Almost six months after her latest appearance in Super Formula, Tatiana Calderon managed to return to Japan for the sixth round at Motegi, but was met with a difficult race weekend hampered by a throttle issue that took her out of the race.
Tatiana Calderon's 2021 Super Formula campaign has been a challenging one so far, after travel restrictions and strict quarantine protocols in Japan put her commitments in the series on hold after the two opening rounds at Fuji and Suzuka.
Calderon, who is also combining a racing program in World Endurance Championship with Richard Mille Racing and has entered her second 24 Hours of Le Mans this year, could only travel back to the land of the rising sun in October - almost six months after her last appearance in Super Formula - for the sixth and penultimate round of the season at Twin Ring Motegi.
Calderon therefore climbed back in the ThreeBond Drago Corse Dallara SF-19 Honda on a familiar track, as the Colombian made her debut in the series last year at Motegi.
Nevertheless, she had to quickly get up to speed with the changes made on her car during her absence, where Koudai Tsukakoshi stepped in the #12 machine.
“I am very happy to finally be able to race in Japan again." - said Tatiana.
"I have not competed in Super Formula since April, but I have kept in touch with the team, following and commenting on the races on Claro Sports, where they will also be able to join me this weekend."
"I have closely followed the progress of the team and there are several changes that I will have to adapt to quickly before qualifying." - she added. "It will surely be a challenge, especially since the previous race, which I was not in, was on this same track, but as always I will do everything in my power to have the best possible result. I really like this country so I will enjoy my experience, the stay and sharing again with the Japanese fans."
Just like Calderon, Kamui Kobayashi - also racing in WEC - and French driver Sacha Fenestraz finally had the chance to return to Super Formula at the 4.800 km circuit.
For all three of them, it turned out to be a very challenging return.
On Friday, Calderon had throttle issues which resulted in the Drago Corse driver sitting out the session. In mixed weather conditions, qualifying was even more dramatic and, after a mistake in the team's strategy, Tatiana could only set one timed lap.
"Unfortunately in free practice we had an issue with the throttle pedal that was getting stuck, so we lost a lot of time and we couldn't put on new tyres to get a good feeling and move up the order" - she said. "Now we have to change the engine overnight".
"Unfortunately we could only complete one lap in qualifying, so we will have to start from the back. We have nothing to lose and I think that a lot can happen in the race. Our target is to be in the Top-10".
On his return in the KCMG car, Kamui Kobayashi hit the wall in the difficult weather conditions. He would also start at the back.
With the rain intensifying in Q2 and easing just ahead of Q3, the final minutes of qualifying were a real tyre gamble: Red Bull-sponsored Hiroki Otsu was the only driver to venture out on slicks and, while he struggled at first, he went fastest when the track dried.
Naoki Yamamoto was second, ahead of Kenta Yamashita and championship leader Tomoki Nojiri - who started from the second row of the grid.
Adverse weather remained for the race as well and every team opted for wet tyres on Sunday. Otsu retained the lead from Yamamoto and Yamashita at the start, while Nojiri - who aimed at securing the title at Motegi, had a cautious start and dropped to seventh place after the first lap.
Tatiana Calderon moved into P17 when she passed Kunimoto and Toshiki Oyu - second in the standings - went off in the gravel on lap 1 and rejoined at the back of the field. Meanwhile, Kamui Kobayashi had a stunning launch and recovered 9 positions to slot into ninth place.
The 24H of Le Mans winner, though, started to struggle with tyres as soon as on lap 9 and lost positions, before becoming the first driver to switch on slicks.
The battle for the lead also came alive when Yamamoto chased down Otsu as wet tyres deteriorated.
On lap 11, Sacha Fenestraz - who had also just bolted on new slick tyres - went off and into the gravel, triggering the first Safety Car. During the neutralization, most of the field pitted for slicks despite the still challenging conditions - except Yamamoto, Fukuzumi and Hirakawa who stayed out. Calderon pitted on lap 15 from P13 and rejoined in P15.
On the grooved tyres, the top-three were faster at the green flag and opened a small margin, but slicks switched on and, when the leaders pitted on lap 17, they dropped down the order.
Tatiana Calderon's race was starting to look promising and the Colombian, after setting her fastest lap of the race by almost two seconds on her previous best, had recovered 5 places from her starting position. Unfortunately, the throttle problem came back to haunt her and she went off as a consequence on lap 17, hitting the barriers and bringing out the Safety Car once again.
“We started with rain tyres, like everyone else, and after the stop, at turn one I lost the rear of the car a bit, I tried to correct but suddenly the car accelerated, I hit the wall and the car continued to accelerate." - she summed up. "So we have a lot to investigate, because it was a problem that we had all weekend."
Otsu re-claimed the lead from Sakaguchi and Makino. Nojiri's fifth place would have been enough to wrap up the 2021 championship, as Yuhi Sekiguchi had to win to keep his title chances alive.
On lap 15, the green flag was waved once again, but there was more drama when the lapped Oyu, in the mix of the pack at the restart, slowed down dramatically to let the field by - but caught out Hirakawa, Tsuboi and Yamamoto, who all went off and had to retire.
Marshals cleared the track during the third Safety Car and racing resumed on lap 24.
Otsu had a clean restart, but a few laps later Sakaguchi started to get bigger in his wing mirrors. Meanwhile, Yuhi Sekiguchi made every effort to try to win the race and postpone the championship celebrations: he passed Makino for third and caught up with Sakaguchi, but a mistake with two laps to go cost him third place again.
These battles had played in favour of Hiroki Otsu, who won his first race of the season from pole position, ahead of Sena Sakaguchi and Tadasuke Makino.
Fifth across the finish line, Tomoki Nojiri secured his first Super Formula title.
Despite an overall difficult race weeekend, Tatiana Calderon looks ahead at the final race of the season at Suzuka in two weeks' time, before heading to Bahrain for the WEC season finale.
"Hopefully we will repair everything and have everything much clearer for Suzuka in a couple of weeks."