The Super Formula rookies that surpassed expectations
The dearth of international drivers in Super Formula has opened the door for more young Japanese drivers to shine in the nation's top single-seater series, and there were two in particular that took advantage of that chance this year.
If you had taken a glance at Super Formula’s rookie class of 2021 at the start of the season and guessed who would come out on top, you would have probably chosen Ritomo Miyata.
After all, Super Formula Lights champion Miyata was stepping up to TOM’S to replace Nick Cassidy, and even qualified on the front row last year in his very first outing in the senior category as Kazuki Nakajima’s replacement at Okayama.
But while Miyata failed to make it on the podium all year in a frustrating campaign, two other rookies with lesser reputations coming into the season ended up outscoring him fairly comfortably: Mugen driver Hiroki Otsu and Inging’s Sena Sakaguchi.
Otsu coming away with Rookie of the Year honours and a race win – becoming only one of four drivers all year to stand on the top step of the podium – was one of the pleasant surprises of the season, considering there was a fair degree of scepticism coming into the campaign that he would do a better job than his Mugen predecessor Ukyo Sasahara.
After all, Otsu, five years the senior of his fellow rookies, didn’t have much in the way of recent single-seater pedigree, with his last win in All-Japan Formula 3 coming all the way back in 2017. But it’s fair to say the 27-year-old Honda protégé just about maximised the chances he had, culminating with victory in a weather-affected October Motegi race.
His chief engineer Ryan Dingle was among those to have been impressed by Otsu’s progression over the course of the season, which yielded sixth place in the final standings and a first win for the #15 Mugen entry since Pierre Gasly’s brace of wins in 2017.
“Otsu is a very easy guy to work with, very approachable, and I think [Tomoki] Nojiri took him a little bit under his wing and taught him,” Dingle told Motorsport.com. “He has a couple of aspects of his driving unique to him and finally we were able to put the car together the way he wanted it in the second half of the year.
“At Fuji [in the opening round] he damaged his front wing in Turn 1, but we had the pace in that race to be in the top five. At Motegi the first time he went over the kerb, had an issue and lost some places there. But besides those incidents he hardly put a wheel wrong. He was very calm, like when he won at Motegi, he didn’t look like a rookie controlling that race.”
In a normal season, Otsu’s contribution would have been enough to guarantee Mugen the teams’ championship as well. But, with Nojiri and Otsu effectively entered as separate single-car ‘teams’ (a result of Team Goh's support of the #15 car), the prize went to Toyota outfit Impul instead.
“It was really disappointing not to get the teams’ title, because I think we worked better as a team together than any of the others,” said Japan-domiciled Canadian Dingle. “Nojiri was very strong, and we had that data to reference, but I like to think that we played a part in that, because we helped investigate certain set-up directions.
“We always had a way to get the two cars back to a respectable level of performance, and that’s because we always had the two teams of engineers working together. Nojiri’s car was always quick, but there were times that they referenced the #15 car. And that strength made both the team’s cars consistent.”
As well as being dependable in the races, Otsu was among the most consistent qualifiers in the field, making Q3 on five of six occasions. But besides his pole in Motegi, which came as he was the only driver to use slicks on a drying track, he never managed to qualify higher than seventh, something his engineer concedes was a point of weakness.
“If you look at qualifying, he was pretty consistently in Q3, but making that final step in Q3 [was a problem],” admitted Dingle. “That’s where a lot of experience, and where the driver/engineer combinations really matter, because the engineers have an understanding of what the driver needs when the track changes.
“We made a few wrong decisions in Q3 in hindsight, but we’ve learned from that and if we get the chance next season, we’ll be better.”
The driver that Otsu narrowly beat to both Rookie of the Year honours and victory at Motegi was Sakaguchi, who was chosen to replace retiring two-time champion Hiroaki Ishiura at the Inging Toyota squad alongside last year’s breakout star Sho Tsuboi.
While Tsuboi floundered without the guidance of veteran Ishiura in the other side of the box, Sakaguchi flourished under the tutelage of engineer Kotaro Tanaka, who made the move from Kondo Racing to join Inging at the start of this year.
“It’s his first year of racing in Super Formula, so at the start I made him try various things without caring about the laptimes,” Tanaka said of Sakaguchi in an interview with Motorsport.com’s Japanese edition. “I made him understood that ‘this is what happens when you fiddle around with this’.
“Sometimes there are times when things don’t go well, but I always say [to him], ‘you’re a rookie, so don’t be afraid to just go for it.’ Because it’s his first year, the results are not so important, I tell him that he just has to shine.”
Even so, Sakaguchi impressed in his first campaign with two second-place finishes (albeit both coming in mixed conditions) at Autopolis and Motegi, putting him seventh in the standings, a place behind fellow rookie Otsu and eight places clear of Tsuboi.
“I think he’s basically a fast driver, and he can give good feedback, although sometimes he makes mistakes” continues Tanaka. “He is not passive; he has clear ideas of the way he wants the car to behave and he tells us those. I think this is an important point for a good driver. That way, if there are problems, we can solve them sooner.”
Tanaka knows all about winning titles in Super Formula, having worked with champions such as Loic Duval, Ralph Firman and Tom Coronel in the Formula Nippon era. For Sakaguchi to add his name to that roll of honour, Tanaka believes that the missing ingredient is not raw speed, but sheer hungriness.
“Racing drivers soon lose their edge when they lose the motivation to fight,” said Tanaka. “When they stop looking forwards, they tend to stop winning. There are a lot of fast drivers in Super Formula, so you can’t be champion unless you are hungry and greedy.”
Additional reporting by Kenichiro Ebii