Ryō Hirakawa converted pole position into a dominant victory as the Japanese-based Super Formula season finally got underway at Twin Ring Motegi.
The season was set to begin at the beginning of April at Fuji Speedway only for the coronavirus pandemic to delay proceedings, with the calendar rejigged to enable seven rounds between now and the end of August.
Eighteen Cars Compete at Motegi after Natori Withdraws
Much was made about the absent of the majority of the European based drivers, with Sergio Sette Camara, Charles Milesi and Jüri Vips all missing the season opener due to being unable to adhere to quarantine regulations.
This meant the renamed Buzz Racing with B-Max entered only one car for Motegi for Japanese racer Teppei Natori, although he would not take the start after suffering dehydration issues on Friday.
Team Mugen replaced Red Bull Junior Vips with another Red Bull affiliated driver in Ukyo Sasahara, meaning eighteen drivers started the season, including defending champion Nick Cassidy at Vantelin Team TOM’S, who will compete in Super Formula for the final time in 2020 before he moves full-time to the FIA Formula E championship in 2021.
Cassidy was partnered at TOM’s by former Formula 1 racer Kazuki Nakajima who was one of three FIA World Endurance Championship drivers to be given a late exemption to Japan’s quarantine rules to race at Motegi alongside Kamui Kobayashi (carrozzeria Team KCMG) and Kenta Yamashita (Kondō Racing). It looked for a while that the field would be short of six drivers, but in the end, it was only the three.
Tatiana Calderón was able to reach Japan and adhere to the quarantine rules in time to race for the returning Drago Corse with ThreeBond team, with the Colombian one of three drivers racing full time to debut at Motegi. She was joined on the grid by 2019 Japanese Formula 3 champion Sacha Fenestraz at Kondo Racing and Toshiyi Oyu at TCS Nakajima Racing.
Kobayashi was joined at KCMG by Yuji Kunimoto, while JMS P.mu/cerumo – ING entered two cars for Hiroaki Ishiura and Sho Tsoboi and a third under the ROOKIE Racing banner for Kazuya Oshima. Oshima made the switch to ROOKIE Racing from Team LeMans, who left Super Formula at the end of 2019.
Two-time series champion Naoki Yamamoto was back with DoCoMo Team Dandelion Racing alongside Nirei Fukuzumi, while Team Mugen saw Tomoki Nojiri line-up alongside Vips’ replacement Sasahara. To complete the field, Oyu was partnered at Nakajima Racing by Tadasuke Makino, while Yuhi Sekiguchi and Hirakawa were with Itochu Enex Team Impul.
Hirakawa Takes Pole, Fenestraz Impresses on Debut
Toyota took the first pole position of 2020 with Hirakawa breaking the lap record on his way to top spot in the top eight shootout on Saturday.
The Impul driver set a best time of 1:31.083 to deny debutant Fenestraz top spot by just over three-tenths of a second, while Yamashita made the most of his late addition to the field by completing the top three, a further 0.139 seconds back on the Frenchman.
Fourth on the grid was another rookie in Oyu, with Nakajima and Ishiura competing the third row. The shootout was completed by Sekiguchi in seventh and Kobayashi in eighth.
Just outside the top eight and the first of those to be eliminated in Q2 was Fukuzumi, with the former FIA Formula 3 race winner being joined on row five by Kunimoto, while defending champion Cassidy ended only eleventh ahead of Tsuboi, Sasahara and Yamamoto.
Makino, Nojiri, Oshima and Calderón all found themselves eliminated in Q1 and lined up at the rear of the field, while Natori participated in Qualifying before withdrawing. He had been set to start eighteenth, ahead only of Calderón, before he pulled out of the event.
Hirakawa Converts Pole into Victory
Once the lights went out at Motegi, it was always going to be Hirakawa’s race to lose, and the Japanese driver drove superbly to stand on the top step of the podium.
Rule changes prior to the start of the season saw a reduction in race laps and the elimination of the two-compound rule, and predominantly up and down the field due to the difficulty in overtaking, the race was all but determined on the opening lap.
Hirakawa got the jump on the field to lead into turn one, while Yamashita was able to get ahead of team-mate Fenestraz to get into second. The leading trio would remain in the same three positions throughout the thirty-five-lap race, with Hirakawa taking his second career Super Formula race victory.
Yamashita kept the pressure on Hirakawa but was unable to make a genuine move for the lead, with 0.610 seconds between the leading pair at the chequered flag, with Fenestraz 3.331 seconds back in third. Despite losing second on the opening lap, it was an impressive debut for the former Renault Sport Academy member.
Fenestraz was pressurised for much of the race by Nakajima, but there was no way through for the Japanese racer as he was forced to settle for fourth.
Whereas one Impul driver was heading to victory, the other in the hands of Sekiguchi was struggling. He ran fifth in the opening laps but was holding off a long chain of drivers, and it was a move by Fukuzumi at turn six on lap nineteen that resulted in contact and ended his day in the gravel trap.
Fukuzumi escaped the incident and was able to claim fifth at the chequered flag with Cassidy claiming sixth after Kobayashi and Yamamoto were forced to pit after contact, the former with a puncture and the latter for a new front wing.
Nojiri ended seventh ahead of Ishiura, with the top ten completed by Makino and Oshima. Sasahara’s race ended just outside the points in eleventh, with Calderón twelfth. The Colombian held off the challenge of the recovering Yamamoto and Kobayashi, while the final debutant, Oyu, was four laps down in fifteenth after mechanical dramas in the early laps.
As well as Sekiguchi, both Kunimoto and Tsuboi failed to see the chequered flag, the former retiring on lap twenty-two and the latter on the opening lap.
Hirakawa Reflects on Opening Victory of 2020
“The start was the most important, so I focussed on that,” Hirakawa is quoted as saying by Motorsport.com. “I tried not to be too greedy so as to not get wheelspin or activate the anti-stall.
“But because the distance to the first corner here is short, I knew I wouldn’t be passed unless I made a mistake. Yamashita had good momentum from behind, but I was able to stop it.
“He was always 1-1.5s behind me, and I understood that I could not escape even if I tried, so I was careful to look after the tyres and stay focussed, which was good.”