Why Super Formula’s ‘F1 finishing school’ days appear over
With two of Super Formula’s biggest international names walking away from the series mid-season, Jamie Klein wonders if the championship’s days as a Formula 1 finishing school are effectively at an end.
Last weekend’s fourth round of the season was Autopolis was supposed to mark the long-awaited return of Red Bull junior Juri Vips to Super Formula after the Estonian was forced to forego the opening three races of 2020 due to COVID-19 travel restrictions.
Vips is understood to have made the trip to Japan in early October, after the rules on new visa applicants were loosened, just prior to the Sugo race that he couldn’t attend due to the 14-day quarantine rule. But on the Monday preceding the race that should have heralded his return, Mugen revealed that Vips stand-in Ukyo Sasahara would see out the season.
Later that week, the reason for that U-turn became clear: Vips had been recalled to Europe to complete the necessary kilometres in a Formula 1 car to get a superlicence and to be on standby for Red Bull in the clashing Turkish Grand Prix at Istanbul.
By then, Super Formula had lost another headline attraction for Autopolis in the form of Sergio Sette Camara, who had been on Red Bull reserve duties earlier in the season.
Sergio Sette Camara, B-Max Racing
Photo by: Masahide Kamio
Sette Camara sat out the opening two rounds of the season before stamping his authority on the field at Sugo by taking pole in his first-ever qualifying session in the series. An error on cold tyres after his pitstop in the race meant his weekend ended with his B-Max car stuffed in the barriers, but it was nonetheless an impressive debut.
Unfortunately, we were denied the chance to see how the Brazilian could build on that, as he elected to leave Japan ahead of schedule to take part in a private Formula E test for the team that he is now confirmed to be racing for in 2021, Dragon Racing. And it appears very unlikely he'll be back for the remaining races at Suzuka and Fuji.
That means, perhaps for the first time since 2015, there are now no drivers on the grid in Super Formula that could be said to have realistic aspirations of going on to race in F1 – possibly drawing a close to an era that began in 2016 with the arrival of Stoffel Vandoorne.
It was almost five years ago to the day that then-McLaren protege Vandoorne made his first appearance in a Super Formula car, ushering in a level of international interest in the series not seen since the days of Ralf Schumacher and Pedro de la Rosa in the late '90s.
Vandoorne was placed in Super Formula in 2016 under the tutelage of McLaren’s then-engine partner Honda in the Dandelion Racing squad, as there was no opportunity for him to graduate to F1 off the back of his dominant GP2 title win – what with Fernando Alonso and Jenson Button occupying the Woking squad’s two seats that year.
Stoffel Vandoorne, Dandelion Racing
Photo by: Yasushi Ishihara
The Belgian further underlined his class with a pole and a pair of wins in his one and only SF season, but also showing that success in Japan – especially against the likes of established stars like Andre Lotterer, Kazuki Nakajima and Hiroaki Ishiura – is no guarantee of championship success even for a prodigious talent good enough to be in F1.
Vandoorne duly earned his promotion to McLaren in 2017, but the idea of F2 talents heading to Japan for their final season before graduating to the big leagues had taken hold to the extent that Red Bull moved to place its protege Pierre Gasly in Super Formula.
It should be remembered that the deal to place Gasly at Honda squad Mugen in a pukka Red Bull-branded car that year predated the energy drinks giant’s F1 alliance with the Japanese marque. And it was a tie-up that came within half a point of yielding the title, Gasly’s bid only thwarted by a typhoon that caused the season finale at Suzuka to be cancelled.
Since then, the second Mugen seat has always been controlled by Red Bull, with first Nirei Fukuzumi, then Dan Ticktum, Patricio O’Ward and finally Vips all at various stages considered to be on the cusp of a future in F1. A second Red Bull-backed car was added for Lucas Auer last year at the B-Max/Motopark operation, although the Austrian found the going tougher than he expected and was eventually lured back to Europe by BMW.
Lucas Auer, B-Max Racing Team
Photo by: Masahide Kamio
But with Vips now set to race in F2 next season – potentially in a Red Bull junior super-team alongside FIA F3 graduate Liam Lawson at Hitech – it raises the question of what form the Red Bull-Mugen arrangement takes in future, or whether it even continues at all.
One insider suggested to Motorsport.com at Autopolis that a new arrangement is being worked on that could involve Red Bull continuing to back Mugen, but with the objective of identifying drivers to send to Europe for further training, rather than providing a pre-F1 home for those that have already excelled in the conventional training formulae.
And perhaps such a move would help Super Formula find a new, more sustainable, spot on the ladder to F1 than the one it has ostensibly occupied in recent seasons.
While partly influenced by the global health crisis, the 2020 campaign has been notable for its relative paucity of foreign drivers. The Okayama round featured just two non-Japanese drivers on the grid (Nick Cassidy and Sacha Fenestraz, both residents of Japan), an all-time low for the Formula Nippon/Super Formula era that began in 1996.
Nick Cassidy, TOM'S
Photo by: Masahide Kamio
With COVID-19 diminishing opportunities for others to come to Japan and test, and no Vandoorne or Gasly-like figure in the series providing would-be F1 drivers with inspiration to make the leap, that drought is likely to continue at least in the short-term. And there are no obvious candidates ready to make the step up from Super Formula Lights, where just one international driver – Ireland’s Lucca Allen – is currently plying his trade.
However, the health crisis will eventually pass, and the core elements that make Super Formula attractive to those drivers running out of options in Europe remain: a car boasting almost pre-2017 F1 car levels of downforce, the chance to test oneself against a high-quality field of experienced professionals and the promise of a paid career at a time that European categories aren’t exactly overflowing with salaried drives.
As well as the obvious possibility of becoming a factory driver in Japan – something Fenestraz achieved in less than a year since arriving in the country – the likes of Cassidy (Formula E) and last year’s star rookie Alex Palou (IndyCar) have shown that success in Super Formula can be a launch pad to top drives in other top categories worldwide outside F1.
As long as junior single-seater budgets in Europe remain sky high, and factory drives in more ‘traditional’ F1 alternatives like the FIA World Endurance Championship or the DTM remain scarce, Super Formula is likely to go on providing opportunities for those outside Japan for some time yet. But those that do come in future are likely to be much further away from the finished article than the likes of Vandoorne and Gasly were.
Ukyo Sasahara, Team Mugen
Photo by: Masahide Kamio
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