The 2017 Japanese Super Formula Championship came back to Okayama International Circuit this past weekend, for a crucial double-header weekend at the technical 3.7 kilometer circuit in Shizuoka Prefecture, Japan.
Saturday saw Vantelin Team TOM’s driver André Lotterer win the first 30-lap sprint race, and on Sunday, it was sophomore sensation Yuhi Sekiguchi who captured the win in the 51-lap feature event.
Thanks to a win and a third place for the 2011 series champion Lotterer in the two events, plus a scoreless meeting for his teammate Kazuki Nakajima, the German moves into the lead of the Super Formula Drivers’ Championship after three races.
This weekend’s Super Formula event featured a unique format for the two races. Saturday’s 30-lap race would have no compulsory pit stop, and the grid would be set by a single twenty-minute qualifying session. Also, each driver would only be allowed five uses of the OTS (Overtake System) between both races of the weekend.
In Saturday qualifying, it was Sekiguchi who took pole position in his Toyota-powered Dallara SF14 with a 1:13.387, six-tenths faster than Lotterer. Three of the five “Super Rookies” also made it into the top ten: Nick Cassidy (Kondo Racing) in 3rd, Jann Mardenborough (Itochu Enex Team Impul) in 5th, and Kenta Yamashita (Kondo Racing) in 8th – and Felix Rosenqvist (Sunoco Team LeMans) could have made it four if he’d not spun with 7 minutes left in the session.
Tomoki Nojiri (DoMoCo Team Dandelion) was the best of the Hondas in 6th, with championship leader Kazuki Nakajima mired in 11th.
At the start of Saturday’s race, Sekiguchi got a poor getaway off the grid, allowing Lotterer to take the lead from the outside of the front row and move into the lead of the race. Kamui Kobayashi (KCMG) made a terrific start, jumping from 7th to 4th at the first corner, slotting in behind the rookie Cassidy.
There was very little overtaking in the race otherwise, and despite some pressure from Sekiguchi who was setting fast times in pursuit of Lotterer, it was the three-time 24 Hours of Le Mans winner who came through in the end to take his first win of the 2017 Super Formula season.
This was Lotterer’s 24th career Super Formula victory, extending his margin as the series’ active career wins leader. He is now just four wins behind Satoshi Motoyama for second on the all-time career Japanese Top Formula wins list (28). This also marks the first victory for Lotterer since the first leg of the 2015 JAF Grand Prix Suzuka.
Sekiguchi held on to finish second, and having qualified third, Nick Cassidy held on to take his first career Super Formula podium finish in just his second race – and the first Kiwi to take a podium in Japanese Top Formula competition since Mike Thackwell in 1986!
Completing the points scorers for Race 1 were Kobayashi in 4th, scoring his best finish since 2015, and the best-ever finish for KCMG in their seven-plus seasons in Super Formula. Naoki Yamamoto (Motul Team Mugen) got a great start and finished 5th, Mardenborough in 6th scored his first Super Formula points, as did Yamashita in seventh, and Hiroaki Ishiura (P.MU Cerumo/INGING) in eighth completed the points scorers.
Sunday’s qualifying session was a two-stage knockout format, with the top ten cars from Q1 advancing to the run for pole position in Q2. Two-time Okayama winner and 2015 Super Formula champion Ishiura set the quickest time as the chequered flag flied in Q2, putting him on the front row alongside impressive rookie performer Kenta Yamashita.
Race 1 protagonists Sekiguchi and Lotterer would start on Row 2, ahead of the reigning FIA Formula 2 Champion Pierre Gasly (Red Bull Team Mugen) in fifth.
Ishiura and Yamashita were able to fend off Lotterer’s rocket start on the opening lap of the 51-lap main race. At the end of the first lap, Sekiguchi, who fell to fourth, pitted for his mandatory four-tyre pit stop – the first of the leaders to do so. Lotterer would come in on lap 6, while Ishiura and Yamashita stayed out for a longer first stint.
The veteran, Ishiura then began to pull away from the rookie, Yamashita out front. But the pit stops would bring both drivers to grief, as both drivers suffered trouble on their tyre changes, Yamashita stopping on Lap 32, Ishiura on Lap 34.
That allowed Sekiguchi to cycle to the lead by the time the Safety Car came out on Lap 37 for a crash involving Takuya Izawa (DoCoMo Team Dandelion), the only retirement between the two races.
The race would restart with Sekiguchi leading Ishiura and Lotterer, but with much older tyres, Sekiguchi would come under major pressure from Ishiura over the last handful of laps. But Team Impul’s newly-annointed ace driver would withstand the barrage, and Sekiguchi held on to take his third career Super Formula victory by just 0.408 seconds over Ishiura. Lotterer completed the podium in third place.
In fourth, was Rosenqvist – who started all the way back in 15th, then came into the pits for his tyre change just before the Safety Car came out on Lap 38 and restarted behind Lotterer, scoring his first career Super Formula points. Kobayashi finished fifth, a second straight top-five finish after a woeful 2016 season, ahead of Yamashita, who faded to sixth in the end.
Gasly finished seventh, ensuring that all five Super Formula rookies would score points on the weekend, ahead of his Mugen teammate Yamamoto in eighth place.
With the results, Andre Lotterer moves into a one point lead in the championship over his teammate Kazuki Nakajima, who finished 9th in Race 1 and 18th in Race 2 to score zero points over two races – a frustrating weekend for the World Endurance Drivers’ Championship leader, and most recent Super GT race winner at Autopolis.
It was also a frustrating weekend for the reigning champion Yuji Kunimoto (P.MU Cerumo/INGING), who was 10th in Race 1, and 9th in Race 2, also scoring no points. Thus, Yamamoto slots into third place in the Drivers’ Championship, Ishiura moves up into fourth, and Sekiguchi moves up to fifth, ahead of Kunimoto in sixth.
Super Formula returns on July 9th at Fuji International Speedway for the third round of the 2017 season – and there will be a new winner at Fuji this year as 2016 winner João Paulo de Oliveira is no longer in the series.