By Jamie Klein
For the last two seasons, Honda’s Tomoki Nojiri has been the undoubted king of Super Formula, winning back-to-back titles with Team Mugen. This season, he is aiming to become the first driver to win three consecutive titles in Japan’s top single-seater championship since Satoru Nakajima achieved the feat in 1986.
And yet, Nojiri’s path to the top has been anything but straightforward. In fact, he was without a doubt a late bloomer in Super Formula, only winning the title in his eighth season in the series. Although he always had a reputation for speed, consistency was often lacking and it appeared for a while that he might never fulfil his obvious potential.
The same was also true earlier on in his career. As a teenager, Nojiri had the chance to represent Italian kart manufacturer Tony Kart in Europe in 2007 off the back of his strong results in Japan in the years prior. But he struggled to make an impact with his results, something he partly puts down to his immaturity at the time.
“I was still just a kid in every sense, including mentally,” says Nojiri looking back. “I couldn’t look after myself properly in my daily life. Just getting from one day to the next was tough, so I couldn’t concentrate on my racing properly. A few people from Japan accompanied me at first, but after a week or so, they said, ‘We’re off home!’ and I was left on my own.
“I wasn’t able to get good results, and that meant it just became mentally tougher and tougher. I wasn’t able to give it my everything, and at certain points I even considered giving up. I still have regrets about the fact I wasn’t able to produce my best performance.”
In 2008, Nojiri returned to Japan and graduated from the Suzuka Racing School (now Honda Racing School) and earned the top scholarship, enabling him to progress to the Formula Challenge Japan series. From there, he stepped up to All-Japan Formula 3 in 2011, but not before an appearance on the streets of Macau in a Formula BMW car, where he finished an impressive second behind future Formula 1 star Carlos Sainz Jr.
Nojiri hoped that good results in F3 would open up another chance to race in Macau, this time in the main event, and perhaps offer a chance of another crack at racing in Europe. But his record of one win and a handful of podiums wasn’t enough to force open the door.
“At the time, the common understanding was that Japanese drivers had to race in Japanese F3, and then get a good result in Macau to be able to race in Europe,” explains Nojiri. “I still had the chance to race in Europe in my mind, but the results didn’t really come.
“At one stage, I won at Okayama [in 2012], and I was told if I won the next race then they would take me to Macau, but unfortunately the results in the next race [at Sugo] didn’t come. I had the chance, but I wasn’t good enough to seize it.”
After finishing as the best-placed Honda junior in F3 in 2013, Nojiri made his Super Formula debut the next season with Dandelion Racing, replacing GP2-bound Takuya Izawa. But although he scored his first win that year, he didn’t score points in any other races.
“I scored my first win at Sugo, which was thanks to the effort of the team,” recalls Nojiri. “It was my first year so I knew almost nothing, but I was supported by experienced engineers, and they created an environment that allowed me to show my potential.
“But at other times, I made mistakes and I didn’t know where my limit was, so there were many times I pushed too hard and other times I was overly cautious. I was relatively quick in qualifying, but the problem was that my pace wasn’t good enough in a race situation.
“We never quite managed to get over that as a team. I had several podium finishes but I was never in the position to fight for a championship.”
There were two significant moments in Nojiri’s transformation from Super Formula also-ran to the dominant force fans know today. The first was in 2016, his third season in the series, when he was paired with Stoffel Vandoorne at the Dandelion squad.
McLaren junior Vandoorne arrived in Japan fresh from winning the GP2 title, and was clearly headed for Formula 1. For the first time since he joined Super Formula, Nojiri found himself outclassed by a teammate as Vandoorne scored two wins and was comfortably the best Honda driver in the standings. But in the process, he made an important realisation.
“At the time, I was honestly thinking to myself, ‘how can I win?’ and even ‘it’s impossible to win’,” admits Nojiri of his first two seasons. “But when Stoffel arrived, he started winning almost immediately. That was enough to make me think it was possible.
“It was a great stimulus and made me realise that there was more I could do. I had thought before, ‘this is my limit’, but I realised it was just a limit that I had imposed on myself.”
After Vandoorne graduated to Formula 1, Nojiri’s inconsistent form continued for two more seasons before the second key step towards his titles. That was the switch he made to Team Mugen in 2019, as Naoki Yamamoto headed the other way to join Dandelion.
Initially, Nojiri’s results were not markedly better than those he had been achieving with his old team. But the real turning point came in the final race of the season at the Suzuka, where he finally scored his first win since his rookie season five years prior.
“After winning at Suzuka, during the following off-season, I was told by the team to start saying more what you want to say, what you are thinking,” says Nojiri. “It might sound like an obvious thing [to international fans], but it’s more difficult for Japanese people.
“At the end of the day, I realised that I’m the one driving, getting the results. The team was right, and looking back now I regret not having spoken up more. After that, I changed my mindset and made sure to say whatever was on my mind.
“There are times doing so can make the other person feel uncomfortable, so it’s about finding the right way to say things and communicating well, but in any case, it’s important to say what you need to. This is how, step-by-step, we created this strong team.”
One reason why Nojiri has been such a formidable force at Mugen is his race engineer Toshihiro Ichise. While Nojiri spent his time at Dandelion working with highly-respected veteran engineers such as Kotaro Tanaka and Kimitoshi Sugisaki, Ichise only made his debut as a race engineer in 2018, the year before Nojiri joined the team.
Nojiri believes that the dynamic that exists between Ichise, who unusually is two years younger than the driver he oversees, has been key to his recent success.
“When I’m speaking to someone older, who has a lot of experience, I’ve a tendency to go, ‘oh, is that so…’ even when they are wrong,” explains Nojiri. “On the other hand, when I started working with Ichise, there were still a lot of things that we both didn’t understand.
“We had a lot of ideas, and we started trying various things, thinking, ‘what if we do this? Will this work?’ Of course, he listens to my ideas. And the results of what we try out becomes our experience, like a common understanding between us.
“A race week is like putting the pieces of the puzzle together, and I think that is something we are very good at doing together. And I think that way of working has spread throughout the whole team. I couldn’t do what I do now without their support.”
Nojiri has been partnered with a different teammate in each of his five seasons at Team Mugen so far. But in the form of Red Bull junior driver and Formula 1 aspirant Liam Lawson, the two-time champion has by far his toughest challenge yet this season.
“He is a good benchmark for us Japanese drivers, and because I am closer to him than any other driver, it’s inevitable I’ll be compared to him,” says Nojiri of Lawson. “We haven’t had so many foreign drivers in recent years, but the drivers that can race at the top in Europe are so fast. It reminds me of the feeling I had when I was against Stoffel.”
As well as the threat from Lawson, Nojiri has faced the considerable challenge of adapting to this year’s new SF23 car, which produces less downforce than the old SF19, not to mention the pneumothorax (collapsed lung) that saw him sidelined for a race at Autopolis.
Should he overcome those hurdles to win a third title and match Nakajima, it would truly establish him as an undisputed all-time great of Japanese motorsport.