The 2019 Japanese Super Formula Championship is now at the halfway point of the season. Through three races, we’ve seen three different winners – but two-time and defending series champion, Naoki Yamamoto, stands tall atop the championship tables.
In the summer heat, the calendar turns to the historic Fuji Speedway, in the town of Oyama, located a short 100 kilometers west of the heart of Tokyo, and right at the foot of the awe-inspiring Mount Fuji. Second only to Suzuka in terms of the most Japanese Top Formula Championship races held, Fuji Speedway has been the home of countless memorable races throughout its history.
Who will be crowned champion in Sunday’s 55-lap race at Fuji-san?
The story of the 2019 season has been the form of reigning champion Yamamoto, in the form of his career upon arrival at DoCoMo Team Dandelion Racing.
He thrashed the competition with a dominant pole-to-win victory at Sportsland Sugo for the seventh win of his career. With the win and two second place finishes, he now has a commanding 11-point lead in the Drivers’ Championship – a full race in hand over the nearest rival in the standings.
If he were to win again at Fuji, it would mean so, so much for Honda as they venture into the track owned by their rivals at Toyota. Such is Toyota’s dominance that their fleet of cars have not lost a race at Fuji since June 28, 2009, when Loïc Duval won for Nakajima Racing.
Yamamoto came to Dandelion Racing to prove that he could become more than just a Suzuka specialist. And if he can continue his winning form at Fuji this Sunday, it would be a massive breakthrough for a driver who, in 10 previous races at Fuji, has only one podium finish – a 3rd place in 2013.
If Yamamoto’s quest to become a three-time champion has a pitfall, it could be here. And the young man in pursuit of his title is returning to the site of his breakthrough maiden victory.
Last year, Nick Cassidy took a dominant pole-to-win victory which launched a championship challenge for Kondo Racing. He began his tenure at Vantelin Team TOM’s with a victory at Suzuka Circuit, followed by an 8th at Autopolis and a 4th at Sugo.
Another performance like that could help the young Kiwi Cassidy claw back to within striking distance of his championship rival Yamamoto.
Cassidy is only a fortnight removed from battling his former teammate Kenta Yamashita for the GT500 victory in Super GT’s last race in Buriram, Thailand. Yamashita is third in the standings, scoring points in every race. And off the heels of his first premier class win in Super GT, Yamashita will feel that his first Super Formula victory is just around the corner.
Autopolis winner Yuhi Sekiguchi (Itochu Enex Team Impul), and Sugo second place finisher Kamui Kobayashi (KCMG) should also factor into the equation for Toyota – who, as established, have the “home track” advantage at Fuji. This will also be a good chance for the likes of Kazuki Nakajima and Hiroaki Ishiura to turn their seasons around after struggling just to make the top 8 at all in the first three races.
The biggest story gripping international followers of the Super Formula Championship revolves around the #15 Red Bull Team Mugen Honda.
The Red Bull Junior Team have made a sudden change, dropping British firebrand Dan Ticktum in favour of Patricio O’Ward, who will become the first Mexican driver to race in Super Formula in the modern era.
O’Ward arrives as the 2018 Indy Lights Champion, before that he was a dominant champion in IMSA’s pro-am Prototype Challenge class in 2017, and a decorated race winner at lower rungs of IndyCar’s developmental ladder. He made his Formula 2 debut two weeks ago in Austria, just weeks into his tenure as a Red Bull junior.
Now O’Ward jumps into a professional-level championship equivalent to the IndyCar Series where he planned to race full-time before his sudden career detour. He also jumps straight into a star-studded rookie class, led by fellow RBJT member Lucas Auer, who scored his first podium at Sugo, as well as Tadasuke Makino, ninth in the standings, and Sho Tsuboi, who is twelfth.
Sunday’s fourth round of the Super Formula Championship from historic Fuji Speedway goes green at 1:45 PM JST (local time), 5:45 AM BST for viewers looking for pre-British Grand Prix entertainment, 6:45 AM CEST, and 12:45 AM EDT. And you can catch all the action on Let’s Go Racing, with Sam Collins and Leigh O’Gorman on the call!