The seven-way Super Formula fight to be resolved at Suzuka

Tomoki Nojiri might have already sealed this year’s Super Formula drivers’ title with a round to spare, but there’s still plenty to be resolved in this weekend’s season finale at Suzuka.

The seven-way Super Formula fight to be resolved at Suzuka

By finishing fifth two weeks ago at Motegi, Mugen Honda driver Nojiri wrapped up a title that has always looked likely to be his ever since he made it back-to-back wins all the way back in April, when the series made its first visit of the year to Suzuka.

But that doesn’t mean there’s nothing at stake for this weekend’s season finale at the Japanese Formula 1 venue, which also carries the prestigious ‘JAF Grand Prix’ title.

Nojiri may be more than 30 points clear at the head of the drivers’ standings, but the gap from second to eighth is a mere 17 points, with 23 up for grabs this weekend - which means that any one of seven drivers could leave Suzuka as the runner-up.

Here, we run through each driver in turn and what they will be targeting in particular:

Yuhi Sekiguchi (Impul)

Points: 47.5, Wins in 2021: 0 (2nd x1)

Goal: Cement best-ever championship finish, help secure Teams’ title for Impul

Yuhi Sekiguchi, carenex TEAM IMPUL

Yuhi Sekiguchi, carenex TEAM IMPUL

Photo by: Masahide Kamio

Sekiguchi lies second in the standings heading to Suzuka following a solid run to fourth last time out at Motegi, and if he can hang on to that position it would mark the 34-year-old’s best-ever result - bettering the third he secured in his rookie campaign in 2016.

What Sekiguchi has lacked this year in terms of wins he has made up for in terms of sheer consistency, with four top-five placings out of six (only Nojiri has more). That said, without his error behind the safety car at Autopolis and another slip-up that cost him third to Tadasuke Makino at Motegi, he could be even further in the clear in the fight for second.

There’s also the secondary goal of helping Impul to secure what would be its first teams’ title since 2010. Because Mugen’s two cars are somewhat bizarrely registered separately for teams’ points, Impul in fact takes a lead of two points to Suzuka over the ‘primary’ Mugen team, represented only by Nojiri.

Toshiki Oyu (Nakajima Racing)

Points: 41. Wins in 2021: 0 (2nd x2)

Goal: Replicate his Suzuka win of 2020

Toshiki Oyu(TCS NAKAJIMA RACING)

Toshiki Oyu(TCS NAKAJIMA RACING)

Photo by: Masahide Kamio

After a strong run to second behind Nirei Fukuzumi at Sugo, fast sophomore Toshiki Oyu’s title hopes were dealt a fatal blow by two poor results in the two Motegi races.

Now the Nakajima Racing youngster returns to the scene of his breakthrough win from last year, but this time without the pressure of having to keep the title fight alive. A wretched start from third on the grid prevented Oyu from demonstrating his potential in this year’s first Suzuka race, but his speed around the Mie Prefecture track is not in doubt.

In the fight for second in the championship, Oyu will drop his worst score (two points) if he scores at least three points this weekend, so the effective gap to Sekiguchi, who is only dropping half a point, is actually eight points.

Sena Sakaguchi (Inging)

Points: 35.5, Wins in 2021: 0 (2nd x2)

Goal: Seal Rookie of the Year honours

Sena Sakaguchi, P.MU/CERUMO・INGING

Sena Sakaguchi, P.MU/CERUMO・INGING

Photo by: Masahide Kamio

Whatever happens at Suzuka, it has already been a very accomplished season for Sakaguchi, who has scored two runner-up finishes this term and has absolutely destroyed a highly-rated teammate in the form of Sho Tsuboi within the Inging squad.

Nonetheless, Sakaguchi is in pole position to bag ‘Rookie of the Year’ honours, albeit with a much reduced margin of two points over fellow newcomer Hiroki Otsu. Sakaguchi has two points to drop while Otsu has just one, so most likely whichever of the pair finishes higher up the order on Sunday will come away with the prize.

Nirei Fukuzumi (Dandelion)

Points: 34, Wins in 2021: 1

Goal: Escape his post-Sugo slump

Nirei Fukuzumi, DOCOMO TEAM DANDELION RACING

Nirei Fukuzumi, DOCOMO TEAM DANDELION RACING

Photo by: Masahide Kamio

Fukuzumi was arguably the ‘moral victor’ on Super Formula’s first visit to Suzuka this year, having led fairly comfortably from Nojiri before a puncture ended his hopes.

Although he made up for that disappointment two races later at Sugo with a maiden win in the category, hopes of a concerted title fightback were effectively over after a poor qualifying effort in the August Motegi round, even before he was punted into a spin by Kenta Yamashita on lap one and then clobbered by Koudai Tsukakoshi for good measure.

After a frankly anonymous second visit to Motegi that yielded a 12th-place finish (not helped by choosing the wrong time to pit for slick tyres), Fukuzumi will simply be aiming to recapture his previous strong form without worrying too much about anything else, boosted by victory in last weekend’s Autopolis SUPER GT round.

Hiroki Otsu (Mugen)

Points: 33.5, Wins in 2021: 1

Goal: Prove Motegi was no fluke

Hiroki Otsu, Red Bull MUGEN Team Goh

Hiroki Otsu, Red Bull MUGEN Team Goh

Photo by: Masahide Kamio

Super Formula’s newest winner heads back to a circuit where he had his best result of the season prior to last weekend’s miraculous victory at Motegi in mixed conditions.

Otsu himself was gracious enough to admit he was lucky to benefit from his team’s call to put him on slicks while the rest of the field went with wets on a drying track in Q3, giving him pole, and then a safety car in the race made it an easy decision to pit for slicks and keep the lead.

It was a well-timed win for Otsu, who has probably done enough to ensure his presence on the Super Formula grid for another season. But nevertheless, he’ll be eager to show what he can do on a fully dry circuit without any assistance from the weather gods.

Ryo Hirakawa (Impul)

Points: 31, Wins in 2021: 0 (2nd x1)

Goal: Re-establish supremacy over Sekiguchi

Ryo Hirakawa, carenex TEAM IMPUL

Ryo Hirakawa, carenex TEAM IMPUL

Photo by: Masahide Kamio

Missing a race at Sugo hasn’t helped Hirakawa’s position in the championship, but even setting that aside it’s been a rough couple of races for the man who, at least on the evidence of the first two races, seemed like the only Toyota driver capable of fighting at the front.

Perhaps there was an element of pressure associated with Motegi being portrayed as something of a Hirakawa fiefdom thanks to the Impul man’s wins at the track in 2019 and 2020, particularly with Nojiri well clear in the standings by that point. Either way, now the title fight is over, Hirakawa can simply focus on scoring a first victory at a track other than Motegi.

There’s also the matter of intra-Impul bragging rights to settle. While Sekiguchi is probably too far ahead to catch in the standings, not since April’s first Suzuka race has Hirakawa actually finished ahead of his teammate - an anomaly he’ll be determined to correct this weekend.

Nobuharu Matsushita (B-Max)

Points: 30.5, Wins in 2021: 0 (3rd x2)

Goal: Convince Honda to keep him in place for 2022

Nobuharu Matsushita, B-Max Racing Team

Nobuharu Matsushita, B-Max Racing Team

Photo by: Masahide Kamio

Considering the team missed the first race of the season and changed engineers after the second, it’s not been a bad campaign at all for the tiny B-Max outfit and its new talisman Matsushita. In fact, such has been the ex-F2 driver’s recent form, at least on race day, that a first win for B-Max seems like a realistic objective now.

Unlike the other drivers in this list, Matsushita is not officially affiliated to either engine manufacturer and is understood to have brought a small budget to secure his seat, once Honda had dropped its objections to having a Nissan SUPER GT driver in one of its seats.

That puts him in a slightly more precarious position with regards to a 2022 seat, so a strong end to the season would do his hopes of staying on the grid next year no harm at all.

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