In 1999, Eddie Irvine and Heinz-Harald Frentzen were second and third in the Formula 1 World Championship, posting career-best seasons they would never come close to replicating in their remaining careers. Ralf Schumacher carried an in-flux Williams organization to fifth in the World Constructors’ Championship by himself at age 23. Pedro de la Rosa scored a point on his F1 debut for a woeful Arrows squad. And Mika Salo got the F1 chance of a lifetime as Michael Schumacher’s injury substitute at Ferrari.
Not a single one of these drivers graduated to Formula 1 via the International Formula 3000 Championship, though. All of them were products of the Japanese Formula 3000 Championship, and its successor from 1996, the Formula Nippon championship. A series that ran on only one Formula 1 circuit (Suzuka) as opposed to the small handful of circuits International F3000 shared with Formula 1.
Fifteen years later, the series that currently exists as Super Formula is making small steps towards regaining that relevance as a genuine F1 feeder series. Very small steps, though.
Andre Lotterer’s Formula 1 appearance at the Belgian Grand Prix ended the same way the last noteworthy German F1 driver debuting at Spa in a green car’s outing did – a quiet mechanical failure and a DNF on Lap 2. In terms of intra-team performance, however, Lotterer outqualified teammate Marcus Ericsson – who, like Lotterer, has won championships in Japan with the TOM’s organization – by almost a full second in the wet conditions. This has raised questions as to whether or not Ericsson is a worthy F1 talent, but do give credit to Lotterer, one of the greatest active drivers in all of motorsport, for performing as admirably as can be under the circumstances and proving that he is Formula 1 material, even if his heart lies squarely in Le Mans.
Caterham were rumored to be eyeballing another TOM’s driver to appear in Free Practice 1 at the Japanese Grand Prix in October, only this time it was 24-year-old Andrea Caldarelli. Caldarelli has substituted for both Lotterer and his Audi teammate Loic Duval in Super Formula this year. He has previously tested for both Ferrari and Toyota’s F1 teams, and he currently sits 2nd in the GT500 standings in Super GT with a chance to become the youngest ever champion in the class. It is his commitment to the Super GT title fight that ultimately led him to turn down Caterham’s offer, and instead race in Thailand that weekend as the series heads to the new Chang International Circuit in Buriram for the penultimate round of the 2014 championship.
Lotterer became the first driver since former Super Aguri driver Sakon Yamamoto to graduate to Formula 1 via Japan’s top open-wheel championship and compete in a Formula 1 Grand Prix. Yamamoto’s appointment was eight long years ago, and with the creation of GP2, GP3, and the Formula Renault 3.5 Series, Super Formula has become, until recently, completely redundant as a feeder series to Formula 1, when it had seen its alumni reach the pinnacle of F1 success as recently as July 6th, 2003 – the day of Ralf Schumacher’s 6th and final F1 victory in Magny-Cours.
When they were still in the sport, Toyota groomed F1 hopefuls such as Kamui Kobayashi, Kohei Hirate, and Keisuke Kunimoto in the European ladder rather than in Japan. Takuma Sato, a dedicated Honda driver, only spent a year in the Japanese Formula 3 series before moving to Europe, and eventually winning the British Formula 3 Championship in 2001.
Toyota has been out of Formula 1 for five years, and have no intentions to return any time soon. But they’re the primary backers of the man that is now Japan’s top open-wheel prospect, and a driver that must now be introduced to the European open-wheel ladder via the GP2 Series in 2015 and given a chance to succeed in F1 – Ryo Hirakawa.
Hirakawa is just 20 years old. He’s driving part-time in the Super GT series for TOM’s as Kazuki Nakajima‘s replacement when Nakajima has commitments in the WEC for Toyota, and currently in his second season of Super Formula with Sunoco Team Le Mans.
Hirakawa is the only driver to win both the Japanese Formula 3 Championship and Porsche Carrera Cup of Japan titles, and he did it in the same year, and as an 18-year-old rookie in both championships. And he didn’t just win those championships, he thoroughly dominated the competition. He’s already tested in IndyCar for Dale Coyne Racing at Sonoma last year in the hopes of landing a race seat that unfortunately never materialized. He was nominated to the Formula E Driver’s Club earlier this year, though as of now, is not signed to any of its ten teams. And while you could glance at his numbers in Super Formula and think that he’s nothing special, and I can’t defend him throwing away what should have been a first career victory at Fuji Speedway on the last lap, nor barrelling into a GT300 car in the second lap of his first Super GT stint at the same circuit – remember that his level of competition in Super Formula is closer to that of IndyCar than any F1 feeder series, as he competes against full-time WEC LMP-1 drivers like Lotterer, Nakajima, and Duval, other former F1 drivers like Vitantonio Liuzzi and Narain Karthikeyan, and Japanese racing veterans like Joao Paulo Lima de Oliveira and Hiroaki Ishiura.
There is serious untapped potential in Ryo Hirakawa, and it’s that sort of potential that needs to be scouted by a team in the GP2 Series for next season as they evaluate their options. Simply because…well, it’s not looking good for Japanese drivers in the open-wheel ranks of the west lately.
Let’s recap, briefly: Takuma Sato had a horrid 2014 IndyCar season, and many are wondering if he’s crashed one too many Dallara DW12s to stick around no matter how much of a fan-favorite he is. Kamui Kobayashi is a lame duck driver at Caterham, who have built another sub-par chassis that’s robbed him of the thing that made him a fan-favorite in the first place – his ability to overtake. And in the junior ranks of Europe, it’s arguably worse right now. Kimiya Sato won a single-seater championship whose prestige is now worth as much as a twenty dollar gift card to a chain restaurant, and has been a dismal bust in GP2 even as a rookie. To say nothing of 30-year-old rookie Takuya Izawa, a Super Formula veteran who has never once matched Stoffel Vandoorne‘s pace at ART, and now seems to be headed back to Japan.
So…why not take a flyer on Hirakawa if you’re a team owner in GP2?
The series’ switch to Dallara chassis and new turbo 4-cylinder engines for Super Formula this season has already paid dividends for the series, and should, in theory, make a switch to GP2 nearly painless – the only thing he’d need to really come to grips with are the temperamental Pirelli tyres and the grid format that’s tripped up so many other rookies (see: Rafaelle Marciello) since 2011. I’d even go so far as to argue that GP2 should be switching to Super Formula’s chassis and powerplants immediately since they’re more in-line with what F1 has now, but that’s for another article entirely.
At his very worst – and I’ve seen him make critical errors in races in Super GT and Super Formula – Hirakawa certainly couldn’t be as slow and lackluster as Kimiya Sato or Daniel de Jong, or as dangerous as Sergio Canamasas (hey, Trident, there’s an idea for a driver change you could make in time for Sochi!). It would also help continue to rebuild that bridge from Super Formula into Formula 1 that stood very strong just two decades ago. At the very worst, if Hirakawa endures a miserable rookie season the way Hirate did and never came back, he could always continue to pursue opportunities in IndyCar, or continue to have success back in Japan.
Toyota might have to charge a small ransom to let a GP2 team hire him to try and pursue racing in a series they want no part of any more, but Japan’s F1 future stands at a crossroads in 2015 in terms of representation – Honda’s coming back, but Kobayashi is likely out of F1 again after this season, and Izawa and Kimiya Sato just flat-out aren’t cutting it.
You’ll never know what you’ll get out of Ryo Hirakawa unless you give him his chance in GP2. There’s a slim chance, but still a chance, that you may be looking at Japan’s new F1 superstar sometime in the future…all he needs is the opportunity.