It’s been over a month, but the third round of the 2017 Japanese Super Formula Championship will get underway this weekend from Fuji International Speedway, for a 55-lap race around the fabled, historic, high-speed circuit at the foot of Mount Fuji.
So far, three different drivers have won the first three races of the season – and with the double-race weekend at Okayama this May paying out only half-points to the winners, this race will serve as the pivot point of the 2017 championship battles.
With former Super Formula champion, João Paulo de Oliveira, departing the series at the end of 2016, there’s guaranteed to be a new winner this season at Fuji Speedway – Oliveira won here in 2014, 2015, and in 2016 for Team Impul.
But Fuji represents a major opportunity for a former champion to get back to their winning ways at this circuit. That former champion is André Lotterer, who currently leads the Super Formula standings by a single point over his Vantelin Team TOM’s teammate, Kazuki Nakajima, who won at Suzuka to open the season. Lotterer has won six times at Fuji, including a record of four consecutive years with a win at this track from his title-winning 2011 season up to 2014.
Lotterer is just one of a handful of drivers coming off of frustrating results at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, after retiring from an overwhelming overall lead with six hours to go. Nakajima, who’s won at Fuji before in 2014, also had a tough Le Mans outing for Toyota Gazoo Racing, as did Kamui Kobayashi (KCMG), and defending Super Formula champion Yuji Kunimoto (P.MU Cerumo/INGING).
Kobayashi is back on song in a single-seater in 2017, having already carried KCMG to their best-ever Super Formula results, this could be a breakthrough race for the team – and for Kobayashi himself, who’s still yet to win in the series despite real success in the World Endurance Championship.
Hiroaki Ishiura (P.MU Cerumo/INGING) is back at Fuji after winning this year’s Fuji GT 500km Race with Lexus Team ZENT Cerumo. But even going back to his All-Japan Formula 3 years before debuting in Super Formula in 2008, the 36-year-old former champion has never won in a single-seater at Fuji.
While Oliveira isn’t back to race in 2017, his former Itochu Enex Team Impul teammate Yuhi Sekiguchi is – and this race saw the electrifying 29-year-old sophomore score his very first Super Formula podium a year ago. Sekiguchi split the meeting at Okayama with Lotterer, winning the second race of the weekend. Look for he, and for rookie teammate Jann Mardenborough, to have a major impact in this race under the guidance of Kazuyoshi Hoshino and his team – who always run well here at Fuji.
Along with Mardenborough, all five of this year’s super rookies could stand a chance at a breakthrough victory as well. Last year, Stoffel Vandoorne scored his first pole position at Fuji Speedway – if the trend of sure-fire F1 prospects succeeding at Fuji holds, this could be a good weekend for Red Bull Team Mugen driver, Pierre Gasly, who scored his first points in Okayama.
He and Team Mugen co-driver Naoki Yamamoto will help lead a Honda contingent that wants to spoil the party for their Toyota-powered rivals, at Toyota’s home circuit.
Don’t overlook Kondo Racing’s all-rookie duo of Nick Cassidy and Kenta Yamashita, the former of whom scored a maiden podium at Okayama and leads all the rookies in the points, and the latter of whom has already started from the front row this season. Nor should one overlook Felix Rosenqvist (Sunoco Team LeMans) who drove well from deep in the field in the Okayama double-header.
Throw in support from the All-Japan Formula 3 Championship – taking their second trip to Fuji this year, where title rivals Mitsunori Takaboshi and Álex Palou look to clash once again – and you have the makings of a great race weekend ahead.