You read that correctly: six of the top eight qualifiers at Sugo last October are absent for a variety of reasons ranging from having left the series entirely (Sergio Sette Camara, Nick Cassidy), not having a visa to enter Japan (Sacha Fenestraz), being unable to quarantine for 14 days (Ryo Hirakawa, Kazuki Nakajima) to simply not having a drive (Ukyo Sasahara).
The highest-placed driver that will be in action, I hear you ask? That would be Mugen’s Tomoki Nojiri, who enjoys a comfortable championship lead with three races down and four to go – and now has the bonus of his nearest rival Hirakawa being sidelined following his participation in a Toyota FIA World Endurance Championship test at Portimao.
Championship standings after three races:
Hirakawa says he isn’t giving up on winning the title just yet – he highlights that his favourite track Motegi hosts two of the remaining three races post-Sugo – but just how realistic is a fightback from the Impul driver’s current position, even if he does the double at Motegi?
What makes Hirakawa’s task even more complicated is the dropped score system, which means only a drivers’ best five results out of seven count towards their championship score.
That might sound counterintuitive, but following his DNF last time out at Autopolis, Hirakawa has already used up his two ‘zeroes’ for the year. In effect, his results from the opening races of the season at Fuji Speedway (fourth) and Suzuka (second) are locked in, and every point he scores from his return to action at Motegi in August will count.
Nojiri on the other hand, with his two wins and a fifth place (albeit worth half-points because the Autopolis race was cut short), has the luxury of being able to have at least one non-score over the remaining four races without adversely affecting his position.
Because Hirakawa already has two dropped scores, we can calculate his theoretical maximum points haul for the year: 92. Nojiri currently has 48 points, but let’s assume for the purpose of this exercise that his three points scored at Autopolis will end up being dropped.
That would mean, to deny Hirakawa in this case, Nojiri needs to score 16 points (equivalent to a second place plus a point for qualifying third) on three occasions out of four.
If Hirakawa were to win all three remaining races without getting any points in qualifying, that requirement for Nojiri drops to 13 points per race, and if Hirakawa scores two wins and a second, then it falls to a very manageable 11 points, equivalent to third place.
Even if Hirakawa got the perfect score upon his return, a win at Sugo for Nojiri would leave him needing only a pair of third places from the remaining three races to put the prize beyond reach.
All in all, it doesn’t look too good for Hirakawa’s hopes of a first Super Formula title. But what of the other drivers that Nojiri will need to be wary of at Sugo?
Third in the championship and overdue a big result is Toshiki Oyu, whose scorecard currently reads 2nd-10th-7th in the opening three races. That puts him on 21 points, but it’s quite possible only the 17 points he scored at Fuji will end up counting towards his total.
Nakajima Racing man Oyu has the speed to start making inroads into Nojiri’s advantage, but question marks over his consistency remain – he didn’t do himself any favours at Autopolis, consigning himself to a back-of-the-grid start with a crash in qualifying, or indeed at Suzuka, where he squandered a strong grid slot with a wretched start.
Dandelion Racing’s Nirei Fukuzumi finds himself in a not-dissimilar position to Oyu in that he’s not scored nearly as many points (14) as his pace warrants, but that’s largely down to the fact that he lost a win at Suzuka that was rightfully his to a puncture.
Much like Oyu, Fukuzumi needs a win next weekend to keep his title hopes realistically alive, while hoping that Nojiri somehow has an off-weekend. Sugo wasn’t one of Fukuzumi’s best venues last year, but he’ll be hoping that a switch to Yamamoto’s #5 car and crew for this year allows him to capture some of his ex-teammate’s speed around Sugo.
Speaking of Yamamoto, perhaps he is the driver that Nojiri will be keeping the closest eye on. While the reigning champion’s first three races back at Nakajima Racing have been nothing to write home about, he did report some improvement in terms of his feeling in the cockpit at Autopolis and could have finished a fair way higher than ninth if he hadn’t been baulked by Nojiri in the Turn 1 chaos that took out Hirakawa.
Combine that with Yamamoto’s impressive Sugo record (two wins and three other podiums from his last eight visits) and a lack of pressure owing to his rank outsider status, perhaps we could see a turnaround in his fortunes.
Nojiri’s rivals will be comforting themselves with the knowledge that Yamamoto was able to recover a 35-point deficit to early points leader Hirakawa at the same stage of the season – which is more than Oyu and Fukuzumi need to overcome, and only slightly more than the 39-point disadvantage that Yamamoto himself currently faces.
But the comeback was only possible because Hirakawa scored a mere nine points in the final four races of 2020, for which he can blame some awful luck.
Barring similar freak events, it’s hard to imagine Nojiri coming away with such a meagre haul when you bear in mind his current red-hot form – such was his pace at Autopolis that he could have conceivably come away with the win had the race carried on.
As outlined above, Nojiri doesn’t need to score that many points over the remaining races to make a miracle comeback for any of his fellow Honda drivers all but impossible. And, if he makes it three wins out of four at Sugo, then it really will be all over bar the shouting.
Tomoki Nojiri,TEAM MUGEN
Photo by: Masahide Kamio