By Jamie Klein
For Raoul Hyman, last weekend’s opening weekend of the 2023 Super Formula season was the fulfilment of a long-held dream of racing in Japan’s top single-seater category.
Way back in 2019, Hyman made his first trip to Japan to test in All-Japan Formula 3, hoping to compete in what became known as Super Formula Lights the following year. But then the COVID-19 pandemic hit, not only putting paid to those plans but effectively forcing the South African-born Briton to suspend his racing activities entirely for two years.
What changed everything for Hyman was the chance to contest the Formula Regional Americas Championship and aim for the $600,000 scholarship offered to the winner of the series by Honda Performance Development (HPD) to race in Super Formula as a fully-fledged member of the Honda driver roster.
Hyman duly brushed off the cobwebs and dominated the championship, eagerly taking up the unique opportunity provided by HPD and Honda Racing Corporation (HRC).
“The only reason I went to Formula Regional was the HPD scholarship, so essentially the entire purpose of last year was just to get here,” says Hyman. “It’s gratifying and it’s good to be here, but at the same time, it is what I have been working towards all the time.
“It’s a big step from a Formula Regional car to Super Formula, which is second only to F1. It’s not like coming from a traditional F3 car or F2, it’s a bigger step than that. But at the same time this is the opportunity, and I’m not here for the sake of being here.
“I fully intend to be competing at the front, and establishing myself here, because it’s the only way I can make a career for myself. I’m here to be a success, so that’s the goal.”
Looking back on his first taste of Super Formula machinery, Hyman highlights the sheer forces exerted on the driver thanks to the amazing cornering speed of the SF19 and SF23, which has proved to be almost equally as fast as its predecessor in the Suzuka tests.
“In terms of G-force, I have never driven anything like it,” admits Hyman. “From the very first time you turn the steering wheel, there is a lot of G-force. It’s almost violent; your whole body moves despite being secure in the seat. It’s pretty awesome, but it takes getting used to.
“I have done a lot of training, but I think there’s very little that can help you prepare for the first time driving a Super Formula car. In an F3 car, you get to 3G for about one second and that’s it. But at Turns 1 and 2 at Suzuka, you are over 4G for seven seconds!”
One of the other major challenges Hyman has faced is getting to grips with Super Formula’s Yokohama tyres, which behave very differently to the tyres used on the junior single-seater ladder in both Europe and the United States.
“When you come out of the pits for an out lap, there is zero grip,” says Hyman. “But at the start of the first push lap, then suddenly there’s a huge amount of grip. It’s like zero to 100.
“I have enjoyed every aspect, because this is a real race car, the closest to the highest level I have been. I think I’ve made progress every time I’ve been in the car, in terms of getting more in tune with it, because it requires a slightly different driving style to what I am used to.”
Hyman had his first taste of his Honda-powered Dallara SF19, the fastest single-seater racing car in the world outside of Formula 1, when he made the journey to Suzuka for last December’s post-season rookie test, shortly after which he was confirmed as Nobuharu Matsushita’s team-mate in an expanded two-car B-Max Racing line-up.
He returned to the Japanese Formula 1 Grand Prix venue in March, the SF19 now having been transformed into the upgraded SF23, for the Suzuka Fan Thanks Day event and two days of crucial pre-season tests ahead of the opening round of the season at Fuji.
Hyman experienced a baptism of fire in last weekend’s opening Fuji races, finishing 16th and 18th in Rounds 1 and 2 respectively, but crucially he saw the chequered flag both times and banked valuable experience that will surely help on the series’ return to the track in July.
However, the 26-year-old is keenly aware that he will need to make his way up the competitive order over the course of the rest of the season if he is to prove to Honda and HRC that he deserves to be a long-term fixture of its Super Formula driver line-up.
“The only reason I am here is HPD’s support, and if that wasn’t the case, I wouldn’t be here,” says Hyman. “We don’t have the funding to be able to race wherever we want.
“The target is to prove my credentials, that I am able to compete at the front, and generate value for Honda. I want to prove myself to Honda so that I can become a professional driver in Japan. If I have a chance to race in Super Formula and Super GT, that would be ideal.
“But I haven’t focused too much on what comes after this year, instead I’m trying to focus on the process and the job at hand. I want to maximise the opportunity I have been given, represent both HPD and HRC well, and then we’ll see what happens.”
Hyman knows that the path ahead will be arduous, simply because of the high level of competition in Super Formula - where the likes of two-time champion Tomoki Nojiri and three-time champion Naoki Yamamoto set a very high bar for newcomers to reach.
But, with Honda’s deep-rooted support of both Super Formula and Super GT, Japan’s other top racing category, the opportunity for Hyman to build his career driving some of the fastest racing cars in the world is there waiting to be seized.