By Jamie Klein
Up until the final round of the Super Formula season at Suzuka, just three drivers had won races all season: rookie sensation Liam Lawson, two-time champion Tomoki Nojiri and the driver that beat both of them to the championship, Ritomo Miyata.
But that all changed when 24-year-old Honda rookie Kakunoshin Ohta stunned the ‘big three’ to grab a surprise first win of his Super Formula career, and end what had been a difficult season for the Dandelion Racing team in spectacular style.
Starting second on the grid, Ohta jumped ahead of polesitter Lawson at the start, and then proceeded to soak up pressure from the Red Bull junior for virtually the entire 31-lap race, with quick pitwork by Dandelion helping him stay ahead in the crucial pitstop phase.
What made Ohta’s triumph even more remarkable was the fact he had struggled so much in the early part of the season, finishing outside of the points in each of the first five races. But everything turned around for both he and the Dandelion team during the official in-season test at Fuji in June, after which he impressively never qualified outside of the top four.
Looking back on this turnaround, Ohta explains that missing the one and only pre-season test at Suzuka test due to injury was a setback that he struggled to overcome initially.
“I think the cause of my poor results in the first half of the season was my injury from my crash in the pre-season test in SUPER GT, which meant I couldn’t run during the official test at Suzuka,” reflects Ohta. “I had no opportunity to practice properly with the SF23.
“I would say I was not driving well at all in the first part of the season, and the team was struggling a little with the new car as well. But after the official test in Fuji, we changed a lot of things on the car that worked well, so that’s the main reason why both of us [Dandelion drivers] have been fighting at the front in the second part of the season.
“Also, after the official test, I could improve my own driving and now I feel really confident about driving this car. I feel like I can be really fast in this car now.
“Of course Dandelion is a really experienced team in Super Formula, but because of the change from the SF19 to the SF23, we were struggling in the first part of the season. But the engineers and staff used their knowledge and experience to improve the car.”
Ohta’s victory in the final race of the season vaulted him up to seventh in the final standings, just one place behind Dandelion’s de facto team leader Tadasuke Makino. Both are from the Kansai region of Japan and have known each other for many years, something Ohta also feels may have sped up the learning curve after his tough start to the season.
“Tadasuke is also a very fast driver, but I’ve known him since childhood,” he reveals. “So we are good friends, and we can talk very easily with one another. He is happy to share his knowledge with me, which I am very appreciative of. But at the same time, beating your teammate is very important and I can’t always be losing to him!
“Also, the Dandelion factory [in Kyoto] is very close to where I live, so I can go there very often, and discuss things a lot and that has helped us to make improvements.”
Ohta is the latest product of Honda’s hugely successful Honda Formula Dream Project (HFDP) scheme, having earned the chance to race in Japanese F4 off the back of his performances at the Suzuka Racing School (now Honda Racing School) in 2018.
He stepped up to Super Formula Lights and SUPER GT’s GT300 class last year, and then to Super Formula and SUPER GT in 2023, contesting the latter category with Nakajima Racing and scoring a memorable podium alongside Takuya Izawa earlier this year at Fuji.
But Ohta’s ambitions are not limited to Japanese shores, and says racing against the likes of Lawson and Miyata this year has made him hungry for an overseas shot of his own.
“This year we weren’t able to challenge for the championship, so that’s something that we need to do for next season,” he says. “Not only do I need to improve myself but I need to work hard with the team as well to make this possible.
“Guys like Ritomo [Miyata] and Lawson have had chances to race overseas based on their results in this championship, so I need to give my all next season to try and be champion, both in Super Formula and SUPER GT.
“Obviously Formula 1 is at the pinnacle of racing, so I would love to get a chance to drive there, but my more immediate goal is to try and become an IndyCar driver. I would really like to be the successor to Takuma [Sato]-san, and win the Indy 500, so for that I have to get good results in Japan and convince Honda to give me a chance to go overseas.”
Ohta does in fact have a small amount of experience of racing abroad, most recently when he contested a round of the French F4 series back in 2019, and speaks English to a surprisingly fluent level - something that could serve him well in the IndyCar paddock.
“In childhood, I went to international school, and after that I continued to study English by myself,” he reveals. “In 2014 I did a season of karting in Europe, although I didn’t stay there, I was commuting from Japan. But I think I need to improve more to convince Honda!”
Beating Lawson in a straight fight at Suzuka has certainly marked Ohta out as one of the drivers to keep a close eye on for the 2024 Super Formula season. Given his rapid progress in his rookie season, it would be no great surprise to see him spread his wings and show his undeniable talents on the global stage in the not-too-distant future.