The destiny of the Super Formula title may have already been decided by the time the field arrived at Suzuka for last weekend’s season finale, but we were nonetheless treated to a glimpse of a thrilling title fight that could have been if fortune had gone a slightly different way.
Those that have followed the season in its entirety will no doubt recall that Nirei Fukuzumi was denied what would have been a popular first win on the championship’s first visit to the Japanese Grand Prix venue back in April owing to a puncture while he was leading.
That left the Dandelion driver with only 11 points to show for his efforts in the first two rounds of the season and facing a massive 34-point deficit to Tomoki Nojiri, which in the end proved too much of a hurdle to overcome. But if Fukuzumi had taken maximum points at Suzuka, as he seemed on course to, it could have led to a very different title battle.
After a somewhat bizarre and ultimately fairly inconsequential half-points Autopolis race in the wet, Fukuzumi avenged his Suzuka loss with victory at Sugo, which combined with an off-weekend for Nojiri (who finished sixth) raised hopes of a Fukuzumi revival.
However, a poor qualifying at Motegi, which led to him being turned around on lap 1 courtesy of a tap from Kenta Yamashita, essentially dashed Fukuzumi’s championship aspirations, with Nojiri sealing the deal next time out at the same track.
It was the first time since Loic Duval back in 2009 that any driver had wrapped things up with a round still to run, further contributing to an image of Nojiri dominance.
But, imagine how the championship would have looked if Fukuzumi had indeed won at Suzuka in April; it would have meant an extra 20 points for him, and five fewer for Nojiri. Assuming all the other results remained the same, it would have led to this situation heading to Suzuka:
Nojiri – 75 points (5 points to drop)
Fukuzumi – 54 points (0 points to drop)
Of course Nojiri would still have been the overwhelming favourite in this situation, but in the October race at Motegi – when the title was on the line – Nojiri put in perhaps his least convincing race performance of the season, losing ground in the early laps and managing only fifth.
Last weekend wasn’t the Mugen man’s finest drive either, with a third-place finish only possible because Nobuharu Matsushita jumped the start and Toshiki Oyu was forced into the gravel by Nojiri in their battle for second – for which Nojiri picked up a five-second penalty.
Now, it’s impossible to quantify how Fukuzumi’s performances might have been impacted by the added pressure of being the clear main challenger to Nojiri, rather than being in a group of potential rivals along with the likes of Oyu, Ryo Hirakawa and Yuhi Sekiguchi.
But if he had still been able to win at Sugo, the title battle would have gone down to the wire assuming that the results in both Motegi races were not changed – albeit with Fukuzumi heading to Suzuka needing a minimum of a win plus one bonus point in qualifying (incidentally, exactly what he achieved last weekend) to remain in the title conversation.
Accounting for the vagaries of the dropped scores system, a third win for Fukuzumi would have left Nojiri needing to bolster his five-round score by a solitary point to come out on top. Without bonus points, that would have meant finishing fifth, which is where he started.
It’s hard to imagine that Nojiri would have been quite as aggressive at the start as he was on Sunday had he known he just had to hold position to be crowned champion. Conversely, nothing less than a win would have been enough for Fukuzumi, so the pressure would have been off after his double Motegi DNF.
However you slice it, Nojiri would have still been in a strong position to claim his maiden title, and Fukuzumi’s misfortune earlier in the year doesn’t make him any less of a deserving champion.
But it’s still interesting to consider that just one small stroke of fortune in Nojiri’s favour proved to be the difference between statistically the most dominant Super Formula campaign in a decade and a thrilling climax to the season that could have feasibly gone either way.