Who could stand in for Super Formula's 'Motegi seven'?

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Who could stand in for Super Formula's 'Motegi seven'?
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Super Formula is set to be without more than a third of its regular grid when the season gets underway later this month. Jamie Klein assesses which drivers are likely to get the nod to stand in for the 'Motegi seven'.

On Saturday, Super Formula in effect confirmed what Motorsport.com reported on Thursday – that seven drivers are probably not going to be racing at Motegi due to travel restrictions and quarantine rules Japan has imposed due to the COVID-19 crisis.

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Four drivers signed to race in 2020 (Juri Vips, Tatiana Calderon, Sergio Sette Camara and Charles Milesi) are currently outside of Japan with virtually no prospect of being allowed into the country before August 29-30, while three Japanese drivers (Kamui Kobayashi, Kazuki Nakajima and Kenta Yamashita) will be returning from the Spa round of the FIA World Endurance Championship and won’t be able to serve a 14-day quarantine in time.

That means no fewer than six teams are likely to be needing replacement drivers at Motegi, with B-Max Racing/Motopark facing the prospect of heading into the season opener with neither of its two contracted regulars. So, who could possibly step in? Here’s a look at 10 drivers we feel are in with a shot of being on the grid, in rough order of probability.

THE FAVOURITES

Ukyo Sasahara (Mugen)

It seems probable that if Team Mugen has a spot to fill for the Motegi race that it will turn to Sasahara. While the 24-year-old has no Super Formula experience to speak of, he has plenty of single-seater pedigree, winning last year’s F3 Asian Championship title, and also drives for Mugen in SUPER GT, wearing the same Red Bull colours as Vips.

Mugen team boss Shinji Nakano is a big fan of Sasahara’s, selecting him to fill the spot that was left empty at the last-minute by Nobuharu Matsushita’s decision to remain in Formula 2 this season. Now, with Vips stuck in Europe, it looks as if lightning is about to strike twice.

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

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

Photo by: Masahide Kamio

Ritomo Miyata (TOM'S)

Last year’s All-Japan Formula 3 runner-up is meant to be contesting another season in the category this year (now renamed Super Formula Lights), but if TOM’S has to go without Nakajima for the Motegi opener then Miyata has to be considered favourite for the ride.

In fact, Miyata has already stood in for Nakajima once: when the ex-Formula 1 racer’s WEC commitments prevented him from taking part in last year’s Suzuka rookie test. On that occasion, Miyata was an impressive second-fastest in the afternoon on the second day.

Given Toyota has three seats to fill, it’s hard to imagine Miyata not being in one of them, particularly as Nick Cassidy is flying the nest to race in Formula E next year – further increasing the attractiveness of bedding in a driver who is likely to get a 2021 call-up.

#36 Team Tom's Lexus LC500: Ritomo Miyata

#36 Team Tom's Lexus LC500: Ritomo Miyata

Photo by: Masahide Kamio

Sena Sakaguchi (B-Max/Motopark)

Sakaguchi hasn’t started a Super Formula race, but he has qualified for one. He was chosen to sub for the absent Nirei Fukuzumi at Autopolis two years ago, qualifying a more-than-respectable 11th, only for the race itself to be cancelled due to heavy rain.

Since then, Sakaguchi has focussed largely on racing in SUPER GT for the K-Tunes Racing Lexus team, and will make his GT500 debut this weekend for SARD, but he also has links to the Honda camp via his B-Max deal in Super Formula Lights. It doesn’t require too much imagination to picture the 21-year-old getting a call-up for the main game.

Sena Sakaguchi, Team Mugen

Sena Sakaguchi, Team Mugen

Photo by: Jun Goto

STRONG CONTENDERS

Yuichi Nakayama

Along with Miyata, Nakayama is the only other Toyota-contracted driver with SF19 experience who could step into fill the breach, having contested the final two rounds of the 2019 season for Team LeMans when Artem Markelov dropped out of the ride.

The 28-year-old didn’t exactly set the world ablaze, finishing 15th and 16th in his two races, but the SARD Toyota GT500 racer could be considered a safe pair of hands. He would be a good fit for the KCMG team, which called upon him to replace Kobayashi for the Motegi race in 2018 when the Toyota LMP1 ace was away on WEC duty.

Yuichi Nakayama, Team LeMans

Yuichi Nakayama, Team LeMans

Photo by: Masahide Kamio

Koudai Tsukakoshi 

SUPER GT veteran Tsukakoshi did an admirable job driving for the single-car Real Racing squad in Super Formula last year after Tristan Charpentier got axed after just one race, but his services were surplus to requirements this year with Real focusing just on GT500.

Now with four empty Honda cockpits to fill, Tsukakoshi could find himself back in demand for Motegi and would be an attractive option for either B-Max/Motopark or Drago Corse should they want to call upon somebody of the 33-year-old’s considerable experience.

Koudai Tsukakoshi, Real Racing

Koudai Tsukakoshi, Real Racing

Photo by: Masahide Kamio

Hiroki Otsu

It was something of a surprise when Toshiki Oyu got the nod to join Nakajima Racing this year, as Otsu – who also tested for the team at Suzuka last year – was seemingly ahead in the Honda youngster queue, indeed getting the nod for the team’s free SUPER GT seat.

Now it looks like Otsu could be handed a second shot given the shortage of contracted Honda drivers with SF19 experience, although his chances might hinge on how hard his employer pushes for him to get one of the vacant berths.

Hiroki Otsu(#64 Modulo NSX-GT)

Hiroki Otsu(#64 Modulo NSX-GT)

Photo by: Masahide Kamio

LEFT-FIELD OPTIONS

Jann Mardenborough

Now we are starting to stray into the realms of ‘what-iffery’, but with two of the biggest draws for Super Formula’s international audience absent in Vips and Calderon, one or two extra non-Japanese drivers wouldn’t go amiss from promoter JRP’s viewpoint.

Enter Mardenborough, who lives in Tokyo and therefore has no problems with Japan’s strict entry rules. A mainstay of Nissan’s SUPER GT stable, he hasn’t driven in Super Formula since his sole campaign for Impul in 2017 and has no experience of the current SF19 chassis.

One thing counting in his favour is the fact he drives for Kondo Racing in GT500, and Yamashita’s absence leaves the team with a spot to fill. Nissan would have to give its blessing, but Mardenborough making his first Super Formula start in three years would certainly be a storyline worth following if it were to happen.

Jann Mardenborough, Team Impul

Jann Mardenborough, Team Impul

Bertrand Baguette

Belgian driver Baguette falls into the same category as Mardenborough, in that he’s not driven in Super Formula regularly in some time (his last start came in 2016, as you ask) but is available after miraculously making it back to Japan in time for the SUPER GT opener, and would bring a welcome boost to the series’ international appeal.

Unlike Mardenborough, Baguette has no obvious links to a particular team in need of a driver, but he is well-regarded in the Honda camp and could be depended upon to do a solid job for any of the teams that are going to be without their regular drivers at Motegi.

Bertrand Baguette(#17 KEIHIN NSX-GT)

Bertrand Baguette(#17 KEIHIN NSX-GT)

Photo by: Masahide Kamio

Katsumasa Chiyo

Nissan SUPER GT driver Chiyo raced in Super Formula for B-Max in 2018, but was ousted as the team joined forces with Motopark and was forced to spend a year on the sidelines as a pitlane reporter for the series – something he claims was a valuable learning experience.

Now B-Max has two vacant seats for Motegi, Chiyo would likely be high on the list of the team’s preferred replacements, but similarly to Mardenborough, a potential sticking point could be needing to obtain approval from Nissan.

Katsumasa Chiyo, B-MAX Racing Team

Katsumasa Chiyo, B-MAX Racing Team

Photo by: Masahide Kamio

Joao Paulo de Oliveira

The champion of Super Formula (or Formula Nippon, as was) back in 2010, de Oliveira would be a popular choice with both the Japanese and international audience alike if he were to make his first appearance in the series since 2018, when he made a one-off for TOM’S in the absence of Nakajima at Motegi (pictured below).

Now 39 years old, the Brazilian isn’t in his first flush of youth, and it’s more likely Toyota will opt for a youngster such as Miyata for its A-team this time around. But the Kondo seat is up for grabs and de Oliveira drives for the team in SUPER GT’s GT300 class. If Nissan doesn’t give its blessing for Mardenborough, de Oliveira would be an ideal back-up option.

Joao Paulo de Oliveira, Team Tom's

Joao Paulo de Oliveira, Team Tom's

Photo by: Jun Goto

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