Tatiana Calderon makes Super Formula debut with P12 at Motegi
Colombian former F2-racer Tatiana Calderon kicked-off her Japanese Super Formula career with a solid P12 finish at Motegi after a tyre-strategy defined race.
Former Formula 2 racer and Alfa Romeo F1 Team development driver Tatiana Calderon made her debut in the Japanese premier single-seater championship, as Super Formula finally kicked-off its 2020 season at Twin Ring Motegi.
The Colombian driver, who is based in Spain, had a hectic build-up to her Super Formula debut due to the coronavirus-imposed travel restrictions: ultimately, she was the only European-based driver to gain entry to Japan thanks to a change in regulations - she still held a valid work visa after the March pre-season tests and had exited the country prior to the travel ban on foreigner visitors was imposed. Juri Vips, Sergio Sette Camara and Charles Milesi were not as lucky and were forced to miss the opening round of the championship at Motegi.
Japanese drivers making their return to the country from abroad were granted a special permission to isolate for 7 days instead of 14 and could thus take part in the race.
Team Mugen relied on 2018 Asian F3 champion Ukyo Sasahara in place of Red Bull protegé Juri Vips - this weekend making his debut in FIA F2 for team DAMS - while B-MAX was down to a one-car operation and lined-up former FIA F3 driver Teppei Natori. Natori, though, could not take the start at Motegi after suffering from dehydration due to the high temperatures at the Japanese venue on Saturday.
Tatiana Calderon became the first woman in over 20 years to race in Super Formula: the last female driver to enter a race in the Japanese top-tier was Sarah Kavanagh in 1997.
Calderon's team Three Bond Drago Corse, making its return to the championship after a four years hiatus, already made history on Saturday, as its Japanese TCR driver Rio Shimono became the first woman to step on the overall podium in the support series.
The Twin Ring Motegi circuit was therefore once again the stage of a historic moment for females in motorsport, after the Japanese facility - albeit in its road course layout today - saw the first victory of a woman in a major open wheel championship in 2008, when Danica Patrick won her first and only IndyCar race.
Calderon showed good progresses in the practice sessions and signed the 16th and 19th fastest laptimes. She was P18 in qualifying, with Japanese driver Ryo Hirakawa topping the timesheets and claiming the first pole position of the season ahead of series rookie Sacha Fenestraz. Kenta Yamashita and Toshiko Oyo - another rookie - locked the second row. With spec-chassis but with two engine manufacturers, Super Formula proved again battling groud for the two main Japanese car manufacturers: after Saturday's qualifying, only one Honda-powered car was in the top-8 as Toyota dominated the first half of the field.
The economic repercussions from the global pandemic resulted in few regulation changes for the 2020 season of the Super Formula championship: refuelling has now been banned and there will be no mandatory pit stop with cars now running on a single slick compound. Furthermore, this compressed season will feature approximately half-race distance competitions and, given the travel restrictions for foreigner drivers, the best five out of seven rounds will now count for the championship.
Under more Japanese heat, the lights went out at Motegi, officially launching the 2020 season of one of the most prestigious open-wheel series worldwide: the Kondo Racing cars of Fenestraz and Yamashita were immediately aggressive and swapped positions, but Hirakawa maintained the lead. There was more drama behind, as Sho Tsuboi went off in the gravel and retired, while Oyu picked up front wing damages in a contact and was forced back to the pits. Calderon had a good getaway and completed the first lap in P16.
Former-F1 racer Kazuki Nakajima promptly used the overtake button for some extra-power to try to gain third from Fenestraz, but the Frenchman defended. Kamui Kobayashi was also moving up the order, advancing two places and settling into P6.
The race was rather unevenful until lap 15, when Ukyo Sasahara pitted for new tyres - igniting the debate for tyre strategy. Up ahead, in fact, the drivers experienced some unexpected degradation and had to manage their Yokohama tyres, with laptimes becoming significantly slower. Drago Corse opted to pit Calderon soon after, as Sasahara lapped competitively on the 1:35.5 mark - one and a half second faster than the front-runners.
The race suddenly came alive: Kobayashi struggled for tyres and was passed by Fukuzumi - the latter being the fastest Honda driver in sixth. Kobayashi was then attacked by Yamamoto but the two made contact: Yamamoto had to come back for a new front wing, while the KCMG driver slowed down with a puncture.
In a very similar accident, Fukuzumi collided with Sekiguchi. The driver of the #19 team Impul spun out in the gravel but surprisingly the Safety Car was never deployed.
More drivers opted to pit but it wasn't all plain sailing for Yuji Kunimoto, who stalled in the pits and rejoined. Thanks to the early ThreeBond Drago Corse call, Tatiana Calderon advanced to P12, moving up six positions from her starting place and lapping steadily for the remainder of the race.
With 10 laps to go, it was then too late for the leaders to pit and they had to keep managing their tyres to the end. The top four, though, had accumulated an over-20 seconds advantage on the rest of the pack and never came under threat.
In the closing stages, Oshima battled with Sasahara for the final point-paying position, just as Calderon came under increasing pressure from the recovering Yamamoto.
After 35 laps, Ryo Hirakawa took victory in the Super Formula season opener despite the fast approaching Yamashita, who crossed the finish line in second, six tenths behind. Sacha Fenestraz was third at his series debut, leading Kazuki Nakajima, Nirei Fukuzumi and Nick Cassidy.
Despite some last lap scraps, Calderon defended superbly and secured 12th position from Yamamoto, completing her first Super Formula race with a solid performance.
“I think it was a very positive weekend, the first in Super Formula at Motegi." - siad Tatiana. "While we had the potential to do a lot more in qualifying, we couldn't take advantage of it with strategy, but starting in 19th place and completing my first race with 35 laps in a row under 40°C has been one of the most difficult challenges of my career."
“I think the team has also done a great job with strategy and with the pit-stop. There is still a lot to learn, but we managed to climb to 12th place." - she added.
The next Super Formula race on the calendar will be at Okayama International Circuit on 27th September, but Tatiana Calderon's next challenge will be the legendary 24 Hours of Le Mans with the fully-female squad Richard Mille Racing in the LMP2 class.