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Super Formula Autopolis

How Giuliano Alesi has reinvented himself in Japan

A relatively modest set of results in Formula 1's support categories meant Giuliano Alesi was at a crossroads at the end of 2020. Landed in Japan's second-tier Super Formula Lights category, an unexpected opportunity to try his hand in the main series yielded a shock maiden win that suggests he shouldn't be written off just yet.

There was a nice piece of historical symmetry to Giuliano Alesi’s unexpected victory at a rain-soaked Autopolis last weekend in just his second Super Formula start. Exactly a decade earlier, Kazuki Nakajima had done the same thing, taking a first win at only the second time of asking – also driving for TOM’S, also at Autopolis, also in the wet.

The difference is, of course, is that Nakajima was already a veteran rebuilding his career in Japan having just seen his Formula 1 dreams crumble as a result of Toyota’s withdrawal from the championship. Alesi, on the other hand, was the youngest driver in the field at Autopolis at just 21 and one with a relatively modest CV, the highlights of which are four sprint race wins across three seasons of GP3 and a smattering of minor Formula 2 points finishes.

Indeed, TOM’S boss Nobuhide Tachi admitted in his post-race press conference at Autopolis that he wasn’t sure if Alesi was ready for a full-time Super Formula gig as early as this year, instead choosing to offer him the chance to prove himself first in Super Formula Lights (what used to be known, until the end of 2019, as All-Japan Formula 3).

But Nakajima’s absence from both the Suzuka and Autopolis rounds owing to his FIA World Endurance Championship commitments with Toyota and Japan’s strict quarantine rules gave TOM’S little choice but to give Alesi a go in the big leagues.

The most experienced of TOM’S Super Formula Lights trio, third-year driver Kazuto Kotaka, had already been called up to replace Nakajima’s WEC stablemate Kamui Kobayashi at KCMG for the opening round of the season at Fuji, and ongoing travel restrictions meant the team couldn’t attract any big names from outside Japan to fill the breach.

And so, second-generation racer Alesi – half-Japanese, and therefore exempt from any visa requirements – was given the unenviable task of racing in both Super Formula Lights and Super Formula at Suzuka. Coping with the intense physical demands well, he qualified eighth and finished ninth on his first race weekend at the wheel of the SF19.

Giuliano Alesi, Kuo VANTELIN TEAM TOM’S

Giuliano Alesi, Kuo VANTELIN TEAM TOM’S

Photo by: Jun Goto

But at Autopolis, all the planets aligned for the son of former Ferrari F1 ace Jean on a weekend where it seemed the race may not even take place at all, such were the horrendous conditions.

In fact, having to race in both categories was key to Alesi scoring pole position (which, given the race lasted just 13 laps before being called off, was the critical point of the weekend). Completing a race in the Super Formula Lights car immediately before qualifying gave him an advantage in terms of knowing the track conditions, where to take some risks and where to take it easy to avoid crashing – as several of his rivals did.

The only other major pitfall once pole was secured was the start, but Alesi didn't waver. He nailed his getaway with Super Formula’s tricky hand clutch and put himself into a lead he would keep until the race was eventually called off amid heavy rain and fog.

Alesi’s unexpected triumph prompted Tachi to say with a laugh in his press conference: “I thought it would take him a while to grow, so I wanted to take the time to nurture him from Super Formula Lights, but I feel like it's okay [for him to race in Super Formula as a full-time driver] soon. Now I’m wondering what to do about Kazuki…”

"Coming from F2, the natural objective is to stay at the same level in terms of power. But the people I asked didn’t recommend starting from Super Formula because there’s not a lot of mileage, so in terms of learning it wouldn’t have been the best choice" Giuliano Alesi

There was talk over the winter in the paddock that Alesi might move directly to Super Formula, given Nick Cassidy’s departure from the series and Nakajima’s likely WEC scheduling headaches. But when Motorsport.com asked the Frenchman if his Autopolis win makes him wish he had found a way to jump into the senior category, the response was an interesting one.

“I don’t think I would have been as ready as I am today if didn’t do Super Formula Lights,” says Alesi. “Coming from F2, the natural objective is to stay at the same level in terms of power. But the people I asked didn’t recommend starting from Super Formula because there’s not a lot of mileage, so in terms of learning it wouldn’t have been the best choice.

“I was given the opportunity to do Super Formula Lights with TOM’S so I took it and decided to treat this year as a learning year, to build my experience, get in as many laps as I can, because I’ve only ever been in categories where you don’t have the luxury of a lot of mileage and I’ve never done more than one championship in a year.

Giuliano Alesi, Kuo VANTELIN TEAM TOM’S

Giuliano Alesi, Kuo VANTELIN TEAM TOM’S

Photo by: Masahide Kamio

“I think that really impacted my growth as a driver and my development. Almost all of the young drivers in Formula 1, or the top drivers in F2, they have all done a huge amount of testing, and raced in at least two championships a season. When you have that it really helps you grow as a driver and then really had an impact when I arrived in F2. The fact I had that opportunity in Japan, I jumped on it straight away – better late than never.”

Alesi certainly raises an interesting point. By the time he reached F2 in 2019, he had only done four seasons in car racing up to that point, one in French F4 (21 races) and three in GP3 (a total of 48 races). Throw in four MRF Challenge races he did before making his GP3 debut in 2016, and that gives a pre-F2 total of 73 races in cars.

By way of comparison, George Russell had done 120 races, Lando Norris 142 and Mick Schumacher 146 before making their respective F2 bows, with all of them having raced in European Formula 3. That’s not to make excuses for Alesi’s lack of results, but combined with his Autopolis success, it certainly puts a fresh perspective on his record in Europe.

“Even before F3, those guys were doing two championships a season, in F4, Formula Renault,” Alesi continues. “When you do that, they still call you a rookie when you arrive in F2 but you’ve almost got as much mileage as Lewis Hamilton... compared to someone like me, who did seven race weekends of French F4 and then eight race weekends of GP3 for three years.

“People like to judge without knowing the situation, and it doesn’t put you in a good situation in terms of finding a good team. When you don’t have experience, good teams in Europe will never risk taking you, unless you have an unlimited budget or you are managed by one of the F1 team managers.

“I think coming to Japan was the best choice I could have made. It’s easy to say now, but I should have come here sooner. I don’t think I should have even done F2.”

Given Alesi’s nationality – his mother is Kumiko Goto, an actress and singer whose fame in her homeland massively outstrips that of her husband Jean – why was a move to Japan not considered earlier in his career, especially considering that lack of mileage in comparison to many of his contemporaries?

Giuliano Alesi, HWA Racelab and Louis Deletraz, Charouz Racing System

Giuliano Alesi, HWA Racelab and Louis Deletraz, Charouz Racing System

Photo by: Mark Sutton / Motorsport Images

“I think we were sort of brainwashed by that mentality, by that general trend [of having to race in the F1 paddock to be noticed],” replies Alesi. “When we hit the wall, and we realised there’s nothing left for me in the paddock, we left. But I really feel like I should have come earlier. I am really enjoying my time here, like I’ve never enjoyed racing before.”

Last year, it was reported that his father was selling his F40 road car in order to raise funds to allow Giuliano to race in F2. Motorsport.com cheekily suggests that in hindsight, with some more shrewd career decision making, that hard-earned F40 could still be in the family garage right now... but Alesi believes his two years in the second tier, while fruitless in terms of results, were invaluable in terms of character development.

"I think coming to Japan was the best choice I could have made. It’s easy to say now, but I should have come here sooner" Giuliano Alesi

“Speaking to my dad, he’s happy he sold it, because he said the investment he made in me [to race in F2] has made me who I am today,” he reflects. “And that will never be lost because the experience I gathered, both good and bad, made me grow and gave me a different mentality.

“It’s made me much more of a worker in a humble way, to be more down-to-earth. So that investment will be paid back over the next 30 years of my career.”

Indeed, TOM’S boss Tachi also noted that Alesi was mature beyond his 21 years, and “much more serious” than any of the ‘gaijin’ drivers he’s had race his cars full-time in the past, 2011 champion Andre Lotterer, James Rossiter and 2019 title-winner Cassidy.

“I definitely take it as a compliment!” Alesi retorts. “After the race, I told him he’s like my Japanese father, because he took me under his wing, gave me these opportunities, and to repay his faith with a pole and a win, it makes me even happier to make him happy.

“He took a risk on me because my results were not good in Europe. He believed in me when nobody else did, except my family and friends. For that I’ll always be grateful.”

Giuliano Alesi, Kuo VANTELIN TEAM TOM’S

Giuliano Alesi, Kuo VANTELIN TEAM TOM’S

Photo by: Masahide Kamio

It remains to be seen exactly how many more Super Formula races Alesi will do this year, as much depends on the vagaries of Nakajima’s WEC schedule and whether Japan’s 14-day quarantine rule is eased. That means the primary focus remains on seeing out his Super Formula Lights campaign, on gaining that experience he missed out on earlier in his career, learning the tracks in Japan, and building relationships with the team.

But in a sense, Alesi’s main objective for the season has already been achieved – to convince TOM’S of his potential and secure his future as a professional driver in Japan.

It’s just that he has achieved that goal much sooner, and in a much more spectacular fashion, than he or anyone else inside the team could have dared to envisage.

Giuliano Alesi, Kuo VANTELIN TEAM TOM’S, Nobuharu Matsushita, B-Max Racing Team, Sena Sakaguchi, JMS P.MU/CERUMO・INGING

Giuliano Alesi, Kuo VANTELIN TEAM TOM’S, Nobuharu Matsushita, B-Max Racing Team, Sena Sakaguchi, JMS P.MU/CERUMO・INGING

Photo by: Masahide Kamio

Related video

Previous article Matsushita hails B-Max progress after Autopolis podium
Next article TOM'S boss says Alesi Super Formula win allayed doubts

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