【SUPER FORMULA Round 6 / Okayama】
The sixth round of the 2019 Super Formular series was held at Okayama International Circuit. Making the most of his speed and Kondo Racing’s right strategic decisions, and with a little help of luck, Kenta Yamashita won the race after starting from the second grid. He was the sixth winner of this year’s championship.
The last year’s Super Formula race at Okayama saw a great duel in the rain between Yuhi Sekiguchi and Kamui Kobayashi. The forecast had said the race weekend would see some rain again this year, but the weather was much better than expected. So, the fans at the race track could enjoy the stunning speed of SF19s on the dry surfaces under the occasional sunshine that was something akin to a summer day.
A lap of Okayama International Circuit is relatively short, just like the case of Sportland Sugo. Therefore, the grouped qualifying was adopted in Q1 to avoid excessive traffic during the session.
Many of the championship leaders, including Nick Cassidy (Vantelin Team Tom’s) and Naoki Yamamoto (Docomo Team Dandelion Racing), fell in Group A, and four drivers out of ten were going to miss out on going into Q2. Surprisingly, Yamamoto failed to secure his place in Q2 and had to start the race from the 16th grid, which was a demanding situation for him even to add some championship points.
Cassidy also lost out in Q2 due to traffic. At the end of the qualifying session that saw a few upsets, Ryo Hirakawa (Itochu Enex Team Impul) secured the pole position. The winner of the previous race clocked the overall fastest time in the qualifying again this time, just as he had done at Autopolis.
Yamashita followed in second, and Yuji Kunimoto (Kondo Racing) came in third. With Kazuki Nakajima (Vantelin Team Tom’s) qualifying in fourth, the Toyota-engined drivers filled the top four slots. The fastest Honda driver was Nirei Fukuzumi (Docomo Team Dandelion Racing), who took the fifth grid.
The sun was blazing overhead on the race day, despite it already being the end of September. Cassidy, who was qualified in lowly tenth, set the fastest time in the warm-up session in the morning. On the other hand, the drivers starting from the front rows like Hirakawa and Yamashita didn’t shine in the session, probably because they focused on their car’s race set up.
For this race, there were special rules about the mandatory tire change during the race. The rules stipulated that the tire change must be completed after the race leader crossed the first Safety Car line on the tenth lap, but before the leader begins the final lap of the race. This naturally influenced the teams’ and drivers’ thoughts on which tires to start with.
Top qualifiers usually choose the soft tires because these tires help them with a faster pace during the opening laps, but Yamashita opted for the medium. As he said after the race, he thought “the chances to beat the pole-sitting Hirakawa were slim, if I started with the same tires with him. So, I took a different strategy.” And he was right since the tire choice effectively determined the outcome of the race.
Sure enough, the drivers who picked the soft tires had an advantage at the start. Hirakawa led the race, and Yamashita dropped to sixth because several soft-shoed drivers overtook him. On Lap 8, however, Fukuzumi went off the track at Attwood Curve due to a failure of a wheel rim, after contact with other cars during the opening lap. Unfortunately, he had to retire on the spot, but the Safety Car, which was required to remove his car, diverted the whole course of events.
When the leader went in Lap 10 still under the Safety Car period, the driver who started the race with the medium tires, headed by Yamashita, dived into the pit lane one after another. And, partly thanks to the fact that Kondo Racing’s pit box was closest to the pit lane exit, the team managed to send him back to the track as the leader of this group.
Because seven other drivers opted for staying out, Yamashita was running in eighth when the racing resumed. Obviously, these seven drivers had to make their pit stops later, so he was the effective race leader when they reached the halfway point.
Now it was important for Yamashita not to allow the interim leaders to extend the gap with him, and he needed to keep his track position at the same time. On top of this, he had to make his soft tires last for more than 50 laps, but he managed these tasks well, keeping a consistent pace.
The race went on quietly for most of the middle part of it. However, Cassidy’s spirited drive was remarkable. Since he had chosen to stay out in the Safety Car period, and he was running in interim second, the New Zealander desperately wanted to overtake the interim leader, Hirakawa, in order to increase the gap with the group led by Yamashita. Otherwise, he would have no hope of staying in points after his pit stop.
On Lap 57 of the 68-lap race, Cassidy finally made a successful move against Hirakawa, after chasing the Japanese closely for a while, and then came into the pit two laps later. He rejoined the race in sixth, well within points, but he soon got into a tangle with Kobayashi (Carrozzeria Team KCMG), who was coming close from behind. As a result, Cassidy spun and dropped out of points, which meant he eventually.
Despite the troubles for the championship contenders, Yamashita was steadily moving up, as the cars in front made their stops one after another. On Lap 65, the last one went into the pit lane, which handed Yamashita the position of race leader. And the prescribed maximum race time has past soon after that because there was the Safety Car period in the early stage. Thus, the checkered flag was shown to Yamashita at the end of Lap 66. This was his maiden victory in the Super Formula series in his third season.
Taking a similar strategy with the winner, Nakajima finished in second and got on the podium for the first time this season. The third place went to Harrison Newey (B-Max Racing with Motopark), who tasted his first champagne on the podium in this series.
Yamamoto added valuable two points by finishing in seventh and regained the position of championship leader, just one point ahead of Cassidy. Alex Palou ended the race in fourth, retaining his third place in the championship. Behind the top three, Yamashita now in fourth and Kobayashi in fifth still have a slim chance to winning the title in the season finale.
“There seemed to be contacts during the opening lap. In the aftermath of them, there were a few going-out-of-bounds and retirements, which was a shame because we wanted to see all the cars finishing the race. Despite the forecast that said it would be rainy, the race was run on the dry surfaces, and the air and track temperatures rose, of course. However, the track temperature was 37 degrees Celsius when the race began, which was well within the working temperature range of our products.
“Regarding the qualifying, the three drivers set the lap time under 1’13” in Q2, and the six drivers did the same in Q3. Honestly, our tires aren’t great with the characteristics of tarmac here in Okayama International Circuit. Therefore, while we were disappointed that no one renewed the course record this time, we were impressed with the quality of Super Formula drivers, as not a few of them set the time less than 1’13” under such conditions.
“Now we are heading into the season finale. We are looking forward to seeing many great battles by all participating drivers, especially between the five drivers who have the chance to win the title.”