Tomoki Nojiri held off a late charge from Toshiki Oyu to claim victory in the Super Formula race at Fuji Speedway.
The first qualifying session served up a big surprise, as defending champion Naoki Yamamoto was knocked out in Q1. Yamamoto, now driving for Nakajima Racing, had struggled in pre-season testing and was way down in 16th.
In contrast, team-mate Toshiki Oyu was second fastest in Q1 behind Team Mugen’s Tomoki Nojiri.
Additionally, Kondo Racing’s Kenya Yamashita and Yuichi Nakayama was eliminated, alongside Kazuya Oshima.
Onto Q2, and Nojiri continued to set the pace ahead of Oyu, with Ryo Hirakawa in third.
However, another shock was in store as last year’s Fuji race winner Sho Tsuboi fail to progress.
The Inging driver could only manage 11th, while Kazuki Nakajima was also out after receiving a penalty for exceeding track limits.
The eight-car Q3 shootout saw attention focus on the battle for Pole Position.
Nojiri managed to maintain his advantage and go fastest, two-tenths of a second clear of Oyu.
The Dandelion Racing duo of Ukyo Sasahara and Nirei Fukuzumi locking out the second row.
Sena Sakaguchi was fifth for Inging ahead of TOM’s driver Ritomo Miyata, with Hirakawa and Hiroki Otsu rounding up row four.
Chaos Amongst Midfield as Oyu and Nojiri Take Control
On race day, grey clouds were hovering over the sky, with the possibility of rain forecast for midway through.
When the lights went out, it was Oyu who lead the way into Turn 1 ahead of Nojiri.
Behind them, Yuhi Sekiguchi got a rear-right puncture after cutting across the front wing of Hiroki Otsu.
As the field tried to avoid Sekiguchi’s stricken car, Nakajima was caught off guard and forced to take evasive action at Turn 2.
Consequently, both Otsu and Sekiguchi were forced into making early stops, with the latter falling a lap behind.
Elsewhere, Yamamoto had an excellent start, moving up eighth place at the end of the second lap.
Out in front, Oyu had a built up a two-second lead, but Nojiri started to close him down.
On Lap 10, as the pair approached the Dunlop chicane, the Mugen driver made his move.
Using his overtake boost, Nojiri went around the outside of Oyu to make the manoeuvre stick and take the lead.
Further back, Yamamoto was the first driver to make their mandatory stop. However, a issue with changing the rear-left tyre cost him valuable time.
Subsequently, he dropped down to 17th place, but quickly got the hammer down.
By Lap 17, Yamamoto was sixth-tenths fastest then anyone else on track. Despite this, everyone else stayed out as the teams kept one eye on the weather conditions.
Oyu and Fukuzumi Duel over Second
As Nojiri pulled away up front to build a lead of 3.7 seconds over Oyu, third-placed Nirei Fukuzumi started to close in.
On Lap 22, Fukuzumi used his overtake boost to try and force his way through into Turn 1. Nonetheless, Oyu was resistant and made Fukuzumi go the long way round.
As the pair raced down towards Turn 2, Fukuzumi held the inside line, only for Oyu to bravely cut across at the last second.
Two laps later, Fukuzumi made another attempt into Turn 1, with Oyu once again holding the inside line.
However, Oyu locked up and went wide, allowing Fukuzumi to calmly cut underneath and take second place.
Shortly after, the sister Dandelion car of Uyko Sasahara performed a similar manoeuvre to claim third.
Clearly struggling with tyre wear, Oyu then made his pit stop at the end of Lap 25.
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As the race passed its midpoint, the expected rainfall had yet to arrive as more driver made their mandatory stops. However, the lack of heat in the tarmac was causing some issues for drivers on their outlaps.
Both Sakaguchi and Yamashita went wide at Turn 1 after leaving the pits on cold tyres.
Furthermore, Fukuzumi also locked up on pit exit, but was able to maintain his position ahead of Oyu.
However, Oyu was able to utilise his fresher tyres to pass for sixth position.
With 11 laps remaining, the wet weather board was displayed on the timing screens, as the light began to fade over Fuji Speedway.
However, the small spots of rain weren’t heavy enough to warrant a change to wet tyres.
At this stage, the top four of Nojiri, Hirakawa, Tsuboi and Nakayama had yet to change tyres.
Late Pitstops Create Late Drama
Six laps from the finish, Tsuboi stopped and rejoined in seventh. Unfortunately, he’d crash out shortly after due to a lack of temperature in his tyres.
Elsewhere Yamamoto, who pulled off a ballsy overtake around the outside of Sasahara at Turn 3.
Oyu was charging and gaining valuable time as the top three tried to leave it as late as possible to pit.
With three laps to go, Hirakawa pitted and consequently dropped behind Oyu and Fukuzumi in fourth.
On the penultimate lap, Nojiri pitted and maintained the lead, but weaving furiously as he tried to gain tyre temperature.
As they approached the finish, Oyu was gaining a second per sector but simply ran out of time.
This allowed Tomoki Nojiri to claim the first win of the season at Fuji Speedway ahead of Toshiki Oyu and Nirei Fukuzumi.
Ryo Hirakawa a distant fourth, with Ukyo Sasahara holding off a late charge from Naoki Yamamoto for fifth. Ritomo Miyata claimed seventh with Yuji Kunimoto taking the last point in eighth.
The need to make his mandatory stop saw Yuichi Nakayama dropped way the order to 14th place.
2021 Super Formula: Fuji Speedway Provisional Results
1 Tomoki Nojiri Team Mugen 41 Laps
2 Toshiki Oyu Nakajima Racing +1.576
3 Nirei Fukuzumi Dandelion Racing +3.737
4 Ryo Hirakawa Team Impul +19.236
5 Ukyo Sasahara Dandelion Racing +26.481
6 Naoki Yamamoto Nakajima Racing +29.890
7 Ritomo Miyata TOM’s +30.470
8 Yuji Kunimoto KCMG +39.880
9 Sena Sakaguchi INGING +43.771
10 Kazuya Oshima Rookie +47.159
11 Kazuki Nakajima TOM’s +52.607
12 Kenta Yamashita Kondo Racing +53.967
13 Tatiana Calderon Drago Corse +55.223
14 Yuichi Nakayama Kondo Racing +56.480
15 Kazuto Kotaka KCMG +58.200
16 Hiroki Otsu Team Mugen +1 Lap
17 Yuhi Sekiguchi Team Impul +2 Laps
18 Sho Tsuboi INGING +5 Laps