is as physically tough on drivers as ever, and the Japanese weather is one of the unique features of the series that has not been lost for 2020.
The other major difficulty was tyre management, with the spec soft compound tyre needing to be cared for from very early on. But the loss of the medium compound pleased Fenestraz.
“For us [Kondo] I think it’s better. Last year, the team really struggled with the medium tyres. I think quite a few teams were struggling with that. And some other ones were particularly strong on those tyres. So for everyone it’s the same situation now.
“But when I was speaking with Hirakawa, he was saying that he thinks the tyre has changed a bit compared to 2019 because there was much more deg than last year’s tyres. Maybe there’s been some changes on the tyre, but it was hard. I was really trying to manage it, I knew I had Kazuki Nakajima behind and of course he’s an incredible driver.
“I was trying to manage myself compared to him in terms of laptime and so on, because I knew he had more experience than me on how to manage those tyres. And I think I did a pretty good job, as I had a bit more [than him] left as well in the last two or three laps.”
Further comments across the grid suggested having only one tyre compound of tyre was hugely challenging, and it probably would have made the race more entertaining had the structural degradation been to a point where a pitstop was a strategic option for more than just those at the back, and if the extreme thermal degradation hadn’t been so easily manageable for a grid mostly made up of professional drivers.
There’s one month until round two at Okayama. Will the rules have changed, and will the competitive order have changed too?