It comes down to one final round, down to three races, and three drivers. The final round of the 2016 All-Japan Formula Three Championship will be contested at Sportsland SUGO, a circuit with a well-established reputation in Super GT as a high-action venue.
Three drivers representing two teams will have three races to stake their claim to a championship that has been won by future Japanese racing legends, Le Mans champions, and F1 grand prix heroes alike. Each of these young men would make a worthy champion, but only one of them can claim the prize at the end of the week.
Winning the All-Japan Formula Three Championship is an important stepping stone in many drivers’ careers. But don’t take our word for it. Just ask the outgoing series champion, Nick Cassidy, now racing for Lexus Team au TOM’s in Super GT, and Prema Powerteam in the FIA European Formula 3 Championship.
“My time in the Japanese Formula 3 Championship is something I will always be very fond of,” says Cassidy. “I had a really good weekend at Sugo last year where I was able to clinch the championship, but was under a lot of pressure going into the weekend on equal points with my team mate (Kenta) Yamashita.”
“The competition in Japan in general is very strong, as proven by guys like Yamashita, Mitsunori Takaboshi and Nirei Fukuzumi (now racing in the GP3 Series) with their programs this year, but it was also great having GT500 drivers come back to do one-off rounds and provide a reference.”
“Without the support of Toyota and TOM’S last year, I wouldn’t be in Super GT today. I have a lot to thank for this, and also the learning I was able to do in 2015. I learnt a lot about the circuits, team interaction and culture in Japan which was helped with the transition into GT500.”
Cassidy is the latest in a lineage of great champions such as Ronnie Quintarelli, Juichi Wakisaka, Benoit Treluyer, and “Mr. Le Mans” himself, Tom Kristensen – just to name a small, small handful of the future greats. Only one of these three young men will take their place in this lineage of champions:
Nissan GT Academy graduate Jann Mardenborough is enjoying a sterling return to Formula 3 racing for the B-Max Racing team, powered by Volkswagen engines in their first year in Japan. With four wins, six pole positions, and seven total podiums, “Jann tha Man” leads the series with 88 points.
Though it is his first season in Japan, Mardenborough is no stranger to Sugo, having raced here in July in the Super GT GT300 class – where Mardenborough is also a title contender in the #3 B-Max NDDP Nissan GT-R. Mardenborough and co-driver Kazuki Hoshino drove from 21st to finish 5th in a brilliant race, the last time he raced at Sugo.
It is a great first year in Japan, a year that has breathed new life into the Cardiff native’s racing career after a year littered with setbacks and unthinkable tragedies. Already, Mardenborough is in the frame for a potential GT500 promotion for 2017 – but his focus this week is on winning his very first single-seater championship.
TOM’s Racing ace Kenta Yamashita enters this final round just eight points adrift (80 points) after a dominant win in the first race at the most recent round at Okayama. With Mardenborough scoring only three points in the last meeting, Yamashita’s total of 14 points scored was enough to not only keep his title hopes alive, but give him a boost of momentum.
“I rate him as one of the best team mates I’ve ever had, and think he’s done so far a good job also in 2016,” says Cassidy of his former F3 teammate.
Yamashita knows all too well the sting of defeat in this championship. Twice in the last two seasons, he has been the early favourite to win the title, only to lose the lead in the championship down the stretch. Last year saw his championship hopes evaporate into the aether, as Cassidy drove a perfect race weekend to clinch the title at Sugo.
This year, the 21-year-old from Chiba, one of Toyota’s most promising young drivers, wants to finally claim the honour that has eluded him the last two years.
But there’s an unexpected challenge from Yamashita’s new teammate, Sho Tsuboi, who’s still within reach of the championship at 71 points.
Tsuboi is the only true rookie in the title hunt, with Mardenborough having raced in British and European F3 prior to this season. Tsuboi, from Saitama, stepped up from the FIA F4 Japanese Championship, where he was the series’ inaugural champion a year ago. This year, he went on a run of twelve consecutive podium finishes in his first twelve race starts – a streak that ended with a 4th place at the second Okayama race.
To stay in contention this weekend, Tsuboi must do something he’s yet to do all season – win races. He’s scored four second places, eight third places, but not one victory all year long. With a 17 point margin to overcome, this is his last chance to make a push for the title.
As for Cassidy, and his thoughts on who comes away with the championship?
“I think it will be tough to choose between Jann and Kenta on who will take the title, but for sure both are deserving champions.”
“Tsuboi has done a great job this year as a rookie, but maybe the points gap is a little too much.”
And still, there are more stories to follow, such as Tadasuke Makino – who has been signed to drive the Drago Modulo Honda NSX for the rest of the Super GT season. Driving for TODA Racing, Makino’s been the class of the Honda Formula Dream Project (HFDP) roster in 2016, and with a good trio of results in Sugo, it will give the 19-year-old a wave of momentum heading into his GT500 debut.
And from there, in 2017? Who knows for sure, but his potential seems limitless.
There’s also the returning Katsumasa Chiyo, back from his injury that forced him to miss two Formula 3 rounds and the Suzuka 1000km. While Chiyo hasn’t been able to match his B-Max Racing teammate Mardenborough’s pace for most of the season in Formula 3, he did win his last race in the series – back in July at Fuji Speedway.
And there’s the National Class championship, which has been dominated by 22-year-old rookie Yoshiaki Katayama and his Toyota-engined Dallara F306N for Petit LeMans Racing.
Eight victories, ten pole positions, and eleven total podiums have given Katayama a 33-point lead over the man, the myth, the legend known only as DRAGON. He can clinch the championship by scoring as few as three points in the first race of the weekend.
And considering that the list of former National Class champions features the likes of Naoki Yamamoto, Katsumasa Chiyo, Mitsunori Takaboshi, Daiki Sasaki, Takashi Kobayashi, and Hideki Yamauchi, all of whom have enjoyed success in Super GT this year – Katayama may yet have a bright future in Super GT ahead of him.
Round 15 of the Japanese F3 season takes place at 14:40 JST on Saturday, a 25-lap race. Rounds 16 and 17 will be held on Sunday, the first 18-lap race at 8:30 JST, the second at 13:30, just before the start of the Super Formula race. Qualifying will be from 10:20-10:50 JST on Saturday.
Japan Formula 3’s official USTREAM Live channel will broadcast the weekend’s events.