It only took three races for Red Bull to make the decision to remove Dan Ticktum from its driver development programme after an underwhelming start to his Super Formula season, but in the seven-race quasi-Formula 1 feeder championship that equated to a substantial amount of time and money wasted.
Reigning Indy Lights champion Patricio O’Ward – who’s also just made his Formula 2 debut – has been drafted in by Red Bull to replace Ticktum at Team Mugen, and will have to beat a quality rookie field if he wants to succeed in the new Dallara SF19 car.
Nine rookies have appeared this season, four of which can legitimately claim to be aiming for F1. With Honda engines propelling Red Bull Racing’s Max Verstappen to victory in last weekend’s Austrian Grand Prix – the team’s home race – it may now be more willing to promote one of its Japanese partner’s juniors into Toro Rosso if they acquire a FIA superlicence.
Lucas Auer AUSTRIA?B-Max Racing with Motopark
6th in standings, 8 points (1 fastest lap, 1 podium)
After his Mercedes-Benz DTM contract ended late last year, Auer got the call to join the Red Bull Junior Team and help the development of its ‘customer’ team Motopark in its first season of SF with the backmarker B-Max Racing outfit.
The Austrian, nephew of former Toro Rosso team boss and F1 race-winner Gerhard Berger, was also brought in to strengthen the partnership between Red Bull and its engine supplier. If he impresses, he could be retained by either party in 2020.
Auer got his first taste of the series in post-season testing and struggled, and although Motopark has made B-Max a more efficient entity since joining it, it struggled for one-lap pace until the most recent Sugo round.
High attrition meant Auer finished seventh in the Suzuka season-opener, beating Ticktum in a straight battle. Motopark was where it expected to be, mired back in the pack,?but it could at least celebrate B-Max’s first championship point.
Autopolis was much of the same, with Auer coming out of a chaotic weekend with an 11th place. At Sugo he was on the pace, and after pitting late was denied second place by former F1 racer Kamui Kobayashi while navigating lapped traffic.
Team-mate battle: Like Auer, Harrison Newey hasn’t raced single-seaters in several years, and had the same leap in performance at Sugo as Auer did. His long-run pace looked strong enough for fifth place until his car set on fire.
Nirei Fukuzumi?JAPAN?Dandelion Racing
7th in standings, 8 points
The Honda junior, who raced as a Red Bull athlete last year, cannot really be considered a rookie from now on, having entered four races last year alongside his disappointing F2 campaign with Arden.
This came as no surprise given Arden’s recent struggles, and this was a driver who took the fight to F1 racers Charles Leclerc and Alexander Albon in GP3.
Fukuzumi did look dire at times during his SF appearances in 2018, involving himself in several on-track incidents, but his one-lap pace was unquestionable – he qualified second on his debut and nabbed a fastest lap on his return.
Dropping F2, and sticking with champion team-mate Naoki Yamamoto in a switch to Dandelion Racing, has enabled Fukuzumi to demonstrate his talent further this year, and he topped the times as soon as he switched teams in testing.
He’s mostly held his own against Yamamoto and the other Honda runners in qualifying and the fastest lap stakes, and has coupled it with race pace that has propelled him to two fifth places. A F2 return in the right circumstances would no doubt be a success.
Tadasuke Makino?JAPAN?Nakajima Racing
9th in standings, 6 points (1 pole)
Makino, despite not being a household name, has turned heads his whole career but truly marked himself out as a star talent with a unexpected win at Monza in his sole F2 season last year.
This followed two low-hitting seasons in Formula 3, one with Toda Racing in Japan and the other with Hitech GP in Europe.
Returning to Japan, the scene of his dominant Formula 4 season as a car racing rookie in 2015, has unlocked even more of the pace he teased at briefly in F2. After all, it’s not unusual for Japanese drivers to thrive best in their home habitat.
The 22-year-old matched veteran F2 team-mate Artem Markelov in qualifying last year, but a disrupted testing schedule made it unclear if he could translate that into SF.
Makino quashed the doubters with a stunning debut pole position at Suzuka, the first time Nakajima Racing had started at the front since 2010. He dominated the first stint of the race, but a safety car wiped out his advantage and he then suffered from a wheel failure.
Although he crashed in torrid conditions at Autopolis, in the race he made the most of a opportunistic strategy to finish fourth. There was another crash at Sugo, but Makino still impressed.
Honda sent Nobuharu Matsushita to SF for a season after he couldn’t deliver the goods in F2, but he’s returned to Europe this year, and Makino is doing enough to deserve a second chance in the F1 paddock in 2020.
12th in standings, 4 points
Japanese F3 dominator Tsuboi had a lot of pressure on his shoulders going into this season, with Toyota hiring him as early as it could for both SF and Super GT, disposing 2016 SF champion Yuji Kunimoto of a seat in the process.
Toyota has lost any advantage it held with the previous generation car, but being paired with two-time champion and leading Toyota driver Hiroaki Ishiura at INGING meant Tsuboi haw a great driver to learn from in getting the most from the car.
He’s so far outperformed his illustrious team-mate, helped mostly by finishing fifth at Suzuka. Tsuboi has been poor in qualifying, like Ticktum, often pushing the limit too early. However, that approach did earn him a front-row start at Autopolis.
In races he has worked his way into strong positions though, his vast circuit knowledge helping him charge through the order better than his rookie rivals.
His Sugo race ended embarrassingly when he got caught out accelerating on a late safety car restart and span himself out.
Alex Palou?SPAIN?Nakajima Racing
13th in standings, 3 points (1 fastest lap)
Languishing 13th in the standings with three points, European F3 expat Palou is still being feted by some as a title contender.
The Spaniard broke lap records in testing, and has kicked off Nakajima Racing’s revival with Makino. His Japanese F3 experience has helped, but more importantly has been the way Palou’s driving style cooperates with the Yokohama tyres.
After topping free practice and the first segments of qualifying, he was set for pole on his debut until Makino pipped him at the last minute by 0.029 seconds. He ran second behind his team-mate until serving a drive-through penalty that was earned from a team-induced error, took fastest lap, but then challenged for the lead until he too had a wheel failure.
Palou was immediately on the pace again at Autopolis, but was compromised by the wet, and he had to fight his way up to sixth in the race. It was a similar story at Sugo, where Dandelion was never going to be beaten, but Palou’s frontrunning pace only resulted in eighth on the grid after his best time was deleted for causing a red flag.
A natty pit strategy almost resulted in fourth in the race, a position denied to him by 0.099s, but he was then penalised and classified 13th. The SF title has been won with two non-scores before, but only by a rookie once: Ralf Schumacher in 1996.