【SUPER FORMULA Round 2 / Autopolis】
The second round of 2019 Super Formula series was held at Autopolis in Kyushu. While Yokohama Tire has been the sole tire supplier of Super Formula series since 2016, it has only a small amount of data about this race track because, in the first year, the Autopolis round was canceled in the aftermath of a big earthquake in the Kumamoto area and then bad weather caused another cancelation last year.
On top of this, the teams had brand new SF19 cars from the start of this season. Therefore, they also needed to do as many laps as possible to collect data on tires during an additional testing session set on Friday, May 17th.
But forecasts said the weather in the race weekend would be worse and it was overcast on Friday with occasional showers later in the testing session. So, the teams used the final minutes for the car setup on the wet track because the qualifying session on Saturday would likely be run under similar conditions.
Before that, every driver had done a few qualifying simulations, which decided the timing sheet of the Friday session. Daniel Ticktum (Team Mugen) was the fastest driver and he was followed by Alex Palou (TCS Nakajima Racing) who had shown impressive speed in the season opener and Nirei Fukuzumi (Docomo Team Dandelion Racing).
It was stormy, as forecasted, on Saturday, May 18th. The scheduled free practice in the morning had to be delayed half an hour and cut short to a 30-minute session. The session itself didn’t go smoothly, as many drivers went off the track or crashed into barriers. This caused the red flag two times and the session didn’t restart after the second one.
The rain became even heavier in the afternoon, so the qualifying session had to be postponed to Sunday morning, as a 40-minute session.
The weather didn’t improve on Sunday, with strong winds and occasional heavy rain. Plus, a thick fog which often comes with rain in this area added to the difficulty.
The rescheduled qualifying session began at 8:45 in the morning. As it could be stopped by the red flag at any time, every driver queued at the exit of the pit lane to set a reasonable time as soon as possible. Kondo Racing had a clear advantage in this situation because the reigning champion team was allocated its garage in the place where it was closest to the pit exit!
Thanks to this, Yuji Kunimoto (Kondo Racing) became the first one to go out to the track and set the fastest time, 1’47”602, on his second timed lap. Other drivers tried to follow his path but two of them crashed their cars soon after that, which caused the first interruption by the red flag.
The session was cut short by 15 minutes because of this and restarted for the remaining 18 minutes. But the conditions now became even worse. Then another red flag was required for a car going off the track. With nine minutes to go, the session was restarted again only for repeating the same consequences and the third red flag meant the end of the session.
As a result, the pole position was won by Kunimoto. With Sho Tsuboi (JMS P.Mu/Cerumo Inging) securing the second grid and Fukuzumi taking the third, the top three grids were totally different from those in the season opener.
After some supporting races, the starting procedures of Super Formula race got underway on time. The rain almost stopped around noon, while the wind was still quite strong. But the wind helped to dry the track surfaces to some extent and there were dry parts of tarmac here and there on the track when the cars were about to take their starting grids.
So, all drivers chose the slick tires for the start but six drivers including two at the front row picked the soft compound while remaining 14 went for the medium.
Most of the drivers made a good start and completed the opening lap without any big drama. However, Ticktum spun and halted on the track on Lap 2, which called for the Safety Car. Many took this opportunity to make a mandatory pit stop for a tire change but the pole sitter Kunimoto, Yuhi Sekiguchi (Itochu Enex Team Impul) who had managed to come up to eighth from the 16th grid, and Tadasuke Makino (TCS Nakajima Racing) who had had to settle for 13th in the qualifying session opted for staying out.
These three drivers started to push hard as soon as racing resumed on Lap 8 because they had to build enough gap with others to allow them to stay in front of others after their own pit stop. Particularly, Sekiguchi’s pace was blistering. Using the overtaking system, he overtook Kunimoto at Turn 1 on Lap 13 and then started to pull away from Kunimoto and others.
At the end of Lap 20, Hiroaki Ishiura (JMS P.Mu/Cerumo Inging) was leading among the drivers who had already done their pit stop and he was running 22 seconds behind Sekiguchi. But within the next ten laps, the Impul driver extended the gap to almost 40 seconds and made a stop on Lap 40.
At the time, Naoki Yamamoto (Docomo Team Dandelion Racing) was leading the field, replacing Ishiura, but Sekiguchi managed to come back to the track as the effective race leader, ahead of Yamamoto with a distance that was almost equal to the full length of the pit straight.
Considering the fact that Sekiguchi was running on a fresh set of medium tires, while Yamamoto was on the 40-lap old soft tires, it was quite interesting to see how their fight would develop. But Sekiguchi kept a really good pace and no one was ahead of him when Makino finally had done his pit stop on Lap 50. Sekiguchi went on to the checkered flag and won the race.
By finishing in second, Yamamoto got on the podium for the second consecutive races and became the championship leader. Kazuya Ohshima (Uomo Sunoco Team LeMans) took the last corner of the podium, despite starting the race from the 11th grid, thanks to a bold strategy to make a pit stop at the end of the opening lap.
“The prediction of race conditions and weather was quite difficult this time and I’ve heard that some teams used the slick tires on the cars that had wet setup. Looking at the tires themselves, there are teams which used them quite nicely, I mean, the tires worn evenly from the inside to the outside. All in all, I think we could collect some interesting data which are quite useful for the future, as the race conditions were very different from those of a ‘normal’ race.
“In the closing phase of the race, it was interesting to see how the battle between Sekiguchi with the fresh medium tires and Yamamoto with very old soft tires went. Some drivers reported that the medium tires were capable enough when the track surfaces were rubbered in during the race. Of course, the soft tires are always faster than the medium under equal conditions. But I think that battle suggests the way to exploit the advantage of medium tires in a race
“The next round will be held at Sport Land Sugo. The durability of the tires depends on how the teams use them, but we aren’t concerned about it because Autopolis and Sugo are one step easier to tire than the toughest circuit, Suzuka, is. On the other hand, however, Sugo is a relatively short racetrack and there will always be some traffic even in the qualifying session. So, it will be thrilling and interesting to see what will happen in the race. As the last two rounds were quite eventful, I hope to have a clean weekend from the qualifying to the race at Sugo.”