How Super Formula dodged motorsport's new reality
Super Formula holding a pre-season test at a time where the rest of motorsport finds itself in a coronavirus-induced holding pattern made for a unique, almost unsettling experience. But how was it able to do so?
The global coronavirus pandemic has brought the world of motorsport to a screeching halt in almost all parts of the world, but this week Super Formula pressed ahead with its first test of the pre-season in what can only be described as a surreal atmosphere at Fuji Speedway.
The paddock, normally thronged with fans, was eerily quiet, with access restricted to essential personnel and media. Unlike at the recent Okayama SUPER GT test, spectators were allowed into the track, but only to watch from the grandstands and trackside viewing areas.
Indeed, a handful of punters took the chance to observe the field of 20 SF19s in action across the two days of running, albeit denied the chance to see their heroes and their machines up close and personal as they would normally be able to.
But it wouldn’t be accurate to say that it’s business as usual for Japan’s premier single-seater series, despite the arguably questionable image given off by the Fuji test.
For one thing, while testing is going ahead for now, the start of the Super Formula season remains some way in the distance. Already, the first two rounds of the championship have been postponed, and the feeling in the paddock at Fuji was that the third race at Autopolis appears virtually certain to meet a similar fate.
Secondly, those visiting from other parts of the world were acutely aware of how fortunate they were to be in a country where daily life is proceeding more or less normally, let alone partake in a relatively frivolous activity as a pre-season test.
“For me so far, I know it’s wrong, but it feels normal,” Kondo Racing newcomer Sacha Fenestraz told Motorsport.com. “[The situation in Europe] is a bit scary. We know that there are fewer cases here in Japan. It’s good in a way, but you still need to be very careful.
“Of course it’s not a nice situation because my family, my grandparents, they are there [in Europe] and I know that it’s not good for them. So I’m kind of scared. Knowing this kind of thing is around my family is not very nice.”
Last-minute B-Max/Motopark signing Sergio Sette Camara added: “We need to remember how lucky we are to be here driving today – any other place in the world, any other series you aren’t driving for three months.
“But in Japan life is normal, the subways are full, the shops are open. It’s possible because it’s a national championship. Only one team is coming from outside [Japan] which is us. We can prepare ourselves to not create problems, come early and stay a lot in Japan.”
Sergio Sette Camara, B-Max Racing Team
Photo by: Masahide Kamio
So far, Japan has appeared to escape the worst of the coronavirus pandemic. As of the time of writing, the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in the country had reached 1,300, or around 10 cases per million of population, compared to 1,059 for Spain and 1,230 for Italy – now the two worst-hit countries in the world in terms of death toll.
Schools have been closed and most major sporting and cultural events have been called off, most notably of all the Olympic Games that were scheduled to be held in Tokyo this summer. But the more radical lockdown measures that have been adopted by much of the Western world amid the deepening crisis have not been deployed, at least not yet.
Of course, this year's Super Formula action was due to commence earlier this month at Suzuka, but the first test was postponed along with the opening round at the same venue.
Track owner Mobilityland, a subsidiary of Honda, has so far taken a safety-first approach to the coronavirus crisis, closing the amusement parks connected to both Suzuka and Motegi and its famous Collection Hall as well as the track themselves at the start of March.
Toyota-owned Fuji on the other hand was willing to go ahead with its scheduled test, albeit adopting a number of measures aimed at mitigating any health risks for those present, besides the most obvious policy of not allowing fans into the paddock.
Team personnel and media were required to submit a medical questionnaire, including a temperature check, before being granted access to the paddock. Additionally, pit garages were assigned in such a way that one empty garage lay in between each of the teams’ working areas, with the majority of team staff (voluntarily) using face masks.
The measures also extended to the media centre, where chairs were spaced two metres apart and alternate rows were blocked off to prevent journalists and photographers sitting too close to one another. Windows were also kept open to ensure good air circulation, despite the less-than-summery temperatures of the test.
Track action with Mount Fuji in the background
Photo by: Masahide Kamio
Still, not everyone was convinced by the action that was taken, with reigning champion Nick Cassidy being the most vocal about his misgivings about being present at Fuji.
“There haven’t been many precautions during this test,” TOM’S driver Cassidy told Motorsport.com. “I’ve been surprised. They’ve made a point about not letting fans in [the paddock], but otherwise life is going on as normal.
“To me that’s nice, but also dangerous, and I’ve almost been criticised by the series for being worried about people’s health.”
Whether the test should have gone ahead in such a situation will remain a matter of opinion, although there's a strong practical argument to be made that testing makes little sense while it's still unclear when the season will begin in earnest.
Regardless of the rights and wrongs, this weekend Fuji will be playing host to two days of testing for SUPER GT. A few days later, it will be time for Super Formula’s second test at Suzuka, as Mobilityland partially reopens the facilities that have lay dormant for a month.
But then, a long wait – at the very least, some two-and-a-half months – will follow before racing resumes for either of Japan’s premier categories.
Fans in Japan and elsewhere ought to savour the sight of racing cars being driven on a track in anger while they can, because it could be their last chance for quite some time.
Gallery: Super Formula presses on with Fuji test
Super GT and Super Formula tests called off