What to expect from Red Bull’s latest Super Formula hopeful

For the first time since 2019, a fully paid-up member of the Red Bull Junior Team will be on the Super Formula grid this season. But just what can we expect from Ren Sato in 2022?

What to expect from Red Bull’s latest Super Formula hopeful
Listen to this article

Sato arrives in Super Formula with something of a reputation – and not in a positive sense. As previously documented here, his chance to drive for Team Goh follows the unfortunate episode that took place in last November’s SUPER GT finale at Fuji Speedway, where a mistake by Sato cost Honda and its star driver Naoki Yamamoto back-to-back GT500 titles.

And yet, fast forward just over four months and Sato not only still has the backing of Honda, but he is also the newest member of the Red Bull Junior Team. What’s more, he is being mentored by ex-Honda F1 boss Masashi Yamamoto, whose stated goal is to get youngsters like Sato chances to race in categories such as Formula 2 with Red Bull backing.

Read Also:

In other words, if Sato does a good job this year, there’s a very real chance he could race in F2. But is the 20-year-old Super Formula Lights graduate up to the challenge?

Sato (left) with race engineer Ryan Dingle

Sato (left) with race engineer Ryan Dingle

Photo by: Masahide Kamio

With Team Goh racing as an independent team this year, Sato more or less inherits the crew that ran the #15 Mugen car of Hiroki Otsu last year, including race engineer Ryan Dingle.

Canadian-born, Japanese-domiciled Dingle, who has engineered the likes of Felix Rosenqvist and Kamui Kobayashi in the past, is impressed with what he’s seen from Sato so far, having first worked with him in the Suzuka rookie test in December and then in the two pre-season tests last month at Suzuka and Fuji.

“He’s pretty quick,” Dingle tells Motorsport.com. “His style is quite different, if you see some of the driving techniques he uses to control the car… I’ve been surprised by how quick he has been. I think he can be competitive in his first year.

“A lot of Japanese drivers like to attack the corner entry quite hard, so they need a lot of rear [stability]. Ren is more like some foreign drivers in that he can adjust his driving to put more emphasis on apex speed and exit speed.

“We want to win a race, at least. I don’t think it’s impossible. The Suzuka test [in March] was his first proper test, and on the second day he didn’t finish his attack lap, so we have some pace in the pocket too. I think he’s been quite competitive from the beginning.”

Ren Sato, TEAM GOH

Ren Sato, TEAM GOH

Photo by: Masahide Kamio

After an encouraging showing at Suzuka, Sato turned heads at Fuji by equalling Yuhi Sekiguchi’s lap at the head of the timesheets on Tuesday morning. In the afternoon he slipped to 15th, but that was having encountered traffic on his first attack lap at the end of the session and having his second lap spoiled, like many others, by a red flag.

So, it seems Sato has got the speed to at least be part of the conversation this year. But success in Super Formula has always been about much more than just that, and Dingle acknowledges that polishing himself off-track will be equally important to Sato's future success as anything he does on-track this year.

“Being quite young, there’s part of his mentality that the team needs to keep a handle on, also with his teammate [Atsushi Miyake] being a rookie,” says Dingle. “On the other side, one of the goals of the team is to improve his technical capacity.

“Like most young drivers coming out of F3, his feedback is nowhere near the level of a [Tomoki] Nojiri or a [Naoki] Yamamoto. He won’t get there in one year, but our job is to at least get him on that path, so that if he gets to go to Europe in future, things won’t seem so foreign to him. We’re also trying to work on his English.”

For Sato, there’s an added incentive for him to perform this year. Two years ago, he lined up alongside fellow Honda junior Ayumu Iwasa in French F4 in what was essentially a shootout to become the manufacturer’s new main hopeful in Europe.

Iwasa won out, racing in FIA F3 last year and stepping up to F2 this year, while Sato was sent back to Japan for a dual campaign in Super Formula Lights and SUPER GT's lower GT300 class.

 

While Iwasa has made a solid enough start to his F2 tenure with DAMS in the first two rounds of the year, Sato now has a brilliant chance to stake a claim for a spot on the grand prix support series grid in 2023, which may or may not end up being at the expense of his old rival.

Sato acknowledges that wearing the Red Bull colours comes with a certain amount of pressure, especially if, as suggested by Masashi Yamamoto, the famously tough RBJT taskmaster Helmut Marko ends up paying a visit to Japan later in the year.

"There’s pressure, but I hope I can drive normally without thinking too much about it," said Sato when asked about that very prospect in an interview with Motorsport.com's Japanese edition.

But with a solid crew around him, and the likes of Yamamoto and Goh advisor Takuya Izawa on hand to provide support, he could hardly hope to have a better environment in which to really show off his potential.

“Super Formula is a pretty high-level championship,” continues Dingle. “The drivers that do well in their first year can go to just about any other championship and be competitive – [Alex] Palou, Rosenqvist, [Pierre] Gasly.

“Of course there is still a question mark over how well he can adapt to racing in Europe, but that is something we are working on as a team. We want to prepare him for that; we are basically preparing as if that will happen. It’s pretty exciting.”

Additional reporting by Kenichiro Ebii

Ren Sato, TEAM GOH

Ren Sato, TEAM GOH

Photo by: Masahide Kamio

shares
comments
Honda drivers concerned by apparent Toyota top speed gains
Previous article

Honda drivers concerned by apparent Toyota top speed gains

Next article

How Toyota's brightest Super Formula hope got his groove back

How Toyota's brightest Super Formula hope got his groove back