Giuliano Alesi (TOM’S)
2022 championship placing: 20th
Only confirmed for a second full season at TOM’S last week, it’s clear that Giuliano Alesi is under huge pressure to ensure this season turns out to be a significant improvement on a diabolical 2022 campaign that yielded just a single points finish. As early as May’s Autopolis round it was clear that all was not well between Alesi and the team, but the fact that Ukyo Sasahara was auditioned so clearly as a potential replacement wasn’t exactly much of a vote of confidence. That the son of ex-F1 racer Jean kept the seat alongside Ritomo Miyata was clearly heavily influenced by commercial factors.
It’s not all bad news though. There were signs of improvement in the very last race of 2022 at Suzuka, where Alesi made Q2 for the first time since Fuji and was unlucky not to score points in the race. And while Sasahara impressed TOM’S in the post-season test, the gap between he and Alesi is said to not be as big as the team first thought. Perhaps the reduction in downforce of this year’s new aero package, which will move the character of the SF23 back towards the F2 machinery he had been used to previously, could play to Alesi’s advantage too. But he has to make the most of this second chance he has been given if his Japan adventure isn’t to be cut short.
Liam Lawson (Mugen)
It almost goes without saying that Lawson should be included on this list, because he is the first driver since at least 2020, and arguably before that, who comes to Super Formula with even the vaguest aspirations of using the series as a stepping stone to a drive in Formula 1. The Red Bull junior’s role model in this sense is Pierre Gasly, who did exactly that in 2017 after failing to quite convince the energy drink firm to promote him the year before in GP2, and Lawson arrives in Japan driving for the same Mugen team and with a similar level of experience.
That isn’t necessarily to say that anything less than a Gasly-esque performance – multiple wins and coming within a whisker of the title – will do, as much will depend on how AlphaTauri incumbents Yuki Tsunoda and Nyck de Vries fare in F1 this season, as well as on Lawson’s test and reserve outings in grand prix machinery. But after two solid but not outstanding seasons at F2 level, it’s equally clear the Kiwi needs to quickly establish himself as a frontrunner and at least challenge teammate Tomoki Nojiri and beat him on occasion. With just one pre-season test before the season kicks off, it will be no easy feat.
Kenta Yamashita (Kondo Racing)
2022 championship placing: 15th
Last season started off so promisingly for Yamashita, who along with teammate Sacha Fenestraz appeared poised to ride the wave of Kondo Racing’s return to competitiveness. But while Fenestraz scored victory at Sugo and finished second overall with a level of consistency second only to Nojiri, Yamashita cracked the top five just once all season on his way to the worst championship placing of his six-season tenure at Kondo. He is fast approaching the three-year anniversary of his last podium finish at Motegi in 2020, and his one and only Super Formula win so far at Okayama in 2019 is feeling increasingly like a distant memory.
With Fenestraz leaving Super Formula to join Nissan’s Formula E team, Yamashita goes into 2023 as Kondo’s unequivocal team leader, flanked by rookie Kazuto Kotaka. He also has a new engineer in the form of Takuji Murata, who ran Fenestraz last year, after three largely fruitless seasons of working alongside Kazuya Abe. With Kondo’s two chassis also being swapped for this year, it all adds up to as fresh a start as Yamashita is likely to get inside the Kondo stable. If he fails to up his game this year, his seat could start looking vulnerable as Toyota continues to bring through its constant stream of junior drivers.
Sometime FIA Formula 3 racer Hyman is under no illusions as to why he’s racing in Super Formula this year – it’s the $600,000 cheque Honda’s US motorsport arm HPD wrote for him after winning the Formula Regional Americas series. Getting his foot in the door, however, was arguably the easy part. The next mission is to convince Honda that he deserves to stay on its roster in 2024, when there won’t be any more scholarship money (and, presumably, another hotshot on his way from the States who will have the cash). Considering the recent tribulations of the likes of Ukyo Sasahara and Toshiki Oyu when it comes to Super Formula, that will be no easy task.
Hyman at least has a fast and experienced teammate in the form of Nobuharu Matsushita to learn from, and B-Max Racing should be a more competitive proposition this year with two cars after struggling to make progress with a single SF19. But after a tough baptism of fire in last month’s Suzuka rookie test, and with just one pre-season test to get up to speed before the season opens in April, the South African-born Briton faces an uphill task. Like fellow rookie Lawson, Hyman has to accelerate the learning process as fast as possible. The reward if he gets it right won’t be a seat in Formula 1, but rather just the chance to continue his career as a professional driver.
2022 championship placing: 19th
Unlike some of the other drivers on this list, Fukuzumi’s place within the Honda Super Formula stable probably isn’t under any immediate threat. He no doubt still has credit in the bank from his runner-up spot in 2021 with Dandelion Racing, and his achievements last year in his first season with the minnow Drago Corse team of course have to be taken into context – the team had never scored a point before Fukuzumi finished eighth in last year’s Sugo race. But that was the one and only time the ex-Formula 2 driver managed to score points all season.
Fukuzumi knew he was in for a challenge when he signed up to drive for Drago, but surely he wasn’t picturing things being quite as tough as they were. And despite the partial reset that comes with the introduction of the SF23, the 25-year-old wasn’t exactly optimistic of his chances of climbing up the order this year speaking after the rookie test. The pressure for Fukuzumi therefore comes from needing to prove that his rather left-field switch from Dandelion was the right thing to do, especially at a time that his colleagues on the Honda are increasingly making Honda’s other squads their own.
How did last year’s selections fare?
Naoki Yamamoto – notching up his first race win and pole position in the wet at Motegi, Yamamoto’s second campaign at Nakajima Racing represents an improvement on paper, but in the dry he was still a long way off the pace.
Sho Tsuboi – based on pre-season testing form alone, Tsuboi has to rank as one of the disappointments of 2022. But he was only one strategic miscue away from victory at Fuji, and was a regular points contender in the second half of the year for Inging.
Ritomo Miyata – perhaps the driver whose stock rose the most last year with a series of strong qualifying performances, although two podium finishes for the lead TOM’S driver was perhaps a lacklustre return considering his one-lap prowess.
Hiroki Otsu – handed a late reprieve to join Dandelion Racing last year, Otsu failed to get close to matching teammate Tadasuke Makino and unsurprisingly lost his seat at the end of the year, although he at least went out on a high with second at Suzuka.
Ren Sato – fast but wildly inconsistent, the Rookie of the Year did just about enough with Team Goh to warrant a second season in Super Formula despite the loss of his Red Bull backing.