Super Formula mid-season review ft. Joao Paulo de Oliveira

Now we’re halfway through the 2022 Super Formula season, it’s the perfect time to take stock of the campaign so far, with the help of 2010 series champion and commentator Joao Paulo de Oliveira.

Super Formula mid-season review ft. Joao Paulo de Oliveira

Five down, five to go - last month’s Sugo race marked the midpoint of Super Formula’s extended 10-race schedule, and the contours of this year’s title fight have become clear.

Ever-consistent reigning champion Tomoki Nojiri leads the way with four podium finishes in five races, but Ryo Hirakawa has staked a strong claim to the title with a pair of wins, while victory last time out has threatened to make Sacha Fenestraz a bona fide challenger too.

Others such as Ritomo Miyata and Tadasuke Makino have shown the speed necessary to fight at the sharp end of the field, while some - including past race winners like Yuhi Sekiguchi, Nirei Fukuzumi and Giuliano Alesi - have struggled for form.

With the help of de Oliveira, who since the start of the season has acted as a pundit for Super Formula’s official English-language broadcast, we look at the fortunes of each of the championship’s 12 teams in turn so far in 2022.

 

IMPUL (1st, 76pts)

#19 Yuhi Sekiguchi - 10th
#20 Ryo Hirakawa - 2nd (2 wins)

Last years’ team champions are sitting at the head of the table again after five races, largely thanks to Hirakawa’s standout performances. The only multiple race winner so far, Hirakawa has shown no signs of losing focus amid his promotion to a Toyota FIA World Endurance Championship drive, although qualifying remains a bugbear - his average starting position is a mere 9.4 and he’s only picked up a single bonus point in qualifying, back in the Fuji season opener. That means the 17-point gap deficit he faces to points leader Nojiri is larger than it should be, but assuming he can avoid any more Sugo-style qualifying disasters, Hirakawa remains in a strong position to challenge for an overdue first Super Formula crown.

Sekiguchi meanwhile has been one of the disappointments of the season, failing to build on a positive 2021 campaign. His qualifying record has been pitiful, with an average grid slot of 15 (the fifth-worst in the field). That didn’t hurt him too much at Fuji, but since then it’s been three zeros in a row, a sorry state of affairs for the six-time race winner.

JP saysHirakawa has really stood out this year. It seems he can recover in the races from qualifying badly. He has the speed to challenge Nojiri, and Impul has been strong in terms of strategy and recovering places. But they have to qualify better and start higher up the grid.

 

MUGEN (2nd, 75pts)

#1 Tomoki Nojiri - 1st (1 win, 4 poles)
#15 Ukyo Sasahara - 12th (1 pole)

Mugen’s off-season split with Servus Japan and expansion to a second car with its own in-house crew hasn’t damaged its competitiveness, with a clean sweep of poles so far this year. Reigning champion Nojiri is likewise showing few signs of feeling the pressure of carrying the number one plate; if anything he seems energised by it, and even if he faces much more competition than last year he remains the undisputed top dog within Honda. Of course, he’s only converted one pole into victory so far, but the bonus points for those poles combined with superb consistency have kept him just about clear in the title race so far.

Sasahara started the season perfectly with pole in the opener, but since then there hasn’t been much to write home about - two stalls at Fuji, being baulked by Kunimoto in qualifying at Suzuka, a strategy error at Autopolis and a mysterious lack of pace at Sugo. The potential is there, but arguably the series’ unluckiest driver has still yet to realise it.

JP saysNojiri is still the man to beat. He has been dominating in qualifying and he’s earned a lot of points this way. If anyone wants to fight him, they have to qualify better because the races are so short and the strategy is so limited. It’s clear Mugen has the best car in qualifying, which Sasahara has proven as well. Over a single lap with low fuel, that car is pretty special. But they seem to struggle more in the race, more so than other teams.

 

KONDO RACING (3rd, 62pts)

#3 Kenta Yamashita - 11th
#4 Sacha Fenestraz - 3rd (1 win)

One of the feel-good storylines of the season so far has been Masahiko Kondo’s team’s re-emergence as a front-running team. Fenestraz’s return after missing most of last season due to visa issues has no doubt helped matters, as has Michael Krumm’s arrival as a translator-cum-adviser to the talented Franco-Argentine. Qualifying on the front row at Sugo and outdragging Nojiri at the start put Fenestraz in position to finally convert his speed into a fine victory and ignite his title challenge after podiums at Fuji and Autopolis.

Yamashita has been one of the season’s best qualifiers, with the fourth-best average on the grid, but turning that speed into results has proven trickier. Fourth at Fuji and two bonus points for qualifying second at Suzuka represent his only points, but with he and Fenestraz pushing each other, it’s surely only a matter of time before the driver they call ‘Yamaken’ in Japan gets his time in the sun as well, even if a title push now looks impossible.

JP saysKondo are really starting to position themselves as one of the championship’s top teams. They have two good drivers, of course Sacha has scored most of the points but Kenta has also been strong in qualifying. They’ve made some good strategy calls, not least of all with Sacha at Sugo. I was surprised how well they managed that situation. 

 

DANDELION RACING (4th, 44pts)

#5 Tadasuke Makino - 5th
#6 Hiroki Otsu - 9th

You have to go back to 2018 to find a season in which Dandelion failed to win a race, and based on the evidence so far the jury is out on whether the Kyoto-based outfit is likely to pick one up in the remaining five races. Makino lost a potential shot at a first Super Formula win at Suzuka, not quite making his tyres last in the tricky wet conditions, but that stands alone as the only time either Dandelion driver has gotten even a sniff of the top step of the podium. Qualifying in particular has been an issue, and the one time Makino cracked the formula at Autopolis, his race pace deserted him. But he has settled into the role as team leader well, and has shown the speed that once saw him touted for a Honda-backed F1 drive.

Otsu was impressive in pre-season testing but has been a disappointment so far after being handed the drive in place of the departing Nirei Fukuzumi, with third on the grid at Sugo only yielding a disappointing fifth. He deserves credit for his consistency, with four top-10 finishes out of five, but there’s been little to suggest he’s a match for Makino on pace.

JP says: Makino has been similar to Miyata, he’s shown the speed and at Sugo he was quicker than Miyata; he just couldn’t pass, although he finished ahead anyway with a better strategy call. I would say Makino is one of the fastest drivers in the field, but the team itself needs more consistency in qualifying. For Otsu it’s just about getting closer to Makino.

 

TOM’S (5th, 31pts)

#36 Giuliano Alesi - 18th
#37 Ritomo Miyata - 4th

Much like Impul, it really depends which side of the garage you consider when it comes to assessing TOM’S so far in 2022. Miyata has been a consistently strong qualifier, with an average grid slot (3.2) second only to Nojiri, and his race pace has been getting better as well, as evidenced by a podium at Fuji and his valiant efforts leading on an alternate strategy at Sugo - which arguably should have yielded another top-three but left him just sixth. A first victory is looking more and more like a real possibility in the second half of the campaign. 

The same can’t be said for Alesi, whose Autopolis win last year must now feel like a distant memory. The French driver has seemed like a man under pressure, unable to match - or even get close - to Miyata all season as he ploughs his own furrow with set-up. Rumours abound of a major falling out between Alesi and his engineers at Autopolis after Alesi made an unscheduled stop in what his team thought was an entirely healthy car, not exactly a good omen for the future. A big result is needed to take the pressure off, and quickly.

JP saysI have been impressed by Miyata. He clearly has the speed, and is for sure one of the future contenders for the title. I don’t know if he’s ready yet but I think he can be strong in the second half of the season. Alesi has been off the pace. At certain times he has shown speed in practice, but in the end he has to show it when it matters, in qualifying and the race and hasn’t been able to do that so far. He’s in a pressured position, especially being with TOM’S in SUPER GT as well. I hope he can find more confidence for the second half.

 

B-MAX RACING (6th, 21pts)

#50 Nobuharu Matsushita - 6th

It’s been feast or famine for the one-car B-Max squad in 2022. Hopes were high pre-season that Matsushita, whose speed is in no doubt after his heroics in Formula 2 and SUPER GT, could emerge as a consistent front-runner. And while a mesmerising drive in the wet at Suzuka produced the long-awaited first win, the ‘consistent’ part of the package remains elusive. Indeed, besides the 20 points he earned at Suzuka, he’s had just one more top-10 finish, recovering from a first-lap excursion at Autopolis to finish 10th. At Sugo he was unfortunate to crash out with brake failure, but qualifying remains a major weakness.

JP saysThey’ve had a bit of a one-race season so far, and the race that they won was very atypical. The key to that race was Nobu keeping the tyres cool while others were overheating them towards the end, but there was nothing from that race they could learn taking forwards, and after that they just went back to being where they were before. We want to see Nobu fighting for wins everywhere and that just hasn’t been the case. So I think the second half is about just finding their feet and being more consistent.

 

NAKAJIMA RACING (7th, 21pts)

#64 Naoki Yamamoto - 20th
#65 Toshiki Oyu - 7th

 If this review had been written before Sugo, Satoru Nakajima’s eponymous outfit would have been several places lower down this list, but Oyu spared the team’s blushes with a fine drive to second at Sugo last time out. Prior to that, the season had been little short of disastrous - instead of just Yamamoto, as it was in 2021, it was both drivers languishing down the back of the grid. Eighteen months on from moving to Nakajima, the sight of three-time champion Yamamoto struggling has lost its novelty value, so much so that it was a surprise to see him top Q1 at Sugo. Combined with Oyu’s podium, it offered some encouragement to a team that has looked a shadow of the one that almost took Alex Palou to the 2019 title.

JP says: It was clear they made a step forward at Sugo, but we need to see if they can confirm that at Fuji. It was good to see Yamamoto qualify fastest in Q1 at Sugo, even if he didn’t repeat it in Q2 and had some bad luck in the race. Oyu had a strong race and the team maximised the strategy, so I think the team has the potential to get back to fighting for wins. Oyu and Yamamoto are both capable of doing that. Especially for Yamamoto, nothing has seemed to work lately, but I still think he has the capacity to turn things around.

 

TEAM GOH (8th, 21pts)

#53 Ren Sato - 15th
#55 Atsushi Miyake - 8th

The new team on the Super Formula block (run by Servus Japan, Mugen’s former partner squad) certainly made an entrance at Fuji, with new Red Bull junior driver Sato qualifying on the front row for the opener and Miyake banking a top-five the next day. Sato has been quick on occasion since but has had a propensity for mishaps, with a first-lap off at Autopolis and a spin at Sugo costing him points. That said, his young age and relative lack of experience in the lower formulae give him a degree of leeway. Miyake turned heads with a level-headed drive to third at Autopolis, but an 18th-place finish at Sugo shows there is still a way to go.

JP says: At the beginning of the season Sato seemed to have the edge, but then lately it has been Miyake who has been stronger. I think they have two strong rookie drivers who have the speed, and with the team being managed by Masashi Yamamoto, they are being led by someone with a lot of experience. That helps with bringing up the young drivers well. To be consistent is tougher, but so far they have been impressive in terms of speed, especially in qualifying. It looks like they both have a bright future and now they need to keep building.

 

KCMG (9th, 15pts)

#7 Kamui Kobayashi - 13th
#18 Yuji Kunimoto - 14th

Almost all of KCMG’s points so far have come in just one race, when 2016 champion Kunimoto led home Kobayashi for a five-six at Suzuka. Kobayashi returning to full-time action has undoubtedly helped the team move forward, but the newly-appointed Toyota WEC team boss has been all over the place in qualifying, only making Q2 twice and qualifying 20th on as many occasions, with predictable effects on his race results. Kunimoto meanwhile has found some stability with three straight top-10 grid slots since a dire opening double-header at Fuji, but still appears to lack the race pace of many of his Toyota contemporaries.

JP saysAgain, it’s about delivering when it matters and that’s one thing they’ve struggled with. Kobayashi has shown flashes of speed, and Kunimoto was strong in Q1 at Sugo, so they both have chances, but the race pace has been disappointing - certainly not on par with the likes of Mugen, TOM’S and Impul. They need to turn that speed into results somehow.

 

INGING (10th, 6pts)

#38 Sho Tsuboi - 16th
#39 Sena Sakaguchi - 17th

It all looked so good for Inging in pre-season testing, as Tsuboi topped the times on both days at Suzuka and seemed positively brimming with confidence following the team’s internal restructuring. But from the very first race at Fuji, with temperatures much higher than they had been in testing, the emperor was revealed to have no clothes. Tsuboi finished eighth from 12th on the grid, and alarmingly he hasn’t scored points since. Even more disappointingly, Sakaguchi - who handsomely outscored Tsuboi last year - has likewise scored points just once, leaving both drivers towards the foot of the drivers’ standings.

JP saysTo be honest, it seems there is no actual team leader there. They are lacking someone with more experience who can guide the team better. They have good drivers, I am convinced Sakaguchi in particular is a big talent, but there’s no consistency. They need some big changes for the second half. Even just qualifying higher up would help a lot.

 

DRAGO CORSE (11th, 3pts)

#12 Nirei Fukuzumi - 19th

Up until Sugo, two-time race winner Fukuzumi had perhaps shown that his predecessor Tatiana Calderon hadn’t been doing such a bad job at the minnow Drago Corse squad. After all, the Colombian’s best qualifying result of 11th and race finish of 12th both stood as the team’s best until Fukuzumi finally broke through with eighth from sixth on the grid at Sugo, although he admitted afterwards that the result was entirely down to his qualifying performance (in a session where many drivers were affected by traffic or simply messed up, it should be noted). The next race at Fuji should tell us whether the team has made any real progress or whether Fukuzumi’s Sugo result was a mere flash in the pan.

JP saysI have been disappointed with Fukuzumi this season. He has shown himself as one of the best young drivers in the field in past seasons, so it’s a surprise he hasn’t been performing. Having a one-car team can be tricky, you only get half the data compared to other teams, and if you’re off on set-up it’s hard to find the right way. Fukuzumi hasn’t seemed confident or comfortable in the car and Super Formula is all about that. You can see that at TOM’S [with Alesi] or Impul [with Sekiguchi], but it’s more critical at a smaller team.

 

ROOKIE RACING (unclassified)

#14 Kazuya Oshima - unclassified

The only one-car team in the Toyota stable hasn’t had much to smile about. Oshima, the third-most experienced driver in the field, holds two unique distinctions after five races - he’s the only driver to have failed to score points (best result so far is 14th at Sugo) and he’s also alone in having failed to reach Q2 even once. The team is still young, having only started as an independent team last year, but Tsutomu Tojo’s arrival as race engineer from TOM’S has not been the hoped-for game-changer, suggesting the issues lie elsewhere.

JP says: They’ve been totally anonymous all year. They haven’t shown any speed anywhere; Oshima has been quite far off the pace and has never looked like making it through to Q2. Perhaps they are struggling with the car but I think Oshima is lacking motivation. They need to shake things up there and change something. It’s a big structure, you can see how big their factory is at Fuji Speedway… it seems they are serious. But I can’t imagine them having another season like this next year, no chance. 

 

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