What even is a Super Formula?
One man; one journey to work out what this "F1.5 but Japan" thing really is
Motorsport can be really confusing at times. Most sports generally follow a ruleset that is shared across nations; and a structure of progression that is a neat pyramid, where the best, most exciting competition takes place at the top. Of course motorsport has to be different; with its convoluted web of separate series, each with their own special appeal. So I set it upon myself to find out about the wild west of motorsport beyond the big 3 of F1, F-E and WEC (it rhymes if you say it in a roundabout way). This starts with Super Formula, a series everyone has heard the name of, but has never been in the mainstream in the same way an Indycar has been; and me, a person who has never watched much motorsport beyond the safe, corporate confines of Formula 1; learning that the real treasure is the cool series’ we discover along the way.
So what is Super Formula, you ask?
Super Formula is the top tier of Japanese open wheel racing; and is one of a few domestic professional tier series, alongside the aformentioned Indycar. Typically open wheel domestic series act as cogs in the feeder series machine, think national F3s and F4s. This said, Super Formula bucks the trend; with a field filled with up and coming talents, along with former fan favourites of Formula 1. It began as All Japan Formula 2000; and acted somewhat as a mirror series to Formula 2/International 3000/GP2; it helped produce talents like Ralf Schumacher and Pedro De La Rosa, as well as modern masters of the junior series such a. However the series has become more and more of a stand-alone across the years: with drivers choosing to commit to Super Formula along with WEC or Super GT rather than continue in the rat race to make one of the two or three F1 seats open every year.
Importantly, Japanese heritage runs through the veins of Super Formula, with a cast of Japanese drivers along with a few international drivers, tracks that show off the wealth of motorsport love Japan has beyond the one time a year that F1 goes to Suzuka, see the popular Fuji Speedway acting as the finale to the season; and the engines are supplied by Honda and Toyota. Even the productions of the series are proudly Japanese; and as someone who remembers his days of playing PES on the Wii and pirated versions of Pokemon; the vibrant Japanese style is a sharp and refreshing distinction from the desperate efforts from FOM to fit in as many sponsors and plugs as possible; even if this comes from my inability to read Japanese.
What's so different about this series on track?
Well, this is the awkward bit. Super Formula usually is an absolute throwback when it comes to regulations, making some top notch racing with refuelling; overtake power; varied tyre compounds and no DRS. Unfortunately with the coronavirus pandemic; it has brought about rules changes that meant one tyre compound; no refuelling and no mandatory pitstop, as well as a shorter race. This resulted in the open track equivalent to Monaco, with the only real changes in position coming from a couple of incidents with contact; as well as a few attempts to try making a difference with a pit for new tyres; albeit unsuccessful due to the lack of degradation from the shorter race. In all honesty; I wouldn’t watch the first race unless you were dead set on watching the series from the word go. There is a but, luckily, as rumour has it that these changes will be reversed very soon as a result from the outcry of drivers, media and viewers. If you want to watch some real nostalgia-inducing racing, it might be back soon.
The scoring is similar to the typical 10 scorers style albeit slightly less weighted towards winners; as well as points for the top 3 qualifiers. Importantly standings are on the top 5 of the results; accommodating for the current and potential clashes non-Japanese racing causes with a mandatory quarantine. This creates the ability for those who will miss rounds due to this epidemic; as well as a lifeline for those who falter at some point in the series.
So who should I root for?
As previously mentioned the field is cram packed with talent and big names; but there are a few drivers who stand out. Kamui Kobayashi calls the series home; a cult favourite to those who watched him at Sauber in the early 2010s. His daring overtakes are sure to spice up races and keep the action high. One thing to keep an eye on will be at the double header at Suzuka; the proving ground for Kamui, renowned for underdog performances in both qualifying and the race there. If you want a blast to the past; make sure to watch him there.
Another driver who will be keenly followed by the motorsport world will be Nick Cassidy. The reigning champion is widely known as one of the better drivers to never drive in Formula 1; abandoning the typical pyramid of junior progression to drive in Japan (his success had brought about a number of drivers making the pilgrimage to Super Formula and GT such as podium finisher Sasha Fenestraz and Juri Vips). Having come second in the season prior to last; Cassidy has seemingly conquered the series and will be moving to Envision Virgin of Formula E to partner DTM championship contender Robin Frijns. This will likely be his last shot at a Japanese title, with the constraints of a drive in Formula E, and therefore will want to go out on a high, retaining his championship and giving the proverbial middle finger again to a Formula 1 pathway that rejected him.
Finally; Super Formula sees its first female driver since 1997 in Tatiana Calderón. Tatiana joins after a Formula 2 season filled with the disappointment of not picking up a point; and the pain of losing teammate Anthoine Hubert in the horrific incident at Spa. Many a driver would struggle to recover from the ignominy of this; but not Tatiana. Her 2020 has been one of a reborn career. Firstly she has put some quite powerful performances in during her drives in the ELMS series, picking up a 5th and a 6th alongside André Negrão and Beitske Visser She, then, put in a rather strong performance in her Super Formula debut in round 1; despite struggling for pace, she defended her 12th place magnificently from the clutches of Naoki Yamamoto and showed she is here to fight for points and places. Maybe this is the year Calderón breaks out and proves she is so much better than dismissive “for a woman” comments that female drivers have had to face in spite of their talent.
So where can I watch it?
To watch the series is surprisingly simple; with races shown live on The Race’s youtube channel, and a back catalog of races on motorsport.tv. The first race may be a bit of a bore, but it’ll show you who’s who and what’s what in the series; as it ramps up and drivers who failed to score seek to make up for that; the races will continue to liven up on the way to the feet of Mount Fuji.