The COVID-19 pandemic has reduced the international contingent on Super Formula’s 2021 grid to just one driver, but it means top talents in Japanese junior single-seaters, and the system itself, are being rewarded
Honda’s announcement that it would exit Formula 1 at the end of 2021 posed many questions, not least on how long until it joins Formula E, but the promotion of Honda-backed Formula 2 star Yuki Tsunoda to an AlphaTauri drive masked much of the worry about how it will affect its support of young Japanese drivers abroad and at home.
The long-held target to put a Japanese driver in a Honda-powered F1 car again was accomplished thanks to Tsunoda, and you can bet he will remain on the grid even once Honda’s name departs.
It’s not just Tsunoda that is turning heads at the highest levels, as travel restrictions have reduced the number of overseas drivers contesting Japan’s Super Formula and Super GT series and put the spotlight back on the young local talents.
SF is Japan’s top single-seater series, and while it uses spec chassis it has two different engine suppliers (Honda and Toyota), a fuel flow-based overtaking system and Yokohama tyres that present very complex challenges just like but also very different to what drivers have to master in F1.
This weekend’s SF season opener takes place at Fuji Speedway, and there are three rookies in particular coming from Japan’s junior series to watch out for:
Toyota junior Miyata [middle of lead image] has had one of the most successful junior careers you can have domestically, winning the FIA Japanese Formula 4 title twice in a row, against his current SF rivals and Tsunoda on both occasions in stacked fields, and then spending four seasons in Super Formula Lights (previously known as Japanese Formula 3) which culminated in a run of 12 wins from 17 races and a well-earned title in 2020.
He’s also been a trailblazer for the representation of autism in motorsport during this time, and driven solely for TOM’S.
That same team is the one he drives for now in SF, and gave him his debut last year as a substitute for ex-F1 driver Kazuki Nakajima. It was an incredible debut to say the least, as he made it to the front row in qualifying and earned two points.
He lost several places on the opening lap and spent his first race in traffic from thereon, but scored more points in ninth place and went one place better when he was called in to substitute again at Autopolis. On both occassions he was racing in the supporting SF Lights at the same time, which was a real test of stamina and adaptability.
It was no surprise that after doing everything he could in the support series and more than proving his worthiness in SF in 2020 that he was handed a full-time seat with the title-fighting TOM’S squad for 2021. Normally a rookie would go into one of the lesser-fancied teams, but Miyata has basically come in as the lead driver of what if often Toyota’s leading outfit, as team-mate Nakajima is expected to miss races once again and ex-Ferrari junior Giuliano Alesi is tipped to replace him.
Sakaguchi [left of lead image] is the first ever Formula Regional Japan champion and like Miyata has had two stabs at SF already. Although neither actually included a race start.
In 2018 he was given the opportunity to substitute for F2 racer Nirei Fukuzumi at Team Mugen for the Autopolis round, but heavy rain and reduced visibility meant the race was cancelled on Sunday morning. Then at Okayama last year he replaced the absent Kenta Yamashita at Kondo Racing but crashed on the warm-up lap and once again didn’t get to race.
And while Sakaguchi’s domination of FRJC’s depleted field denied him the opportunity to test his racecraft, he still had more of a chance to show it in 2020 than Miyata did in SF Lights.
Sometimes he got too aggressive in battle with Miyata, but such were the gaps that tended to appear between the Dallara 320 cars after a few laps that you can’t blame him for wanting to get his moves done early. Like Miyata he spent several years in the series, and came second to his rival as a Honda junior in F4.
Thankfully the strategic elements of SF means racing can stay close throughout and not every potential pass will be a once-in-a-race opportunity, and Sakaguchi’s promotion to a Toyota-powered seat at INGING shows that not only do Japan’s top brass in motorsport have faith in his ability to deliver the goods in the races but it also validates the existence of FRJC.
While going unbeaten against a tiny and usually low quality grid in FRJC wasn’t so impressive on its own, it bolstered Sakaguchi’s claims to a SF seat before he either became a victim of the ‘holding ground’ issue in SF Lights where a fourth or fifth-year driver wins the title over a fourth-year driver and a third-year driver and so on, or he left single-seaters entirely.
He’s only down for the season opener, but expect Toyota junior Kotaka [right of lead image] to enter round two at Suzuka as well as he keeps Kamui Kobayashi’s KCMG seat warm while the ex-F1 driver focuses on international sportscar commitments.
Unlike Miyata and Sakaguchi’s first SF chances, Kotaka will not be doubling up in SF Lights this weekend and will instead solely focus on his step up to the big time.
He will be racing in the support series this year though, as he’s signed with TOM’S for an expected title attack. The good news is that even if he misses two rounds, team-mate and Japanese racing debutant Alesi could also be forced to miss SF Lights races if he too gets a SF call-up and has to make it his priority. It will make the title fight very interesting.
Kotaka has spent almost the entirety of his career at TOM’S and so those in the SF paddock already know how good he can be. He was third in Japanese F4 in 2018, fifth in SF Lights in 2019 and then third in the series on his return. An oddity has stopped Kotaka from fighting for titles in his career so far though, as he was barred from racing at Okayama for a few years.
It will be interesting to see what Kotaka gets from his debut, and whether he can convince Toyota to make SF his 2022 home.
The other rookies
Hiroki Otsu drives the Red Bull-liveried Mugen car this year after standing in for the meningitis-struck Tadasuke Makino at last year’s season finale. The 26-year-old had been on the brink of entering SF several times before, having been one of Honda’s leading drivers in the junior ranks although never truly getting the standout results to show for it.
Of the four inexperienced drivers heading to Fuji, it’s Otsu who has stood out the most in pre-season testing although he’s a driver whose career trajectory lays firmly in Japan while his rookie rivals all harbour ambitions in programmes abroad; including F1.
B-MAX Racing won’t be at Fuji but it has signed teenager Yves Baltas for 2021. The American has experience in Euroformula and Formula Renault Eurocup, but his results don’t suggest that when he does turn up in SF he will be a points scorer.
With its lessened relevance as a proving ground for F1-focused talents (or those who the Japanese scene want to head to F1 such as sophomore SF stars Toshiki Oyu and Ukyo Sasahara), Formula Scout won’t report on the series with the same depth of coverage as it did in 2020, but don’t be surprised if the Super Formula rookies still make headlines this year.
Formula Regional Americas champion to get scholarship for SF
Formula Scout’s Class of 2019
2020 SF season review: The factors behind Yamamoto’s third title
How “worried” Nakajima had his faith in Oyu rewarded