The 2019 Super Formula Championship will go down to the wire at the Suzuka finale as a five-way title fight after Sunday’s penultimate round at Okayama delivered the season’s sixth different winner in as many races.
Kondō Racing’s Kenta Yamashita rocketed into championship contention with victory at the end of the 66-lap race, while season-long championship frontrunners Naoki Yamamoto and Nick Cassidy both had indifferent weekends.
The weekend seemed set to be a nightmare for Yamamoto, who qualified in 17th place. His fellow rival Cassidy – who came into the weekend leading the Drivers’ Championship standings by 1 point – also struggled in qualifying. The New Zealander started the race in tenth place frustrated with his teammate Kazuki Nakajima who rear-ended him during qualifying.
Ryo Hirakawa (Team Impul) started on pole, his second in Super Formula, Kondō Racing teammates Kenta Yamashita and Yuji Kunimoto started from second and third respectively to give Toyota a 1-2-3 result in qualifying.
As the race began, several drivers gained and lost positions. Cassidy moved up to sixth place, while Yamashita dropped one spot to third after starting on the dirty side of the track. Nirei Fukuzumi (Dandelion Racing) moved into second place from fifth on the grid. The biggest winner in the first lap was Lucas Auer, who gained eight positions to take seventh. Yamamoto was similarly a fast starter, moving into tenth place.
On lap 4, Hiroaki Ishiura made a risky move around the outside of Yamashita to take third place. This allowed Cassidy to capitalise on a struggling Yamashita, moving up into fourth place at his expense. Auer continued to succeed, passing Yamashita too and moving into fifth behind Cassidy.
On Lap 8, an engine failure on Fukuzumi’s car caused him to crash off the side of the circuit, ending what had been a brilliant race until that point. A Safety Car was called out whilst the Docomo Team Dandelion car was recovered.
As the Safety Car rolled into Lap 10, most of the teams running the medium tyres pulled into the pits to change over to the soft compound as per the new rule introduced for this race.
While the top-six drivers curiously opted not to pit and get rid of their soft tyres, Yamamoto’s Dandelion Racing team seemed to have figured out how to get around the new rule. Under the extremely slow Safety Car he managed to pull into the pits, switch to the mediums, complete a lap, then pit again and switch back to the quicker soft rubber.
Yamamoto’s sneaky strategy was copied by all the drivers behind him.
When racing resumed on Lap 14, the race was set to heat up as drivers at the front of the field prayed for a later Safety Car in order to complete their stops and minimise the loss of time.
Lap 33 saw a puncture on the then second-placed Ishiura’s front right tyre. That saw him lose position to Cassidy while he hobbled back to the pits, switching to the medium compound tyres. Emerging in last place, his race was effectively over and his team opted to retire his car.
The efforts of the remaining frontrunners yet to pit to create enough of a gap over those who had made their tyre change proved to be critical for the championship battle with Cassidy and Yamamoto on divergent strategies.
At this point, Yamamoto held an effective sixth place, which would have been his best finish in the last three rounds.
On Lap 52, Kamui Kobayashi was the first of the frontrunners to make his mandatory pit stop. The former F1 driver emerged in P12, highlighting the risk of the yet-to-stop drivers’ strategies looking likely to backfire.
Realising this, Cassidy had one final push and began to deploy the remaining allowance of his overtaking boost to try and close up to Hirakawa. On Lap 57, he took the lead and with a clear track began to put pedal to the metal with a series of fastest laps.
On Lap 60, Cassidy finally peeled into the pits. Despite a slow right-rear tyre change, his flying laps proved good enough for him to rejoin in an effective third place ahead of a hard-charging Kobayashi and crucially in front of title rival Yamamoto.
Defending too hard against Kobayashi, Cassidy was tapped up the rear by the Team KCMG driver and clipped the dirt on the inside of the hairpin, looping into a spin that cost him several positions and saw him finish out of the points.
Out front, Yamashita had an untroubled run to victory ahead of Nakajima. Super Formula rookie Harrison Newey completed the podium in third place, marking the British driver’s first points’ finish.
Álex Palou finished fourth, consolidating his third place in the Drivers’ Championship standings and – by finishing ahead of both Yamamoto (P7) and Cassidy (demoted from P8 to P10 with a penalty) – moving to within four points of the title fight.
Yamamoto’s seventh place returns him to a narrow lead of the Drivers’ Championship standings (29 points) ahead of Cassidy (28), with Palou (25), Yamashita (21) and Kobayashi (19) still in mathematical contention.
The 2019 Super Formula championship is really heating up as Japan, ironically, moves into its colder months. Can Cassidy bring it back in the final round, and take out the championship he’s been aching for, or will Yamamoto win the championship for the second year in a row? The final round of the season at Suzuka takes place on October 26-27.
|2019 Super Formula Championship Okayama – Final Classification (66 laps)|
|Driver||Team / Entry||Laps||Result||Pts|
|1.||Kenta Yamashita||Kondō Racing||66||1:30:52.967||10|
|2.||Kazuki Nakajima||Vantelin Team TOM’S||66||+ 2.340||8|
|3.||Harrison Newey||B-MAX with Motopark||66||+ 4.045||6|
|4.||Álex Palou||TCS Nakajima Racing||66||+ 5.311||5|
|5.||Lucas Auer||B-MAX with Motopark||66||+ 11.174||4|
|6.||Patricio O’Ward||Team Mugen||66||+ 12.532||3|
|7.||Naoki Yamamoto||DoCoMo Team Dandelion Racing||66||+ 15.702||2|
|8.||Kazuya Oshima||UOMO Sunoco Team LeMans||66||+ 17.763||1|
|9.||Tomoki Nojiri||Team Mugen||66||+ 24.461|
|10.||Nick Cassidy||Vantelin Team TOM’S||66||+ 32.896|
|11.||Sho Tsuboi||JMS P.mu/cerumo・INGING||66||+ 38.901|
|12.||Ryo Hirakawa||Itochu Enex Team Impul||66||+ 41.280||1|
|13.||Yuhi Sekiguchi||Itochu Enex Team Impul||66||+ 41.660|
|14.||Koudai Tsukakoshi||Real Racing||66||+ 42.858|
|15.||Yuichi Nakayama||UOMO Sunoco Team LeMans||66||+ 43.464|
|16.||Yuji Kunimoto||Kondō Racing||66||+ 44.663|
|17.||Tadasuke Makino||TCS Nakajima Racing||66||+ 46.043|
|18.||Kamui Kobayashi||Carrozzeria Team KCMG||65||1 lap behind|
|Not Classified||Team / Entry||Laps||Reason|
|DNF.||Hiroaki Ishiura||JMS P.mu/cerumo・INGING||35||Puncture|
|DNF.||Nirei Fukuzumi||DoCoMo Team Dandelion Racing||7||Spin|
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.
- Ryo Hirakawa earned 1 bonus championship point for securing pole position.
Images via Super Formula