Japan’s Super Formula is becoming a breeding ground for the next generation of Grand Prix stars – but making the grade will never be easy
Cast your mind back to the early 1990s. McLaren and Williams were in their pomp, Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost were locked in their bitter battle for supremacy and a domestic Japanese racing series was busy prepping the next generation of Formula 1 drivers.
It might seem strange today, but 30 years ago Japan’s premier single-seater championship had an enviable reputation as a key feeder series for F1. In the space of a few short years it acted as a springboard for Ralf Schumacher, Eddie Irvine, Heinz-Harald Frentzen and Pedro de la Rosa. Even Schumacher (Michael) raced in the series, logging a podium from one weekend of racing at Sugo just a month before his famous F1 debut at Spa in 1991.
Known back then as the All-Japan F3000 Championship, and later Formula Nippon, the series has evolved into Super Formula but there is growing evidence that it is about to rediscover its knack for producing the stars of tomorrow. Take Stoffel Vandoorne. The Belgian became a McLaren junior driver in 2013 and competed in GP2, winning the 2015 title, but last year was sent by the team to Japan to compete in Super Formula to hone his skills in advance of his eventual call-up to the senior team.
And if he thought that after dominating the GP2 Series the move would be a breeze, he was in for a shock: such is the level of competition that Vandoorne could manage only two wins from his nine starts. Not really a surprise when you consider that the grid had four ex-F1 drivers, Le Mans winners, Japanese Super GT champions and the cream of national racing talent.
Following McLaren’s ‘gap year’ approach for Vandoorne, Red Bull has sent its latest young hope, 2016 GP2 champion Pierre Gasly, to Japan this year to stay race-sharp and wait for a possible chance with Toro Rosso. He will join Formula E racer (and 2015 FIA F3 champ) Felix Rosenqvist and front-running F3 graduate Nick Cassidy. Add to the rookie mix the latest local hot property, reigning Japanese F3 champion Kenta Yamashita, and GT racing star Jann Mardenbourgh and you have one of the most competitive single-seater arenas on the planet.
André Lotterer, who finished second in 2016, says it is one of the most exciting series he has contested, with a genuine mix of rookies and old hands making it the ideal training ground for those wanting to move on up the ladder.
“I believe the level is very high; it’s all pro drivers,” says the German. “And you don’t find this in junior categories in Europe. It’s a fantastic school for drivers. I evolved a lot and sharpened my skills over the years.”
The new season gets underway on April 23 at Suzuka, and despite the recent rebranding of GP2 as Formula 2 by the FIA in the hope of making the ladder to F1 more logical, many influential eyes will be trained on Super Formula in a search for the stars of tomorrow.
So what does Super Formula have that other series don’t? What challenges will 2017’s rookie racers have to overcome in their bid to catch the eyes of an F1 team? And what can European series learn from its success?
For a start, it is genuinely quick. In early season testing at Suzuka Lotterer clocked a 1min 35.1sec in the latest generation of car – exactly the same as Sebastian Vettel’s fastest F1 race lap five months earlier. Admittedly Nico Rosberg’s GP pole time was a 1min 30.647sec and slowest qualifier Pascal Wehrlein posted a 1min 33.561sec, but even so it’s clear Super Formula is not that far off – further proof that F1 needed its 2017 rules overhaul to establish clear air between it and its feeder series. But the fact remains that this season Super Formula drivers will be lapping pretty much as quickly as F1 drivers were during last year’s Japanese GP.
Vandoorne is clear about where he saw the difference in speed. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, he points to the Yokohama tyres used in Japan versus the 2016-spec F1 Pirellis. “The Super Formula car has a very good aerodynamic platform,” he says, “and also very good tyres – this makes it quick through the corners, especially at Suzuka, which is a high-speed track where we can see the car on the limit.”
Indeed, Super Formula in 2016 generally had faster cornering speeds than F1 and drivers experienced higher g loadings. The F1 cars gained on the straights through KERS deployment, less drag and the qualifying benefits of DRS. As well as being quick Super Formula is properly exciting, too, and the series has always prided itself on maintaining a good mix of local hot-shoes and foreign raiders in the top seats, to keep spectators interested.
Veteran engineer Ricardo Divila, who has worked in Japan for more than 20 years, says the single-make aspect of the series (everybody uses the same Dallara chassis and Yokohama tyres, though there is a choice between Toyota and Honda engines originally developed for GT racing) helps increase the competitiveness as well as differentiate top drivers. “Qualifying gaps can be in the tenths across the top 10,” he says. “With the high level of drivers and teams the field is always very close, especially after a season or two of new regulations. It really becomes a driver-focused formula at that point, but one in which a driver has to engineer the car well and be able to work closely with the team to extract the final tenths.”
There are less obvious reasons behind the series’ success, too. Firstly, teams and drivers can dovetail programmes with Super GT. Super GT comprises eight rounds, Super Formula seven, and date clashes are avoided. This allows teams to share personnel, overheads and kit across the two programmes. Drivers can compete in both series, so foreign visitors can avoid commuting to Europe while gathering experience of the Japanese circuits and motor sport culture more quickly. The result is that in 2017 nearly half the Super Formula drivers will also be racing in Super GT and the majority of the teams have parallel programmes in both series.
But potentially the biggest impact and benefit is that Super Formula and Super GT currently share the same engine regs. Development mileage can be spread and shared across both series, while engine development costs can be amortised across two programmes. The 2.0-litre turbo four-cylinders produce about 540bhp in Super Formula trim and require only minimal changes for use in Super GT.