FEATURE – FUJI SPRINT CUP FORMULA NIPPON RACE
Single seaters are not seen very often on 7tune but let’s make an exception this time as the Formula Nippon, arguably the fastest of all racing categories in Asia, was sharing the top of the bill for the JAF Grand Prix Fuji Sprint Cup last week at Fuji Speedway. GTs and Touring cars are nice, but nothing can match single seaters for pure racing. One man, one machine, and the fastest comes through at the end.
Formula Nippon, and before that Japanese Formula 3000 and Formula 2, used to be an alternative feeder series for Formula One in the late 90s. It has been some time since a F’Pon (as it’s called by the locals) hotshot graduated to the world top motorsport championship and the series has fallen on hard times with only 15 cars on the grid this year, a dearth of sponsors and dwindling crowds. This is a shame because the driving level is still very high, the teams are very professional operations and the racing is spectacular. This year we have seen no less than six different winners in seven races and the championship fought four-ways down to the last event in Suzuka.
The series uses since 2009 a spec chassis built by Swift and powered by either a Toyota or a Honda normally aspirated 3,4l V8 (basically the same engines as in the GT500 cars of Super GT) claiming more than 600 hp. This makes for fast cars : 314 km/h for Kei Cozzolino on the Fuji straight on Saturday. The races are usually 220 to 250 km long with one stop for refueling and tyres, so the strategy plays a role too. This was not the case for the Fuji Sprint race which was fought in 2 rounds of 22 laps each of the 4.5km circuit. The first starting grid was established according to the max straight speed and the second on the lap times of the same session, leaving the choice for the drivers between speed and downforce.
On the Saturday, the opening ceremony consisted of an extended grid walk with Formula Nippon, Super GT and various other cars all together on a dummy grid opened to the public. 60 cars + from top to bottom, that made for a long walk indeed. So let’s stick with the one in front, the 2010 champion JP de Oliveira’s Impul car. Clear track until Turn 1 in the distance…
Here is André Lotterer, who got the second spot on the season’s podium this year. Don’t be fooled by the cartoonish grin; André, self-proclaimed Race King, is quite the heartthrob. Although given his usual manic pace when he starts from the back, you could well imagine this face under his crash helmet… This time he did not have to force his considerable talent : he jumped to the front before the first corner of both races and cruised to the finish line well ahead of everybody else, getting the gold medal (there really were medals for the top finishers) and a comfortable amount of prize money.
You will recognize the livery on André’s car : this is the same as his Super GT Lexus, the coveted Petronas sponsorship of the TOM’S team. It is shared by his team mate Kazuya Oshima, a young driver who actually did quite well this year, winning one race, after a difficult first season in 2009. Even if you are not familiar with the japanese motorsport scene, you will have heard the name Lotterer. André finished second at Le Mans 24 hours this year alongside another Japan regular, Benoît Tréluyer, in a works Audi. This will tell you something about the level of the Formula Nippon (and Super GT) put in international context.
Another name who made the headlines at Le Mans this year was that of Frenchman Loïc Duval who got the lap record during his early morning charge in the remaining Peugeot. Already Formula Nippon 2009 champion, he was in contention this year as well until the very last race. He failed to keep his no1, finishing third in the championship, but can take some solace with the Super GT title.
The same can be said about Takashi Kogure, Loïc’s team mate in Super GT and the fastest japanese driver for several seasons on. He also had a shot at the title this year but a string of bad luck denied him the chance again.
The rookie of the year is Naoki Yamamoto. Graduating from F3 and one of Honda’s protégés he was meddling regularly with the best of them and was almost mistake free all year, a remarkable feat for a newcomer. Remember that name… Talking about name, you probably know the driver in the car at the top of this post, Yuji Ide. He is famous worldwide for his less than stellar showing in F1 in 2006 but is actually better than that unfortunate experience would let you think. Returning this season in Formula Nippon after a year off in 2009 he did interesting things despite the lack of testing and was actually quite good at Fuji.
The cars have 5 push-to-pass opportunities per race, and the ring of LEDs on the rollbar is there to display the remaining number for the benefit of the spectators. When a driver uses his push-to-pass, the rev limiter is raised for 20 seconds while the whole LED system flashes. The championship leader gets red LEDs instead of white ones. This is an interesting concept, unfortunately it does not work well as the defender often pushes to not be passed at the same time as the attacker does. Still, it makes for interesting light shows on the straights.
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Text & Photos – Pierre Laurent Ribault