Home Featured How “worried” Nakajima had his faith in Oyu rewarded

How “worried” Nakajima had his faith in Oyu rewarded

by Elliot Wood

Photos: Super Formula

Five races, three collisions, and rising thoughts that Honda’s next protege had been promoted to its professional ranks too early. But Toshiki Oyu delivered at Suzuka last Sunday, and just in time for 2021

It’s September 2019, and Red Bull junior Yuki Tsunoda is announcing himself to the world at Monza with his first FIA Formula 3 Championship win. While much of the motorsport world’s attention is focused on the Formula 1 paddock in Italy, one of the most spellbinding junior single-seater performances of recent times goes practically unnoticed at Silverstone.

Tsunoda was also scheduled to race in Britain that weekend, but his Euroformula commitments with Motopark had to take the back seat and his other main backer Honda sent another of its juniors in his place. Enter Toshiki Oyu.

While the quality of his opposition wasn’t the greatest, with points leader Marino Sato and Red Bull juniors Liam Lawson and Tsunoda absent, and although Oyu did have two years of racing in the very similar Japanese F3 series under his belt, he went into the weekend with the most stacked against him. He spoke little English or German (Motopark’s native tongue), had never seen Silverstone, and had a driving style almost the opposite to what his team’s set-up preference asked for.

But that contradiction gelled perfectly when applied on track. Oyu’s smooth style worked the tyres brilliantly in qualifying and the races around Silverstone’s high-speed and high-wear sweeps, and he broke the track record for traditional F3 on the resurfaced layout before dominating both of the races.

It was the kind of performance that didn’t just impress, but shocked those who were there to see it, and informal discussion was initiated about Oyu returning to Euroformula with Motopark for 2020 in Red Bull colours.

Nothing came of it and Oyu was set for a third season with Japanese F3 underdog Toda Racing before star Super Formula rookie Alex Palou moved to IndyCar and he suddenly entered contention for a top seat in Japan’s premier single-seater series.

Photo: Fotospeedy

Oyu was known to Nakajima Racing, the team Palou was departing, after being called up at late notice to drive for it in SF’s post-season rookie test at Suzuka. He was immediately one of the fastest, and impressed team director Satoru Nakajima.

But Honda deemed he needed another year in F3-level competition, so he was an outside bet for a seat. Oyu himself thought his SF dream was over. That is until he was announced in January as the new incumbent of the car that had taken three poles, a win and very almost the title in 2019. Oyu, who had said he’d expected the jump to SF to be larger during his first test, bravely set the title as his ambition. Palou had come third (after very costly car issues); could his successor really do better?

In the sole pre-season test Oyu was third fastest, then starred in SF’s Esports race during lockdown where he took pole, went on a charge from the back to the podium then (virtually) ran out of fuel. It hinted at the ups and downs to come.

Oyu started the season on a high, being the only Honda-powered driver to make the final segment of qualifying at Twin Ring Motegi. He qualified fourth, just 0.002 seconds off third place, but that promise was undone by a slow first start – admittedly a tricky one to get right without experience – then breaking his front wing as he was passed and further contact that sent him to the pits. He was lapped four times while in there, but when he returned to track his pace was strong and he set the second fastest lap of anyone.

Nakajima was encouraged by what he’d seen, but was saying the opposite after round two at Okayama: “I have seen the scene I don’t want to see the most. I will pay close attention to the rear-end collision of Oyu.”

The confidence was building for Oyu after Okayama free practice, and he qualified fifth. He was 0.005s shy of team-mate Tadasuke Makino, the top Honda driver. But again it only took a few hundred metres of the race for everything to unravel.

This time Oyu locked up twice as he got to First Corner, resulting in team-mate Makino and Kondo Racing’s Sacha Fenestraz being punted into retirement. Oyu returned to the pits with a broken front wing for the second race in a row, and he drove around at the back for the rest of the day.

Post-race, he didn’t shy away from acknowledging the disastrous start to his SF career.

“Why is this happening? I’m angry with myself, and I’m sorry for the team and drivers who I caused trouble to,” he said. “And even under these circumstances, I’m really sorry that I couldn’t meet the expectations of the people who visited the circuit and the fans who supported me. I regret it.”

It was embarrassing, and crashing into his team-mate – another Honda protege – clearly pained Oyu.

While there was a break of nearly a month between each of first three rounds, Oyu had also picked up a Super GT300 drive with Team Aguri and was coaching budding racers at Suzuka Racing School (SRS) as his day job. There was little time to reset, especially when his rude awakening in SF came straight after a Super GT race where he had also crashed out. He was desperate, perhaps too desperate, to show Honda and Nakajima what he was truly capable of.

The long break between testing and the season’s start however was spent pretty much doing the same thing as his 21 and 22-year-old counterparts in F1: becoming an online star through streaming and making the most of the world’s big pause to be more expressive than young professionals are usually allowed to be when representing the biggest automotive brands.

Establishing himself in that way then was a great landing pad for the difficulties he was to face when racing resumed. As Lando Norris’s fans will attest to, one way of taking on your own pain is by making other people smile. And having those human connections helps handle the pressure. Drivers thank their fans after races with good reason.

It’s not all virtual connections either as Oyu if often an entertainer in the paddock too, and his brand of humour translates well to the YouTube channel he started during lockdown. It’s there where he’s also uploaded detailed guides on the best products for washing your face and hair. He’s a bit of a character.

Photo: Super GT

Japanese media have identified him as one of the leading racers that will keep ‘Generation Z’ – those born in the mid-1990s or later – invested in motorsport in the future. Honda is well aware it has a talent it can build its own profile on with the next generation and its waning automotive interest, but self-care videos and Esports antics don’t keep you in a SF seat. Results do.

It looked like things were on the up when Oyu finished second in his next Super GT race, but the return to SF for round three wasn’t plain-sailing. His qualifying pace was excellent once again at Sportsland SUGO, but his Q1 time was deleted for bringing a stop to the session with a crash. Given how difficult overtaking in SF is, a strong race recovery was unlikely.

Nakajima wasn’t drawn into criticising his driver, keeping faith in the raw talent Honda had given him (tough love in Japan is rarely said publicly), but Oyu was quick to be self-critical. He called himself greedy and wasteful after qualifying, and aside from being forced off twice he then had a tidy race to 12th, where a safety car undid the advantage of his undercut strategy. However, he was putting himself under so much pressure that only late on did he feel “relieved” to be racing trouble-free.

“Until now, I had been overdoing it because I couldn’t see what the limits of Super Formula were, but I feel that I have finally come to see it after the first three races,” Oyu said afterwards.

Another two Super GT rounds were crammed in before SF round four at Autopolis, a circuit that favoured the Honda-powered runners. Oyu qualified fifth, but clutch trouble meant he stalled on the warm-up lap of the race and fell to the back. He drove back past everyone to reclaim his grid spot, which earned him a drive-through penalty straight away.

Once again Oyu was at the back of a SF race, but several safety car periods brought him up the order and he gained two spots in the final laps to score his first point in 10th place. Nakajima said he was lucky to score it, while Oyu could only partner the positives of scoring with the “really painful” failure to meet expectations of finishing several positions higher.

It had all the hallmarks of a typical tricky rookie season at this point, including the classic ‘breakthrough drive that comes too late’ when with team-mate Nobuharu Matsushita he charged from 29th to seventh in the Super GT300 finale at Fuji but had his weekend and title hopes hampered by engine issues.

It was after this performance that Oyu said that he had “grown up”, but there was more to overcome in his equivalent SF breakthrough at the Suzuka double-header last weekend.

Oyu was off the pace in free practice, but his circuit knowledge came to the fore in qualifying when he and two-time series champion Naoki Yamamoto, otherwise known as ‘Mr Suzuka’, were setting the benchmark pace on just their first flying laps.

He sailed through to Q3, and qualified two spots behind Makino – who took pole at Suzuka on his 2019 debut – in seventh.

But then the worst-case outcome happened again at the start of Saturday’s race. Makino and Oyu made wheel-to-wing contact through the second corner, enough to delaminate Makino’s right-rear tyre. As he reached Dunlop Curve, the wheel failed and he was sent hurtling into the barriers. Nakajima was shocked, and Oyu no doubt felt like he was back to square one.

Escaping sans damage, Oyu ran as high as fourth before pitting early in reaction to a safety car. A slow stop and a slow outlap compounded him thereon, although late pitstops and crashes for others brought him back up to eighth place by the end.

The usual self-shaming wasn’t evident in Oyu’s post-race comments, but he didn’t have time to be hung up again and neither did Nakajima to be frustrated as there was another race the next day. The fuel-flow-based overtaking boost system was doubled from 100 seconds to 200s of use for Sunday’s encounter, giving Oyu lots more to think about overnight.

“Instead of trying to overcome [being unable to sleep], I reviewed various things that had happened up this point, and I thought about what I needed to be careful in round six [Sunday’s race] and what I needed to do to race properly.”

Was peace of mind going to be achieved once Oyu had a clean round? In Sunday qualifying he topped Q1 by over a third of a second after setting just one lap, then did the same trick to go second in Q2. He opted for two runs in Q3, and earned his first front row with the second fastest lap ever achieved by a SF car at Suzuka.

Of the full-season drivers, only two-time series champions Kazuki Nakajima (son of Satoru) at TOM’S and Yamamoto at Dandelion Racing have higher qualifying averages in 2020 than Oyu.

The race began without incident, and Oyu shadowed TOM’s reigning champion Nick Cassidy up front until the leader’s engine died at the start of lap nine of 30. He pitted under the resultant safety car, and then had the net lead over Dandelion’s Nirei Fukuzumi. A second safety car period eventually elevated those two to the top two positions, and Oyu put in a brilliant defensive job with the use of his overtaking system to win by 0.462s. The gap to third in just the handful of laps left after the safety car was a further 10s, and it took some time on the cool-down lap for Oyu to compute what he had done.

“It was long. Much of it was painful. It was painful and I wanted to run away,” he said of the journey up to that point. “But today I was finally able to race like myself and got results.”

Oyu was crying his eyes out as he stepped from his car in parc ferme, and was quick to be congratulated by Yamamoto, who had retired early in the race. Next over was team director Nakajima, finally smiling, and then two-time Indianapolis 500 winner Takuma Sato. As principal of SRS, Sato knows first-hand how good Oyu is and is an influential supporter of him within Honda Motor Company. If pressure was mounting on Oyu’s chances of retaining his seat for 2021, which Honda rather than Nakajima ultimately decides, then it was perfect timing to win at HMC’s home circuit and have one of its most respected factory drivers banging his drum post-race.

Photo: Suzuka Circuit

While Oyu may have lost some confidence in himself, he revealed in his television interview that for his team a strong result was always a case of when, not if.

“[Nakajima] had told me that if I just race normally, I can get results like this. He was expecting this, but I couldn’t match those expectations for a long time, so I’m glad to be able to win and repay him.”

In the press conference afterwards, Nakajima – a five-time SF champion in the 1980s whose own career wasn’t free from messy patches – elaborated on the faith he had in his rookie signing:

“[Toshiki] had been showing the speed since the season started, so I thought it would be [coming]… but I made similar mistakes many times. I was a little worried,” Nakajima admitted with a bitter smile while recalling his own challenges.

“[He has] it in terms of speed, so I think I remembered Takashi Kogure of the old days. It’s similar. I have spent the season remembering that. The speed is there, but other than that, it’s a little sloppy. Including that, it’s very similar to Kogure.”

Kogure was another Honda junior who in some capacity arrived in SF earlier than expected. His junior single-seater career was short and successful, and moved into SF with Nakajima Racing in 2003. He qualified third on his debut, a performance he was able to repeat, but his rookie season was riddled with race-ending errors until a podium in the Suzuka season finale.

Oyu referred to Nakajima’s expectations when he reflected on his win afterwards

“I haven’t been able to say ‘I’m doing my race properly’ so far, and I couldn’t make any good points in round five yesterday,” said Oyu.

“To be honest, my feelings seemed to break towards today, but the feelings of those who came to support me from the local area, sponsors, and fans who cared about me even when the results were bad helped me to keep it up.

“I can’t express the painful feelings I had until yesterday well, and I can’t express my current feelings in words. I’m really glad that I was finally able to respond to what everyone was expecting of me. I will do my best to [do the same] in the final race.”

The season finale takes place at Fuji on December 20, the same circuit where Oyu flew in pre-season testing in the cooler conditions, and he’s currently on course to be top rookie in the standings. Mathematically he could match Palou’s place in the points table thanks to SF’s dropped scores rule for this pandemic-hit year, and nothing can be ruled out after the random and ever-changing swing of fortune in this season so far.

Further reading
Why Yuki Tsunoda’s remarkable rise to F1 cannot be stopped
10 outstanding Japanese drivers who never reached F1
Why the Dan Ticktum conundrum isn’t what you expect
The timeline of Juri Vips’ F1 superlicence quest