In the woodlands of Miyagi Prefecture, Japan, 25 kilometers south of the city of Sendai, Sportsland Sugo hosts the third round of the 2019 Japanese Super Formula Championship!
For the first time since 1996, Sportsland Sugo’s round of the Japanese Top Formula series will be held during the rainy summer season. And initial forecasts do predict rain on and off throughout the weekend.
But no matter the weather, this Sunday’s 68-lap race promises action and compelling drama the whole way through!
Sportsland Sugo first played host to Japanese Top Formula racing in 1987 after a massive renovation created its current 3.709 kilometer layout, a flowing, undulating circuit with narrow margins and little to no room for driver errors.
There have been landmark moments in that time, such as the first and only start for Michael Schumacher in 1991. Unbelievable efforts such as Takao Wada’s victory in 1989, winning with a broken suspension by holding off Akihiko Nakaya on the last lap!
And in 2013, perhaps the greatest battle in Super Formula history: Past Super Formula and Le Mans champions, Loïc Duval and André Lotterer, in a five-lap shootout for the victory, with the two drivers battling wheel-to-wheel for the lead, and Duval holding on to win by 0.041 seconds over the line – in the closest finish in series history!
This weekend, Super Formula will try a new qualifying format, splitting the 20-car field into two groups of 10 for two 10-minute qualifying sessions, with the fastest 6 cars in each group advancing to Q2, then the fastest 8 in Q2 advancing on to Q3 as normal – almost identical to the road and street course qualifying format in the IndyCar Series.
It’s because of the narrow margins at Sportsland Sugo that a Safety Car intervention is very, very likely – and depending on the timing, a driver can use that period to their advantage strategically. Just as Naoki Yamamoto did in 2018, when he came from 6th to the net lead, and a crucial victory in his championship season as he finished ahead of his eventual challenger, Nick Cassidy.
After back-to-back second-place finishes, defending Sugo race winner Yamamoto now holds a five-point lead in the championship standings over Cassidy, the Kiwi who won the season-opener at Suzuka, and has an affinity for Sugo going back to his time in Formula 3.
But it’s hard to overlook the looming threat of the most recent winner in Super Formula. Yuhi Sekiguchi went from 16th on the grid at Autopolis to a commanding victory, aided by a crucial early stop before a Safety Car intervention, and sealed as Sekiguchi lapped several seconds per lap quicker than the field when he was truly dialed in.
Sekiguchi won back-to-back races at Sugo in 2016 and in 2017 – and the 2016 victory still lives on as one of the greatest individual drives in series history – when he stayed out during the safety car intervention as the last car yet to pit, drove away from the field by as many as two seconds per lap, then retained the lead after his stop and clinched the win.
Between these three drivers, there are three very formidable contenders for victory. But there are quite a few other drivers in the field who’ve been in the headlines.
With the 24 Hours of Le Mans in the rear-view mirror, this race will be a heroes’ welcome to TOM’s ace Kazuki Nakajima.
Not only did he become the first Japanese driver to win the Grand Prix d’Endurance twice, alongside Toyota co-drivers Sébastien Buemi and Fernando Alonso, but with his victory, he became the first Japanese driver to win an FIA World Championship of Automobile Racing.
A milestone that Nakajima hopes to build upon as he seeks to win his first race in Super Formula since April 2017.
Conversely, Kamui Kobayashi still feels the hurt of having lost that same Le Mans 24 Hours with he and teammates Mike Conway and Jose Maria Lopez having dominated until a final hour that saw their race come unraveled.
Kobayashi, burned by back-to-back runner-up finishes at Le Mans, is still hungry for that elusive first Super Formula victory in his fifth season – and his third with KCMG. He thought he had the winning strategy at Suzuka before it was compromised via a Safety Car intervention.
But both Nakajima and Kobayashi are just looking to register their first points of the season if at all possible – they’re among seven drivers who are scoreless in their two rounds. Two-time champion Hiroaki Ishiura is another who’s yet to score through two races.
In the intense battle for rookie of the year honours, the advantage is in the court of TCS Nakajima Racing’s all-rookie duo of Álex Palou and Tadasuke Makino.
And it’s Makino who sits highest amongst the rookie drivers in the standings after his stunning pole position at Suzuka and a fourth-place finish in Autopolis. Palou has more than enough speed to match, though, as does Sho Tsuboi, and Dan Ticktum, the Red Bull junior who made his series debut here 13 months ago.
Weather permitting, the third round of the 2019 Super Formula Championship will be live on the Let’s Go Racing YouTube channel, with the green flag on Sunday, 2:20 PM JST / 6:20 AM BST / 7:20 AM CEST / 1:20 AM EDT.