Sunday, July 14, 2024

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Aspects that caused Super Formula to lose its international shine

The Super Formula round that took place last weekend on the Sugo track was the primary in almost 50 years during which no international team took part. All 20 drivers who lined up in the beginning, in addition to Naoki Yamamoto, who couldn’t start as a consequence 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 at all times been an influx of “gaijin” – championship placing drivers within the country's premier singles event. So the proven 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 yr, CEO Yoshihisa Ueno spoke of 10 foreign drivers in the long run as a part of an expanded 30-car grid. With Ueno and his team having to begin from scratch after Theo Pourchaire moved to IndyCar, that goal now looks like a pipe dream.

It is the COVID pandemic and subsequent travel restrictions in Japan which have caused the present decline in international participation in Super Formula. For the 2021-2022 season, the championship featured almost a 3rd of the sector, with players from overseas all the way down to just two full-time players.

This trend began to reverse last yr when current driver Giuliano Alesi was joined by Red Bull juniors Liam Lawson, Raoul Hyman and Cem Bolukbasi, but all 4 either left the championship of their very own accord or were unable to seek out a spot on the grid for the 2024 season. consequently, rookie Pourchaire was the one 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, nonetheless, 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 spent just one weekend in Super Formula before deciding to get his sticks in IndyCar

Pourchaire spent only one weekend in Super Formula before deciding to begin in IndyCar

Photo: Masahide Kamio

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

In Impul’s favour, he initially signed one other international driver – and a really high-class one at that – to switch Pourchaire in Lexus works ace Ben Barnicoat at Autopolis, but with the Briton having ongoing commitments within the IMSA SportsCar Championship, he was at all times intended to be a one-off alternative for Pourchaire slightly than a everlasting alternative.

Even now, Impul is yet to make your mind up who will take the seat within the #19 SF-23 automotive after Hibiki Taira joined the team on an analogous one-round basis at Sugo, nevertheless it is probably going that a homegrown driver might be called upon again. So why does Super Formula don’t have any foreign drivers on the grid after three rounds of the 2024 season?

The series went from hosting races that were almost so long as a full Grand Prix to 180-kilometer, no-fuel sprints within the wake of the pandemic. Additionally, downforce has been lowered to enhance performance

This is actually not as a consequence of an absence 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 also remain concerned with hosting a race under the Japanese Grand Prix Support Act within the near future, which is able to actually put the series within the international highlight.

Honda, actively involved as an engine manufacturer, also ran a scholarship program within the U.S. that provided a $600,000 budget for a Super Formula campaign for the winner of the Formula Regional Americas. However, Hyman was the one driver to take up the offer for the reason that program began almost 4 years ago, and it seems that Honda has dropped the scholarship, partly since the Tokyo brand was replaced by Ligier as the only engine supplier to the U.S. series.

Given these issues, it becomes clear that the true reasons for Japan’s international driver shortage run deeper. It may very well be argued that Super Formula isn’t as strong a proposition 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 renaissance in Japan.

The series featured races lasting almost so long as a Grand Prix, and post-pandemic 180km sprints without refuelling, and reduced downforce to enhance the spectacle, which in fact 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 7.5s slower than the time with which Red Bull F1 driver Max Verstappen won qualifying for the Japanese GP in April.

Furthermore, three of the highest five drivers in the general standings from last yr is not going to be on the grid in 2024. Toyota-backed Ritomo Miyata and Ryo Hirakawa are among the many exiles.

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 technique to F1, and Felix Rosenvist used it as a springboard to IndyCar, but attracting international talent is proving difficult for the promoter today

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 competitive on the earth. So there should be other aspects behind the show's inability to draw international drivers.

One factor that’s clearly playing a giant role is the price of entry into the series. Some teams in Japan are increasingly counting on driver income to run a Super Formula campaign. Whereas previously only teams on the lower end of the grid required drivers to contribute a budget, now a bigger a part of the grid is trying to drivers paying to maintain their funds afloat. Super Formula budgets are still a fraction of those in F2, and even the highest teams on the lower end of Formula 3, nevertheless it remains to be a giant commitment for drivers with out a wealthy background.

It also marks a serious change within the Japanese motorsports landscape, as Super Formula and its forerunners previously offered aspiring drivers the possibility to change into 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 is not any longer as lucrative for foreign drivers because it was in its heyday.

It also needs to be remembered that many international drivers once lived in Japan and spent their entire careers competing in Super Formula and Super GT under factory contracts. However, over time, most of them focused solely on Super GT, leaving Super Formula with limited gaijin involvement.

This yr’s Super GT field, for instance, includes quite a lot of foreign drivers within the GT500 and GT300 classes, including Ronnie Quintarelli and Joao Paulo de Oliveira, who’ve long since left their home countries for everlasting residence in Japan. But de Oliveira last competed commonly in Super Formula in 2016, while Quintarelli’s last season was in 2008, a yr before Loic Duval, Benoit Treluyer and Andre Lotterer took the highest three places within the standings.

There are many the explanation why the likes of Quintarelli, de Oliveira and others not race in Japan’s premier single-seater series. Results are undoubtedly an element, especially for drivers of their 30s and 40s, but manufacturer involvement also plays a giant part.

While Honda, Toyota and Nissan have full factory teams within the GT500 Super GT class, their involvement in Super Formula is far smaller by comparison. With budgets growing, it’s becoming harder for Honda, Toyota and particularly Nissan to seek out space for all their factory drivers in Super Formula, especially as some teams are turning to paid drivers.

International talent, including Bertrand Baguette, is still common in Super GT, where manufacturer budgets are more important

In Super GT competitions, where the manufacturer's budget plays an even bigger role, international talents resembling Bertrand Baguette still appear often

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 actually viewed with great respect by outsiders, the truth is that it just isn’t as famous as its sister variant run by GTA. In fact, despite all of JRP's efforts, Super Formula remains to be scuffling with 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 its manufacturers, is on one other level. Not only are the attendance figures significantly better on the lower level, but its flagship event Fuji Golden Week drew 53,900 spectators on race day this yr.

Ultimately, though, the recognition of Super Formula and Super GT go hand in hand. While it’s necessary that more rising stars take up the Dallara-built SF23 trade and use it as a springboard to land some place else, 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 abrupt departure from the series.

Can the promoter increase the attractiveness of Super Formula for drivers from around the world?

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

Photo: Masahide Kamio

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