【SUPER FORMULA Round 1 / Motegi】
The 2020 Super Formula series was supposed to get underway in April at Suzuka Circuit, as it’s been customary for years. But the season opener had to be postponed until an August date, and it moved to Motegi, with a few modifications on the initially planned race format, as a part of the fight against COVID-19.
Firstly, each race would be held as a “one-day” race, having the qualifying session and the race on the same day. Secondly, the race distance was shortened to 160km, without a mandatory pit stop and refueling. So, every round was to be a real “driver’s race,” in which only track actions decide their results.
The series welcomed five rookie drivers this year, and there were two who were most notable. Kondo Racing appointed the reigning Japanese F3 Champion Sacha Fenestraz. Tatiana Calderon, who tasted some F1 drive as a development driver, joined ThreeBond Drago Corse.
In conjunction with the race format change for this season, Yokohama Tire only supplies only one specification dry tires, and there would be no mandatory tire change during the race.
On August 28th, Friday, the exhaust note of SF19 Super Formula cars was heard in Twin Ring Motegi after a long absence, as the teams preparing for the first practice session. There were spectators in the grandstand and at other watching spots, even on this practice day, as they were allowed to enter the track, although the contact between fans and team personnel were restricted.
The drivers had four hours of practice in total on Friday and Saturday. During these sessions, the most remarkable ones were Ryo Hirakawa and Yuhi Sekiguchi, both driving for Itochu Enex Team Impul. TCS Nakajima Racing, which, as a team, set the course record and the pole position time in last year’s Motegi round, hired a rookie, Toshiki Oyu. He also attracted attention, as he topped the timesheet of one of these sessions.
On Sunday morning, the qualifying session saw some fantastic lap times, partly because of the lower-than-usual air and track temperatures. Nirei Fukuzumi (Docomo Team Dandelion Racing) already broke a course record in Q1, and then Hirakawa bettered it by 0.3 seconds by setting 1’31″096, which became the fastest time in Q2.
With only a three-hour break after the qualifying session, the race began in the mid-summer sun. Naturally, the air/track temperatures rose higher, which meant a tough race for the cars and drivers.
Hirakawa made a great start, while Fenestraz lost out to Yamashita down to the first corner. Yamashita tried to overtake the pole sitter, but Hirakawa didn’t lose his cool and fended off Yamashita to complete the opening lap as the race leader.
Oyu, who started from the fourth grid, was involved in a collision with another car behind them. Because of this, his front wing was damaged, and he was forced to visit the pit to replace it. Another victim of the opening lap rush was Sho Tsuboi (JMS P.Mu / Cerumo Inging), who went off the track, but other leading competitors stayed out of trouble. And the group led by Hirakawa, with Yamashita, Fenestraz, and Kazuki Nakajima (Vantelin Team Tom’s) behind him, gradually pulled away from the rest of the field.
The gaps between the top four remained around one second each other. No one could pull away, and no one made the slightest mistake. It might look like a stalemate, but all of them were under heavy pressure.
Hirakawa said, later at the post-race press conference, “I couldn’t get away from them. So, I had to focus on tire management, driving fast enough and carefully at the same time. I couldn’t relax at all.” He drove consistently, even though he couldn’t increase the gap with Yamashita and managed to keep his concentration.
On the final lap, Yamashita rapidly closed the gap by using the overtake system to try to make a move, but Hirakawa could still keep a 0.6-second margin when the checkered flag fell. This was Hirakawa’s second victory in Super Formula, and his last one was also won at Motegi. This meant he won a race at this “stop and go” track in summer, which is always harsh to a race car and a driver, twice.
Yamashita finished the race in second, followed by Fenestraz in third. Yamashita has a World Endurance Championship commitment this year, and it might have prevented him from taking part in this Motegi round. But he could sort it out and managed to get on the podium. With their results, Kondo Racing became the initial leader of the team championship.
—Result : Winner—
“I focused on the start because I knew it would be all-important. I thought, if I didn’t make a big mistake, my position would be safe. And, by thinking so, I could make myself a little bit relaxed and managed to fend off Yamashita’s early attack. I also knew it would be impossible to pull away from him, so I just drove carefully, saving my tires as much as possible. I am happy with the result because I managed to keep my concentration until the end and win the race. As the points from only five rounds out of six will count this year, it is important to win it when things go well for me. I will try to get a good result in the next round in Okayama, with the same level of focus again.”
“For this Super Formula season, we supply only one type of dry tires, which is basically the same as the last year’s soft tire. And, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the calendar and race format were changed significantly. In this situation, we had to adapt the way how to do our on-track tire service. Still, we managed to do it without any problem in this season-opening round, keeping a social distance between ourselves, for example.
“The course record was improved considerably. It was a direct reflection of the driver’s effort because Motegi isn’t a tricky track in that aspect. And the conditions were better suited for trials to set a new record, too, as the qualifying session was held before noon. I believe this would be a standard format this year, and the temperatures would be lower in the month ahead. So, we can expect more new course records in the coming rounds.”