This weekend, Super Formula returns to Motegi for its penultimate round of the season. At first glance, this promises to be more or less a resumption of the August race at the Tochigi Prefecture track, but with a bit cooler weather and the added bonus of four previously absent regular drivers returning. on the track.

The championship could well be decided early as Tomoki Nojiri won the August race and is just a few points away from the title. But there is no denying that coming back to the same track for a second straight race with the same race format is a rather unsatisfying way of potentially deciding the championship.

It’s worth remembering that Motegi was given a second date on this year’s calendar in place of Okayama, who disappeared from the schedule for financial reasons. But when you consider that last year’s Super Formula race at the former Pacific F1 Grand Prix venue only attracted 5,500 spectators for two days, less than a third of the equivalent number. of 2019, it’s easy to see why Okayama doesn’t feel like it. this time.

And while part of that drop can be attributed to the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s not as if the number of spectators has increased again in all areas since then. Taking into account only the attendance on race day, the best number of the year was the 11,300 fans who came to the Fuji season opener. The next race at Suzuka (9,500) was the only other event to cross the 5,000 mark.

Arguably the August Motegi race was the most disappointing of all, drawing a meager 4,400 fans on race day. To put this in context, the SUPER GT round at Motegi in July saw 12,500 participants in the race, almost three times as many, and the track even hosted 4,200 fans for the opening round of the Super Taikyu season in March.

Perhaps Motegi’s figure was affected by the sharp increase in COVID-19 cases in Japan in August, but the previous week’s SUPER GT round in Suzuka still managed to draw 11,500 people on the day of the event. race, so this does not appear to be the case. a satisfactory explanation.

And when Super Formula draws essentially the same crowd as a Pro-Am second-tier sports car series, whatever the circumstances, serious questions need to be asked.

Tomoki Nojiri’s last victory came in front of largely empty stands.

It’s fair to say that Super Formula has been hit harder than most championships by the pandemic. There isn’t much that the series’ organizers can do about the border restrictions that have sadly robbed the series of much of its international flavor, but the sweeping changes to the racing format that have been made for the season 2020 was not well received by the majority of participants. the paddock.

As a reminder, races were reduced from 250 km to around 180 km, removing the need for refueling, while limiting the strategy options with the arbitrary minimum pit stop window on lap 10. This happened at the same time as switching to a single dry compound. tire, which can last a race distance with few real problems, and the mandatory tire changes were even briefly removed altogether before being brought back after a truly soporific season opener from Motegi.

Super Formula races are now around an hour long, about half the length of a typical SUPER GT race, giving track fans a lot less action for their money than before. And that’s before considering that overtaking on the track has been rare this season, the August Motegi race having turned out to be a real nap: the first four finished in the order in which they finished the first lap. , the first three finishing in order of the grid.

Organizers have tried to increase the overruns for 2021 by increasing the allowance for the overtaking system (OTS) to 200 seconds, double the previous 100 seconds, but a common criticism of the OTS is that it is too easy. to defend his position with him. In fact, giving each driver 200 seconds means there’s even more incentive for them to just mash the OTS button when there’s a car right behind.

But perhaps the biggest criticism that can be leveled at Super Formula right now is that, at least in its 2021 form, it has ceased to be a real test of a driver’s ability. While pilots generally like the nimble, high downforce SF19, they are decidedly less enticed by the difficulty of the setup, and many talented pilots and very experienced engineers have spent most of the season snapping away. the hair to try to coax more. speed of it.

This is partly because there is so much that teams are allowed to change on the car, and the technical freedom offered by the rules even extends to the use of things like custom shocks and flaps. stretcher. Something as simple as the type of shock absorber a team uses can easily make or break a season, even if it is completely out of the driver’s control.

Indeed, one of the weird things about the 2021 season has been the number of successful SUPER GT drivers who struggle so much in Super Formula, such as Naoki Yamamoto, Kenta Yamashita and Sho Tsuboi. For a championship that can set itself apart from its competition by being a pure battle of drivers, it doesn’t do the job particularly well of making the most talented shine.

Naoki Yamamoto is not the only top rider to have had inexplicable difficulties in 2021.

Naoki Yamamoto is not the only top rider to have had inexplicable difficulties in 2021.

The lack of international drivers for most of the season has not helped Super Formula with its overseas profile, but the low spectator turnout seen this season suggests that even at the domestic level it is struggling to compete for. spark the interest of fans with SUPER GT, which offers a much more convincing product on the right track.

While crowd numbers have yet to hit 2019 levels, the SUPER GT races look a lot more like real events, with the paddock transformed into a mini-metropolis and the manufacturers and sponsors making a real effort with the activation – something that you do not see so much. in Super Formula these days, which should come as no surprise given the rather meager crowds.

As one driver said to this writer some time ago, “The teams and the drivers are really bored, not just the fans. Everyone is afraid of losing this championship. But it is no longer exciting. It must be a lot more exciting, like SUPER GT or F1. We need big changes.

The good news is that JRP, the organization behind Super Formula, along with engine suppliers Honda and Toyota, have recognized that something needs to change to help reconnect the series with fans.

To that end, a “task force” has been formed to come up with ideas for the series for next season and beyond. More double-headed weekends, expanded strategy options, and perhaps a return to longer races (something JRP all but ruled out earlier in the season) seem to be the order of the day.

The championship in its current form wouldn’t be viable without the involvement of Toyota and Honda, so the fact that they are committed to finding ways to help the series out of the doldrums is an encouraging sign. But a simple window covering will not be enough.

Hopefully, spectator numbers improve next season as the specter of COVID wears off among an increasingly vaccinated Japanese population, but for the championship to prove to be sustainable there has to be a significant leap from to 2021 figures. And for that to happen, the track product needs to be made much more attractive through changes in sporting and technical regulations.

Acknowledging the problem was an important first step, but now is the time for Super Formula and its stakeholders to be bold and start winning back the fans it has let slip.


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