Ten storylines to follow in Super Formula this season

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Ten storylines to follow in Super Formula this season
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This weekend marks the long-awaited return to action for Japan's Super Formula series after a hiatus of five months. Jamie Klein is your guide to the storylines to follow in Motegi and beyond.

Super Formula is going into its second year with the SF19 chassis, and most of the top drivers from last year (with the notable exception of IndyCar-bound Alex Palou) are back again for another shot at glory in 2020. But the series will have a different look and feel to it.

Because of the coronavirus pandemic, championship organisers have decided to employ a condensed two-day weekend format across the season, shortening race lengths and doing away with the traditional pitstop. Even before COVID-19 hit, it had already been decided to overhaul the points structure, giving more weighting to qualifying, and do away with the unloved medium Yokohama tyre compound, leaving last year's soft tyre only.

Drivers have voiced fears that this weekend's Motegi opener will be a procession because of the changes. Whether those concerns are founded, only time will tell, but besides that there are a number of other intriguing plot strands up and down the field to follow.

Can Cassidy leave Super Formula on a high?

The 2020 campaign will be the last in Super Formula for Nick Cassidy. After winning last year's title in his first season for Toyota's flagship TOM'S team, the international racing world finally came knocking for the Kiwi, who will be competing in Formula E full-time in 2021 for Envision Virgin Racing. While a parallel SUPER GT campaign is still a possibility, Cassidy has made it clear that he will not be back in Super Formula next year.

"The last few years there's always been a lot of pressure, but this year I don't feel like that at all," he told Motorsport.com. "I'm more or less just looking to enjoy the cars and have fun, so I think the mindset is probably a little bit different, which is a positive thing."

So, can Cassidy go back-to-back before he says goodbye to Super Formula? Given Honda's traditional power advantage and this year's rule changes, it seems doubtful. With no pitstops or varied tyre compounds to mix up the order, the 26-year-old is going to be up against it considering he didn't qualify inside the top three once last year. The change in points structure, with pole now being worth three points instead of one, won't do him any favours either.

"The rules have changed quite a lot this year, which I'm not so much a fan of," says Cassidy. "I don't think the points structure and the way the race format will go will necessarily suit us, but the target is the same as the last couple of years: to be the top Toyota driver. And if I can manage that it's a great success, that's all I can compare myself to really."

Nick Cassidy, Team Tom's

Nick Cassidy, Team Tom's

Photo by: Masahide Kamio

Kobayashi’s quest for a first win

KCMG driver Kamui Kobayashi - one of three Toyota FIA World Endurance Championship drivers to get last-minute permission to race at Motegi - is in many ways the Nick Heidfeld of Super Formula. In 39 starts, he's yet to record a win, but he has been the runner-up five times. And the lack of a race victory has not been for a lack of speed.

Here are just some of the unfortunate events that have kept Kobayashi off the top step of the podium: a safety car ruining his unconventional strategy last year at Okayama; another poorly-timed caution while he was leading at Suzuka; another safety car while he was leading in the wet at Okayama in 2018, when his car's nose had a hole in it; a botched pitstop while he was leading at Motegi comfortably in 2017 that handed the win to Pierre Gasly.

This year, Kobayashi's chances of finally breaking his duck should be improved by having a teammate at KCMG in the form of 2016 champion Yuji Kunimoto, having been on his own at the Hong Kong-entered squad for the past three seasons.

"Last year and the year before, I was leading races but always something happened," Kobayashi told Motorsport.com earlier this year. "So I’m not worried about [not winning a race again] this year. We just need luck. We have two cars this year so we can develop the car quickly, which is good. I will have more opportunities."

Kamui Kobayashi, KCMG

Kamui Kobayashi, KCMG

Photo by: Masahide Kamio

Kondo's battle of the Toyota young guns

Two years ago, Kondo Racing defied the odds by winning the teams' championship - helped by a potent combination of Cassidy and Kenta Yamashita piloting its two cars. After taking a backwards step last year as Cassidy moved up to TOM'S, Kondo has the chance to recreate its 2018 magic with the arrival of another young, hungry international driver to partner Yamashita, as Sacha Fenestraz makes the move up from All-Japan F3.

Yamashita knows he has a challenge on his hands to keep Fenestraz, who is also leading the SUPER GT points standings in his first year as a GT500 driver, at bay. But there are two things that he feels will play in his favour this year: soft tyres only, and the arrival of Naoki Yamamoto's former engineer Kazuya Abe in his side of the garage.

Yamashita said of Fenestraz earlier this year: "He is very fast, I saw in the rookie test. He beat me on the first day of the test already, so I know he is really fast. But this year my target is to be champion, so I’m focussed to be consistent in the races over the whole season.

"Last year we had a little bit of an issue on the medium tyre. But this year there is no medium tyre, only the soft tyre, so [this will help]. Also, Abe-san is a really good engineer, I think. He's won titles in SUPER GT and Super Formula, all Japanese categories."

The likely prize for whichever comes out on top at Kondo is an important one: the chance to succeed Cassidy at TOM'S in 2021. That will add an extra frisson of intrigue to what was already set to be perhaps the most exciting intra-team rivalry on the 2020 grid.

Kenta Yamashita, Kondo Racing, Sacha Fenestraz, Kondo Racing

Kenta Yamashita, Kondo Racing, Sacha Fenestraz, Kondo Racing

Photo by: Masahide Kamio

Can three-car Inging team get back to where it belongs?

One of the more puzzling elements of the 2019 campaign was the Toyota-powered Cerumo/Inging outfit's slump to seventh in the standings - putting it only ahead of the now-dissolved Team LeMans among the two-car Toyota squads. That was after it won three of the five titles on offer during the SF14 era, including three in a row in 2015, '16 and '17.

Hiroaki Ishiura was responsible for two of those three titles, but any ambitions of becoming the series' first three-time winner since Satoshi Motoyama will rest on whether Inging can get a full grasp on the SF19 in a way that it failed to last year. Expanding from two cars to become the grid's only three-car team certainly can't harm its chances.

"The SF14 was very good for us, so we were very focused on that," Ishiura told Motorsport.com. "But after the change to the SF19 our focus has had to change too, we had to adapt to a lot of new things, and we're still going through that process. Now because we have three cars, we are creating a team set-up where we can share data and increase our performance."

Inging's third car is entered under the 'Rookie Racing' banner which Cerumo also uses for its new second entry in SUPER GT. Kazuya Oshima will be at the wheel, but with a largely inexperienced crew on the #14 car, it's likely to be down to Ishiura and Sho Tsuboi (pictured below) to spearhead any reversal in fortunes for the team.

Sho Tsuboi, P.MU/CERUMO・INGING

Sho Tsuboi, P.MU/CERUMO・INGING

Photo by: Masahide Kamio

Will Fukuzumi displace Yamamoto as Dandelion's number one?

Naoki Yamamoto has been Honda's main challenger for title honours the last two years, winning the title for Team Mugen in 2018 before making the switch to Dandelion Racing in 2019 and coming within three points of defending his crown - helping deliver the squad its first-ever teams' title in the process alongside Nirei Fukuzumi.

But there were signs that Fukuzumi, a race winner in GP3 before returning to Japan full-time starting last year, was starting to get the upper hand. From last year's fourth round at Fuji onwards, Yamamoto never beat Fukuzumi in races they both finished, and in the Suzuka finale Fukuzumi scored his first Super Formula podium.

That form continued into the March pre-season test, where Fukuzumi topped both sessions on the second day to end up just a whisker shy of Impul driver Ryo Hirakawa. That led to reigning champion Cassidy tipping Fukuzumi for a title challenge, but what does the 23-year-old make of his own prospects of eclipsing senior teammate Yamamoto?

"I was getting better last year, at the end of last year I finally got a podium, so I feel this year is a big chance for me to win a race for the first time and challenge for the championship," Fukuzumi told Motorsport.com. "I have a lot of pressure but also motivation. The Dandelion team is strong in qualifying so that’s why also I feel this year is a big chance."

Nirei Fukuzumi(DOCOMO TEAM DANDELION RACING)

Nirei Fukuzumi(DOCOMO TEAM DANDELION RACING)

Photo by: Masahide Kamio

Super-sub Sasahara aims to reignite single-seater career

Team Mugen is heading into the Motegi season opener with a different driver line-up to the one it had envisaged, as Red Bull junior prospect Juri Vips - who made an impressive debut for the team last year at Suzuka - has been unable to make it to Japan in time because of COVID-19 travel restrictions. That means lining up alongside Tomoki Nojiri this weekend will be one of the team's SUPER GT drivers, Ukyo Sasahara.

For 24-year-old Sasahara, a veteran of the European junior scene and more recently a champion in Asian F3, the call-up to replace Vips is a huge opportunity to remind the world of his talents behind the wheel of a single-seater, even if he's never driven the SF19 before.

Mugen team boss Shinji Nakano was full of praise for Sasahara earlier this year, saying: "His driving is very aggressive and his competitive spirit is also strong. He is one of few Japanese drivers who [has been] racing abroad on merit. And not only his driving, the ability to communicate in English, there are hardly any young Japanese drivers who can do this."

Nakano went on to add Sasahara still has the potential to race in F1 in the future, despite his recent switch to GTs. At that time, he wouldn't have foreseen Sasahara getting a shot in Super Formula quite so soon, but if things go well it could act as a springboard for his protege getting a second shot at establishing himself in Europe.

Ukyo Sasahara(#16 Red Bull MOTUL MUGEN NSX-GT)

Ukyo Sasahara(#16 Red Bull MOTUL MUGEN NSX-GT)

Photo by: Masahide Kamio

Can Nakajima Racing still shine without Palou?

One of the big stories of the 2019 season was Nakajima Racing's re-emergence as a bona fide front-running squad. And it was Palou, in some ways the moral champion of 2019, that led that resurgence. With the Spaniard now plying his trade in IndyCar, the question is now whether Nakajima can maintain its form without its talisman.

On paper, the fact Tadasuke Makino only scored six of the team's 28 points last year doesn't bode too well. But Makino did score a pole in his first race at Suzuka, and made four further appearances in Q3 in the remaining six races.

Makino told Motorsport.com: "Qualifying pace is quite ok. But this year the schedule is different, the race distance is shorter, it's helpful for us at Nakajima Racing because we were struggling with race pace last year. Also we have the Friday test to work on our race pace, but I think compared to last year qualifying will be very important."

Replacing Palou alongside Makino this year is Honda young gun Toshiki Oyu, who was an impressive third-fastest in the Fuji test back in March. The 22-year-old will be more grateful than most for the two-hour test on Friday to get his eye back in, having admitted after the test he was "worried" about losing the momentum he'd built.

Tadasuke Makino, Nakajima Racing

Tadasuke Makino, Nakajima Racing

Photo by: Masahide Kamio

What can Calderon and Drago Corse achieve?

For the first time since 1997, Japan's top formula series will have a female driver on the grid this weekend at Motegi. And, unlike her predecessor Sarah Kavanagh, who lasted only two races and was woefully underprepared for her shot at the big-time, Tatiana Calderon comes to Super Formula armed with plenty of experience in the F1 support paddock, even if her results in F2 last year left something to be desired.

Driving for the one-car Drago Corse team, which returns to Super Formula for the first time since 2016, expectations for the Colombian driver will be muted, especially as she has no teammate to act as a reference. Friday's test session at Motegi will be critical for her to not only learn the track but to improve her feel for the Yokohama tyres, which are totally different to the Pirellis she has been used to in Europe.

"Considering everything will be new for me, and that I have no teammate and it's a new team, we want to take things step-by-step and learn as much as we can in the early stages of the season," Calderon told Motorsport.com. "There is no testing apart from one session on Friday, so we need to learn as much as possible from the tyres and the 2020 race format.

"For sure it’s going to be a challenge and we need to focus a lot on qualifying for this year, particularly without pitstops. I hope I can be challenging to score points and be there regularly by the end of the season, that would be a realistic goal."

Tatiana Calderon, ThreeBond DRAGO CORSE

Tatiana Calderon, ThreeBond DRAGO CORSE

Photo by: Masahide Kamio

How will dropped scores affect things?

On the face of it, the answer is not a whole lot. If you applied the dropped score system (best five results out of seven races) to last year's points table, only one driver - Cassidy - is affected, as everybody else had two or more non-scores. And given the one result he dropped is an eighth place, worth just one point, he would still have been champion.

The question is more whether drivers will change their approach knowing they can discard their two worst scores at the end of the campaign. All of a sudden, a DNF is not as costly as it would have been in normal circumstances, which could encourage drivers to take risky moves, especially with no strategy options available to help them move up the field. 

Equally, with the points system going down to 10th this year instead of eighth, it's more likely that the top drivers that are present for all seven rounds will need to drop at least some points at the end of the year. It could create a situation where, after the fifth or sixth race, a driver knows that in order to improve their season score they need to finish above a certain position - which could again lead to more risk-taking in order to do so.

Yuhi Sekiguchi, Team Impul

Yuhi Sekiguchi, Team Impul

Photo by: Jun Goto

Will the exiled trio be able to return to the grid?

While Calderon and the three Toyota WEC drivers defied expectations by being able to race at Motegi, Vips and B-Max Racing/Motopark pair Sergio Sette Camara and Charles Milesi have been less fortunate. Attention will now turn to whether the trio are able to make it into Japan for next month's second round of the season at Okayama.

Red Bull junior Vips at least has the distraction of deputising for the injured Sean Gelael at DAMS in Formula 2 for the next three rounds, but being present in Okayama is critical to the Estonian's hopes of getting a superlicence. In the Formula Regional European Championship, it's already looking as if finishing second will be tough given the dominance of the Prema drivers. And in Super Formula, he will need all the track time he can get if a place in the top two of the standings is to prove achievable, even with dropped scores.

For Sette Camara and Milesi, there's slightly less at stake. Sette Camara has his Red Bull F1 reserve commitments to focus on, as well as the potential for a Formula E drive for 2021, while Milesi has landed a seat for the Le Mans 24 Hours with the Graff LMP2 squad. But B-Max/Motopark had yet to confirm who - if, indeed, anyone - will take their place for the Motegi race at the time of writing. It would be a big shame if the grid ends up losing two cars as well as three drivers as a result of the pandemic.

Sergio Sette Camara, B-Max Racing Team

Sergio Sette Camara, B-Max Racing Team

Photo by: Masahide Kamio

Toyota WEC drivers get late clearance to race at Motegi

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Series Super Formula
Author Jamie Klein