Rather than follow Yuki Tsunoda into the European Formula 3 scene, Honda’s latest junior exports have taken on French Formula 4 this year – and are absolutely dominating. Meet Ayumu Iwasa and Ren Sato
Honda may be ending its supply of engines to Formula 1 teams after 2021, but there’s a chance one of its proteges could make the step up to the pinnacle of single-seater racing next year – and may still be followed up the European ranks by several more of the Japanese manufacturer’s junior drivers.
Unlike in previous years where it has sent the likes of Nirei Fukuzumi, Tadasuke Makino and of course Yuki Tsunoda abroad at the Formula 3 level, this year it has made use of a new partnership between its own Suzuka Racing School and the FFSA Academy operated by France’s national motorsport federation. This has resulted in some Academy members from karting and Formula 4 testing single-seater cars in Japan, while two of Honda’s SRS graduates are racing in the French F4 championship run by the Academy.
The Renault-powered series has run to FIA F4 specifications since 2018, and was F4 in name for the seven years prior to that, evolving from the Formula Campus-branded Formula Renault 1.6 France championship that began in 1993. For the last two decades the grid has been centrally-run, and while there were individual teams prior to that there was such limited set-up freedom that the distinction between equipment wasn’t anywhere like what’s seen in entry-level single-seaters today.
In essence it’s a series where talent does tend to rise to the top, and as a stepping stone to car racing for drivers from the French karting scene, most champions have been from France or Belgium.
This means most drivers are not only inexperienced, but haven’t been against top opposition if they didn’t kart internationally, which has inevitably helped 2020’s Japanese additions to the grid – both with several years of car racing behind them already.
Ren Sato was last year’s Japanese F4 champion, winning 11 times in 14 races and scoring more than double the points of second place. The three other races were won by his Honda junior team-mates.
It was his second season in the series, having debuted in 2018 and claimed two top-five finishes on the way to seventh in the points. During 2019 he made his French F4 debut in a guest appearance at Magny-Cours, but did’t make the top 10.
Ayumu Iwasa meanwhile made Japanese F4 cameos for two years before switching his focus to the Honda-powered SRS-Formula for 2019. His success in that earned him a scholarship – awarded by two-time Indianapolis 500 winner Takuma Sato – that he’s taken to France and put to good use as he leads Sato (no relation) by 57 points.
Iwasa has four poles so far, and a canny ability to get to the front in the races when he’s not already starting there.
The two 19-year-olds have continued their non-racing education with the FFSA Academy, and Honda’s placing of the pair in France is to use the series as a springboard to make it to F1.
“Step up in Formula 3 [was the 2021 plan], but Honda’s stopped supplying engines [in F1 for 2022], so I don’t know what we do next,” Sato tells Formula Scout.
It would make sense if they did step up a category soon, with Iwasa saying racing in French F4 has been easy but pointing out “the main difference is the engine” to his Japanese experience.
“It requires you to change your driving style. That’s the main difference,” adds Sato, who also comments on the car being faster than the Dome-designed equivalent in Japan due to being lighter and that the type of asphalt used at tracks in France and Japan differs significantly, adding to the requirement to adjust his driving style for Europe.
Sato has a 73-point margin to Isack Hadjar, who is in third place in the standings, and is enjoying racing on F1 venues like Paul Ricard, Magny-Cours, Spa-Francorchamps and Zandvoort as he admits to being “not good” at the shorter tracks.
Both drivers are good friends off the track, but also trying to find ways to outdo each other on it, and at the end of each round FFSA compiles a report to send to Honda about their performances. According to Sato, there’s a similar level of observation from Honda as if they were racing in Japan.
Despite the ending of Honda’s F1 commitments, both are aiming to race in the world championship in the future, although Sato cedes “it’s difficult” now his main backer will soon stop being linked to any of the teams in that paddock.
An obvious alternative would be Japan’s premier single-seater series Super Formula, where Fukuzumi and Makino have ended up driving using Honda power after making it to Formula 2 when they were sent to Europe, but Sato is unethused by the prospect of racing there.
Iwasa is far more open to the idea of becoming a professional racing driver back in his home country, and he certainly has a preference of making it big in Super Formula over the lucrative contracts of Super GT.
Even without Honda’s F1-focused support, this pair of European racing debutants that between them have won 12 of the 15 races they’ve entered definitely have the foundations to take their success further up the single-seater ladder.
|Ayumu Iwasa||Name||Ren Sato|
|September 22, 2001||D/O/B||August 5, 2001|
|currently 1st in French F4 (8 wins, 4 poles, 5 fastest laps)||2020||currently 2nd in French F4 (4 wins, 2 poles, 6 fastest laps)|
Races in Super Taikyu
|2019||Japanese F4 champion (11 wins, 8 poles, 5 fastest laps)|
|17th in Japanese F4||2018||7th in Japanese F4 (2 fastest laps)|
|13th in FRenault Asiacup (2 poles, 1 fastest lap)
28th in Japanese F4
|2018||23rd in CIK-FIA World Championship – OK
Japanese Karting champion – OK
|Suzuka Karting champion – X30||2017||Japanese Karting champion – OK|
|Suzuka Karting Championship – X30||2016||Japanese Karting champion – FS-125|
|Suzuka Karting champion – X30-J||2015||5th in Japanese Karting Championship – FS-125|
|Suzuka Karting Championship – X30-J||2014||Japan [Regional] Karting champion – FS-125|
|Karting in Japan||2013||Japanese Karting champion – FP-J|
|Karting in Japan||2012||Japanese Karting champion – FP-J Cadets|
|Karting in Japan||2011||6th in Japanese Karting Championship – FP-J Cadets|
|Karting in Japan||2005-10||Karting in Japan|