2017 Japanese Super Formula Championship Preview: The best rookie class ever?

Ask any fan of basketball what the greatest rookie class in the history of the NBA was, and you’ll likely end up split between one of three choices. 1984’s class was headlined by four future Hall of Fame players – Hakeem Olajuwon, Charles Barkley, John Stockton, and Michael Jordan. 1996 saw a total of one-third of the first round picks become NBA All-Stars in their career, led by Allen Iverson and Kobe Bryant. And 2003 gave us the class of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh, and Carmelo Anthony – all perennial NBA All-Stars in a league dominated by larger-than-life superstars.

Skip over to 2017, across the Pacific Ocean from North America to Japan, and switch sports entirely from basketball to auto racing. As the 2017 Japanese Super Formula Championship is set to begin this weekend with the season opener at Suzuka Circuit on April 23, Japan’s premier single-seater racing category, and the fastest spec-formula series in the world, welcomes in a rookie class that has the potential to be the greatest ever.

Young newcomers Pierre Gasly, Nick Cassidy, Kenta Yamashita, Jann Mardenborough, and Felix Rosenqvist all combine to have won ten major junior formula racing titles, and they are all poised to make an immediate impact in one of the highest-quality championship fields that Super Formula has seen in a long time.

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© Hiroyuki Orihara / Red Bull

Headlining the rookie class is 21-year-old Pierre Gasly of Rouen, France, the top prospect of the Red Bull Junior Team, and the reigning champion of what is now known as the FIA Formula Two Championship. He’ll drive for the Honda-powered Team Mugen, carrying the Red Bull colours.

Having already proven his skills against current Formula 1 young stars such as Esteban Ocon, Carlos Sainz Jr., Stoffel Vandoorne, and Antonio Giovinazzi, Gasly has seemed destined for Formula 1 for years, with his incredible consistency and pace, combined with experience and race-savvy beyond his years.

Vandoorne’s 2016 Super Formula campaign was the last step on the way to Formula 1 stardom this year, and now in 2017, Gasly wants to replicate his Belgian predecessor as the next young star to make the jump from Super Formula to Formula 1.

Gasly’s arrival into Super Formula also brings Red Bull, one of the most prominent and lucrative sponsors in international sport, into Japan’s national racing circuits for the first time ever. With the backing of Mugen, one of the most prominent names in international motorsport, and a championship-winning teammate in Naoki Yamamoto, Gasly has all the tools needed to succeed here in Japan.

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© Toyota Gazoo Racing

The 2017 rookie class is further bolstered by Kondo Racing’s all-rookie lineup, pairing the two most recent All-Japan Formula Three Champions together – former F3 teammates Kenta Yamashita and Nick Cassidy join the ranks of Super Formula in much-deserved promotions.

Yamashita is the reigning All-Japan F3 champion, having finally broken through after two runner-up finishes, and he is also last year’s standout underdog performer in the Macau Grand Prix. Yamashita piqued the interest of European talent scouts with his performance at Macau – now he’s out to prove that he is World Championship caliber material.

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© Toyota Gazoo Racing

His teammate Cassidy won the title in 2015, edging out Yamashita for the title, and now makes his much-deserved Super Formula debut. Cassidy is the only two-time Toyota Racing Series champion in his native New Zealand, he’s now a GT500 race winner in Super GT, and was a race winner last year in European Formula 3.

Cassidy becomes the first Kiwi to race in the Japanese top formula category since Mike Thackwell competed in the mid-1980s, and reunited with his F3 teammate from two years ago, Masahiko Kondo has put every effort to make this his best season yet as a Super Formula team principal – Kondo Racing have just one race win in seventeen seasons in the series.

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© Toyota Gazoo Racing

From video game racer to one of the brightest young stars in global motorsport, former GT Academy champion Jann Mardenborough makes his debut for Itochu Enex Team Impul, under the direction of Kazuyoshi Hoshino, the winningest driver and team principal in Super Formula history.

Mardenborough has gotten better with every year of experience, finishing second to Yamashita in last year’s All-Japan F3 title race, a former GP3 Series race winner, and now a GT500 driver for Calsonic Team Impul and the famous Calsonic Nissan GT-R.

Hoshino gave Mardenborough his first Super Formula test in 2014, and the Welshman was an incredible surprise performer. Three years later, Mardenborough is now at the pinnacle of Japanese motorsport, in GT500, and in Super Formula.

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© Toyota Gazoo Racing

The last driver to confirm their place on the 2017 Super Formula grid was former European Formula 3 Champion, Felix Rosenqvist, making his series debut with Sunoco Team LeMans, who also have a rookie team director in Tatsuya Kataoka.

Rosenqvist is one of a number of outstanding young talents who have made their mark by racing anything and everything they can. Last year, Rosenqvist raced in DTM, Blancpain GT, Indy Lights, and fell just one place short of winning his third Macau Grand Prix trophy. This year, Rosenqvist, in addition to Super Formula, is also running as a rookie in Formula E, and will make his 24 Hours of Le Mans debut this June.

He joins a short but profound lineage of Swedish drivers in Super Formula, including Eje Elgh, Thomas Danielsson, Rickard Rydell, and Björn Wirdheim.

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So about those NBA rookie classes from earlier, they all have something in common: Every one of those great players broke into the league in a time where there was already a dominant superstar or superstars for them to live up to. When LeBron James was a rookie, Iverson and Kobe were at the height of their careers, and when they were rookies, Jordan, Barkley, and Stockton were all in their prime.

It’s the same case in Super Formula: For all the excitement of this year’s rookie class, they still have to take on the fourteen other experienced drivers – three of whom race full-time in the LMP1 category of the FIA World Endurance Championship.

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Vantelin Team TOM’s have two of those three LMP1 superstars driving for them, combining to win three titles in the last six years.

There’s no disputing André Lotterer’s status as one of the greatest drivers of his generation who never got a proper chance at Formula 1 success. Three times a Le Mans 24h winner, two times a GT500 champion, a former WEC Drivers’ Champion, and a former Super Formula champion, who, after fourteen seasons, is now the winningest active driver in the series – and just a handful of wins behind Satoshi Motoyama for second-most all-time.

In this, his fifteenth season at age 35, “Andre the Giant” will be every bit as fast as he was when he was a 21-year-old newcomer, looking for perhaps the chance to step out on top.

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© Toyota Gazoo Racing

His teammate, Kazuki Nakajima, is the son of five-time Japanese Top Formula champion Satoru Nakajima. Both drivers raced in Formula 1, but the son has added to his racing legacy in recent years as one of the top stars in LMP1, so nearly the victor at Le Mans for Toyota in 2016.

A two-time champion in his own right, Nakajima looks to add his third championship to his resumé after a frustrating season for TOM’s as a whole – who competed for the title, but did not win a race last season.

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© Toyota Gazoo Racing

For every story of triumph and limitless potential, there are those who wish to redeem their fortunes. Kamui Kobayashi, the third of the LMP1 crew, is one such driver – and his move to Hong Kong-based KCMG represents perhaps his last chance to recapture the magic of his Formula 1 heyday in Super Formula. It won’t be easy for Kamui, or KCMG, the single-car team that has yet to score a podium finish in their tenure in the series.

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© Toyota Gazoo Racing

Last year’s other rookie sensation, Yuhi Sekiguchi of Itochu Enex Team Impul, nearly took the title on the back of two outstanding victories last year, and arguably upstaged his more celebrated rookie rival Vandoorne. This year, Sekiguchi is out to continue his remarkable rise to the top, a culmination of twelve seasons of trials and tribulations just to reach this level.

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© Toyota Gazoo Racing

But they’ll all have to chase down two-time and reigning champion team P.MU/Cerumo-INGING, with 2015 champion Hiroaki Ishiura, and the reigning champion, 26-year-old Yuji Kunimoto, who came out of nowhere in the second half of 2016 to capture his first Super Formula crown – and a Toyota LMP1 driver at Le Mans as a just reward.

Super GT legend Yuji Tachikawa has steadily built a legitimate top-tier team through his directorship of Cerumo-INGING, and with two outstanding drivers who are every bit the equal of their more globally-renowned rivals in the field, there’s no reason to suggest that they couldn’t do it for a third straight season.

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© Toyota Gazoo Racing

And there are many other stories to follow of course, from the debut of B-Max Racing Team in the Honda camp, to the full-time return of Kazuya Oshima to the series for the first time in five years, to the saga of how the teams and drivers will adapt in year two with Yokohama as the tyre supplier to the series.

Can one of the World Endurance Championship mega-stars add another notch in their incredible careers? Can the Cerumo-INGING duo of Ishiura and Kunimoto continue to slay the giants? Can Honda finally make consistent in-roads on Toyota and win just their third title in the dual-engine supply era? Or, for the first time in 21 years, and for only the second time ever – can one of this year’s incredible rookie contenders become champion?

Nine races over seven rounds and six months will determine the 45th Japanese Super Formula Champion.

2017 CALENDAR

Round 1: Suzuka Circuit (Suzuka 2 & 4 Race) – April 22nd-23rd
Round 2: Okayama International Circuit (2 Races) – May 27th-28th
Round 3: Fuji Speedway – July 8th-9th
Round 4: Twin Ring Motegi – August 19th-20th
Round 5: Autopolis – September 9th-10th
Round 6: Sportsland SUGO – September 23rd-24th
Round 7: Suzuka Circuit II (2 Races) – October 21st-22nd

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