Naoki Yamamoto became a three-time Super Formula champion in 2020 after overcoming long-time championship leader Ryō Hirakawa to clinch the crown with a fifth-place finish at Fuji Speedway.
Hirakawa started the year strongly but lost his momentum, ultimately letting the title slide out of his hands, much like what happened in the Super GT championship just weeks earlier at the same circuit to Yamamoto and Tadasuke Makino.
Coronavirus Forces Rule Changes and Calendar Reshuffle
The coronavirus pandemic caused the Super Formula calendar to be reshuffled, with the season only getting underway on 30 August at one of only two venues to retain their original date, Twin Ring Motegi. Races at Sportsland SUGO, Autopolis, Suzuka International Racing Course and Fuji Speedway all needed rescheduling after being initially scheduled for earlier in the campaign.
Much like the schedule, the pandemic also had a knock-on effect on the entry list, with a number of drivers missing some or even all the races. Jüri Vips, for example, was scheduled to race to Team Mugen but was unable to race due to travel restrictions. It also meant rules were changed so drivers were allowed to drop their two worst scores of the season.
Nick Cassidy returned with the Toyota-powered Vantelin Team TOM’S outfit to attempt to defend his 2019 title, while team-mate Kazuki Nakajima was forced to miss two rounds due to his commitments in the FIA World Endurance Championship. He was replaced for the races at Okayama International Circuit and Autopolis by Ritomo Miyata.
Kondō Racing fielded 2019 Japanese Formula 3 champion and former Renault Sport Academy star Sacha Fenestraz in one of their cars, with his team-mate for six of the seven rounds being Kenta Yamashita. He was replaced by Sena Sakaguchi for the Okayama round due to racing in the 24 Hours of Le Mans.
Carrozzeria Team KCMG was another team to be affected by missing drivers, with Kamui Kobayashi also missing the Okayama and Autopolis rounds, where he was replaced by Yuichi Nakayama, while Yuji Kunimoto raced in all seven rounds, as did ROOKIE Racing’s Kazuya Oshima, Itochu Enex Team Impul’s Yuhi Sekiguchi and Hirakawa, and JMS P.mu/cerumo – INGING’s Hiroaki Ishiura and Sho Tsuboi.
Honda’s line-up was led by Yamamoto and Nirei Fukuzumi at DoCoMo Team Dandelion Racing, while Vips’ place at Team Mugen was taken by Ukyo Sasahara, where he was joined by Tomoki Nojiri.
Drago Corse with ThreeBond made their return to the series with Tatiana Calderon, also she was also forced to miss two rounds due to travel restrictions due to racing at Le Mans and in the European Le Mans Series, with her place for the Okayama and SUGO rounds going to Koudai Tsukakoshi.
TCS Nakajima Racing fielded Makino for the first six rounds alongside Toshiki Oyu, although the season finale saw the former FIA Formula 2 racer miss out due to illness, to be replaced by Hiroki Otsu.
Perhaps the most hindered team of the year however were the Buzz Racing with B-Max outfit, who originally planned to race with Sérgio Sette Câmara and Charles Milesi. Unfortunately, both were heavily affected by the travel restrictions, with Sette Câmara racing only once at SUGO and Milesi only at Autopolis, the double header at Suzuka and Fuji.
Teppei Natori was scheduled to race for the team at Motegi only to withdraw prior to the race, while Mitsunori Takaboshi took over for the second round of the year at Okayama. After Sette Câmara’s appearance at SUGO, his seat for the remainder of the year went to Formula 2 refugee Nobuharu Matsushita.
Superb Start to the Season for Hirakawa
As opening races go, the race at Twin Ring Motegi could not have gone much better for Hirakawa or Team Impul, although the race itself would force championship organisers to change the regulations for the rest of the season.
Hirakawa took pole positions ahead of impressive debutant Fenestraz and Yamashita, and then stormed to the victory ahead of the same two drivers, albeit with Yamashita ahead. Fenestraz defended well from Nakajima to secure a maiden podium, although it would be his only visit to it in 2020. Fukuzumi took fifth despite contact with Sekiguchi, while Cassidy took sixth.
Without pit stops and with passing difficult, on-track action around the Motegi track led to a near procession – Cassidy went as far to say it was the ‘most boring’ race of his career – and by Okayama two weeks later, mandatory pit stops had been reintroduced.
Hirakawa repeated his pole position of Motegi at Okayama, although he would not be able to replicate the victory as he fell to fourth, with INGING’s Tsuboi took his maiden Super Formula victory.
Tsuboi was victorious after coming out on top against team-mate Ishiura, while Cassidy secured his first podium of the season in third after leaving his stop until two laps from the end of the race! Hirakawa had been leading early on but faded to fourth, with Impul team-mate Sekiguchi fifth.
Carnage on the opening lap saw Nakajima team-mates Oyu and Makino collide, eliminating the latter, with the incident also forcing the retirement of the innocent Fenestraz. Oyu was penalised for causing the crash and was ultimately fifteenth at the chequered flag.
Sette Câmara stunned the paddock by taking pole position on debut at SUGO, although the Brazilian was unable to take the chequered flag after crashing out on cold tyres just after his mandatory pit stop.
The victory went the way of defending champion Cassidy, who passed both Yamamoto and long-time leader Hirakawa within three laps to take over at the front of the field. Hirakawa extended his championship advantage with second, while third was Yamamoto’s first visit to the podium in 2020.
For a second consecutive race, Fenestraz was out on the opening lap after contact, this time with Nakajima, with the Japanese racer taking a new front wing and a penalty for the incident.
Nojiri Wins at Autopolis as Hirakawa Begins to Struggle
Team Mugen earned their first victory of the season at Autopolis as Nojiri denied Yamamoto the win.
Starting from pole position, Nojiri made his mandatory pit stop early and was running fourth for much of the race behind Yamamoto, Cassidy and Sasahara. However, when the leading three made their own stops, Nojiri returned to the front of the field.
On fresher tyres, Yamamoto closed a four-second gap to next to nothing by the chequered flag, but he did not have an opportunity to pass Nojiri for the lead and was forced to settle for second, while Makino secured his first Super Formula podium in third.
A crash during Qualifying at Autopolis consigned Hirakawa to a back-row start, and a slow pit stop whilst on course for the top ten meant he failed to register a point for the first time in 2020 as he finished twelfth.
A double header at Suzuka was next for the Super Formula field, and Yamamoto moved himself firmly into championship contention by winning the first race of the weekend, helped by Hirakawa crashing out.
In a race affected by three safety car periods, Yamamoto was barely troubled as he took his first victory of the season, with Hirakawa crashing out in an incident at turn one also involving Tsuboi and Sasahara as they and Kobayashi all fought over fourth place late on.
Sasahara and Hirakawa were out on the spot while Tsuboi was forced to pit for repairs for a broken front wing and a puncture, with the safety car being deployed to clear up the mess. The restart for the final two laps saw Yamamoto hold off Nakajima for the win, while Kunimoto secured his first podium finish since 2018 in third ahead of Kobayashi and Cassidy.
Cassidy was on pole for race two at Suzuka, but his championship aspirations took a hit as he was one of the high-profile retirements from the event, although perhaps the highest profile of all was the retirement of Yamamoto.
Oyu took his maiden victory after inheriting the lead from Cassidy when the New Zealander’s car broke after just eight laps, and the Nakajima Racing driver held on for the win by under half a second from Fukuzumi.
Fukuzumi never really looked likely to make a decisive move on Oyu but was still able to take his first podium of the season in second, as did Sekiguchi in third for Impul, albeit more than ten seconds behind the leading duo.
Yamamoto’s race was also over early with suspected gearbox issues and this, coupled with Hirakawa securing seventh from fourteenth on the grid meant the duo shared the lead in the championship heading into the final race of the season.
Nojiri took pole position for the final race of the year at Fuji Speedway, but all eyes were on the championship battle between Yamamoto and Hirakawa. The title permutations were if Hirakawa finished ahead, he would be champion, but Yamamoto needed to finish at least fifth to take the title due to drivers being able to drop their two worst results of the year.
Tsuboi took the lead from Nojiri at the start and went on to become the first and only driver to take two wins in 2020, while the poleman dropped down the order following a slow stop and then retired later following a puncture.
Oyu and Matsushita completed the podium, the top three separated by just one and a half seconds at the chequered flag, but the real battle was over fifth place, with Yamamoto doing enough to take the title by two points by finishing ahead of Hirakawa in a battle that went almost all the way through the season finale.
Yamamoto Becomes Three Time Super Formula Champion
In a strange year for all, Yamamoto became the first driver since Satoshi Motoyama to become a three-time Super Formula champion, and he also became the first driver to win both Super Formula and Super GT in the same year twice.
Hirakawa will look back at the year frustrated that he couldn’t achieve the title in either series, but despite the defeat, he can hold his head up high to be as strong as he was.
Cassidy says goodbye to Super Formula after 2020 to focus on racing in the FIA Formula E championship full-time, while Ishiura, a two-time Super Formula champion himself, has announced his retirement from racing aged thirty-nine.
2021 will hopefully be a more straightforward season for everyone involved, but everyone will need to be on their toes to defeat Yamamoto, who has won two of the three past titles and finished second to Cassidy in between.