By Jamie Klein
It’s a good time to be Liam Lawson. The 21-year-old Red Bull junior driver from the city of Hastings in New Zealand is leading the Super Formula standings after four of this year’s nine races, with two wins to his credit so far, and such have been his performances so far that he is already being talked about as a contender for a move to Formula 1.
That has always been the goal for Lawson, who was handed a huge opportunity to prove himself worthy of F1 by Red Bull at the end of last year when he was named as defending champion Tomoki Nojiri’s team-mate at leading Honda Super Formula outfit Team Mugen.
After pre-season testing at Suzuka, Lawson was keen to manage expectations, suggesting that beating a driver like Nojiri right away wasn’t a realistic target. But come the opening race at Fuji Speedway, Lawson stunned the establishment by beating Nojiri in a straight fight and becoming the first debut winner in Japanese top formula racing in some 45 years.
“I was pretty sceptical coming in, I wasn’t sure how it would go,” Lawson says reflecting on his incredible start to his Super Formula career. “Testing never gives you a clear indication of where you are, and for me everything is very different here.
“Going into Round 1, you always have that unknown feeling of whether it’s going to be ok or not. Fuji was unique as well with free practice being cancelled, but after qualifying I knew we had a strong package and that gives you confidence as a driver, knowing that the car has good speed and that as long as I do my part, we should be in a good position.”
Lawson admitted that qualifying as high as third for the opening race at Fuji came as something of a shock considering his total lack of experience of the track, compounded by Friday’s free practice session being cancelled due to bad weather.
“When practice was cancelled, I was like, no chance… I’m gonna qualify at the back!” says Lawson. “I spent the first half of qualifying just learning the track, and then we came in and put a new set of tyres on. I did my lap and boxed, and then in the garage I was looking for my name towards the bottom of the timing screen, because that was the first proper lap I had done. And I was P2! That was when I was like, ‘oh, ok, we have good speed!’”
Victory at Fuji meant that Lawson continued a remarkable run of winning first time out in almost every category he’s ever contested in car racing, including other high-level series such as Formula 2, where he raced for two years before this season, and DTM.
“Before Fuji, I was getting messages from people saying, ‘you’re gonna carry on the record and win the first race,’ and I was like, ‘Guys, you don’t understand! It’s not gonna happen like that’,'' jokes Lawson. “To win, a lot of things have to fall into place: the start; the car being exactly where you want it to be; the tyres degrading how you expect; the pitstop being good; the strategy being good. All of that has to happen, and it did in that race.”
Lawson says that racing in Super Formula has been a completely different experience compared to his two years trying to prove himself in F2, and a much more enjoyable one. Despite the challenges of working with a Japanese team for the first time, the Kiwi’s integration within Team Mugen has appeared almost seamless from the outside.
“I would say I was a bit shy when I first came here because of the language barrier, but I very quickly learned that the whole team including Nojiri-san, are super-respectful,” says Lawson. “I think I have never had a teammate who is as nice as a person as Nojiri.
“As a driver who has grown up going through F4, F3, F2… you’re all trying to reach the same goal of making it to F1 and you have to beat each other to get there. Here the top drivers are not looking elsewhere, so it doesn’t feel like that. There tends to be a lot more respect between drivers, which I didn’t experience so much before in my career.”
Lawson has also been impressed by the incredible commitment of the Team Mugen staff in their own quest to win a third title in a row this season. “The work ethic is unlike anything I’ve seen. I was on a FaceTime call with the team before Round 1, it was 9:30pm in Japan, I was in the UK. They were in the garage and I could see my car in the background. They were working on the car until late at night doing everything they could for me.
“My engineer [Tomohiko Koike] is also having English lessons to make it easier for me. He even found a teacher from New Zealand, so he’s picking up the slang and everything!”
For his part, Lawson says he has also been trying to master the basics of Japanese, and he even managed to introduce himself to the assembled press in last December’s Honda presentation speaking in Japanese. “That was one of the most nerve-wracking moments of my career,” he recalls. “I was more nervous for that than I would be just before a race!”
Lawson’s clear focus is on using success in Super Formula this season as a springboard to F1, and following his latest win at Autopolis, he is now four points clear at the head of the drivers’ standings and is among the clear favourites in the title battle.
Between racing in Japan, Lawson is also performing simulator work for the Oracle Red Bull Racing F1 team, putting into practice some of the things he has learned driving his Honda-powered Super Formula car. Naturally, he hopes to be able to continue taking advantage of the knowledge he has gained in the series as a fully-fledged F1 driver next year.
“The aero sensitivity of these cars is extremely high, and that relates a lot to F1,” explains Lawson. “The stuff we’re focusing on here with set-up is the same stuff. The last couple of years doing simulator work for Red Bull, I was learning stuff about the set-up that I had never looked at before, stuff that we just didn’t do in F2. But coming here, a lot of it is similar.
“Of course, the speed of the car is also much closer to F1. This bridges the gap so much. This is the only car that is somewhat close, with similar characteristics. I’m so glad to have come here. If I get a shot to race in F1, I will be really happy that I raced here first.”