The second round of the 2017 Japanese Super Formula Championship will feature the first of two double-header weekends on the season, held at the former home of the Formula 1 Pacific Grand Prix, the Okayama International Circuit.
A maximum twelve points will be on offer over the weekend’s two races, a 110 kilometer, 30-lap sprint on Saturday, May 27, and the 190km, 51-lap “feature” race on Sunday, May 28 – just hours before the Monaco Grand Prix, the Indianapolis 500, and the conclusion of the 24 Hours of the Nürburgring on a busy, busy weekend of racing.
And after Kazuki Nakajima opened his busy 2017 campaign with back to back WEC victories, won the most recent Autobacs Super GT Series round in Autopolis, and went wire-to-wire to take the first Super Formula round at Suzuka, the question is – who can stop the two-time Super Formula champion?
There’s no debating that Vantelin Team TOM’s driver Nakajima might be in the form of his life, as his date with redemption at the 24 Hours of Le Mans looms just a few weeks in the distance.
But it won’t be easy at Okayama, which returned to the Super Formula calendar in 2015 – and in four races in that time, Okayama has produced three first-time winners in the series.
Hiroaki Ishiura (P.MU Cerumo/INGING) won his first career race en route to winning the 2015 Super Formula Drivers’ Championship, as did his teammate Yuji Kunimoto this past year. This was also the site of Stoffel Vandoorne’s first Super Formula victory in his final step to Formula 1.
Last year, the May race at Okayama was barely a race at all, just a few short laps under the safety car before the race was declared official and Ishiura declared the victor. When the Autopolis round in September was cancelled, a double-header at Okayama was set up in its place in September.
So will this year’s races at Okayama produce yet another first-time winner? Among the rookies to look out for is Kondo Racing’s Nick Cassidy, the Kiwi driver who already has a victory at Okayama under his belt this year, in Super GT – his first career win in that series.
It would be difficult to overlook Cassidy’s rookie teammate Kenta Yamashita, who won two races at Okayama in last year’s All-Japan F3 Championship – and is also a recent first-time winner in Super GT.
And there’s Pierre Gasly (Red Bull Team Mugen), who succeeds Vandoorne as Honda’s top rookie from overseas – the reigning Formula 2 champion was the top rookie at Suzuka Circuit last month in a race that proved difficult for the “Super Rookie” class – none of whom scored points, including Felix Rosenqvist (Sunoco Team LeMans) and Jann Mardenborough (Itochu Enex Team Impul).
Another driver who is on form lately is Naoki Yamamoto (Motul Team Mugen), who finished second at the Super Formula season opener at Suzuka in April, then followed it up with two outstanding individual drives in Super GT with Team Kunimitsu – finishing 6th at Fuji and 3rd at Autopolis. Might he be able to keep his championship aspirations alive with his first podium finish at the 3.7 kilometer circuit in Shizuoka Prefecture?
Another factor for this weekend’s races will be how the field of 19 Dallara SF-14s tackle the new surface at Okayama – if conditions are fine, we will see a new course record around this circuit – as we saw in the GT300 class in Super GT a month ago.
In addition, All-Japan F3 will be in action at Okayama, with their second race meeting at the circuit this year. Championship leader Mitsunori Takaboshi won two of the first three rounds of the 2017 season at Okayama, and he looks to extend his margin over Spanish rookie Álex Palou, who won his first race at Okayama.
At the very least, this weekend’s Super Formula double-header at Okayama International Circuit will serve as the perfect primer to get race fans ready for the Monaco Grand Prix and Indianapolis 500 to come later on – so don’t miss out on any of this weekend’s action!