Motegi provided a textbook Super Formula race, with the fifth different race-winner crowned in what is fast becoming an unpredictable 2019 championship season.
With the championship battle now well into its second half, the racing is really ramping up as drivers are striving for valuable points to secure themselves a shot at the title.
Much like the Super GT race earlier this month, Sunday’s Super Formula race at Twin Ring Motegi was a blistering race, with a public health safety warning in the area due to heat as track temperatures skyrocketed to 49°C.
Álex Palou (TCS Nakajima Racing Honda) started from pole position for the second time in as many events after breaking the Twin Ring Motegi lap record in qualifying with a 1:32.442; Ryo Hirakawa (Team Impul Toyota) and Nirei Fukuzumi (Dandelion Racing Honda) completed the top-three.
Conversely, it was a poor qualifying session for championship frontrunner Nick Cassidy (TOM’S Toyota) who qualified 12th-fastest after struggling on the soft tyres. Championship leader Naoki Yamamoto fared little better, qualifying ninth-fastest, and his weekend went from bad to worse when he failed to move off of the grid on the formation lap, forcing him to start from the pit lane and losing what little advantage he had over Cassidy.
The hot temperatures claimed two more victims, with Super Formula rookie Patricio O’ Ward (Team Mugen Honda) and Harrison Newey (B-MAX / Motopark Honda) causing a race restart and a one-lap reduction in the race’s scheduled 52-lap distance.
Palou opened his race on the soft compound tyre, which was of concern due to the heat, however the Spanish rookie made a perfect getaway and pulled away from Hirakawa and the rest of the field.
The end of the first lap saw Kazuya Oshima (Team LeMans Toyota) pit to complete the mandatory tire change. Having been demoted to the tail of the field, O’Ward and Newey also opted for early pit stops as they had little to lose with an aggressive strategy.
Cassidy slipped to 15th among all the first lap activity, however this didn’t compare to the troubles Yamamoto was having, having only climbed to 17th.
Cassidy opted for an aggressive strategy and pulled into the pits on Lap 5 to switch onto the soft tyres for a long run to the finish. This placed him last in the running, behind the trio who had already pitted, however this put him in clear air to set some quick lap times.
Newey’s car caused him further headaches as he needed to pit again for more fuel. This is the latest in a series of reliability and refueling issues, including earlier in the season where his car caught fire during a pit stop.
By Lap 10, Hirakawa had caught up to Palou and ran right on the Spaniard’s tail, half a second behind.
On a fresh set of tyres, Cassidy began another one of his signature charges towards the front of the field, tearing through the backmarkers and making his way up to 14th by Lap 12. Meanwhile Yamamoto was making little progress and ran in thirteenth, just one spot ahead of Cassidy.
The majority of drivers completed their mandatory pit stops between Laps 15 and 25, with several teams switching to medium tyres for one lap before switching back to the softer rubber to finish up the second half of the race.
On Lap 23, Hirakawa finally got by Palou for the lead, diving around the outside of the penultimate corner. Palou had been holding off Hirakawa for several laps by this point, putting stress on his fading tyres.
By Lap 25 Cassidy had pushed his way up to ninth place and on the fringes of the points, whilst Yamamoto continued to languish in 14th.
Fourth-placed Kamui Kobayashi (Team KCMG Toyota) and third place Fukuzumi were closing in on the steadily fading Palou, with the gap covering the trio sitting at 1.4 seconds.
Cassidy continued his charge, moving up to sixth place by Lap 30.
The top five drivers continued to race past Lap 30 despite not having pitted to change their tyres. Hirakawa, Palou, Fukuzumi, Kobayashi and Lucas Auer (B-MAX / Motopark Honda) all playing chicken to see who would pit first.
However, this played right into Cassidy’s hand, as he continued to close the gap between himself and the drivers who were yet to complete a pit stop.
After passing Fukuzumi, Kobayashi ran up the backside of Palou, trying to make a move for second place on Lap 35. The former F1 driver tried to pass Palou for second place, however failed to pull it off following a huge lock-up.
The battle for second was only further helping Cassidy, with the gap continuing to close.
Race leader Hirakawa pitted on Lap 38 and slipped into fifth behind Auer. Lap 39 saw all the other front runners with the exception of Kobayashi pull into the pit lane, switching to the mediums for the remainder of the race.
Not even a lap in, Cassidy had already began to gain on the front runners, overtaking Fukuzumi after he locked up whilst coming under the bridge near the penultimate corner.
By Lap 42 Cassidy was running right behind Palou, with 2 seconds separating the pair.
Kobayashi completed his pit stop on Lap 42, slotting back into second place, giving Hirakawa the lead that he would hold to the chequered flag. It would be Hirakawa’s first Super Formula career win and his first points’ finish of the season, highlighting just how unpredictable the championship had become with the new spec chassis introduced at the beginning of the year.
Cassidy had closed the gap to Palou to 0.5 seconds by Lap 44, and on the next tour he executed a brilliant two-corner overtake, passing Palou on the back straight and taking third place.
With five laps to go, Yamamoto needed to overtake another driver to get into the points and hold onto a chance of keeping his lead in the championship, however found himself wedged between Tomoki Nojiri (Team Mugen Honda) and Yuji Kunimoto (Kondō Racing Toyota).
With his fine third place finish, Cassidy (28 points) takes the lead in the championship by one point over Yamamoto (27), who has failed to score for two races in a row. With a maximum of 22 points to earn over the remainder of the season, it’s still an open fight with Palou (20 points) and Kobayashi (19) still very much in contention.
In an interesting note, the second half of this season has really turned into a game of who will Helmut Marko sign into a Toro Rosso F1 seat. Marko spent his summer break in Japan, observing the several Red Bull and Honda-backed drivers in this weekend’s race.
An obvious pick would be Cassidy, who has consistently demonstrated his ability to make incredible races out of mediocre qualifying results. Another pick is fellow Red Bull driver Yamamoto, who is rumoured to be driving for Torro Rosso in the Japanese Grand Prix later this year – his lacklustre race will not have helped his prospects, however.
The penultimate round of the 2019 Super Formula Championship occurs next month at Okayama.
|2019 Super Formula Championship Twin Ring Motegi – Final Classification (51 laps)|
|Driver||Team / Entry||Laps||Result||Pts|
|1.||Ryo Hirakawa||Itochu Enex Team Impul||51||1:22:51.411||10|
|2.||Kamui Kobayashi||Carrozzeria Team KCMG||51||+ 2.972||8|
|3.||Nick Cassidy||Vantelin Team TOM’S||51||+ 9.771||6|
|4.||Álex Palou||TCS Nakajima Racing||51||+ 16.314||6|
|5.||Nirei Fukuzumi||DoCoMo Team Dandelion Racing||51||+ 18.668||4|
|6.||Hiroaki Ishiura||JMS P.mu/cerumo・INGING||51||+ 28.439||3|
|7.||Lucas Auer||B-MAX with Motopark||51||+ 43.123||2|
|8.||Tomoki Nojiri||Team Mugen||51||+ 43.700||1|
|9.||Naoki Yamamoto||DoCoMo Team Dandelion Racing||51||+ 43.961|
|10.||Yuji Kunimoto||Kondō Racing||51||+ 44.607|
|11.||Kazuya Oshima||UOMO Sunoco Team LeMans||51||+ 45.319|
|12.||Artem Markelov||UOMO Sunoco Team LeMans||51||+ 46.006|
|13.||Kenta Yamashita||Kondō Racing||51||+ 46.645|
|14.||Patricio O’Ward||Team Mugen||51||+ 48.887|
|15.||Yuhi Sekiguchi||Itochu Enex Team Impul||51||+ 49.840|
|16.||Kazuki Nakajima||Vantelin Team TOM’S||51||+ 1:00.738|
|17.||Sho Tsuboi||JMS P.mu/cerumo・INGING||51||+ 1:10.301|
|18.||Koudai Tsukakoshi||Real Racing||51||+ 1:12.814|
|19.||Harrison Newey||B-MAX with Motopark||51||+ 1:27.739|
|Not Classified||Team / Entry||Laps||Reason|
|DNF.||Tadasuke Makino||TCS Nakajima Racing||5||Accident|
Post Race Penalties:
- To be advised
- Championship points are awarded on the results of the race to the top-eight finishers on a 10-8-6-5-4-3-2-1 sliding scale.
- Álex Palou earned 1 bonus championship point for securing pole position.
Images via Super Formula
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