It shouldn’t have come as a great surprise that last weekend’s Motegi Super Formula season opener was something of a procession, given that drivers were almost unanimous in their view leading up to the race that getting rid of the mandatory pitstop was a bad idea.
Overtaking around the Honda-owned track is challenging at the best of times, but when every car is on the same tyre compound, and the race length (35 laps, down from last year’s 51) is too short to really make tyre degradation a major factor, even in the searing 33-degree Celsius heat, all the ingredients were unfortunately in place for a non-event.
After the race, the top three finishers all admitted that the start and the first few corners ultimately dictated where they finished, such was the difficulty of overtaking. The top four all finished in the positions in which they concluded the first lap, and it was only the fact that several drivers hit trouble that the pack was shuffled from fifth place and below.
Indeed, excluding the first lap, only two genuine overtakes were executed without making contact all race: Tomoki Nojiri passing Hiroaki Ishiura for 11th place on lap three, and Nirei Fukuzumi finding a way by Kamui Kobayashi for sixth on lap 19.
“The most boring race of my life” was how Nick Cassidy described it. The TOM’S man spent the first half of the race stuck in the train that formed behind a struggling Yuhi Sekiguchi, and admitted to just “chilling” and not even trying to find a way to pass Yuji Kunimoto, the next car ahead in the queue, until a series of incidents cleared his path.
Yuhi Sekiguchi, Team Impul leads Kamui Kobayashi, KCMG
Indeed, Fukuzumi and Cassidy registered the fastest laps of the race when drivers that changed tyres or otherwise hit trouble are disregarded – and both on the last lap – with Dandelion driver Fukuzumi setting a best time a full half a second faster than Hirakawa.
Sekiguchi’s best lap meanwhile was eight tenths slower than his Impul teammate Hirakawa, but with Kobayashi running behind him and acting as a buffer to Fukuzumi, he was able to keep a car that was theoretically 1.3s a lap faster at bay for 20 laps.
Likewise, Ukyo Sasahara – one of two drivers to change tyres for tactical reasons – was running two seconds a lap faster than Kazuya Oshima after his stop, but once he arrived on the tail of the Rookie Racing machine in the fight for 10th, there was simply no way by.
Of course, Super Formula has never been known for easy overtaking, even with the 100 seconds of push-to-pass boost known as the ‘overtaking system’. But varied strategies and the way these play out across a race distance that, until this year, was not far shy of a Formula 1 grand prix in length has always been central to its appeal.
Even before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, the decision had been taken to axe last year’s medium tyre, leaving just the soft. While Yokohama had been planning to replace the unloved medium with a new super-soft compound, running out of time to do so, many drivers were happy that the harder tyre was ditched; a common refrain up and down the paddock was that not having to run the slower tyre would help remove an element of luck from races.
Last year, whether the safety car appeared, and when it did so, often determined which strategy turned out to be the 'winning' one, usually heavily benefitting a large group of drivers that started on one particular compound. The hope was that this year, drivers could execute the strategies they wanted without having to worry about the safety car ruining their race (unlike in SUPER GT, the pits aren't automatically closed under caution).
Then came the decision to shorten the races as part of a condensed two-day weekend format, doing away with the need to refuel. Pitstops would still be permitted but they wouldn’t be compulsory, and it was clear that coming in for fresh rubber would probably not be worthwhile given the time loss involved and the importance of track position.
Sasahara said post-race at Motegi that had he not dropped a handful of places on the first lap after being nudged wide into Turns 3 and 4, he wouldn’t have stopped. He and Tatiana Calderon only came in because they were circulating towards the back with nothing to lose.
Ukyo Sasahara, Team Mugen
Would the race have been more entertaining if everyone was forced to make a pitstop? Almost certainly. It would have given the chance for those stuck behind much slower cars, like Cassidy, the chance to pit early and get some clean air instead of just cruising round. And it would have added some jeopardy to the lead fight as well, even if it’s likely that whichever car emerged ahead after the stops would have enjoyed an easy run to the flag.
Last year, many drivers often pitted at the first opportunity (at the end of lap one, or later in the season, as soon as the pit window allowed) to get rid of the medium, but this year pitting too early would risk resulting in getting stuck behind slower cars going long, so timing a stop just right to avoid that scenario would have been crucial. And while the soft tyre is generally durable enough to last the full race distance, at Motegi we saw just how much time can be gained with a clear track versus being stuck underneath another driver's gearbox.
It’s understandable that Super Formula organisers would want to switch to a two-day format in such unusual circumstances this year, and with TCR Japan and Super Formula Lights both on the support bill, that almost inevitably meant cutting down on the race length. But the logic in doing away with the mandatory pitstop entirely seems faulty.
You couldn’t imagine a Formula 1 race, or an IndyCar race, or a NASCAR race in which cars would be expected to go the whole distance with no trip to the pits, and that’s because strategy is an essential part of a fabric of those championships. And it’s the same for Super Formula. Strip away the strategy and you are left with essentially a sprint race, only with high-downforce cars and durable tyres that are not designed for that purpose at all.
Unfortunately, it seems unlikely the pitstop will be making a return to Super Formula anytime soon. The upcoming tracks on the schedule, Okayama, Sugo and Autopolis, are also hardly renowned for their overtaking opportunities, so Motegi-style borefests are likely to become the norm for the rest of the season, unless the weather throws a curveball. Even safety cars are unlikely to do much to enliven things if there’s no incentive to pit.
Of course, the coronavirus pandemic has had wide-ranging effects on the world of motorsport, and nobody would envy the role of a championship promoter in such challenging times. But removing strategy from Super Formula races entirely seems less like a necessary sacrifice than an unforced error on the part of the series organisers.