On Monday and Tuesday, the Japanese Super Formula Championship ran two days of pre-season testing at Suzuka Circuit, in preparation for the 2018 season which starts at the same venue on April 21-22.
Kamui Kobayashi, driving for carrozeria Team KCMG/Toyota, recorded the fastest lap of the two-day test before departing for France to test in the FIA World Endurance Championship for Toyota Gazoo Racing. Rookie Nobuharu Matsushita led the second day of testing for DoCoMo Team Dandelion Racing/Honda.
During the test, one of the last two seats on the grid were filled, as B-Max Racing Team selected Katsumasa Chiyo to drive the #50 car, under the guidance of new team principal, and four-time Japanese Top Formula champion, Satoshi Motoyama.
Kobayashi, coming off a resurgent Super Formula campaign in 2017 with KCMG, laid down the benchmark on the Monday morning session, with a best lap of 1:36.122 in the Toyota-powered Dallara SF14 – completing its final season of competition this year.
The Monday afternoon session was where most of the field made up their time, and Kobayashi’s fellow Toyota WEC driver, Kazuki Nakajima (Vantelin Team TOM’s), came very close to supplanting his Toyota stablemate – but the two-time Super Formula champion fell just 0.019 seconds short, in leading the afternoon session with a 1:36.141.
2016 champion Yuji Kunimoto was third-fastest with a 1:36.178, followed by his teammate, the two-time and defending champion Hiroaki Ishiura, in fourth in the other P.MU/Cerumo-INGING Toyota. Matsushita ended Monday as the fastest of the Hondas, recording the fifth-fastest time on Monday.
But shortly after the test, Nakajima and Kobayashi were whisked away to France for the WEC tests. KCMG did not run on Tuesday, while João Paulo de Oliveira, fresh off his victory at the season-opening Stock Car Brazil round in Interlagos with Daniel Serra, replaced Nakajima in the #36 TOM’s Toyota.
Track conditions weren’t as conducive for fast laps on Tuesday, which shook up the running order at the top. Koudai Tsukakoshi (Real Racing) led the Tuesday morning session with a 1:37.532, but could not improve in the afternoon.
In the final half-hour of the test, Matsushita, the 2014 All-Japan Formula 3 Champion, went to the top of the time sheets for Tuesday with a 1:37.002 – more than half a second slower than his time from Monday, but still good enough to lead the second day of testing by 0.077 seconds over reigning GT500 Drivers’ Champion Ryo Hirakawa (Itochu Enex Team Impul).
On Tuesday morning, B-Max Racing Team officially confirmed Katsumasa Chiyo as the driver of their #50 B-Max Honda, having won an informal duel for the seat over Jann Mardenborough. The news also came with the announcement that Satoshi Motoyama would take over as the team principal.
While the 31-year-old Chiyo is best known for his exploits at the wheel of a sports car – a prior winner of the Bathurst 12 Hour, GT300 class winner of the Suzuka 1000km, and Blancpain GT Endurance Cup champion – he brings with him over five seasons’ worth of experience in Formula 3. In 2011, he won the F3 National Class title for NDDP Racing, and in 2016, his last year in F3, he won a race and finished 6th in the championship in an injury-shortened season.
“I believe that Chiyo is the driver with whom we can make progress well into the future,” said Motoyama on Tuesday. They’ll be co-drivers in Super GT, driving for NDDP Racing with B-Max in the GT500 class – a similar relationship to that between Yuji Tachikawa and Hiroaki Ishiura at P.MU/Cerumo.
Only one vacant seat remains: The #7 UOMO Sunoco Team LeMans Toyota, previously occupied by Felix Rosenqvist. The car was split in testing between 2015 Formula V8 3.5 Series champion Oliver Rowland, and 2017 series champion Pietro Fittipaldi.
Rowland and Fittipaldi are believed to be close to an arrangement to split driving duties throughout the 2018 season. Both young men will be very busy in 2018: Rowland will race in the FIA World Endurance Championship full time with Manor Racing in addition to fulfilling duties as a Williams Racing development driver in Formula 1, while Fittipaldi, grandson of two-time Formula 1 World Champion Emerson, will drive 7 races in the IndyCar Series and two races in the WEC for DragonSpeed Racing.
Photos courtesy of Japan Race Promotion (JRP) and Toyota