Document-chaser Yamamoto bids to show round dire pre-season
The recent matter in pre-season testing has unquestionably been Naoki Yamamoto’s robust begin to life at Nakajima Racing. Simply two years on from switching from Staff Mugen to Dandelion Racing, Yamamoto received itchy toes once more, lured away from Dandelion by the prospect of changing into Nakajima’s first champion since Loic Duval in 2009 and dealing with famend engineer Yuki Katoh, who took Alex Palou to inside a whisker of the crown in 2019.
The connection nonetheless is off to a sluggish begin. Much less alarming than his place on the timesheets in testing – 14th at Suzuka, eighth at Fuji – has been the hole between Yamamoto and teammate Toshiki Oyu, round eight tenths of a second. Contemplating Oyu is 10 years the junior of Yamamoto and has simply seven SF begins beneath his belt, it doesn’t look good for the person who hopes to match Satoshi Motoyama’s tally of 4 titles this 12 months.
Talking after the second day at Fuji, Yamamoto tried to look on the brilliant facet: “It’s inevitable that not every little thing will go properly for the entire season, so I believe it’s vital to have the ability to discover the reason for what’s going flawed in the course of the onerous instances. In that sense, I don’t suppose this dangerous expertise [in testing] has been a waste, and I don’t need to waste it.
Naoki Yamamoto（TCS NAKAJIMA RACING）
Picture by: Masahide Kamio
“Having a three-time champion on board creates some stress for the crew. Whereas I’m grateful for the belief they’ve in me, I’m dissatisfied with myself for not dwelling as much as that belief. Yearly there’s stress, however I believe to have a unique kind of stress to a normal 12 months is sort of motivating. No two seasons are precisely alike. I at all times have the sensation of not eager to lose, but it surely’s refreshing to have this sense.”
Turning round such a disastrous begin to the season guarantees to be Yamamoto’s greatest problem in Tremendous Components since going up in opposition to now-F1 grand prix winner Pierre Gasly at Mugen 4 years in the past – and the way he responds might go some technique to defining his legacy as he stakes a declare for a spot among the many pantheon of Japanese home racing greats.
“It’s all the way down to me whether or not this problem lastly succeeds or fails, however I got here right here pondering I might succeed. If I had stayed at Dandelion my probabilities of defending the title might need been higher. However I moved to this crew as a result of I felt their potential, and we gained’t know till the season whether or not I used to be proper or not. It was my choice, so I don’t remorse something.”
Hirakawa leads the Toyota cost after 2020 near-miss
Hirakawa’s third season driving for Staff Impul signified his transformation from occasional victory contender to real title menace – and he can think about himself desperately unfortunate to have come up two factors in need of beating Yamamoto to the title. The dangerous pitstop at Autopolis; the ‘100 yen’ half letting him down in Suzuka qualifying, the four-way crash that very same day that despatched him hurtling into the obstacles; if any of these three occasions hadn’t occurred, he would have nearly actually walked away with the crown.
This 12 months, Hirakawa goes into the season for the primary time as one of many favourites for the championship, maybe the favorite contemplating Yamamoto’s state of affairs. And he was probably the most constant throughout the 2 pre-season exams, topping the charts at Suzuka earlier than going third-fastest at Fuji, additional underlining his standing within the eyes of many as the driving force to beat.
However Hirakawa reckons Toyota’s energy deficit to Honda is more likely to show a handicap once more, particularly on the Fuji season opener, citing Oyu’s searing tempo on the monitor in testing.
Ryo Hirakawa（TEAM IMPUL）
Picture by: Masahide Kamio
“Toyota is in the identical state of affairs [as last year] by way of engine efficiency,” he says. “We’re utilizing much less wing however we’re nonetheless the identical and even slower than the Honda guys, who’ve extra downforce. So it’s going to be a troublesome season arising. I’ll be proud of a podium at Fuji, however my fundamental goal [for race wins] will likely be Motegi, Autopolis and Sugo.”
With the exits of Nick Cassidy and Hiroaki Ishiura, Hirakawa additionally goes into the brand new season as clearly the Toyota contingent’s strongest hope in opposition to the Hondas. Requested to call his closest rivals for the title, he named Oyu, Nirei Fukuzumi and Yamamoto, whose hunch he doesn’t anticipate to final. However, talking of Oyu and Fukuzumi, he notes: “Final 12 months they have been probably not constant, however this 12 months I believe they are going to be harder opponents.”
Fukuzumi steps up as de facto Dandelion crew chief
Whereas Yamamoto has dominated the headlines just lately together with his struggles, the crew that the three-time champion left behind, Dandelion Racing, has been quietly getting on with making ready to defend its 2020 drivers’ title. And the unlucky absence of Tadasuke Makino, nonetheless recovering from the meningitis that saved him out of motion in final 12 months’s season finale at Fuji, means someday GP3 and F2 racer Fukuzumi finds himself thrust into the default crew chief place on the age of 24.
In 2020, Fukuzumi was somewhat unfortunate to solely come away with a single podium end throughout a marketing campaign through which he was typically a match on sheer velocity phrases for Yamamoto. However, what he lacked, apart from the rub of the inexperienced at Autopolis and Suzuka I (each races the place he deserved a top-three end), was consistency, particularly in qualifying.
Now married to his long-time sweetheart Ayami and dealing with Yamamoto’s previous crew chief Kimitoshi Sugisaki (who additionally engineered Stoffel Vandoorne again in 2016), Fukuzumi goes into this third season as a Dandelion driver with an important likelihood to ascertain himself as considered one of Tremendous Components’s elite crop, all of the extra so contemplating Makino’s absence.
Nirei Fukuzumi（DOCOMO TEAM DANDELION RACING）
Picture by: Masahide Kamio
“it’s a very good alternative,” acknowledges Fukuzumi. “Till final 12 months, Naoki was making quite a lot of the set-up choices, and I received quite a lot of data from that facet of the storage. However now I’ve to do every little thing myself with my engineer [Sugisaki]. After all the goal this season is to combat for the championship. However I have to be very constant, that is the important thing.”
Topping the ultimate day of pre-season testing at Fuji was an encouraging signal for Fukuzumi, though he admits that over a lap Oyu might be nonetheless barely forward. He says: “I believe the situations gained’t be the identical for the race weekend, so I by no means imagine the testing outcomes. It’s my third [full] season, so I do know the circuits, the automobile and the way to race. Hopefully it is going to be higher. Now there aren’t any excuses. I simply have to focus and do my job correctly.”
Yamashita goals to guide Kondo Racing out of the doldrums
Contemplating the state of Kondo Racing’s late-2020 kind, it’s straightforward to overlook that the outfit owned by Japanese singer-turned racing driver Masahiko ‘Matchy’ Kondo gained the groups’ title as just lately as 2018 with Nick Cassidy and Kenta Yamashita. With Yamashita joined by one other younger, hungry worldwide driver within the type of Sacha Fenestraz final 12 months, it appeared related success was on the playing cards, particularly after a powerful two-three at Motegi.
Alas, that was pretty much as good because it received for Kondo all season, with neither Yamashita nor Fenestraz making it on the rostrum once more all 12 months. The crew failed to enhance on the earlier 12 months’s sixth within the crew’s standings, with qualifying proving a selected bugbear because the 12 months went on – Yamashita began each Suzuka races from sixteenth and the Fuji Speedway finale from 14th.
Kenta Yamashita（KONDO RACING）
Picture by: Masahide Kamio
With Fenestraz nonetheless not in a position to get again to Japan because of visa hassle, it falls to Yamashita and ace engineer Kazuya Abe (the architect of Yamamoto’s first two SF titles) to guide Kondo out of its current funk. However the indicators from Fuji testing weren’t encouraging, as Yamashita was solely 14th-fastest and his short-term teammate Yuichi Nakayama was seventeenth.
“We have now the identical issues because the second half of the 12 months,” mirrored Yamashita at Fuji. “From Sugo [Round 3] onwards, we have been struggling. We tried quite a lot of issues on the set-up, and we improved a bit on the ultimate afternoon, however nonetheless it’s not that good. It’s irritating, and a bit tense, if you find yourself at all times P10 or under. Within the opening race I’d someway prefer to get into Q3, however I believe it is going to be onerous. If doable I’d like to complete within the high 5.”
One small piece of fine information for Kondo is that Motegi, ostensibly the crew’s strongest monitor, is about to look twice on this 12 months’s calendar. One other is that, in contrast to final 12 months, Yamashita gained’t be lacking any races for journey causes, though it nonetheless stays to be seen if Fenestraz will make it again for the second spherical at Suzuka later this month. However the opening couple of races not less than seem like they’re going to be troublesome.
Collection stalwarts beneath stress as rookie inflow continues
The make-up of the Tremendous Components grid has undergone one thing of a change within the final couple of seasons. As just lately as 2018, the median age of the grid was 31, however now it’s all the way down to 26.5 following the retirement of the collection’ elder statesman Hiroaki Ishiura and the arrival of a recent crop of rookies: Ritomo Miyata, Sena Sakaguchi, Kazuto Kotaka and Hiroki Otsu. Precisely one third of the sphere on Sunday at Fuji will likely be beneath the age of 25.
Taking up from Ishiura because the oldest driver within the area is TOM’S man Kazuki Nakajima, who is about to overlook an honest chunk of the season because of his WEC commitments for Toyota. However he will likely be on obligation for not less than this weekend’s curtain-raiser at Fuji, the place he’ll share the TOM’S storage with a driver a full 15 years youthful within the type of Miyata.
Kazuki Nakajima（Kuo VANTELIN TEAM TOM’S）
Picture by: Masahide Kamio
Requested for his views in regards to the current inflow of younger weapons, Nakajima replies: “I believe it’s attention-grabbing for the followers. Personally, I don’t really feel previous, though I’m lacking Ishiura-san! However in the long run I do not suppose age means a lot. I’m nonetheless match, and I’m nonetheless assured within the automobile. And naturally, to see younger guys coming in in the event that they carry out properly is one thing we should always welcome.
“I do really feel the age distinction [with Miyata], that’s for positive. However his driving type is perhaps nearer to mine than Nick [Cassidy]’s was, and likewise by way of preferences for set-up. I assume we are able to work properly collectively, much more so than final 12 months, and by way of one-lap velocity I believe I can study from him. It must be good for the crew.”
Ishiura’s disappearance leaves solely a handful of over-30s left on the grid. At Suzuka, the place each Nakajima and Kamui Kobayashi will probably be absent, Yuhi Sekiguchi (who solely debuted in 2016!) is poised to take over because the oldest driver within the area. With extra kids ready within the wings, together with some who’re set to get some SF expertise this season, the stress is on the skilled drivers like by no means earlier than to show they nonetheless belong.
Extra reporting by Kenichiro Ebii
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