【SUPER FORMULA Round 7 / Suzuka】
The seventh and final round of the 2019 Super Formula series was held at Suzuka Circuit. Tomoki Nojiri (Team Mugen) won the race, which decided the series champion. By finishing in second and the highest place among the championship contenders, Nick Cassidy (Vantelin Team Tom’s) grabbed the long-sought championship title.
The previous six races this year saw the six different winners. When the 2019 season began here at Suzuka, the teams didn’t know the characteristics of the brand-new SF19 chassis very well. With a lot of experience throughout the season, however, they now have almost fully exploited the new car’s performance. Needless to say, the championship winner would be decided in this final round, but another topic was who would win this particular race, as the seventh round might see the seventh winner of the season.
Although the weather wasn’t favorable until Friday, the free practice and qualifying sessions were run under a calm, clear autumn sky. The championship leader, Naoki Yamamoto (Docomo Team Dandelion Racing) was the fastest man in the free practice.
As for the other title contenders, Cassidy, who was second in the point standings, was seventh, and Alex Palou (TCS Nakajima Racing), who was third in the standings, was fourth. So, Yamamoto looked to have a smooth start to the weekend.
As was the case in the previous Sugo round, the field was divided into two groups for Q1. Group A included Yamamoto, Palou, Kamui Kobayashi (Carrozzeria Team KCMG), and Nojiri, while Group B had Cassidy, Nirei Fukuzumi (Docomo Team Dandelion Racing), and Kenta Yamashita (Kondo Racing), as the grouping was based on the point standings after the round six.
In Q1 for Group A, which was run first, Palou set the fastest time, and Yamamoto followed in second, with Nojiri being the fifth and second from the bottom to be entitled to go on to Q2. The biggest upset in this group was the two time Super Formula champion Hiroaki Ishiura’s (JMS P.Mu/Cerumo Inging) dropout, because of going off the track on his qualifying lap.
Q1 for Group B was dominated by the teammates of the championship favorites, as Fukuzumi was the fastest, followed by Tadasuke Makino (TCS Nakajima Racing) in second.
Then the top six from each group fought in Q2. Here, Fukuzumi led again with 0.26 seconds gap with the second, and Yamamoto, Palou, and Cassidy were third, fifth, and eighth (and the last to proceed to Q3), respectively. This meant that all hot favorites to the championship had their places in the fight for the pole position.
The two drivers of TCS Nakajima Racing spent two laps to warm up their soft tires in Q2. They changed it to only one lap, as with most of the other drivers did, and it worked fine. As a result, Palou secured the pole position with 1’35″972, which was 0.6 seconds faster than his own best lap time in Q2. This was his third P1 in the qualifying of the season.
Nojiri was the second fastest, and Lucus Auer (B-Max Racing with Motopark) followed. Yamamoto and Cassidy lined up on the third row, as they were classified in fifth and sixth.
It was cloudy on Sunday, but the weather was comfortable with a moderate wind. The starting procedures began at 1:15 p.m., and all 20 cars sat on their grids. What to check here was which tires they chose for the start. On the front row, the two drivers’ choices were different, as Palou took the medium tires, but Nojiri opted for the soft. Similarly, Yamamoto chose the medium, while Cassidy picked the soft.
The race started at two o’clock p.m. Against the prediction that the soft tires would have an advantage at a getaway, Palou made a perfect start and led the field. Yamamoto also got off the line quite nicely and moved up to third, just behind Nojiri. Fukuzumi and Cassidy found themselves in fourth and fifth, whereas Auer, unfortunately, stalled on the grid and dropped down to 17th at the end of Lap 1.
In a bid to win the championship title, Cassidy pushed so hard from the early laps and passed by Fukuzumi on Lap 2. Then, by overtaking Yamamoto on the next lap, the Kiwi was already running in third.
Knowing that winning this race meant winning the championship as well in his debut season, Palou led the first seven laps but gave way to Nojiri at 130R on Lap 8. And he went into the pit at the end of the lap to change to the soft tires.
However, after the mandatory tire change, Palou’s pace somehow dropped severely and lost many positions as a consequence, instead of keeping hope for the title alive by staying in a good position. Finally, he revisited the pit to get a fresh set of soft tires and rejoined the race. At this time, he was already too far behind the leaders, which meant his quest for the championship was over.
Palou’s dropout gave Nojiri a significant advantage in terms of the race victory. The Japanese extended his stint to the end of Lap 33 of the 43-lap race before making the pit stop, later than Fukuzumi and Yamamoto did their stops. And when all drivers had completed the tire change on Lap 38, Noriji was leading the race again.
With no one threatening his position after that, Nojiri won the race for the first time in five years, after his maiden victory in 2014, the year he made a debut in the Super Formula series.
Cassidy also did his tire change later in the race, at the end of Lap 34, and managed to rejoin the race ahead of Yamamoto, who made the pit stop earlier. The Kiwi eventually finished in second, which was enough to win the championship.
The team title went to Docomo Team Dandelion Racing, as Fukuzumi and Yamamoto came in third and fifth, respectively.
“The Super Formula season began at Suzuka and concluded at Suzuka again this year. As the new SF19 chassis was introduced, and the tires had to be changed accordingly, the teams left a certain margin on how to use the soft tires in the season opener. In other words, no one really used up those tires during the race. From the second round on, their understanding of this year’s tires got better and better, and they became able to exploit the performance and durability under the race conditions fully. And, in this final round, the soft tires were completely worn out after around 35 laps.
“We saw the Safety Car in most of the races this year, which meant the experiences from the past on those races became almost useless. This made an exciting championship battle, which was so close until the end of the final round, and I feel our new tires played a part in it.
“For the teams, the 2019 season must be the year of understanding the new car, and they are to start the next season with a certain amount of experience on it. Therefore, the circumstances in the first race of the 2020 season will be totally different from that of this year. We hope it leads to seeing a lot of new track records. We will, of course, continue to support the great battles between the top drivers in the new season.”