While much of the world went into lockdown to slow the spread of COVID-19, Super Formula pushed on with its sole pre-season test at Fuji Speedway. Here, the rookie drivers share their thoughts on how it went
At the start of March, it was announced that the first test and race of the Super Formula season at Suzuka would be postponed due to the local impact of the growing COVID-19 novel coronavirus threat, leaving Fuji Speedway as the host location of what would now be the first running and racing of 2020.
Two weeks after that, once COVID-19 had been upgraded to being a global pandemic, the championship put out a statement clarifying that the Fuji test on March 24/25 would still go ahead – and with grandstand access for fans. One day later, the season opening race at the circuit was postponed as Japanese government policy updated on mass public gatherings.
This immediately made some question the logic in the test going ahead, given the first race of the year was now in May and the COVID-19 situation was only escalating. With two months to get it under control, a new test date could likely have been found. That argument gained further support, but not perhaps in the way intended, as Suzuka successfully rescheduled its test to April 2/3. A day after the Fuji test that was then cancelled, and May’s Autopolis race started to look under threat.
In the run-up to Fuji, reigning SF champion Nick Cassidy matter-of-factly shared his feelings on the championship’s approach. After ending the test 12th fastest of 20, he added: “I’m just an employee following what I’m told to do.”
Cassidy of course wasn’t alone in his questioning, and the more experienced drivers generally shared his caution. The rookie crop did too, but given SF’s growing reputation as a route to Formula 1, they were also incredibly eager to get on track.
“It was very nice to be back driving the Super Formula car, which is really an incredible car,” reigning Super Formula Lights champion and Toyota-backed Kondo Racing driver Sacha Fenestraz told Formula Scout.
“It’s so fast and has so much downforce, I kind of missed it [over winter]. I already miss it again now, so hopefully we can be back on track soon.”
“The test was very positive, I was the driver who did the most laps. It was good to test a lot of test items and learning as much as I can of the car, the team and how SF works. Of course there’s still a lot of things to learn on my side.”
Fenestraz was 11th fastest over the two days, but did visit the top of the times for spells while he put in comparatively longer stints than his opposition.
“It was very positive, but very difficult to compare as well. Very, very difficult because we don’t know who’s running what kinds of tyres or fuel. Of course it’s good to be up there, but I think it’s not relevant so far. We need to wait till the first race, whenever it’s going to be. I learned a lot, but of course there’s still a lot of things to learn on my side.”
The Dallara SF19 is a tricky car to get in the right set-up window, especially around the tighter circuits that accompany famed F1 venues Suzuka and Fuji on the SF calendar. Fenestraz’s focus on mileage therefore was probably the safest strategy.
Some 18 laps short of Fenestraz’s 195-lap tally, and the top Honda-powered driver for mileage, was Team Mugen’s Red Bull Juri Vips. The Estonian is the other star rookie that great things are expected of, but his dreams of gaining an FIA superlicence by racing in the series may fall flat if the calendar shrinks any further.
“It’s great to be back after such a long break. I have no idea what the lap total is but my neck tells me it must have been 200,” said Vips.
“It’s been pretty tough on the body all round. Of course I’ve been training hard but nothing is quite the same as time in the car.”
With month-long breaks or longer between races, and only five set to go ahead, Vips will likely be facing the same aches on multiple occasions this year – even if he keeps his race-ready training regime throughout.
“I am very happy with the way the test went. Not that the timesheet show everything I would like but there is a lot more potential there than just the times.”
Vips was seventh fastest overall, and 0.183 seconds off race-winning team-mate Tomiki Nojiri. Last year the team dropped Red Bull protege Dan Ticktum for underperforming, despite flashes of strong pace, and Vips will want to avoid the same fate.
“I struggled to get the tyre warming sorted out so the lap time did not come at first. But by session four I got on top of it quite well and we put on new tyres early. I then hit P1 and really had a good run. We went for a race distance while others put in new tyres later in the session when the track improved and the cars went quicker in cooler air. So we slipped off the top of the times, but we know we are in quite good shape.
“I’m really enjoying the time here, the people are great. I have a new engineer, a Canadian, and that is obviously helping with the communication plus I am getting used to the culture and the way things are done.”
“Just as well, I may be here for a while. I am staying for the [now cancelled] test at Suzuka on April 3/4 then will probably have to stay until the first race. I would like to go home and visit my family of course, but though I could get home, I probably couldn’t get back [to Japan] with the way things are. I don’t want to miss a race.”
Further pressure on Vips comes from a late addition to the grid: Red Bull Racing’s reserve driver Sergio Sette Camara.
“It was a last minute decision to be here,” Sette Camara confirmed of his signing with B-MAX Racing with Motopark that was announced the day before the test began. However the Brazilian also confirmed he has already relocated to Japan.
Given Sette Camara doesn’t have last year’s rookie test as experience of the car or Yokohama tyres, unlike his rivals, it was crucial he put as many laps in while he could at Fuji. He ended up with 130, and SF Lights graduate team-mate Charles Milesi on 140. This was more than an entire race distance less than Fenestraz, but both Motopark drivers were fairly pleased.
“It was great to get used to the car and the team,” Sette Camara added. “It was very productive, we did all the running that we wanted. We don’t know if we’ll get much more testing this year, so we covered everything.
“The team explained to me quite well what I had to expected, and it’s also good to drive around Fuji and learn another track.
“The corners here are super cool. It has a bit of a mixture, it had every type of corner. Sector 1 being extremely high speed, then over in sector 3 you have more of the slow corners. It’s a bit tricky to know the compromise of how much you should prepare for which corners [on set-up]. It takes a few laps to get used to, but I think by the end I at least had a good base.”
Sette Camara’s expectation, or more likely Red Bull’s, is points from the off: “I want to adapt quickly to the series, of course there is not a lot of running time in SF. They are challenging cars so you really need to learn it quickly. You cannot lose time.”
His team-mate Milesi believes his pace was stunted by struggles when on new tyres, and the pair ended up 17th and 18th.
Propping up the timesheet was the one-car effort of ThreeBond Racing with Drago Corse and its driver Tatiana Calderon. The Formula 2 graduate started her test embarrassingly by spinning on her first lap and causing a red flag, but she wasn’t the only one to be caught out on cold tyres on a cold track as KCMG’s F1-experienced Kamui Kobayashi followed by crashing heavily.
“The tyres are very different to what I’m used to from [Pirelli in] F2 and GP3,” said Calderon afterwards. “I need to switch the way I drive a little as well. Also to experience the different throttle maps with the practice starts. I definitely need more laps.”
Given how little track time exists in SF before COVID-19 postponements come into play, Calderon is short on time not only to adapt her driving style (a change that Ticktum infamously avoided), but to help her team on its arrival into SF. Like the other rookies though, including Nakajima Racing’s promising Japanese talent Toshiki Oyu, Calderon is thrilled to be driving in SF.
“I’m very excited. It puts a big smile on my face and I hope that I can continue to learn and improve during this year.
“I think this is going to be the hardest season for me, because everything is new. It’s a very difficult championship in terms of very good drivers, very good teams, and a really quick car. Hopefully I’ll be fighting for a top 10 at the end of the year. That I think is a realistic goal.”