Super Formula JAF Grand Prix preview

Heading into the last round of the 2016 Japanese Super Formula Championship, there’s never been this much excitement, this much drama, and this much anticipation for a season finale in Japanese Top Formula competition. Not in many, many years at least.

And it is only fitting that this last round is the JAF Suzuka Grand Prix, a two-race doubleheader at Suzuka Circuit, the spiritual home of formula racing in Japan. There are a magnificent seven realistic championship contenders, all within twelve and a half points, with as many as eighteen points available over the two races plus qualifying.

Of these seven competitors, there are four former Super Formula champions, including the defending title holder. There are four active Super GT stars, and two distinguished series alumni. There are two “super” rookies, one of whom has a guaranteed ticket to Formula 1, trying to make history of their own. And any one of them could potentially leave Suzuka on Sunday evening as the champion.

The format of this race weekend is unique, with one three-stage knockout qualifying session on Saturday determining the starting grid for two races on Sunday. Q1 will set the entire grid for the first race, a 19-lap morning sprint with no mandatory tyre change, plus positions 15-19 for Sunday afternoon’s 35-lap feature race.

Q2 and Q3 will then set the remaining grid positions for the feature race, which will require a mandatory tyre change pit stop some time within the 35 lap distance. Both races will pay out as many as eight points to the winner, with an 8-4-3-2.5-2-1.5-1-0.5 scoring system for the top eight finishers, maximizing the incentive for winning.

And to win the JAF Grand Prix at Suzuka would put one’s name in a list of former champions of this event, with a history dating back to 1969. Not only have all the great drivers of Japan won this event – Kazuyoshi Hoshino, Satoru Nakajima, Masahiro Hasemi, and Kunimitsu Takahashi – but even three-time World Drivers’ Champion, Sir Jackie Stewart, is counted amongst the former JAF Grand Prix winners.

Twenty years ago and 300 kilometers east of Suzuka, the Formula Nippon championship came down to the very last race – and a memorable finale it was. Heavy rain created utter chaos, and in the end, it was Ralf Schumacher who held on to become the first rookie champion of Japan’s Top Formula category, en route to becoming a future Formula 1 Grand Prix winner.

Teammate Naoki Hattori threw his chance away in a gravel trap, and the legendary Hoshino – in what turned out to be his final race in a 23-year career in Formula racing – saw a seventh championship disappear with a broken clutch, all while Fuji Speedway commentator Toshihiro Suzuki shouted and raved the whole way.

It’s been twenty years since that memorable final chapter. And there’s a chance that this weekend, we could be treated to another instant classic series of races – and a championship celebration we’ll remember for many years to come.

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Yuhi Sekiguchi – Itochu Enex Team Impul

He’s the only repeat race winner, the only repeat polesitter, the only “true rookie” without any prior F1 race experience before his Super Formula debut in April. And in 2016, Yuhi Sekiguchi has unleashed the frustrations of a twelve-year racing odyssey with an electrifying fury that has made him a legitimate International Driver of the Year candidate. Oh, and he’s leading the championship by four and a half markers.

His first time in a Super Formula car saw him qualify third and post a non-representative result due to a penalty. His first podium came at Fuji. His first win came at Motegi. Then his second win at Sugo became one of the all-time individual performances in Japanese Top Formula history. It was a truly Schumacher-esque performance from the former “Bad Boy”, who is also coming in three weeks removed from an emotional first GT500 win in the Buriram Super GT Race.

The possibility exists that Sekiguchi could clinch the title in race one and become only the second rookie champion in history, but regardless of the outcome of this season, Yuhi Sekiguchi’s season has been a remarkable story, of triumph and perseverance over adversity – and he is a thoroughly deserving champion if he can do what seemed unthinkable at the start of the season, and win the 2016 Super Formula title.

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Yuji Kunimoto – P.mu/Cerumo-INGING

It’s finally coming together for 26-year-old Yuji Kunimoto in Super Formula in his sixth season. Kunimoto is a former JAF Grand Prix winner – albeit in the non-championship 2013 running of the event at Fuji – but it’s his 2016 season that stands as his breakout year, with a maiden championship race win in the second meeting at Okayama in September, and a 2nd-place finish at the first Suzuka race in April.

Kunimoto has been tipped for great success ever since he took the 2010 All-Japan F3 title with a record ten straight wins to open the season. But he’s also seen how cruel the sport can be at times – with his older brother Keisuke going from a can’t miss Formula 1 prospect, to broke and out of racing entirely, before Yuji got his turn – and thankfully, he’s been able to stick around with Toyota’s guidance and support.

From just 7.5 points scored in 2015 and a best finish of fourth, to second in the championship behind only his Lexus Team WedsSport Bandoh co-driver in Super GT, it is a remarkable comeback season for Kunimoto, who may finally break through with his first championship with a good weekend in Suzuka.

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André Lotterer – Vantelin Team TOM’s

The most consistent scorer in the field, Lotterer is just six points out of the lead despite having just one podium finish all season in what has, by the admission of Toyota Team TOM’s, been a frustrating year – the first in the unfamiliar green and gold of new title sponsor Vantelin sports medicine. 2nd place at Motegi stands as Lotterer’s best result in 2016, but Lotterer has six career Super Formula victories at Suzuka Circuit, two of which came last season.

Full disclosure here: Lotterer has been one of my favorite drivers for many years, a young man who overcame rejection both in F1 and in Champ Car, built his reputation in Japan as a former Super GT and Super Formula champion, and then went on to become one of the greatest talents in global sports car racing with three Le Mans victories and a World Endurance Drivers’ Championship to his name.

After this race, Lotterer will return to close out his tenure at Audi Sport Team Joest in the WEC, and then enter 2017, with a racing future shrouded in mystery. Even his future in Super Formula isn’t entirely certain, given he’s going to be 35 in November, an age where many drivers start to call it quits on single-seater racing. Wherever Lotterer hangs his hat next – Porsche, Toyota, back in Super GT, maybe in IMSA, and with or without another year of Super Formula – success will be inevitable. And if he were to win the title, he could, concievably, walk away from Japanese Top Formula competition on top of his game.

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Kazuki Nakajima – Vantelin Team TOM’s

June 19, 2016 might have been the lowest moment of Kazuki Nakajima’s professional racing career. Just five minutes away from taking the chequered flag for Toyota’s first victory in the 24 Hours of Le Mans, his Toyota TS050 lost power, and died at the start/finish line. And all Kazuki could do was hold his head in his hands in stunned disbelief.

The year hasn’t gotten that much better since that fateful afternoon in Le Mans, with Nakajima scoring just two podium finishes (Motegi, Okayama II) and a pole (also at Okayama) – but it’s enough to keep him in contention heading into Suzuka, where he’s won four times before in his Super Formula career, en route to championships in 2012 and 2014. Plus he’s a former Suzuka 1000km champion. Plus his father Satoru won here a whopping nineteen – NINETEEN!!! – times in Japanese Top Formula competition.

Seven years ago, at the end of a miserable stint as Nico Rosberg’s punching bag at Williams F1 Team, Kazuki Nakajima was written off as damaged goods. He’s now a legitimate top-flight racing driver, a reputation that can be further reinforced with his third Super Formula title in five years.

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Hiroaki Ishiura – P.mu/Cerumo-INGING

“To be the man, you have to beat the man.” Ric Flair’s popular quote is apt for this year’s title fight, and “the man” in this case is 35-year-old Hiroaki Ishiura, who is the defending Super Formula champion. Who beat Lotterer, Nakajima, and Kamui Kobayashi – among many other great drivers – to emerge as the champion a year ago.

Oh by the way, Ishiura also won the Suzuka 1000km for Cerumo back in August, so he has that going for him as well. But it’s been a weird year in Super Formula for the reigning champ. His only win was in an Okayama race in May that was hardly a race at all. He stayed in the title fight with two more podiums, but had a shockingly poor time at Sugo.

Ishiura, once a protegé of Naoki Hattori, is back in Suzuka – where he stunned the world with his improbable championship crowning a year ago – to prove a point: That his 2015 title was no fluke, and that he is one of Japan’s best racing drivers. But the latter is an obvious truth.

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Stoffel Vandoorne – DoCoMo Team Dandelion

Whatever happens at the JAF Grand Prix, this weekend will be Stoffel Vandoorne’s last race in Super Formula – at least for the forseeable future. Like Ralf Schumacher twenty years ago, Vandoorne already has a Formula 1 deal in place for next season, where he’ll take over for former World Champion Jenson Button at McLaren Honda. It’s the promotion that Vandoorne has been due – overdue, actually – for years since he burst onto the scene in Europe.

Vandoorne’s Super Formula debut at Suzuka yielded an impressive third-place finish. He broke a six-year drought of pole positions at Fuji, then in the September Okayama race, he won for the first time. And as an injury substitute for Fernando Alonso, he scored his first F1 point for McLaren before kicking off his “rookie” year in Japan. That he’s been so consistently good with Honda still a full step behind Toyota is a testament to his supreme talent.

Win or lose, Vandoorne’s time in Super Formula has elevated not only his stock, but also that of the Super Formula championship after years of apathy from the F1-centric pundits. He’s been stellar in his own right, and a championship on the way out would only add to his legend.

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Naoki Yamamoto – Team Mugen

At the end of the list of realistic title contenders, 12.5 points out of the lead in seventh, is a young man who absolutely must win out to have any hope of the title. It’s a good thing that Naoki Yamamoto has seemingly become unbeatable at Suzuka – he’ll need to be.

“Mr. Suzuka” Yamamoto has three career Super Formula victories, and they’ve all been at the figure-eight circuit. Plus he has a win at the Suzuka 1000km in 2013. After winning here in April, Yamamoto has sputtered ever since, scoring just 4.5 points over the last six races – so it’s now a must-win scenario for the recently-married 28-year old, who won the 2013 Super Formula title in a controversial tiebreaker over Lotterer, despite Lotterer winning more races that year.

Team Mugen’s financial struggles are no secret even outside of Japan, and Yamamoto has done a damn fine job of carrying the flag for the storied engine builders on his own for the last two seasons. If this Honda ace wins his second title at Honda’s original home circuit, there will be no disputing his credentials this time out.

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Elsewhere in the field, there are five more drivers – João Paulo de Oliveira, Tomoki Nojiri, James Rossiter, Koudai Tsukakoshi, and Daisuke Nakajima who are still mathematically eligible for the title, but would need a miraculous double-victory at the very least, and only Oliveira has won a race this season out of those five drivers.

Meanwhile, others will be trying to salvage what they can in the final weekend of a dismal season. It wasn’t but four years ago that Kamui Kobayashi (above) was standing on a Formula 1 podium with the Suzuka fans chanting his name in celebration. It wasn’t but two weeks ago that he won the WEC 6 Hours of Fuji for Toyota. But he enters the JAF Grand Prix without a single championship point in Super Formula this year, which seems completely unfathomable for a driver of his caliber and stature.

This race will be a must-watch, with qualifying starting at 2:15 PM JST on Saturday, the first race Sunday at 9:45 AM JST, and the final feature race later that afternoon at 14:45 JST.

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