The 2017 Japanese Super Formula Championship began this weekend with the season opening round at Suzuka Circuit, and star Toyota factory racer Kazuki Nakajima opened his season with a dominating, wire-to-wire victory at Suzuka.
Nakajima led all 35 laps of the first of nine races this season, taking his ninth career Super Formula race victory, his fifth at Suzuka Circuit, and the first for him and his team since 2015.
Nakajima took pole position with a course record lap on Saturday, and got a great start off the grid for Sunday’s race, with defending Super Formula champion Yuji Kunimoto starting second, but losing the position to Naoki Yamamoto on the first lap of the race.
With every driver needing to serve at least one pit stop to change tyres, many drivers pitted within the first three laps of the race. Nakajima’s teammate André Lotterer was one of those who pitted on the opening lap, Kunimoto’s teammate Hiroaki Ishiura pitted on lap two, and Kunimoto pitted on lap three, eventually leading the group of early stoppers. Some drivers, including Kunimoto, changed only one tyre on their stop.
Nakajima would stay out until lap 23, when a safety car was brought out for the spun Sunoco Team LeMans Toyota of Kazuya Oshima. This allowed Nakajima and Yamamoto to dive into the pits for their stops, and still come out ahead of the rest of the field.
This would allow Nakajima to take the victory and open his 2017 account with the maximum eleven points available, including the bonus point for pole position.
It’s his second victory in as many weeks, in as many different series and vehicles. The previous week, Nakajima joined Sébastien Buemi and Anthony Davidson in the winning Toyota TS050 Hybrid LMP1 at the WEC 6 Hours of Silverstone, and the week before, Nakajima finished fifth in his Super GT return for Lexus Team au TOM’s.
In Super Formula, the win is the first for Nakajima since the 2015 Autopolis race, and for Vantelin Team TOM’s, their first win since the 2015 JAF Grand Prix Suzuka after going winless throughout 2016.
Yamamoto finished five seconds adrift in second place, to lead the Honda Racing contingent at their home track of Suzuka Circuit, and move into second place in the championship.
Kunimoto held off his former champion teammate Ishiura at the end of the race to finish third and complete the podium, while Ishiura, who turned 36 on race day, finished fourth by less than half a second.
Lotterer finished fifth, just a half second ahead of Koudai Tsukakoshi in sixth, the Real Racing driver denying Nakajima a “grand slam” victory by taking fastest lap of the race early on.
Kazuki’s younger brother, Daisuke Nakajima, withstood heavy pressure from Honda stablemate Takuya Izawa, and former F1 podium finisher Kamui Kobayashi, to finish seventh. Izawa completed the points scorers in eighth, while Kobayashi, despite moving up from eighteenth on the grid, finished just outside the points in ninth.
Pierre Gasly finished tenth, outside of the points, but best of all the highly-vaunted rookie contenders in his Super Formula debut – which included some outstanding wheel-to-wheel action with Kobayashi, and with Felix Rosenqvist of Sunoco Team LeMans, who finished just behind the Frenchman in eleventh.
It was a bit of a tough day for the rookies, with Jann Mardenborough retiring after a spin with four laps to go, and Nick Cassidy losing a lap due to issues after the Safety Car restart, and none of the five newcomers scored points in their first race.
The second round of the Super Formula Championship takes place on May 28th, at Okayama International Circuit, with a double-header race weekend that will serve as a fitting primer for the marquee events later in the day – the Monaco Grand Prix, and the Indianapolis 500.