Nick Cassidy won the wild season opener of the Japanese Super Formula in Suzuka, where only 12 cars saw the finish line. Coming from twelfth on the grid, the TOM's rider bristled with four safety car phases and prevailed against defending champions Naoki Yamamoto and Kenta Yamashita. Bad luck for rookies Tadasuke Makino and Alex Palou.
"Everything is possible in the Super Formula" commented a beaming Nick Cassidy to the Japanese television after the finish line. Thus, the 24-year-old New Zealander described a chaotic race course, in which he implemented his strategy perfectly to retract his twelfth starting position from his second career success. The fact that he would ultimately be on the highest level of the podium, surprised him after the qualification itself. For an unexplained reason even for Team TOM's lacked Cassidy, who switched in the winter of Kondo Racing to the legendary team of Nobuhide Tachi, Downforce. The result: A residue of about 1.5 seconds on the final poleman Tadasuke Makino in Q2. The emergency resulted in a strategy that provided for an early tire change. A plan that already worked in the past. But this time helped with a safety car phase.
It started the weekend with a fist thick sensation. After Nakajima Racing made a statement at the preseason tests, two new signings, Tadasuke Makino and Alex Palou, set a good lap in qualifying for the season opener. So the former Formula 2 driver Makino wrote history when he was the first driver to conquer the pole position on his debut. If you look at the time before the founding of the Super Formula respectively Formula Nippon in 1996, which is not included in the statistics of the Japan Race Promotion (JRP), Roberto Moreno achieved this feat in 1984 in the All-Japan Formula 2 Championship – the spiritual predecessor of the Japanese Formula 3000 and today's Super Formula. Barely exceeding Kazuki Nakajima's track record in 2017, Makino beat his team-mate Alex Palou with a 1: 36.060 (1: 36.089). The Spaniard, who recently raced in the Japanese Forme 3 Championship and has participated in several Super Formula tests for the past two years, dominated the timesheet until the final qualifying session. For Nakajima Racing it was the first pole position since Motegi 2010. Similar to the race, the qualification saw three interruptions due to the red flag due to several accidents. The top 5 were completed by Naoki Yamamoto and Nirei Fukuzumi, who both moved from Team Mugen to Docomo Team Dandelion Racing this year, and Yuhi Sekiguchi.
At the start, former Formula 2 racing winner Tadasuke Makino did not bother with anything and promptly defended his lead. Behind him, Alex Palou was the first to lose to Naoki Yamamoto. However, since Palou and his stable mate started on the softer soft mix of serial outfitter Yokohama, with the help of Overtake-Systems OTS he managed to overtake the defending champion in a spectacular maneuver one lap later in turn one. As usual, OTS increases fuel flow by 10% per activation. Unlike in previous years, however, use is no longer limited to five charges of 25 seconds each. Instead, drivers can now use the Overtake button as often as they like for a total of 100 seconds. The colored LED lights on the airbox indicate how much time is left. When the 100 seconds are almost used up, the color changes from green to red.
Unlike his direct competitors, Naoki Yamamoto launched on the harder media mix. At least for the first few kilometers, this proved to be a disadvantage as he was also overtaken by Yuhi Sekiguchi on lap three, who was able to win two positions at the start. Most of the places in the first five rounds made up for Red Bull junior Daniel Ticktum, who is fighting for the required Formula 1 Super Licensing points in Team Mugen after his two last year missions this year in Japan. Coming from grid position 16, he initially worked his way up to eleventh position. In the meantime, the battle of the two Nakajima Racing pilots raged at the top, which followed in the wake of about five seconds from the pursuers. However, this should not last long, because after five laps Alex Palou got a drive-through penalty. The reason was a start-up violation after a mechanic removed part of his SF19 Honda one minute before the formation lap.
Just at the same time Nick Cassidy came in for his early pit stop to switch from medium to soft tires. A strategy that he used already at Kondo Racing times to gain time outside the traffic and to reach the points. This time, however, luck should also be on his side. For example, in the ninth round, the safety car had to move out for the first time after Ryo Hirakawa had suffered a puncture in the speeding 130R. At the same time it caught rookie Tristan Charpentier, who took over the real-racing cockpit of Koudai Tsukakoshi, and also because of a plates in just the same curve flew off. Both drivers were able to get off alone and were unhurt.
Immediately the field used the neutralization to complete the compulsory pit stop. Only Kamui Kobayashi, Alex Palou and Yuji Kunimoto decided to stay outside. The tire change should also be the end for Yuhi Sekiguchi's victory dreams after the Impul driver crept back into the pit lane one lap later with a technical problem and was pushed backwards into the garage. Nick Cassidy was, of course, the big profiteer of the SC phase, which put him in fifth position forward. During the restart on lap 11, the New Zealander made immediate use of his grippier soft-pneus and overwhelmed Tadasuke Makino, who switched to the harder medium mix and was subsequently caught by Naoki Yamamoto. Last year's runner-up also passed Yuji Kunimoto, taking his first virtual lead in third place. The 2016 champion, who switched from Cerumo-Inging to Kondo Racing this year, was first handed down on his medium tires.
However, the green phase should not last long. Already in the 16th round it crashed again. This time Kazuki Nakajima flew off the Degner curve after a too daring maneuver by rookie Harrison Newey. Ironically, the pair crashed into qualifying on Saturday, as the son of legendary Formula One designer Adrian Newey lost control of his vehicle in the bucket. For the action in the race was the B-Max Racing with motor park (B-Max Racing was late last year, a joint venture with the German Motopark team) with a penalty for dangerous driving occupied. Daniel Ticktum and Hiroaki Ishiura took the opportunity to come in again for another fresh set of tires. However, the two-time Super Formula Champion of 2015 and 2017 did not move because of a gearbox problem – and had to give up the season opener prematurely.
When the race was restarted in the 18th round, Alex Palou immediately attacked leading Kamui Kobayashi with the help of OTS. The KCMG rider, however, was able to defend on the inside, as a sudden puncture finally destroyed the race of the 22-year-old finally. Again, the field had to be neutralized by means of the safety car to recover the Spaniard's Honda-powered SF19 cars. Meanwhile, the new KCMG team principal and two-time Super Formula champion Tsugio Matsuda decided to leave his protégé out. Instead of falling back into traffic with the medium tires, Kobayashi should instead drive out after the restart a corresponding lead to earn at least one of the front points. The plan went first: As in round 22, the green flag was repeatedly waved, the former Formula 1 driver immediately sat down from his pursuers. Behind them, Tadasuke Makino could not keep up with Nick Cassidy and Naoki Yamamoto. After qualifying, the 21-year-old Japanese rider said his performance was better than the medium tire due to a slight setup change. This statement was also reflected in the race, as he had to concentrate mainly on the ever-increasing in the rearview mirror Kenta Yamashita.
In the 27th round started Yamashita in turn one attack against Makino, which could defend his compatriot, however. A lap later, his race ended in the tire stack of the spoon curve, as he also suffered a puncture on the right rear. Although Makino was able to get out on his own, he was out of breath for the first few minutes. That's what it was for a single history book entry last weekend. So far, no rookie has been able to win in his super-formula debut since 1996. However, if one adds the spiritual predecessor series, this feat was last achieved by the Japanese motorsport legend Masahiro Hasemi in 1974 – at that time still under the All-Japan Formula 2000 banner.
With the fourth and final safety car phase Kamui Kobayashi's plans were finally destroyed. However, he stayed outside again, while Yuji Kunimoto finally made his duty change after flying back to 13th position. However, the Kondo Racing driver literally started with fresh soft rubbers. Immediately after the restart in lap 32, he clawed at several vehicles, including the two sponsored by Red Bull cars of Daniel Ticktum and Lucas Auer, who was appointed at the end of last year in the promotion program of the energy drink manufacturer and as teammate of Harrison Newey B-Max Racing with motorpark contests its first year in Japan. At the same time he benefited from two drive-through penalties against Nirei Fukuzumi and LeMans new signing Artem Markelov, who thus flew out of the points positions.
At the top, Kamui Kobayashi extended his lead over Nick Cassidy by about three seconds on the final kilometer. The New Zealander had already taken the virtual lead, which is why he focused on the behind him Naoki Yamamoto. However, the reigning champion could not quite keep up with his title rival last year. Instead, the Dandelion rider had to defend against Kenta Yamashita, whose attack attempt, however, defended skillfully in the 41st Round. Just in the final round came Kamui Kobayashi to his mandatory pit stop. However, the developed projection was not big enough, which is why he flew back to the tenth position. In the end, he benefited from a time penalty over Kazuya Oshima. The LeMans driver overtook the final restart too early, so he got bruised on the final score for 30 seconds. Similar to Cassidy, the Japanese changed his tires in the seventh round and fought his way from fifth to thirteenth. His efforts were, however, unpardonable due to the time penalty.
So Nick Cassidy won after Fuji 2018 his second Super Formula race before Naoki Yamamoto and his former team-mate Kenta Yamashita. After the race, the TOM's driver was overjoyed. "Of course, luck played a role today," he said at the press conference. "However, our strategy was perfect and communication with the team worked out well." At the same time, he explained that the new overtake system changed the nature of the duels. "It's a bit easier to see when someone presses the button." He laughingly added, "It almost felt like I could talk to Naoki Yamamoto during the race." The previously mentioned downforce problem still threw some puzzles, especially as he also in the race under this Litt: "During the preseason tests we had one of the fastest cars. We need to find out where the problem was this weekend. "
Although Nick Cassidy and Naoki Yamamoto moved to new teams, they started the new season just as they finished the previous one: in the top two positions. The biggest difference, however, was the order. If the current Dandelion rider was at the top of Suzuka at the end of last year, it was Cassidy who climbed the top step of the podium. The gripping title duel of the two last year's rivals seems to go into a second round in 2019. For Team TOM's it was the first victory since Kazuki Nakajima's triumph at the 2017 season opener.
"I had some performance problems with the medium tires," said third-placed Kenta Yamashita. "Nevertheless, I'm very happy about today's result. Today was only the first race. I'll do my best to win in the other six races. "Mugen newcomer Tomoki Nojiri, who swapped the cockpits with Naoki Yamamoto, finished the Suzuka opener in fourth place. Best rookie of the race was Sho Tsuboi. Last year's Formula 3 record winner (Tsuboi won 17 of a total of 19 races) finished his super-Formula debut in the cockpit of Cerumo-Inging in fifth place, having crashed in qualifying and started from 18th place. Yuji Kunimoto struggled to sixth after his late pit stop. Lucas Auer finished his Japan debut in seventh place. The final points went to Daniel Ticktum, who benefited from the penalty Kazuya Oshima. The young Brit was a little bit frustrated after the race because of the lack of speed throughout the weekend.
However, the biggest losers of the first race of the season were clearly Nakajima Racing. Instead of a possible double victory Tadasuke Makino and Alex Palou had to end the race prematurely because of a puncture. The only consolation: Makino's bonus point for the pole position as well as the fastest race lap of Alex Palou. Despite the pitch, the team around Satoru Nakajima managed to confirm their excellent performance during the winter tests. With the SF14 era seeing the emergence of smaller teams such as Cerumo-Inging and Kondo Racing, the SF19 era could be the reawakening of the former championship troupe. At the same time, it is proof of equal opportunity in Super Formula. The new car from Dallara convinced on the track with some thrilling duels. Only the many tire damage should cause a little headache.
Next up is the second round of the season at the Autopolis Circuit in Oita Prefecture on May 18th and 19th. Last season, unfortunately, the race had to be canceled due to heavy rain and fog.
Result Round 1 Suzuka
Current championship stand
Copyright Photos: Japan Race Promption (JRP), Toyota Gazoo Racing, Honda Racing, Suzuka Circuit