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Worst title defense in Super Formula history?

Yamamoto’s “homecoming” with Nakajima did not go as planned in the opening three races, but Sugo was the most unconvincing weekend for the three title winners so far.

After finishing 12th place in the victory and drifting for nearly 30 seconds, he accused Yamamoto of wondering if the off-season move from Dandelion Racing, which won the race with Nirei Fukuzumi, was really right. No one would have done it.

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In a post-race report with reporter Sugo, Yamamoto clearly recognized that his hopes of maintaining the crown had definitely ended, and struck a deflated tone. With three races remaining, he is 42 points behind series leader Tomoki Nojiri.

But worse than his ranking is Yamamoto’s lack of competitiveness. After such a poor show at Sugo, he seems to be farther away from achieving the kind of results needed to turn the tide than at the beginning of the season.

Naoki Yamamoto, TCS Nakajima Racing

Photo: Masahide Kamio

Before the weekend, there were at least some optimistic reasons.At Autopolis, Yamamoto He reported that the feeling of the wet car had improved and expressed his hope that he could fight in Sugo., He won both 2018 and 19 and won the podium last year.

Still, despite having an “easier” qualifying group, coming to qualifying, he was eliminated in the second quarter at the latest time in the segment and even lost to KCMG rookie Kazuto Kotaka. .. As a result, he finished 12th on the grid, and Sho Tsuboi and Nobuharu Matsushita were demoted to row 7 for causing a red flag in another Q2 group.

Yamamoto took a short break as he was able to finish the first lap in 8th place with a strong start. However, when the race settled down to the rhythm, it did not give any impression to Giuliano Aresi and became a prey to Nojiri who was recovering on lap 14 on lap 53.

Yamamoto was forced to make a pit stop until the 23rd lap, and was undercut on behalf of Nobuharu Matsushita, Hiroki Ohtsu, and Akimasa Takaboshi, who had just entered the second Super Formula race. So he returned to 12th place and finished there. It wasn’t just a bad strategy, as Yamamoto set only the 14th fastest lap in the race.

Yamamoto’s teammate Toshiki Oyu (remember only in the second season of Super Formula) finished second only to Fukuzumi to rub salt on his wounds.

It was the first race of the year when Yamamoto failed to score points. In fact, his results are getting worse, with the 32-year-old 32 years old finishing 6th at the Fuji Opener, then 8th at Suzuka and 9th at Autopolis.

Naoki Yamamoto, TCS Nakajima Racing

Naoki Yamamoto, TCS Nakajima Racing

Photo: Masahide Kamio

So he finished 12th at the championship table, leaving three rounds left. Two of those rounds will take place on Mogi, a track where Yamamoto doesn’t have a very good record. He finished 4th in the 2010 rookie campaign, but since then Motegi’s best finish has been 7th.

It’s not impossible for Yamamoto to find any form, but his post-race comments at Sugo didn’t sound like the comments of a man who believed the breakthrough was imminent.

“When the race started, I wasn’t feeling there and I knew it would be a bad race,” he said. “I couldn’t fight because I wasn’t fast enough.

“If the pace was good, I could move up like Nojiri, but the car didn’t move well and I couldn’t drive well …

“You have to forget the past and go back to the square. You have to start over. Oyu was on the podium, so the team isn’t bad. I think we need to go back to basics.”

So, back to the title question, is Yamamoto’s miserable campaign one of the worst, if not the worst, title defenses in Super Formula / Formula Nippon history? The simple answer is, except for the miracle turnaround.

Title Defense in the Super Formula Era:

Recently, the worst championship defense was that of Yuji Kunimoto in 2017. He managed only the unfortunate 8th place in the ranking the year after he won the title. The distraction of running two races in the Toyota LMP1 program affects that, and probably the protracted hangover of his 24 Hours of Le Mans will not work.

In fact, looking at Kunimoto’s records, the 2016 title-winning season stands out as an outlier, and the fact that Super Formula was the year that Bridgestone switched to Yokohama Rubber may have been “randomized.” Is high. Impact. The fact that Kunimoto won the title from 85 points to 33 points that year shows the volume.

Then Yamamoto’s 2014 title defense was Mugen Teamsports, where he managed only 9th place. However, this is alleviated by the fact that all Honda drivers struggled in the first year of the “Japan Race Engine” formula when Super Formula was switched to the current 4-cylinder turbo power plant. Yamamoto was certainly Honda’s top driver of the year.

Perhaps the most direct comparison is that Tsugio Matsuda collapsed to 11th place in 2009, the year after he won the dominant title at Team Impul in 2008. That season coincided with a switch to the Swift FN09 chassis, which produced far more downforce than its predecessor, but the bigger problem seems to have been a simple lack of motivation.

“After winning the titles in 2007 and 2008, I had a feeling of’what’s going to come’,” Matsuda told Formula Nippon’s official website in 2012.

“Even with such results, I had no way to take the F1 test and I didn’t even have a chance to race abroad. When I think about it, I feel like I can’t go anywhere and it’s hard to stay motivated. was.”

That season basically meant the end of Matsuda’s front-line Formula Nippon career. The following year, Impul was downsized to two cars and did not maintain its 30-year-old at the time.

For Satoshi Motoyama, who talked about his desire to match the record of four modern titles, at least motivation doesn’t seem to matter, and there’s little risk of him losing his drive. But he also doesn’t have a very different car excuse to move his head.

Following his disastrous show at Sugo, 2021 appears to be essentially Yamamoto’s amortization. His current job is to work with Nakajima to lay the foundation for a 22-year recovery and ensure that this season is not the beginning of a long-term slip into a downturn in competition, but just a moment.

Additional report by Kenichiro Ebi

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