Special Preview: 16th JAF Grand Prix Suzuka

The final round of the Japanese Super Formula Championship will take place, fittingly, at the 16th JAF Grand Prix Suzuka at Suzuka Circuit – a two-race final act that will determine the 45th Japanese Top Formula Champion.

Eight drivers – including four main contenders and four longshots – are still mathematically eligible to win the championship, in these final two races of the 2017 season. Two young superstars are vying to become the first rookie champion of the series in over twenty years. It’s all to play for in the richest prize in Japanese open-wheel racing.

The JAF Grand Prix’s lineage extends back to 1969, and between stays at Suzuka and at Fuji Speedway, it has been won by a list of legends – Kazuyoshi Hoshino, Kunimitsu Takahashi, Satoru Nakajima, and even three-time Formula One World Champion, Sir Jackie Stewart.

It was revived in 2010 as the final round of the Super Formula championship, and since 2014, it has been contested as a double-header at Suzuka Circuit. The format remains unchanged from the last three years: A 19-lap “sprint” race, followed by a 36-lap “feature” race.

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Last year saw Stoffel Vandoorne take the feature race in his swansong before his full-time Formula 1 promotion. But it was Yuji Kunimoto who won the sprint race en route to taking the 2016 Super Formula title. The points structure for this event follows the traditional “half-points” system for doubleheader rounds – but with one key difference: Three bonus points for the winner of each race, making victory of the utmost importance, especially in the sprint race which pays equal points to the feature.

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HIROAKI ISHIURA – 1st place, 33.5 points

In the year of the Super Rookies, it’s a 36-year-old elder statesman of Super Formula that still leads – by the slimmest of margins – going into the final race meeting of 2017.

Hiroaki Ishiura has been incredibly consistent this season, having scored points in every round this season. While he’s never won a Super Formula race at Suzuka, he has finished in the points in nine of his ten races at the circuit since returning to the series in 2014. That includes two third-place finishes at the 2016 JAF GP.

There is a very good case to be made that Ishiura is the best-kept secret in Japanese motorsport, already a former Super Formula champion in 2015. That year, it came as a surprise. If Ishiura were to win his second title this weekend, it would solidify his place as one of the greats of his generation – as well as solidifying P.MU Cerumo-INGING as a top team in the series with their third consecutive Super Formula crown.

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PIERRE GASLY (R) – 2nd place, 33 points

The most talked-about title contender at Suzuka will undoubtedly be Pierre Gasly, the 21-year-old French rookie phenom who seeks to become the first rookie champion in Japanese Top Formula competition since Ralf Schumacher in 1996.

His ultimate goal was to reach the pinnacle of Formula 1, a goal that was realized when he made his debut for Scuderia Toro Rosso at the Malaysian Grand Prix. That dream is on hold for just this weekend, as Gasly has foregone the chance to race at the United States Grand Prix in Austin, Texas, to finish out his Super Formula stay and attempt to win the title in his one and only season.

Many factors work in Gasly’s favour. He’s the hottest driver on the circuit, with back-to-back wins at Motegi and Autopolis, followed by a second-place finish at Sugo just days before the announcement of his F1 debut. He just raced at Suzuka two weeks ago, where he finished a respectable 13th place in just his second career F1 race. Team Mugen have traditionally performed well at Suzuka, and he is a Honda-powered driver at a Honda-owned circuit.

It’s no wonder why many have already declared him a certain lock for the championship, though to do so just because of his brand-new Formula 1 CV is a slight disservice to the incredible competition he has faced along the way, and the improvement that he and Red Bull Team Mugen have made all season long.

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FELIX ROSENQVIST (R) – 3rd place, 28.5 points

Oh by the way, Pierre Gasly isn’t the only rookie in contention for the big prize. Felix Rosenqvist, the proverbial “driver for hire”, has also enjoyed an incredible run of form with five consecutive top-five finishes entering the JAF GP. A far cry from his somewhat anonymous 11th-place effort at Suzuka on his series debut.

In 2016, we had two rookies with two seemingly different destinies – a driver in Stoffel Vandoorne who was destined to reach F1, and a driver in Yuhi Sekiguchi who outpointed Vandoorne and showed that he probably should have joined him on the F1 grid. It’s a similar case in 2017, with Gasly already set to finish out the season with Toro Rosso, and Rosenqvist, a former European F3 champion, arguably one of the best young drivers not on the F1 grid, if not the best.

And with the recent news of whether Gasly would be at Suzuka or Austin, it overshadowed the fact that “Super Swede” Rosenqvist could genuinely win it all – becoming the first Swedish driver to win the Japanese Top Formula championship.

Rosenqvist is trying to win Sunoco Team LeMans first title in nearly twenty years – since 1998, when Satoshi Motoyama won the first of his four championships in the series. It would also be a well-deserved title for first-year team principal, Tatsuya Kataoka, who’s also chasing the GT300 championship as a driver in Super GT with Goodsmile Racing.

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YUHI SEKIGUCHI – 4th place, 25 points

Sekiguchi enters this year’s JAF GP as a bit of an outsider, compared to last year when he entered this final round in the lead of the tables before losing the title with just a half of a point scored in the two races.

Perseverance through adversity has been the theme of Sekiguchi’s career, which saw him spend nearly twelve years before finally getting to Super Formula and nearly winning the title as a rookie ahead of the vaunted Vandoorne. This year, Sekiguchi is more consistent, more experienced, and potentially more formidable a threat than he was in his miraculous rookie season.

But he has to produce at Suzuka – something that’s been hard for the 29-year-old sophomore, whose best finish at this circuit in this series was that eighth-place finish at the 2016 feature race. Will this be the year Sekiguchi fulfills the legacy of his team owner, six-time champion Kazuyoshi Hoshino?

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There are also four other drivers who would, realistically, need to win both races on the weekend – which has never been done in the brief history of the JAF GP at Suzuka.

Kazuki Nakajima won the 6 Hours of Fuji this past weekend with Toyota Gazoo Racing. A third Super Formula title would make him just the fourth driver to win at least three drivers’ championships, joining his father Satoru, as well as Hoshino and Motoyama.

André Lotterer is closing out his 15th, potentially his final season in Super Formula. As the winningest active driver and the winningest non-Japanese driver in series history, he would need a herculean effort to finally win his second Super Formula crown to add to his 2011 title.

Kamui Kobayashi and Yuji Kunimoto pretty much need to win both races from pole, which would be nothing short of a miracle. Kobayashi is vying for his first Super Formula crown, Kunimoto is trying to repeat as champion.

Both races will be live in their entirety on Motorsport.tv (subscription required), on Sunday, November 22nd.


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