Sunday, July 14, 2024

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Aspects behind Super Formula's lack of international luster

The Super Formula round that took place last weekend on the Sugo track was the primary in almost 50 years by which no international team took part. All 20 drivers who lined up initially, in addition to Naoki Yamamoto, who couldn’t start because of an accident in the course of the warm-up, were of Japanese nationality.

Super Formula/Formula Nippon and its forerunners All-Japan Formula 3000 and All-Japan Formula 2 have had many ups and downs over the past fifty years, but there has all the time been an influx of “gaijin” – championship placing drivers within the country's premier singles event. So the incontrovertible fact that the Sugo race was run with an all-Japanese lineup was simply a travesty for promoter JRP.

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Only last 12 months, CEO Yoshihisa Ueno spoke of 10 foreign drivers in the longer term as a part of an expanded 30-car grid. With Ueno and his team having to start out from scratch after Theo Pourchaire moved to IndyCar, that goal now looks as if a pipe dream.

It is the COVID pandemic and subsequent travel restrictions in Japan which have triggered the present decline in international participation in Super Formula. The championship has gone from almost one-third of the sphere consisting of foreign drivers to only two everlasting competitors for the 2021-22 season.

The trend began to reverse last 12 months when Red Bull junior Liam Lawson, Raoul Hyman and Cem Bolukbasi joined incumbent Giuliano Alesi, but all 4 either left the championship of their very own accord or were unable to search out a spot on the grid for 2024, leaving newcomer Pourchaire because the only non-Japanese driver in the beginning of the season.

This wasn't all that bad considering the Frenchman was arriving because the reigning Formula 2 champion and had something to prove in Japan. Ultimately, nevertheless, Pourchaire's Super Formula campaign lasted just one weekend, as a surprise call-up to IndyCar from Arrow McLaren prompted him to part ways with Team Impul and move to North America.

Pourchaire only spent one weekend in Super Formula before deciding to take up the IndyCar stick

Pourchaire only spent one weekend in Super Formula before deciding to take up the IndyCar stick

Photo: Masahide Kamio

Even after his sudden blow from McLaren's Arrow last week, each Pourchaire and his Sauber supporter remain keen to search out a brand new home in IndyCar reasonably than return to Japan, showing that Super Formula isn’t as attractive a proposition as its American rival .

It should be admitted that Impul initially signed one other international driver – and a really high caliber one at that – to switch Pourchaire in the shape of Lexus factory ace, Ben Barnicoat at Autopolis. However, because of the Briton's firm commitment to the IMSA SportsCar Championship, he was all the time intended to be a one-off alternative for Pourchaire, reasonably than a full-time alternative.

Even now, Impul is yet to make a call on who will take the No. 19 seat within the SF-23 after Hibiki Taira joined the team in the same situation for one round at Sugo, however it is probably going that a homegrown driver might be called upon again. So why are there no foreign drivers in Super Formula for 3 rounds of the 2024 season?

The series went from hosting races that were almost so long as a full Grand Prix to 180-kilometre, non-refuelled sprints within the wake of the pandemic, with downforce also being reduced to enhance the spectacle

This is definitely not because of a scarcity of effort on the a part of stakeholders. JRP is working hard to extend the international appeal of the series and goals to extend the participation of drivers from abroad, especially from Asia. Both Super Formula and Suzuka Circuit are also concerned with hosting a race on the companion bill to the Japanese Grand Prix within the near future, which is able to definitely thrust the series into the international highlight.

Actively involved as an engine manufacturer, Honda also ran a scholarship program within the US that provided a $600,000 budget for the Super Formula campaign to the winner of Formula Regional Americas. However, Hyman was the one driver to just accept the offer because the program began almost 4 years ago, and Honda appears to have abandoned the stipend, partially because Ligier replaced the Tokyo-based brand as the only real engine supplier to the American series.

Taking these issues into consideration, it becomes clear that the true causes of Japan's international driver shortage go deeper. It could possibly be argued that Super Formula isn’t as strong an option for a younger driver hoping to make it to F1 because it was when the likes of Stoffel Vandoorne and Pierre Gasly joined the grid in 2016-17 and sparked a resurgence in Japan.

The series included races lasting almost so long as your entire Grand Prix, and after the pandemic, 180 km sprints without refueling. In addition, downforce was reduced to enhance the spectacle, which after all had a negative impact on lap times. For example, Sena Sakaguchi's pole position on the SF23 circuit in March's Super Formula round at Suzuka was 7.5 seconds slower than Red Bull F1 driver Max Verstappen's winning time in April's qualifying for the Japanese GP.

What's more, three of the highest five drivers in last 12 months's rankings aren’t any longer on the grid for 2024, with Toyota-backed Ritomo Miyata and Ryo Hirakawa joining Lawson on the exile list.

Gasly came through Super Formula on his way to F1, while Felix Roseqnvist used it as a stepping stone to IndyCar, but attracting international talent today is proving difficult for the promoter

Gasly got here through Super Formula on his option to F1, while Felix Roseqnvist used it as a stepping stone to IndyCar, but attracting international talent today is proving difficult for the promoter

Photo: Masahide Kamio

But even then, the SF23 stays the fastest automotive outside F1, while Super Formula as a championship remains to be one of the vital competitive on the planet. So there should be other aspects behind the show's inability to draw international drivers.

One factor that clearly plays an enormous role is the price of entry into the series. Some teams in Japan are increasingly counting on driver revenues to organize their Super Formula campaigns. Whereas previously only firms at the underside of the grid required drivers to have a budget, much of the grid now seeks paying drivers to assist support their funds. Budgets in Super Formula are still a fraction of those in F2, and even the highest teams at lower levels in Formula 3, however it remains to be an enormous challenge for drivers and not using a wealthy background.

It also marks a significant change within the Japanese motorsports landscape, as Super Formula and its forerunners previously offered aspiring drivers the possibility to grow to be skilled racing drivers and pocket big paychecks. That's to not say that teams on the back end of the grid don't provide drivers with high wages, either directly or through Honda and Toyota, however the series isn’t any longer as lucrative for foreign drivers because it was in its heyday.

It must also not be forgotten that many international drivers made Japan their home and spent their lives competing in Super Formula and Super GT under factory contracts. However, over time, most of them focused entirely on Super GT, leaving Super Formula with limited gaijin participation.

For example, this 12 months's Super GT grid features numerous foreign drivers in each the GT500 and GT300 classes, including the likes of Ronnie Quintarelli and Joao Paulo de Oliveira, who way back left their home countries and relocated permanently to Japan. However, de Oliveira last began recurrently in Super Formula in 2016, while Quintarelli's last season was in 2008, a 12 months before Loic Duval, Benoit Treluyer and Andre Lotterer rounded out the highest three within the standings.

There are many the explanation why the likes of Quintarelli, de Oliveira and others now not race in Japan's premier single-seater series. Performance is undoubtedly a very important factor, especially for drivers of their 30s and 40s, but manufacturer commitment also plays an enormous role.

Although Honda, Toyota and Nissan have full factory teams within the GT500 Super GT class, their involvement in Super Formula is way smaller as compared. Faced with rising budgets, it's harder for Honda, Toyota and particularly Nissan to search out a spot for all their factory drivers in Super Formula, especially as some teams lean toward paid drivers.

Super GT competitions, where the manufacturer's budget plays a greater role, still frequently feature international talent such as Bertrand Baguette

International talent, including Bertrand Baguette, remains to be common in Super GT, where manufacturer budgets are more vital

Photo: Masahide Kamio

Then there's the query of Super Formula's sheer popularity. While the series could also be well-known to those that follow Formula 1, and is definitely viewed with great respect by outsiders, the fact is that it isn’t as famous as its sister variant run by GTA. In fact, despite all of JRP's efforts, Super Formula remains to be combating the repercussions of the pandemic and has yet to attain its 2019 results. Many small tracks still struggle to draw greater than 10,000 fans through the gates on race days.

Super GT, with all the facility of its manufacturer, is on a complete other level. Not only are the attendance figures for the lower half of the race a lot better, however the flagship Golden Week event in Fuji drew 53,900 spectators on race day this 12 months.

Ultimately, nevertheless, the recognition of Super Formula and Super GT goes hand in hand. While it's vital that more rising stars take up the Dallara-built SF23 trade and use it as a springboard to land elsewhere, more must be done to make Super Formula (and Super GT) a long-term destination for foreign drivers. Only then will JRP have the opportunity to avoid a repeat of the situation that occurred after Pourchaire's sudden departure from the series.

Can the promoter increase the attractiveness of Super Formula in the eyes of international drivers?

Can the promoter increase the attractiveness of Super Formula within the eyes of international drivers?

Photo: Masahide Kamio

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