At the end of a historic JAF Suzuka Grand Prix, 26-year-old Yuji Kunimoto saw his dream of becoming champion realized, as he won the first of two races on Sunday to take the championship lead, before sealing his first-ever Japanese Super Formula Championship title with a sixth place finish in the afternoon’s feature race.
Kunimoto and the P.MU/Cerumo-INGING team took the championship as Belgian driver Stoffel Vandoorne held off one last charge from Andre Lotterer, to win in his farewell Super Formula race before stepping up to Formula 1.
Race 1, a 19-lap, 110 kilometer sprint, saw polesitter and defending Super Formula champion Hiroaki Ishiura get a poor start, dropping back to third as Kunimoto and Lotterer led the way out of the first corner – and would eventually break away from the field.
There would be no championship heroics from Suzuka-meister Naoki Yamamoto (Team Mugen), who ran into trouble on the opening lap and finished a lap down in 19th, eliminating him from championship contention.
The highest drama of the sprint race came as championship leader Yuhi Sekiguchi (Itochu Enex Team Impul) was battling Vandoorne for eighth place and the final points-paying position. Sekiguchi tried to pass Vandoorne for several laps at the Casio Triangle, and on lap 14 it came to blows as Sekiguchi turned Vandoorne around, sending Vandoorne spinning.
Kunimoto’s great start was the difference maker that ultimately proved to be the crucial pivot in the championship, as he won ahead of the 2011 champion Lotterer and the 2015 champion Ishiura. Tomoki Nojiri in the other DoCoMo Team Dandelion Racing Honda finished fourth, ahead of Kazuki Nakajima (Vantelin Team TOM’s) in fifth, Bertrand Baguette (GreenTec Nakajima Racing) sixth, Takashi Kogure (Drago Corse) seventh, and Joao Paulo de Oliveira (Itochu Enex Team Impul) ultimately finishing eighth.
Sekiguchi finished eighth on the road after a bizarre sequence of position changes with his teammate Oliveira, but was given a 30 second time penalty for avoidable contact, and dropped to eighteenth overall in the final results.
That set the championship stage for the 35-lap feature race, with Kunimoto, Sekiguchi, Lotterer, and Ishiura eligible to take the championship in the final race.
Ishiura once again started on pole, and once again conceded the lead out of the first corner with Vandoorne taking the holeshot. Kunimoto got a worse start, dropping from 3rd to 6th in the first few corners.
Several cars pitted for their mandatory tyre change in the first three laps, including Sekiguchi, who wanted to pit early to gain track position – but could not get through traffic. Race leaders Vandoorne and Ishiura waited until the end of lap 14 before their pit stops, the Belgian holding his place ahead of the Japanese, and not conceding the lead of the race.
There were two safety car periods, the first for a crash involving Takuya Izawa (Honda Real Racing) at Spoon Curve, the second for a multi-car incident approaching the start/finish line for Naoki Yamamoto and Narain Karthikeyan (Sunoco Team LeMans).
It was the restart after the second safety car intervention that saw a critical pass by Lotterer, who used his Overtake System (OTS) to get around Ishiura as the race went back to green with four laps to go. Soon, the German driver would give chase to the Belgian rookie – a battle not spoiled as Koudai Tsukakoshi (Honda Real Racing) and James Rossiter (Kondo Racing) tangled in the S-Curves.
Lotterer gave it everything he could on the final lap, knowing that a victory would win him the title – but in the end, Vandoorne held on to win the final Super Formula race of the season, and his final race in the series, by 0.791 seconds. Ishiura once again completed the podium in third place, ahead of Oliveira in fourth, Bertrand Baguette (GreenTec Nakajima Racing) fifth, and Kunimoto sixth, clinching the title with his result.
Kamui Kobayashi (Sunoco Team LeMans) just avoided the humiliation of a scoreless 2016 season with a seventh-place finish, and Sekiguchi finished eighth to score the last half-point, ultimately not enough to hold onto the title.
After the race, Vandoorne gave his remarks to a raucous crowd, putting over the speed of the Super Formula cars, and praising the quality of the drivers in the field. Next year, he will return to Suzuka Circuit, with the McLaren Honda Formula 1 Team.
In the post-race interviews, Lotterer, who finished runner-up in the championship, hinted that he also may have driven his last Super Formula race after fourteen seasons. With Audi Sport leaving the World Endurance Championship at the end of the 2016 season, Lotterer will now go over his options for 2017 and beyond as the WEC campaign closes out.
In the end, the accolades fell on Yuji Kunimoto, and the P.MU/Cerumo-INGING team. Kunimoto was declared the overall champion of the JAF Suzuka Grand Prix by scoring the most points over two races, but the big prize was his first Super Formula championship.
Kunimoto adds his 2016 Super Formula Drivers’ Championship to his previous titles in Formula Challenge Japan (2008), and the All-Japan Formula Three Championship (2010), and completes an improbable run to the title in a breakout year. One of the first men to congratulate Kunimoto was his Super GT co-driver at Lexus Team WedsSport Bandoh, Yuhi Sekiguchi – who so nearly became the first rookie champion in twenty years.
For Cerumo-INGING, it is their second consecutive Drivers’ Championship, and team director Yuji Tachikawa accepted their first ever Teams’ Championship prize, which they won by just three points over Vantelin Team TOM’s.