This weekend sees the first double-header race weekend of the Japanese Super Formula Championship, and a crucial one in terms of solidifying the championship picture as the 2016 season reaches the halfway point at Okayama International Circuit.
The double-header at Okayama serves not only as a replacement for the scheduled round at Autopolis that was rescheduled and relocated in the wake of the Kumamoto earthquakes, but as a make-up date for a rain-shortened Okayama round in May – a race that was stopped after just eight laps, all run under the safety car.
The two-race format sees two very different races between Saturday and Sunday, that will require their own different strategies.
Saturday will see a one-hour practice session and a 20-minute group qualifying session, followed by a 30-lap sprint race with no mandatory tyre changes or compulsory compounds.
On Sunday, no practice, a two-stage knockout qualifying session, and a 51-lap “feature” race that includes one minimum stop for tyres. Four new sets of medium compound Yokohama tyres will be provided, with the two mandatory compounds imposed at Motegi withheld for this event.
At the head of the field, rookie Yuhi Sekiguchi of Itochu Enex Team Impul leads the championship coming off of his breakthrough victory at Motegi in August. The margin between him and second-placed Andre Lotterer (Vantelin Team TOM’s), who finished 2nd at the WEC 6 Hours of Mexico City last week, is only 1.5 points.
p.mu Cerumo/INGING driver Hiroaki Ishiura, who was declared the winner at Okayama in May, and who won the last proper Super Formula race here in 2015, sits just two points back of the lead in third, with his teammate Yuji Kunimoto a further half-point back.
In fact, the top ten in the championship are covered by just eight points, with a maximum twelve points available during the weekend’s half-points races – including the bonus points for pole position in either race.
This includes Suzuka winner Naoki Yamamoto (5th, -3 points), Fuji winner Joao Paulo de Oliveira (7th, -7 points), and Stoffel Vandoorne (9th, -7 points), the Belgian rookie who has now, finally, been confirmed at McLaren Honda for the 2017 Formula 1 World Championship.
For other drivers, this race offers an opportunity for some drivers to dig out of an enormous chasm. Such as Kamui Kobayashi, the ex-Formula 1 star, currently second in the World Endurance Drivers’ Championship for Toyota Gazoo Racing – but yet to score a single point this year in Super Formula for Sunoco Team LeMans.
Mardenborough trying to lock up Japanese F3 title
In the All-Japan Formula Three Series double-header taking place at Okayama, there exists the possibility for B-Max Racing’s Jann Mardenborough to win his first ever single-seater championship before the final round at Sportsland SUGO.
Mardenborough, who swept the weekend’s races at Motegi, and who won his first race of the year in Okayama back in May, now has a 19 point lead over early season favourite, Kenta Yamashita.
If Mardenborough repeats his results from Motegi, for instance – two wins, one pole, and two fastest laps, earning 23 points – Yamashita would need to finish the weekend with at least six more points to his tally just to remain mathematically eligible for the title at Sugo.
Consider also that Yamashita’s TOM’s Racing teammate, rookie Sho Tsuboi, is only three points back of him, and Tsuboi could just as easily overhaul his more experienced teammate going into the final round. Eleven races he’s started, Tsuboi has finished on the podium in every one – but he’s yet to win so far in an incredibly consistent rookie season.
Katsumasa Chiyo will miss this week’s round, as he finishes his recovery from a back injury that kept him out of the Suzuka 1000km, and the last F3 race at Motegi. Mitsunori Takaboshi will once again take his place in the #23 B-Max Volkswagen entry.
This means that Tadasuke Makino. coming off a sterling debut in Super GT at the Suzuka 1000km, will likely move up into fourth in the championship with a good result this weekend for TODA Racing.
The F3 National Class title can also be clinched this weekend with a round in hand. All Yoshiaki Katayama (Petit LeMans Racing) has to do is score twelve more points this weekend than the legendary DRAGON (B-Max Racing) and the title is his.
The F3 races will be held on Saturday and Sunday, prior to the Super Formula races.