The second round of the 2019 Japanese Super Formula Championship takes us to Japan’s southern island of Kyushu, in the remote town of Oita located 160 kilometers east of the city of Fukuoka, and the Autopolis International Racing Course – once the prospective home of the Formula 1 Japanese Grand Prix, and now one of the most underappreciated modern circuits in all of motor racing.
First opened in 1990, but not a part of the Super Formula calendar until 2006, Autopolis brings a unique challenge as a high-altitude, undulating circuit with an abrasive surface and several high-speed, medium-speed, and low-speed corners. All of which will make this Sunday’s 54-lap race one to watch!
Last time out at Suzuka in the 2 & 4 Race meeting, TCS Nakajima Racing’s rookie duo of Tadasuke Makino and Álex Palou stunned the paddock by locking out the front row. But as their races and those of many others unraveled, Nick Cassidy, from 12th on the grid, undercut the rest of the field, climbed to the front during several safety car interventions, and drove on to his first win in his first race with Vantelin Team TOM’s.
Pit strategy will be important as both one-stop and two-stop strategies are viable – will drivers and teams opt to conserve fuel and tyres on a one-stopper, or push hard on a two-stop strategy? It’s a great unknown for the teams, who have no data for the new Dallara SF19 chassis at this circuit – but lap records are anticipated for qualifying on Saturday.
Last year, Ryo Hirakawa qualified fastest, with a three-place grid penalty set to promote Tomoki Nojiri to pole position for Sunday’s race. But a combination of rain and heavy fog caused the Autopolis race to be cancelled for the second time in three years – the other time coming in 2016 as a result of the tragic Kumamoto Earthquakes of April 15-16. Pierre Gasly was the most recent winner at this track in 2017, while André Lotterer has the most victories of any driver: 3 (2009, 2013, 2014).
Only two active drivers have won here before: Kazuki Nakajima in 2011 and 2015, and the returning Koudai Tsukakoshi, whose only win in 2012 came at Autopolis.
Tsukakoshi is back at Real Racing to replace Tristan Charpentier for the remainder of the 2019 season in their silver #17 car. The 32-year-old Japanese driver has 76 starts over 10 seasons to his name, with 10 podium finishes and his lone victory from seven years ago. He was runner-up to Nakajima in the 2012 championship, and there’s no doubt that Real Racing could desperately use his experience to turn things around.
Autopolis’ inclusion in Gran Turismo Sport has given the long-forgotten diamond in the rough of Japanese circuits a new appreciation in the eyes of many, and, with the initial weather forecasts looking much better than they did this time last year, we’re surely in for a great race – one that could provide more overtaking than one might think, thanks in large part to the revised Overtaking System (OTS) onboard the cars.
Can Cassidy make it back-to-back victories to open the season? Can two-time and defending series champion Naoki Yamamoto fight back with his first victory with Dandelion Racing? Or will another driver, including one of the eight rookies in the field, step to the front of the field themselves?
Sam Collins and Leigh O’Gorman will have the call on Let’s Go Racing’s international broadcast, live and free around the world, with coverage starting just before the green flag on Sunday at 14:00 JST / 6:00 BST / 7:00 CEST / 1:00 AM EDT.