Catching up with the Japanese Super Formula Championship, as part of Toyota Gazoo Racing’s 2018 motorsport activities announcement, Toyota confirmed 10 of their 11 drivers for the upcoming Super Formula campaign.
Two-time and defending Super Formula champion Hiroaki Ishiura will lead the charge for Toyota in 2018, with Ryo Hirakawa returning to the series after a two-year absence for Itochu Enex Team Impul, and James Rossiter returning full-time to replace the retired André Lotterer at Vantelin Team TOM’s.
P.MU/Cerumo-INGING will attempt to win a fourth consecutive drivers’ championship as they retain Ishiura, the 2015 and 2017 champion, alongside Yuji Kunimoto, the 2016 champion – they’ll both work under the guidance of Yuji Tachikawa. Ishiura won the Fuji Speedway round last July, and scored points in every round to hold off rookies Pierre Gasly and Felix Rosenqvist in a shortened season for his second title.
Vantelin Team TOM’s, for the first time in their current Super Formula stay, will not have their long-time ace driver Lotterer to lead the team following his retirement from the series in January, after 15 seasons amassing a record that made him the most successful foreign-born driver in series history.
In his place, 34-year-old Rossiter from Oxford returns to the series after a year’s absence, filling in alongside two-time Super Formula champion Kazuki Nakajima – his co-driver for several years in Super GT with Lexus and TOM’s. The chance represents Rossiter’s best chance at a successful Super Formula campaign, his best results to date are 6th in the 2014 Drivers’ Championship, with a 2nd place finish at Suzuka, driving for Kondo Racing.
Nakajima slumped in-between a win from pole at Suzuka to start the 2017 season, and a third-place finish at Sportsland Sugo. He won the 2012 and 2014 series titles.
But by far, the biggest return Toyota gets will be with Ryo Hirakawa – who debuted in Super Formula as a 19-year-old prodigy, and now returns as the reigning and defending champion of the Autobacs Super GT Series’ premier GT500 class.
And after spending the first three years of his Super Formula career with Sunoco Team LeMans, this time out, Hirakawa – who turns 24 next month – will race for Kazuyoshi Hoshino, the six-time Drivers’ Champion most successful driver in series history, and his Itochu Enex Team Impul squad, the team with the most Teams’ Championships.
Hirakawa will be poised to improve upon a career-best second place finish (Fuji Speedway, 2014) and career-best eighth in the championship (2014 and 2015) as he partners Yuhi Sekiguchi, who’s been a revelation as he enters his third season in Super Formula, 3rd in the 2016 standings and 4th in 2017, with 2 race wins in both seasons.
And worth noting as well: The Super Formula championship will pay 20 FIA Super License qualification points to its champion in 2018. Add that to Hirakawa’s current 15 points for winning the GT500 title in 2017, and the remote possibility exists that he could qualify for a chance to race in Formula 1.
Then there is the one seat that remains unfilled: The #7 Sunoco Team LeMans car, which has been vacated by Felix Rosenqvist, alongside the #8 car of Kazuya Oshima who returns for 2018. That #7 seat, along with the #50 B-Max Racing Team Honda, are still vacant.
A number of foreign drivers have been rumoured to take over that seat – and we may not hear word until March 12-13, when the series will hold its joint pre-season test at Suzuka Circuit.
Ralph Boschung of Switzerland, Felix Serrales of Puerto Rico, Maximillian Günther of Germany, and Oliver Rowland of England tested the car in December during the Manufacturer & Rookie Tests. Günther is now off the board after stepping up to FIA Formula 2, and Rowland just signed to a full-time LMP1 drive for Manor-Ginetta. There is also emerging talk that Pascal Wehrlein, ex-Manor and Sauber F1 driver, will take up the seat in concurrence with his DTM duties with Mercedes-Benz.
Completing the Toyota representation in Super Formula is Kamui Kobayashi and KCMG, who now have a new title sponsor in Pioneer Corporation and their Carrozeria brand of car audio equipment, and sensational sophomores Kenta Yamashita, and the other GT500 Drivers’ Champion Nick Cassidy, driving for Kondo Racing for a second season.