If you had taken a look at the Super Formula 2021 rookie class at the start of the season and guessed who would win, you probably would have chosen Ritomo Miyata.

After all, Super Formula Lights champion Miyata was joining TOM’S to replace Nick Cassidy, and even qualified on the front row last year in his very first outing in the senior class as a replacement for Kazuki Nakajima at Okayama.

But while Miyata failed to reach the podium all year in a frustrating campaign, two other lesser-known rookies ended up surpassing him quite comfortably: Mugen rider Hiroki Otsu and Inging’s Sena Sakaguchi.

One of the pleasant surprises of the season was Otsu winning Rookie of the Year honors and a race victory – becoming one of four Drivers of the Year to step onto the top of the podium – was one of the pleasant surprises of the season, given the skepticism. entering the campaign he would do a better job than his Mugen predecessor Ukyo Sasahara.

After all, Otsu, five years older than his rookie comrades, had little in his recent single-seater pedigree, his last Formula 3 All-Japan victory dating back to 2017. But it’s fair. to say that the 27-year-old Honda protégé almost maximized his chances, culminating in victory in a Motegi race in October.

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Chief engineer Ryan Dingle is among those who have been impressed with Otsu’s progress over the season, which relinquished sixth place in the final standings and a first win for Mugen # 15 entry since the brace. by Pierre Gasly in 2017.

“Otsu is a guy who is very easy to work with, very accessible, and I think [Tomoki] Nojiri took him a bit under his wing and taught him, “Dingle told Motorsport.com.” He has a few aspects of his driving all his own and we were finally able to put the car together the way he wanted over the course. of the second half of the year.

“To Fuji [in the opening round] he damaged his front wing in turn 1, but we had the pace in this race to be in the top five. In Motegi, the first time he crossed the sidewalk, had a problem and lost places there. But other than these incidents, he barely put a wheel askew. He was very calm, like when he won at Motegi he didn’t look like a rookie controlling this race.

In a normal season, Otsu’s contribution would have been enough to secure Mugen the team championship as well. But, with Nojiri and Otsu effectively entering as separate “teams” for one car (a result of Team Goh’s support for car # 15), the prize went to the Toyota Impul company instead.

“It was really disappointing not to win the team title, because I think we worked better as a team than any other,” said the Canadian Dingle, who lives in Japan. “Nojiri was very strong and we had this data to reference, but I like to think that we played a part in that because we helped look at some configuration directions.

“We’ve always had a way to bring the two cars down to a respectable level of performance, and that’s because we’ve always had the two engineering teams working together. Nojiri’s car was always fast, but there were times when they referred to car # 15. And that strength made the team’s two cars cohesive.

In addition to being reliable in the races, Otsu was among the most consistent qualifiers on the pitch, placing in Q3 five out of six times. But apart from his pole at Motegi, which occurred when he was the only rider to use slicks on a dry track, he never managed to qualify higher than seventh, which his engineer concedes to be a point of weakness. .

“If you look at qualifying he was pretty consistent in Q3, but he took that last step in Q3 [was a problem]”Dingle admitted.” This is where a lot of experience and where driver / engineer combinations really matter, because engineers have an understanding of what the driver needs when the track changes.

“We made a few bad decisions in Q3 in hindsight, but we’ve learned from that and if we get the chance next season we’ll be better.”

The driver Otsu narrowly beat to Rookie of the Year honors and victory at Motegi was Sakaguchi, who was chosen to replace outgoing two-time champion Hiroaki Ishiura in the Inging Toyota squad alongside the star of last year Sho Tsuboi.

As Tsuboi floundered without the guidance of veteran Ishiura across the surface, Sakaguchi flourished under the tutelage of engineer Kotaro Tanaka, who left Kondo Racing to join Inging earlier this year.

“This is his first year of racing in Super Formula so at the start I got him to try different things without worrying about the lap times,” Tanaka said of Sakaguchi in an interview with the Japanese edition of Motorsport. com. “I made him understand that ‘this is what happens when you fiddle with that.’

“Sometimes there are times when things aren’t going well, but I always say [to him], ‘you are a rookie, so don’t be afraid to go.’ Because it’s his first year, the results aren’t that big, I tell him he just needs to shine.

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Despite this, Sakaguchi impressed in his debut campaign with two second places (although both in mixed conditions) at Autopolis and Motegi, placing him seventh in the standings, one place behind fellow rookie Otsu and eight places ahead of Tsuboi.

“I think he’s basically a fast rider, and he can give good feedback, even if he sometimes makes mistakes,” continued Tanaka. “He is not passive; he has clear ideas about how he wants the car to behave and he tells us about them. I think this is an important point for a good pilot. That way, if there are any problems, we can solve them sooner.

Tanaka knows all about titles won in Super Formula, having worked with champions such as Loic Duval, Ralph Firman and Tom Coronel in the Formula Nippon era. In order for Sakaguchi to add his name to this honor roll, Tanaka believes the missing ingredient is not raw speed, but simple hunger.

“Racing drivers quickly lose their advantage when they lose the motivation to fight,” Tanaka said. “When they stop looking to the future, they tend to stop winning. There are a lot of fast drivers in Super Formula, so you can’t be a champion unless you’re hungry and hungry.

Additional reporting by Kenichiro Ebii

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