It wasn’t the dominant performance that he put on this time a year ago, but Yuhi Sekiguchi did hang on to win the sixth round of the 2017 Japanese Super Formula Championship at Sportsland SUGO on Sunday, keeping his hopes of winning the 2017 championship alive going into next month’s JAF Grand Prix weekend at Suzuka Circuit.
Sekiguchi denied Red Bull Team Mugen’s Pierre Gasly a third consecutive victory by just 0.243 seconds, the closest finish of the season. However, the French rookie closed to within half a point of championship leader Hiroaki Ishiura, who finished sixth – leaving eight drivers still mathematically eligible for the championship in October’s season finale.
The weekend started with rookie Nick Cassidy putting his Fuji x Raffineé Kondo Racing Toyota on pole, with 2016 Sugo winner Sekiguchi on the outside of the front row, and championship leader Ishiura in eighth on the grid.
But a dreadful start from Cassidy vaulted Sekiguchi into the front, with Gasly slotting into second place right behind him, followed by the two Vantelin Team TOM’s cars of André Lotterer and Kazuki Nakajima.
While Sekiguchi continued to hold a steady lead over Gasly at the front, Lotterer’s chances of a podium finish were dashed when he was forced to serve a drive-through penalty for speeding in the pits after his initial pit stop on Lap 11.
He continued to lead until Lap 42, when he came into the pits for his fuel stop, putting Gasly into the lead of the race. Gasly then led the next 15 laps, before he also came in for his fuel stop. Conventional strategy dictated that every driver would need to pit for fuel to get to the end of the 250 kilometer race.
When the front-runners had pitted, Sekiguchi resumed in the lead ahead of Gasly and Kazuki Nakajima in third. Over the final ten laps, Gasly put on a charge, and Nakajima went with him – with three laps to go, the top three were separated by just over a second.
But with a clear track ahead of him, and despite one final push out of the 110R corner on the final lap from the Frenchman in pursuit, Sekiguchi held off Gasly at the line by two-tenths of a second to take his second win of 2017, and his second win at Sugo for Itochu Enex Team Impul. It’s Sekiguchi’s fourth career victory in the series.
Gasly finished second, to score his third consecutive podium of the season after taking back-to-back wins at Twin Ring Motegi and Autopolis. Kazuki Nakajima finished third, just 1.1 seconds back of race winner Sekiguchi, for his first podium since winning the season-opening race at Suzuka Circuit. Defending Super Formula champion Yuji Kunimoto (P.MU/Cerumo-INGING) finished in fourth place, keeping his long shot chances of defending his championship alive.
Felix Rosenqvist (Sunoco Team LeMans) was one of a handful of drivers who took the gamble and finished the race without a pit stop for fuel. It was a difficult task, but the Swede took home a fifth place finish, his fifth straight top-five finish. Ishiura finished sixth, enough to retain his points lead after a poor start left him to fight back from as low as 13th early on in the race, after some brilliant moves through the pack.
Kamui Kobayashi (KCMG) also successfully managed a zero-stop race, finishing in seventh, with Takuya Izawa (DoCoMo Team Dandelion Racing) rounding off the points-scorers in eighth place.
Eight drivers are now mathematically eligible to win the 2017 Super Formula championship at the next round, the JAF Grand Prix at Suzuka Circuit. Half-points will be paid over the two races, but three bonus points will be awarded to the winner at each event – leaving a maximum of eighteen points (including pole position bonuses) available.
Ishiura leads by just a half-point over Gasly, 33.5 points to 33. Rosenqvist, at 28.5 points, and Sekiguchi, at 25 points, are the other two drivers with a moderate chance at taking the title at Suzuka, though they do need some help in the first race to keep them in contention for the second race.
Nakajima, at 22 points, would need to win both races to score enough points to have a chance at winning the championship, as would Lotterer, at 20 points. Kobayashi and Kunimoto, at 16.5 and 16 points respectively, need to win both races and score at least one pole position, at the absolute minimum, to have any chance at the title.
Gasly and Rosenqvist are each vying to become the first rookie champion in the series since Ralf Schumacher in 1996. Sekiguchi and Kobayashi are going for their first championships, Ishiura, Lotterer, and Kunimoto are going for their second, and Nakajima going for his third – only Kazuyoshi Hoshino, Satoru Nakajima, and Satoshi Motoyama have won at least three Japanese Top Formula championships.