Tomoki Nojiri became the fourth different winner – from four different teams – to take the chequered flag first in 2020 as he denied Naoki Yamamoto at Autopolis.
Team Mugen’s Nokiri took pole position for the fourth round of the season but there was disappointment for championship leader Ryo Harakawa, who crashed in Qualifying and failed to score points for the first time this season.
Matsushiti Back in Super Formula with Buzz Racing with B-MAX
After taking pole position at Sportsland SUGO, Sérgio Sette Câmara was absent from the grid, with his place at Buzz Racing with B-MAX going to FIA Formula 2 refugee Nobuharu Matsushita. There was good news for B-MAX as for the first time in 2020, they were able to field two cars, with Charles Milesi finally making his debut in Super Formula.
Due to travel restrictions in place due to the coronavirus pandemic, those racing in the season finale of the FIA World Endurance Championship in Bahrain were unable to compete at Autopolis, meaning Ritomo Miyata was racing again in place of Kazuki Nakajima at Vantelin Team TOM’S and Yuichi Nakayama was back at carrozzeria Team KCMG in place of Kamui Kobayashi.
The only other change to the grid that raced at SUGO was the return of Tatiana Calderón at Drago Corse with ThreeBond for the first time since the opening round of the season at Twin Ring Motegi. She had been replaced by Koudai Tsukakoshi for the races at Okayama International Circuit and SUGO.
Nojiri Scores First Pole Position in Two Years
In an eventful Qualifying session at Autopolis, Team Mugen’s Nojiri took his first pole position for two years, with his time of 1:24.140 denying DoCoMo Team Dandelion Racing’s Nirei Fukuzumi top spot by just 0.015 seconds.
Fukuzumi’s team-mate Yamamoto was third fastest, 0.117 seconds back, while Okayama race winner Sho Tsuboi placed fourth for JMS P.mu/cerumo-INGING, although he was more than half a second back on the pole time of Nojiri.
TCS Nakajima Racing’s rookie Toshiki Oyu was fifth ahead of series returnee Matsushita, while seventh went the way of Miyata. Nick Cassidy, the race winner in SUGO and the defending series champion, was unable to set a representative time in Q3 and ultimately started eighth.
Sacha Fenestraz, who had starred in all three previous Qualifying sessions for Kondo Racing, couldn’t make it into the final shootout for pole at Autopolis and was forced to settle for ninth, with INGING’s Hiroaki Ishiura completing the top ten.
The big surprise of Qualifying however was not at the front of the field. Championship leader Hirakawa crashed out of the session in Q1 at turn sixteen and would start nineteenth on the grid, ahead only of KCMG’s Nakayama, who also crashed in his Q1 group.
Nojiri Victorious Despite Late Yamamoto Charge
It was a battle of the pit stop strategies at the front of the field at Autopolis, but ultimately it was early stopper Nojiri who prevailed against the late charge of Yamamoto to take the victory.
The race was affected by two safety car periods, but strategy still played a key part, with Nojiri one of the first to stop. Yamamoto stayed out, however, as did Cassidy and Nojiri’s team-mate Ukyo Sasahara, with the trio running one-two-three until their much later trips to the pit lane.
Yamamoto did everything he could to pull out a gap at the front of the field prior to his pit stop, but despite all his efforts, he pitted with just two laps to go and emerged four seconds behind Nojiri. His fresh tyres brought him onto the rear of his rival on the final lap, but he was unable to make a move for the lead and was forced to settle for second place.
Cassidy and Sasahara were unable to benefit as much from their late stops as Yamamoto, with Tadasuke Makino taking the final spot on the podium for TCS Nakajima Racing, albeit almost ten seconds behind the leading duo at the chequered flag.
With Honda drivers locking out the podium, the leading Toyota-powered finisher was fourth placed Yuji Kunimoto of carrozzeria Team KCMG, who finished just over a second away from the podium places but less than a second clear of Kondo Racing’s Kenta Yamashita.
Series returnee Matsushita claimed an excellent sixth place and was less than three seconds away from a top three position! It could have been better however for the Buzz Racing with B-MAX driver as he lost two places to Kunimoto and Yamashita during the pit stop cycle.
Cassidy could only manage seventh after his late stop, just ahead of his team-mate Miyata, while Fukuzumi could only finish ninth having been caught out by the timing of the safety cars. He had dropped to eleventh but made some late gains to finish just inside the points.
Despite a drive-through penalty for illegally regaining his grid position after stalling on the grid, Oyu completed the top ten, ahead of the two Itochu Enex Team Impul drivers, Yuhi Sekiguchi and championship leader Hirakawa. It was Hirakawa’s first non-score of the season, but he still left Autopolis at the head of the standings.
Sasahara’s race had already been hampered by stalling on the grid, but the Red Bull affiliated driver finished fourteenth after his late pit stop, just behind Ishiura, while series debutant Milesi ended fifteenth ahead of Calderón.
The two safety car periods were early on, with Fenestraz’s retched run of luck continuing when he lost his left rear wheel on just the fifth lap, while Tsuboi brought it out again following a puncture.