Nojiri’s Pole-to-win Brings Championship Within Reach
Round 5 of the 2021 SUPER FORMULA season was held over the August 28 - 29 weekend at Twin Ring Motegi in Tochigi. Koudai Tsukakoshi once again sat in for Tatiana Calderón (Threebond Drago CORSE #12), who was still unable to satisfy the quarantine period after reentering Japan.
A severe heatwave hit Twin Ring Motegi on Friday when teams arrived to set up, and continued well into the next day when free practice started at 8:40 am. Q1 and Q2 were divided into two groups each, and the fastest eight proceeded to Q3.
All Honda drivers except Naoki Yamamoto (TCS NAKAJIMA RACING #1) made it through Q1, and in Q2, Nirei Fukuzumi (DOCOMO TEAM DANDELION RACING #5), Koudai Tsukakoshi (Threebond Drago CORSE #12) and Tadasuke Makino (DOCOMO TEAM DANDELION RACING #6) were knocked out. Tomoki Nojiri (TEAM MUGEN #16), Nobuharu Matsushita (B-MAX RACING TEAM #51), Toshiki Oyu (TCS NAKAJIMA RACING #64) and Hiroki Otsu (Red Bull MUGEN Team Goh #15) proceeded to Q3.
Not only did Nojiri (#16) take pole position after setting the fastest lap throughout the three qualifying sessions, he had set a new track record of 1 min 31.073 s during Q3. Matsushita (#51) qualified third, Oyu (#64) was fifth and Otsu (#15) was seventh on the grid. Due to an 10-lap engine-swap penalty, Oyu was moved up to fourth, and Otsu sixth on the starting grid.
Race day at Twin Ring Motegi was cloudy with intermittent rain, which cleared up for a dry race. Pole-sitter Nojiri was quick off the mark as he took the holeshot, and kept ahead of Yuhi Sekiguchi despite the #19 Toyota using the overtake system to try to steal the lead. An accident at the V-turn, however, meant drivers were stuck behind the safety car for five laps until the track was cleared.
As the race restarted, Nojiri used his overtake system to set the fastest lap and increase the gap with Sekiguchi (#19). Matsushita (#51) was further back, fending off the #20 Toyota of Ryo HIrakawa.
On Lap 10, the earliest lap allowed for tire changes, Sekiguchi pitted. TEAM MUGEN followed suit, with Nojiri (#16) in the pits for tires on the following lap. Nojiri seemingly lost a place in the pits, but was back out on track 1.8s ahead of Sekiguchi (#19), maintaining his lead.
In contrast to Nojiri and Sekiguchi who pitted early, Hirakawa changed tires on Lap 26, the fresh tires allowing him to challenge Nojiri on worn tires in the closing stages. Third on the track, Matsushita pitted for tires on Lap 15, and despite closing in on Sekiguchi, could not take second place.
Hirakawa, who was still on his first set of tires on Lap 26, had a clear track ahead, was charging to close the gap with Nojiri who was in the pits. A slow pitstop, however, dashed his hopes of returning to the track in front of third-place Matsushita. By this stage, race-leader Nojiri had a comfortable three-second gap to Sekiguchi.
Matsushita was only a second behind Sekiguchi, but Hirakawa was closing in fast on fresh tires, leading to a heated battle in the closing stages. Unaffected by the battle for third, Nojiri safely crossed the checkered flag to win the 35-lap race, winning every session of the weekend, and taking his third victory of the season and sixth overall. Matsushita fought until the end to cross the line in third. Nojiri is currently at 76 championship points, all but securing the driver’s title with two rounds remaining.