Weekend Recap: Kunimoto takes Super Formula championship lead at Okayama

This weekend saw many of the Autobacs Super GT Series’ top stars competing in events around the world, mostly at the Okayama International Circuit where Super Formula held its first of two double-header weekends of the season.

The weekend saw two first-time winners from as many races, as future McLaren Honda Formula 1 driver Stoffel Vandoorne and Toyota rising star Yuji Kunimoto won their first career Super Formula races, with Kunimoto moving into a comfortable lead in the championship on the strength of two podium finishes – and on the weekend of his 26th birthday, no less!

One theme of the weekend was simple: You really didn’t want to be the pole sitter.

In the 30-lap race on Saturday, pole winner Kazuki Nakajima (Vantelin Team TOM’s) was sent to the rear of the grid after lining up on the grid incorrectly for the first attempt at a standing start. In Sunday’s 51-lap feature race, Tomoki Nojiri (DoCoMo Team Dandelion Racing) was dinged for overtaking Hiroaki Ishiura under the safety car in a rather awkward sequence.

Vandoorne rocketed past a slow-starting Kunimoto in the first race, built up a lead, and never relinquished it as the Belgian driver claimed his first career Super Formula win – giving him victories in every level of single-seater competition he’s ever competed in.

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“It’s a great feeling to win my first Super Formula Race,” said Vandoorne. “Actually, this whole week has been great, from me after being announced as a Formula 1 driver with McLaren Honda for next year.

“My first win in Super Formula is great. We’ve had a good pace the whole weekend, since practice, and the qualifying today. And we made some improvements on the car. So, yeah I’m very happy.”

Kunimoto held on to finish second, moving him to the championship lead over Motegi winner Yuhi Sekiguchi, who failed to score points in either of the two races this weekend – and now slides down to fourth in the championship.

Narain Karthikeyan held on to finish third and claim Sunoco Team LeMans first podium of 2016 – a welcome result in a difficult season for the perennial front-runners. Nojiri finished fourth in the first race, ahead of the Honda-engined cars of Koudai Tsukakoshi in fifth and Daisuke Nakajima going from 15th to sixth. Hiroaki Ishiura in seventh and Joao Paulo de Oliveira in eighth completed the points in the first race.

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The 51-lap feature race on Sunday saw Kunimoto as one of the first to pit for their mandatory tyre stops. A safety car for Karthikeyan’s lap 31 accident benefitted himself, and Kazuki Nakajima, as they moved to the head of the field after the restart.

Kunimoto held off the two-time Super Formula champion for his first-ever victory in the series, extending his margin out to 4.5 points over his teammate Ishiura, who finished third and moved to second in the championship. Kazuki did well to finish second after starting the race in tenth.

Completing the points-scorers from race two were Andre Lotterer in fourth, Oliveira in fifth, Naoki Yamamoto in sixth, Vandoorne in seventh, and Takuya Izawa rounding off the top eight.

The series will move on to Sportsland SUGO in two weeks time for the penultimate round of the Super Formula season, before the prestigious JAF Grand Prix double-header at Suzuka Circuit in October.

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Yamashita, Takaboshi win big in penultimate Japanese F3 round

The All-Japan Formula 3 Championship also went to Okayama this weekend, and it was an impactful penultimate race meeting in terms of the championship – and especially for TOM’s Racing driver Kenta Yamashita, who took an enormous victory from pole position in the first of two races.

Yamashita picked up the win, and the bonus points for both pole position and the fastest lap, to score twelve points and claw back the deficit to championship leader Jann Mardenborough to just ten markers. Mitsunori Takaboshi, once again driving the #23 B-Max Racing car for the injured Katsumasa Chiyo, finished second in a close fight with Yamashita – by just 0.552 seconds.

Sho Tsuboi finished third, followed by Mardenborough in fourth, Tadasuke Makino (TODA Racing) in fifth, and Sena Sakaguchi (HFDP F3) sixth.

The second race was a more decisive affair, with Takaboshi picking up his third win in 2016, ahead of Sakaguchi, who scored his maiden Japanese Formula 3 podium finish in second, and Makino in third – to score his fourth podium of the year.

Tsuboi’s incredible run of 12 consecutive podium finishes in as many race starts to open the season ended with a fourth place finish, but he still finished ahead of his teammate Yamashita in fifth, and Ye Hongli picked up his second points finish of the year in sixth.

Mardenborough’s error in qualifying for the race cost him on Sunday, as he could climb up the field to no higher than an eighth-place finish.

Mardenborough still leads the championship with 88 points, Yamashita’s big weekend sees him only eight points back (80 pts), and Tsuboi is still eligible for the title at seventeen points back (71 pts) heading into a three-race championship finale at Sugo in two weeks.

In the National Class, Yoshiaki Katayama (Petit LeMans Racing) swept both races in Okayama, and can clinch the title in the first of three races at Sugo.

Elsewhere…

FIA Formula 3 European Championship 2016, round 8, race 3, Nürburgring (DEU)

Two weeks after his first Super GT podium, Nick Cassidy traveled back to Europe for the FIA European Formula 3 Championship race at the Nurburgring GP Sprint Circuit.

The Lexus Team au TOM’s driver finished fourth in his first race on Saturday, and fifth in the final race on Sunday. This now moves him into third in the Drivers’ Championship by a single point over George Russell, and behind only his Prema Powerteam teammates – championship leader Lance Stroll and second place Maximillian Günther, who split the weekend’s race wins.

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Lexus Team Wako’s LeMans driver Andrea Caldarelli scored pole position for the first of two International GT Open races at the Red Bull Ring in Austria, but electrical issues compromised his race and saw his SF Racing Ferrari 488 GT3 finish two laps down in eleventh.

He and co-driver Fu Songyang came back in the second race to finish eighth in SF Racing’s first weekend with the Ferrari 488.

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