Opinion: Why Super Formula needs its own Super Licence

With B-Max Racing resorting to signing a teenage driver yet to complete a full season of single-seaters to race in Super Formula this season, Jamie Klein asks if it's time the Japanese series started tightening its entry requirements.

Opinion: Why Super Formula needs its own Super Licence

Good news: B-Max is set to be on the Super Formula grid again in 2021 after the team seriously thought about pulling the plug. Bad news: the team is preparing to field a largely unknown, very inexperienced driver who’s unlikely to figure at the sharp end of the field.

Motorsport.com broke the news last month about 19-year-old American Yves Baltas being handed the chance to drive for B-Max, a development that followed Honda vetoing the team's preferred choice of Nobuharu Matsushita (in turn causing sponsor Buzz to walk away and collapsing talks with single-seater powerhouse Carlin about a partnership).

Of course, motorsport is a money-driven business and every year teams all over the world - from Formula 1 right the way down to the most entry-level series - are forced to recruit on the basis of funding and not talent. Baltas isn’t the first driver to find himself thrust up the single-seater ladder too quickly just because he has cash to burn and there is a team desperate enough to take him on, and he definitely won’t be the last.

But, the bigger issue arguably is Baltas’s lack of race experience in general, combined with an unremarkable record in the series he has contested that doesn’t allude to him being some kind of prodigy who has the innate ability to handle such a massive step up. Kimi Raikkonen in 2001 or Max Verstappen in 2015, this is most certainly not.

Yves Baltas, Campos Racing

Yves Baltas, Campos Racing

Photo by: Euroformula Open

Super Formula fans will remember a not dissimilar scenario two years ago when Real Racing signed Tristan Charpentier, the Frenchman making the jump from BRDC British Formula 3 (and, in the event, only lasting a race as promised sponsorship funds failed to materialise). 

Charpentier was generally considered too inexperienced for Super Formula with 44 single-seater races under his belt up to that point, one victory and eight podiums. Consider then that Baltas has contested only 22 races across three part-campaigns in British F4, Euroformula Open and Formula Renault Eurocup, with not a single top-five finish and only a handful of top-10s. 

And it’s not like Baltas was lumbered with substandard equipment either. In British F4, in which he contested just the opening two rounds, he was with Arden, sharing a garage with last year’s FIA Formula 3 champion Oscar Piastri. In Euroformula he raced for Campos, which took Marcos Siebert to third in that year’s standings, and in Formula Renault he drove for M2 Competition, which has an enviable reputation in the Toyota Racing Series.

Baltas has a track record for not seeing seasons through to their conclusion. After his short-lived British F4 spell (which yielded a best result of sixth, better than anything he’d muster in the next two years), he bailed on Campos with three rounds left in the season in Euroformula and lasted just three rounds in Formula Renault before pulling the plug.

Yves Baltas, Campos Racing

Yves Baltas, Campos Racing

Photo by: Euroformula Open

His appearance in the Monaco round of Formula Renault, now almost two years ago, remains his last known race appearance to date, which in itself is another source of concern. And, due to travel restrictions, when he does make his race debut - likely at the second round at Suzuka, or possibly beyond - he will be doing so having done zero prior testing.

No doubt eyebrows would be raised if Baltas was trying to buy his way into Formula 2 with such a patchy record. But Super Formula’s demands are even greater for any driver unfamiliar with Japanese circuits and the culture in general. That’s why so many international drivers opt for a preparatory season in Super Formula Lights (previously All-Japan Formula 3) first to allow themselves to get acquainted with the tracks and get used to the very different working methods of Japanese teams without so much pressure.

There’s another driver heading to Japan this year taking exactly that path, but who would have been justified in jumping directly to Super Formula: Giuliano Alesi. His results in three seasons of GP3/FIA F3 were solid rather than spectacular, and while he struggled to make an impact in two seasons of F2, he certainly wasn’t out of his depth in a very strong field.

With TOM’S, Alesi will be in a strong position to fight for the SF Lights title and use that as a springboard to a top drive in the main series. On the other hand, Baltas is set to do his learning in the spotlight, while driving for a team not renowned for being a regular contender. Remember also B-Max is going it alone this year following the dissolution of its partnership with Motopark, which contributed to its occasional strong results of ‘19 and ‘20.

The full-season entry list suggests Baltas will not have a teammate, and if that is the case it will make his task all the more challenging. And based on his previous record, you’d have to question whether the New Yorker has the perseverance to stick it out.

Enaam Ahmed(Buzz Racing with B-Max)

Enaam Ahmed(Buzz Racing with B-Max)

Photo by: Tomohiro Yoshita

None of this is to say this situation is Baltas’s fault. You could hardly expect a teenager striving for a career as a professional racing driver to turn down such an exciting opportunity when presented. You can’t blame B-Max either for trying to do everything possible to ensure it can maintain its presence in Super Formula, particularly after being put in the tough position of not being able to continue with Matsushita because of Honda’s say-so.

Instead, the onus lies on the series promoter JRP to ensure any driver hoping to race in Super Formula has a minimum junior single-seater pedigree. This could be achieved by the introduction of a F1-style Super Licence, although this would need to be less restrictive than the F1 equivalent to try and keep the series open to as large a pool of participants as possible.

Perhaps JRP could mandate any prospective Super Formula driver must have completed two full seasons in a list of ‘approved’ categories worldwide, or a single full season in SF Lights, with some minimum results criteria to prevent any no-hopers from slipping through the net.

It should be added that Baltas clearly has some talent, given that he achieved some respectable, if not outstanding, results in well-established junior formulae against solid opposition at a relatively young age. It may well be that he goes on to enjoy a good career as a professional racing driver. But he badly lacks race mileage, and he should be looking to gain that elsewhere instead of hoping to use Super Formula as a shortcut to stardom.

Likewise, JRP should be striving to ensure that the championship’s reputation for being a meritocracy, and not a haven for pay drivers, remains intact. And that means taking action to ensure Baltas is the last driver to enter the series with such a questionable prior record.

Yves Baltas, Campos Racing

Yves Baltas, Campos Racing

Photo by: Euroformula Open

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Series Super Formula
Author Jamie Klein