Once again, the Japanese Super Formula Championship has produced some competitive racing.
Unsurprisingly, the Drivers’ title went right down to the wire as Hiroaki Ishiura, Nick Cassidy and Naoki Yamamoto were all in contention at the final round in Suzuka.
In the end, it was Naoki Yamamoto who managed to hold his nerve to win his second Super Formula Drivers’ Championship.
Here’s a round-up of how Yamamoto and his fellow competitors got on this season.
Naoki Yamamoto, Team Mugen – 2 Poles, 3 Wins, 3 Podiums, 38 Points
After his eighth-place finish in Fuji, many started to question whether Naoki Yamamoto would be able to maintain his lead in the Drivers’ standings.
Seventh place in Motegi before failing to score points in the shortened race at Okayama meant that the Team Mugen driver dropped to third behind Hiroaki Ishiura and Nick Cassidy in the standings.
However, when the Super Formula paddock arrived in Suzuka, Yamamoto’s experience kicked in.
Having produced a great lap to take Pole Position, Yamamoto made his choice of pit strategy work to lead with title rival Cassidy bearing down on him.
The sustained pressure forced Yamamoto to run wide at the chicane at the end of the penultimate lap, but the Kiwi couldn’t get close enough to attempt an overtake on the Japanese driver.
This allowed Yamamoto to win the race and with it, the Drivers’ Championship; Honda’s first title since the 30-year-old driver won the Drivers’ title in 2013.
Yamamoto also had a successful season in the Super GT Championship driving for Team Kunimitsu.
Driving alongside the 2009 Formula One Champion, Jenson Button, the pair managed to win both the Drivers’ and Teams’ Championships for Honda, courtesy of their third place at the manufacturer’s home track, Motegi.
Naoki Yamamoto has made history. He's only the 4th driver after @PedrodelaRosa1 (1997), @SatoshiMotoyama (2003) and @Lyonsracing21 (2004) to crown himself double champion by winning both the #SuperGT GT500 and #SFormula championships in the same year. @TM_Kunimitsu100 @mugen1973 pic.twitter.com/di4F3Y6avR
— geinou (@geinou) November 11, 2018
Nick Cassidy, Kondō Racing – 1 Pole, 1 Win, 4 Podiums, 37 Points
Following his breakthrough victory at Fuji, Nick Cassidy looked like a serious contender for the Drivers’ title.
Cassidy finished third and fifth at the subsequent races in Motegi and Okayama respectively, and would go on to become the only driver to score points in every race this season.
So, the fact that he lost out on the championship to Naoki Yamamoto by a single point was a bitter pill to swallow and made the mistake in the final race at Suzuka even more pivotal.
During the closing stages of the race, Cassidy went on the dirty side of the track at the Dunlop Curve and lost control of his car.
Although he was able to stay on the tarmac, the error had cost him a handful of seconds.
Nevertheless, Cassidy managed to catch up to Yamamoto, but the damage had been done and he had to settle for second place in the race, and the Drivers’ standings.
A small consolation for this though was that Cassidy’s consistency throughout the season helped Kondō win their first Teams’ Championship.
Hiroaki Ishiura, Team Cerumo – 1 Pole, 1 Win, 2 Podiums, 25 Points
Hiroaki Ishiura had an uncharacteristic start to his Super Formula campaign, as he scored only five points from the first two races.
This was followed up with a second-place finish behind Nick Cassidy in Fuji.
The two-time champion then returned to form with a lights-to-flag victory at Twin Ring Motegi, with further points in Okayama keeping him in the title picture.
However, qualifying for the final race in Suzuka couldn’t have gone any worse as Ishiura failed to advance from Q1.
In the race, Ishiura struggled to make his way through the field and had to settle for 11th place.
Yuhi Sekiguchi, Team Impul – 1 Pole, 1 Win, 2 Podiums, 18 Points
Once again, inconsistency has hampered Yuhi Sekiguchi’s chances to mount a strong challenge for the Super Formula title.
Failure to score points at Sportsland SUGO and Motegi respectively meant that his title chances were slim at best.
Heading into the penultimate round at Okayama, Sekiguchi needed to claim maximum points to keep his championship hopes alive and started the race from Pole behind the Safety Car in wet conditions.
When the race finally got underway, Sekiguchi had to contend with the feisty Kamui Kobayashi, who despite having a damaged front wing, managed to stay close to the back of Sekiguchi’s gearbox.
Sekiguchi kept the former F1 driver at bay, with the race brought to a halt after 34 Laps due to poor lighting and visibility.
However, as the race failed to reach the requirement 75% distance for Drivers to receive full championship points, this meant that Sekiguchi was out of the title race.
Ryo Hirakawa, Team Impul – 1 Pole, 2 Podiums, 17 Points
The second half of the Super Formula season has been much kinder to Ryo Hirakawa.
After claiming his first points finish in Fuji, Hirakawa secured back-to-back podiums with second in Motegi and third in the shortened race at Okayama respectively.
Hirakawa was then on course to finish in the points in the season finale at Suzuka, which would have evaluated him to fourth in the championship ahead of team-mate Yuhi Sekiguchi.
Then, with ten laps to go, Hirakawa suffered a right-rear tyre failure on the start-finish straight and forced him to the end a promising debut season in one of the worst ways possible.
Kazuki Nakajima, Team TOM’s
Kazuki Nakajima’s inability to contest at Motegi due to his commitments with Toyota in the FIA World Endurance Championship immediately ended his chances of winning a third Drivers’ Championship in Super Formula.
The Le Mans winner managed to put in some respectable drives, with a podium finish in SUGO being his best result of the season.
Tomoki Nojiri, Team Dandelion Racing
Tomoki Nojiri showed flashes of potential this year, with a podium at Suzuka and a Pole Position at SUGO.
However, failure to return to the podium for the remainder of the season saw Nojiri slowly slide down the standings as his form deteriorated.
Yuji Kunimoto, Team Cerumo
Once again, a run of rotten luck has prevented Yuji Kunimoto from achieving results that he deserved.
Preceding his third-place finish, Kunimoto was on course for a strong haul of points at Sportsland SUGO, only for his car to experience an array of technical issues and force him to retire.
Fourth place in the final race at Suzuka demonstrated what he is capable of and hopefully 2019 will allow Kunimoto to challenge for the title once more.
Kenta Yamashita, Kondō Racing
Kenta Yamashita went under the radar this season, quietly picking up the odd points finish as his Kondō team-mate Nick Cassidy challenged for the Drivers’ title.
Yamashita pulled off some great overtakes this season and finished with a flourish as he took third place in Suzuka.
Nobuharu Matsushita, Team Dandelion Racing
Nobuharu Matsushita endured a tough debut season in Super Formula but did have some high points.
Fourth place at Twin Ring Motegi was Matsushita’s highest finish of the year, before he added two more points to his tally thanks to his seventh-place finish in Suzuka.
Tom Dillman, Team Le Mans
Tom Dillman’s fourth-place finish on his Super Formula debut should’ve been the launch pad for a series of points finishes.
Circumstances outside of the Frenchman’s control however such as bad strategy calls, and botched pit stops prevented Dillman adding to his record before he returns to the ABB FIA Formula E Championship with NIO in Mid-December.