Tatiana Calderon close to points finish after strong first part of SF season opener
Contested in mixed-weather conditions, Tatiana Calderon started her second season in Super Formula at Fuji with a 13th place, following her best ever qualifying in the series on Saturday and a strong first half of the race.
Tatiana Calderon started her second season in Japan's premier single seater Super Formula with a really promising Saturday: the Colombian driver advanced for the first time into Q2, putting the #12 ThreeBond Drago Corse Dallara SF19 in eleventh place on the grid.
Building on her 2020 experience, Calderon showed progress throughout the opening round at Fuji Speedway, which followed two collective tests prior to the race event. At the same venue, Tatiana had signed the fifth fastest lap in last year's round, proving once again that the former home of the Japanese GP was potentially the perfect place to resume the racing season.
“I can't believe that my second season in Super Formula is finally starting this week." – commented Calderon. "We had a week to prepare for the race after completing two days of testing at Fuji, and we hope to be able to put into effect improvements what we learned in the tests to start on the right foot."
The Colombian racing star, who also made her debut in sports cars last year and finished her first Le Mans 24 Hours in the top-10 in an all-female team, will again count on the support of sponsors such as mobile phone manufacturer ROKiT – an increasingly visible brand in motorsport – plus her historic sponsors and new partners, such as simulator technologies company AVL, that will support the driver on track in the seven-round Super Formula campaign in 2021.
"I am very grateful to my sponsors for their constant support, ROKiT, Maisy Kay, Bandero and the Ministry of Sports, and I am happy to announce that I will also be an AVL RACING ambassador. We have already been working together in recent years using their simulator in Austria and now I will also have their assistance on the track. I am very happy to have them. We are ready to start the season!" – added Tatiana prior to the race weekend.
Her breakthrough performance in qualifying – this year moved back to Saturday instead of Sunday morning like in 2020 – was surely really promising for the ThreeBond Drago Corse team. "It was a very positive day." – said Tatiana. "After free practice I felt that we have taken a step forward compared to last week's test, so I am very happy."
Pole position went to Team Mugen's Tomoki Nojiri, who lined up alongside Toshiki Oyu (TCS Nakajima Racing). Former Asian F3 champion Ukyo Sasahara and ex-F2 racer Nirei Fukuzumi completed the second row of the grid.
When the lights went out, Nojiri and Oyu went side by side into the first corner, closely followed by Fukuzumi. Oyu made it into the lead after the first tricky hairpin, while Calderon had a slow start off the line and lost positions as she struggled to heat up her tyres.
Meanwhile, Nakajima and Sekiguchi hit trouble: in two separate incidents, the Team Impul driver had to pit for a puncture, while the former F1 driver went off line and dropped towards the back of the pack in the opening lap, leaving Calderon in P13.
The Red Bull-backed car of Hiroki Otsu also had to visit the pitlane for an unscheduled pitstop when he was left with front wing damage. The hectic first laps gave 2020 defending champion Naoki Yamamoto – switching from Docomo Dandelion Team to TCR Nakajima Racing – the opportunity to recover over seven positions from his starting place.
But his charge was soon halted by a slow pitstop, when the pit window for the compulsory tyre change opened.
The race further came alive at lap 11, when poleman Nojiri found a way around the outside of Oyu for the lead at Turn 10.
having lost the first place, Oyu quickly dropped into the clutches of Fukuzumi: the two racers went side by side into Turn 1 on lap 22, but Oyu held on to second.
One lap later, though, Fukuzumi completed the pass with a switch-over move at the same corner.
Calderon had a very strong first part of the race: she battled Yuichi Nakayama and masterfully kept the Kondo Racing driver behind. The Colombian lady managed to lap very consistently throughout the first stint, always lapping on the 1:24.9 or 1:25.0 mark, up until her pit stop on lap 24.
Calderon rejoined the track in P16 and significantly struggled with grip in the laps after her pitstop: with the series banning tyre warmers, many drivers were seen flat-spotting their tyres on their way out of the pitlane on cold tyres.
Everyone's attention turned up to the sky, as the rain threat played a fundamental role in the team's strategy. The race was declared wet – potentially erasing the compulsory tyre change – with ten laps to go.
The top-five initially elected to stay out, likely waiting for a more significant shower before switching to the grooved rain tyres. The rain did increase, but never to the point of requiring wet weather rubber and the front-runners also pitted for new slicks.
Sho Tsuboi went off and into the barrier, but the race remained green with two laps to go.
Calderon ended in heavy traffic and into the leaders paths: she was shown blue flags and lost time to her direct competitors, after having made her way back up the rankings. After the chaotic final laps, she was P13.
Hirakawa pitted at his very final opportunity and kept the lead from a recovering Oyu – but the latter ran out of time and was forced to settle for second. Third was Nirei Fukuzumi, who preceded Hirakawa and Sasahara to secure a podium finish.
Despite a great first half of the race, Calderon was just outside the points scoring position in P13, having spent most of the race battling for a reachable top-10.
“We finished the first weekend in Super Formula in Fuji" – said the driver from Bogotá.
"I think it was a positive weekend, apart from the fact that we obviously wanted to score our first points. We had a very good qualifying, we started eleventh, advancing to Q2. I think it was also a great job of the team to solve some problems that we had in the tests in the previous weeks. So we made a good step forward."
“Later in the race there were different strategies, it was drizzling a bit. I also had no radio communications and it was difficult, but we had good battles on track and we finished in 13th position, close to the top-10 - so I think it was positive" – she continued.
"Obviously we want more, but I think we are on the right path, so we are looking forward to the Suzuka race in two weeks, and hopefully we can finish the weekend in a better position”.
Calderon's consistency – a crucial skill also practiced in her endurance racing – will hopefully reap its rewards coming into the second round of the Super Formula season, which will get underway at Suzuka on 24-25 April.