Just two more rounds, and three races remain in the 2017 Japanese Super Formula Championship, and the sixth and penultimate round resonates from the tight, undulating, and treacherous Sportsland Sugo in Miyagi Prefecture, Japan.
Last year at Sugo, a rookie driver delivered one of the all-time great drives in Japanese Top Formula history. This year, the rookie class of 2017 – led by championship contenders Pierre Gasly and Felix Rosenqvist – will look to replicate Yuhi Sekiguchi’s stunning 2016 pole-to-victory performance, and take another step towards moving past former champion Hiroaki Ishiura in the Drivers’ Championship.
There’s virtually zero margin for error at this fabled 3.704 kilometer bullring, with its narrow width, small run-off, and constant changes in elevation. Sugo is the fastest lap on the entire Super Formula calendar, just north of a minute, making it one of the more unique road courses in all of major open-wheel racing.
Sunday’s 68-lap race will see the tyres reverted back to the single-spec configuration, so there are no mandatory tyre changes – and we can expect the entire field to run a single set of tyres to the finish of the race. However, they’ll need at least one stop for fuel to get to the end.
There may not be as much overtaking as there had been in the rounds in Autopolis and Twin Ring Motegi, so track position will come at a premium. So too will a good performance in qualifying, which will necessitate getting good track position to avoid being stuck in traffic.
Consistency has been the key for P.MU/Cerumo-INGING driver Ishiura, who’s finished all six races in the points this year, and has five finishes of fourth or better including a win at Fuji Speedway in July. It’s enough to give him a lead of five and a half markers over Gasly in the drivers’ championship. That said, Sugo is a circuit where Ishiura hasn’t had the most success in his career in either Super GT or Super Formula.
Neither Red Bull Team Mugen’s Gasly, nor Sunoco Team LeMans’ Rosenqvist, have ever raced at Sugo before – making this uncharted territory for either of the series’ two top rookies.
Gasly, of course, is coming off back-to-back race wins, and bidding to become the first driver to win three races in a row since 2011. This race will be a test of his progression since the start of the season: While he’s won in the races with two tyre compounds available, ala the Formula 2 ranks where he raced last year, his best finish apart from his back-to-back wins is 5th at Fuji Speedway.
As for Rosenqvist, he’s racked up a hat trick of podiums and four straight top-four finishes, and the Super Swede, just announced to an extension at Mahindra Racing in Formula E, will be in for a real shot at his breakthrough first victory in the series.
While Kondo Racing’s rookies Nick Cassidy and Kenta Yamashita are no longer fixtures in the championship battle, this could be the race where they work their way back into the sharp end of the field – both drivers have performed exceptionally well here in recent years, particularly in the Formula 3 ranks.
For Vantelin Team TOM’s superstar duo of André Lotterer and Kazuki Nakajima, time is of the essence after falling more than 10 points out of the lead in the last two rounds of the season. Lotterer, a two-time Sugo winner, was knocked out on the first lap at Autopolis, while Nakajima, who has four top-five finishes at Sugo, hasn’t finished better than sixth since winning the opening round of the championship at Suzuka Circuit in April.
Yuhi Sekiguchi might need to repeat his 2016 heroics if he’s to remain in the championship race for Itochu Enex Team Impul – and his co-drivers at the Suzuka 1000km, Kamui Kobayashi (KCMG) and defending series champion Yuji Kunimoto (P.MU/Cerumo-INGING) are both at a critical juncture in their respective seasons as well.
For international viewers, Motorsport.TV will have the race live and on-demand on their premium streaming portal.