Many of Super GT’s top stars will be racing this weekend at Fuji Speedway, for the third round of the Japanese Super Formula Championship – which also includes the ninth and tenth rounds of the All-Japan Formula Three Championship.
The Super Formula grid will hope for a better race this time around, after heavy rain effectively reduced the previous round at Okayama International Circuit into an eight-lap parade behind the safety car.The only proper race held this season saw Naoki Yamamoto take a comprehensive victory at Suzuka Circuit, on Honda’s home circuit, while McLaren Honda F1 prospect Stoffel Vandoorne made most of the headlines for finishing a commendable third place on debut.
The focus now shifts to Fuji, home ground for Toyota, and this will be a very crucial race to see how far the Honda programme has really advanced since last season. Yamamoto’s victory at Suzuka was only the third for a Honda-powered car since the current formula was introduced in 2014, and we know that the same Honda engine that is somewhat down on power in the back of their NSX-GT is in the back of all their Super Formula cars.
Yamamoto still leads the points, ahead of Yuji Kunimoto for p.Mu Team Cerumo, and Koudai Tsukakoshi for Real Racing, who both have finished on the podium, with defending series champion Hiroaki Ishiura in fourth after only earning half-points for his victory at Okayama.
On the other hand, many established drivers are seeking to bounce back from tough starts to their season at a track where they’ve excelled in the past. One such driver is Joao Paulo de Oliveira, who recently celebrated his 35th birthday. Oliveira has yet to score a point this season, but he scored a dominating victory at this circuit a year ago, and his Impul team traditionally excels at Fuji – where Oliveira’s chances at victory in the Super GT Fuji 500km were wiped out due to a blown tyre.
Also strong at Fuji, but still looking for their first points of the season, are Kazuki Nakajima and Kamui Kobayashi, for Vantelin Team TOM’s and Sunoco Team LeMans respectively. It’s Nakajima’s first race of any kind since his agonizing loss at Le Mans in June.
It’s also the halfway point of the All-Japan F3 season, and the second time the series has visited Fuji Speedway this year.
Daiki Sasaki won both races in the first Fuji meeting in May, but he won’t be around this weekend – nor will Mitsunori Takaboshi, who swept the most recent meeting at Suzuka.
B-Max Racing will instead have Chinese newcomer Ye Hongli in the number 21 car, joining series regulars Katsumasa Chiyo and Jann Mardenborough in their Volkswagen-powered machines that have won five of the eight races this season.
Still, despite the might of the VW-engined B-Max cars, it’s still TOM’s driver Kenta Yamashita who leads the championship by 10 points over Mardenborough after eight races. This is a position Yamashita has been in before, and after two straight years of just being edged out of winning the title, Yamashita is hoping for a strong finish to his season to capture that elusive Japanese F3 title.
Also within striking distance is Yamashita’s rookie teammate, reigning F4 Japanese Champion Sho Tsuboi, just twelve points back of his teammate. Tsuboi has finished every race he’s started on the podium, but is still looking for his first win of 2016.
Coming off his impressive Super GT test with the Cars Tokai Dream28 team, Toda Racing’s Tadasuke Makino has also increased his stock in the last week – though its unsure how his Toda-engined car will stack up against the Toyota and Volkswagen runners at the high-speed Fuji circuit.