Is Japanese Super Formula next for Stoffel Vandoorne?

Sky Sports broke the inevitable news that Stoffel Vandoorne is confirmed as McLaren test and reserve driver for the 2016 F1 season. After a year of dominating GP2 as a McLaren junior driver, the young driver says that he wants to keep racing next year to maintain and continue honing his race craft. With that, the Belgian has set up for a Japanese Super Formula test later this month. It all makes sense for Vandoorne to be set up with a possible race seat in Super Formula considering that Honda is one of two engine suppliers (the other is Toyota) in the category.

Personally, I find this intriguing news for Vandoorne. Given his blistering track record in the junior formula ranks, he is set to be McLaren’s future ace by the time either of their incumbent F1 drivers Jenson Button or Fernando Alonso reach the sunset of their careers. Vandoorne, per GP2 rules, cannot return to the series as he has already been crowned its champion at least once—championship-winning drivers are forced to graduate. In the open-wheel formulae ladder, GP2 is traditionally the final rung before reaching the top at Formula One. Caught in the liminal stage of being a successful GP2 graduate and being an F1 driver without a race seat, the Belgian has decided that Japanese Super Formula may well be the next step in his ascent to the pinnacle of open-wheel motorsport.

Super Formula was originally known as Formula Nippon up until the 2012 season. The series is run with spec-chassis cars, meaning all teams run the same chassis, the SF14, manufactured by Dallara. The SF14 is a relatively young chassis, having only initially run in the 2014 season. Being Japan’s premier open-wheel racing category, competitors are predominantly Japanese and all races are held in circuits within the country. I haven’t seen much Super Formula races but I did take time once to watch a rain-soaked race last season in Suzuka. The first thing I noticed was that the cars look very similar to GP2 cars, especially the front nose and wing ensemble. However, the most noticeable thing in terms of aesthetics is the rear fin sitting low with a pointed end towards the rear wing. Having found out that the two cars are both manufactured by Dallara, I wasn’t all that surprised.

As my interest in the category grew, I indulged on some on-board videos. I noticed the cars are strikingly stable and very quick around corners and even gave me an illusion that they were faster than F1 cars. I see that the driver hardly fights the steering wheel with hands that look so calm in what I’d imagine to be a frighteningly quick car. He weaves through corners—low, medium, or high-speed—with calm steering inputs, revealing a very nimble and responsive racing machine. Japan’s numerous undulating circuits such as Sugo and the legendary Suzuka make on-board videos much closer to a rollercoaster ride experience. Here’s Hiroaki Ishiura with a satisfyingly clean lap around the Autopolis circuit:

In the Sky Sports story that I linked above, Vandoorne mentions that Super Formula cars have lower horsepower compared to F1 but have faster cornering speeds. It all made more sense to me as to why Super Formula cars are so mesmerizingly stable and well-balanced, at least judging from on-board videos.

I think Super Formula is a great choice for a driver stuck in that slightly awkward liminal phase Vandoorne has found himself in. It helped that the Japanese connection with his backer McLaren-Honda has contributed to identifying and hopefully capitalizing on this opportunity. 2014 GP2 champion Jolyon Palmer didn’t seem to have this option available for him even though he spent his graduate year as test and reserve driver for Lotus F1. The lack of a Japanese connection hasn’t hindered Palmer as he has already earned his F1 race seat for the Enstone team next season. However, the GP2 champions that preceded Palmer, Davide Valsecchi and Fabio Leimer, have failed to make it to F1 on a full-time basis, opting instead to race in sports car categories.

Not deterred by the lack of influx of fellow GP2 champions into Formula One, Vandoorne is adamant to keep himself race sharp in his bid to land an F1 race seat hopefully by 2017. He is set to make a pragmatic step in his career should he indeed end up in Japan’s premier open-wheel racing championship next year, thanks to McLaren-Honda’s backing. If I may, Vandoorne will no doubt become a beast in F1 and a true ace for McLaren if he competes in Super Formula as a stage rehearsal for a much anticipated Formula One career.

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