By Jamie Klein
Last year, Liam Lawson was able to use a dazzling season in Super Formula to dispel any doubts Red Bull Racing may have about promoting him to a seat in Formula 1, putting himself at the top of the list for any future vacancy despite missing out on a 2024 AlphaTauri seat.
For 2024, another protégé has arrived from F2 to take over Lawson’s Team Mugen seat in Super Formula with F1 ambitions of his own: Ayumu Iwasa.
On the surface, both Lawson and Iwasa have had fairly similar careers so far. Like Lawson, Iwasa raced in both FIA F3 and F2 with Red Bull’s backing, and in Iwasa’s case as part of the Honda Formula Dream Project, quickly establishing himself as a frontrunner in the latter category. While Lawson finished third overall in his second F2 season, Iwasa fell just short of that benchmark last year, ending up fourth in the standings.
With Red Bull Racing wanting Lawson to be on full-time F1 reserve duties in 2024, and with arguably little to gain from Iwasa staying in F2 for a third season, the decision was made for Iwasa to take over the Honda-powered #15 car for the upcoming campaign.
But what makes this move particularly noteworthy for Iwasa is that, strangely, it will be his first full season of car racing in his native Japan. That’s because, after graduating from Suzuka Racing School (now Honda Racing School) in 2019, he was sent off to race in French F4, later stepping up directly to FIA F3 in 2021 before his two seasons of F2.
“My feeling is similar to Liam’s, because I have always raced abroad since I left Suzuka Racing School,” says Iwasa. “Everything feels very new. I have a lot of things to learn in this category and from this team. But the target is clearly to become champion this season.”
After a brief first encounter with his new Dallara SF23 at Honda Racing THANKS DAY, Iwasa had three days of running in the official post-season test at Suzuka in December to gain vital experience ahead of the opening round of the 2024 season at the same track in March.
This followed closely on from his first experience in F1 machinery with Scuderia AlphaTauri in Abu Dhabi, which Iwasa says gave him a good idea of what to expect of the Super Formula car.
“The feeling of the car was almost exactly how I imagined, just in between F1 and F2,” explains Iwasa. “If I push more in the corners, it’s getting similar to F1, also in terms of the way you have to drive the car. But in low speed corners, it feels really similar to F2. So there are some F2 feelings and some F1 feelings, similar to what I heard from other drivers.”
While Lawson made a smooth transition from F2 to Super Formula, the New Zealander noted that the way he had to work with Mugen to set up the car was very different to his experience in F2, where drivers are typically expected to adapt to the car, rather than vice versa.
But Iwasa conversely says that the way he worked with Mugen over the course of the Suzuka test was in fact not dissimilar to what he had been doing with the DAMS team in F2.
“Of course the driving style is different because the F2 car is really heavy and has the 18-inch tyre, but the way to improve the car is quite similar,” says Iwasa. “Actually, DAMS was quite different to what I heard from other drivers [about other teams].
“That process was working really well for me, and it’s quite similar to what Mugen is doing now. I think that is helping a lot, and I was able to give good feedback from the beginning of the test. I am using my experience as much as I can. It’s going well, and the team is happy.”
As a rookie, Iwasa was entitled to three days of running with Team Mugen in the Suzuka test, and was fastest on the final day of the test reserved for newcomers. His best lap of 1’36.387 was good enough for fourth overall across the full three days, making him the top Honda-powered driver, and gives him confidence to hit the ground running this year.
“The conditions for pre-season testing and the opening round should be quite similar,” says Iwasa. “For the team, now there is time to analyse the data and work towards the pre-season test, but already we found some good directions. I am really interested to see how much we can improve in the next test, but we don’t know what other teams are doing.”
In order to achieve his goal of becoming champion, Iwasa will have to overcome some stiff opposition. He’ll once again face the man who beat him to last year’s F2 title, Theo Pourchaire. But his biggest rival is likely to come from within the Mugen camp, as Iwasa goes up against two-time champion Tomoki Nojiri (himself a graduate of now-named Honda Racing School in 2008) in the same team.
“Actually, it’s a better situation than in 2019, when I was in Suzuka Racing School, because at that time Nojiri-san was an instructor!” Iwasa jokes. “But now we are teammates, we have to do our best together, and we are sharing everything.
“Of course I respect him a lot, I know he is really fast, even when I watched his races before. From now on we need to work together to win the championship for the team, and then we will fight together on-track [for the drivers’ title].”
Iwasa denies that Lawson’s excellent rookie season in 2023 gives him similar pressure to perform this year, but he knows that to keep his F1 dreams on track, he needs to beat Nojiri, Pourchaire and all his other rivals and win the championship.
Whether he can rise to the challenge is sure to be one of the main storylines to keep an eye on throughout what promises to be an intriguing 2024 Super Formula season.