Race Weekend Central

Slipstream Saturdays: Who Is Liam Lawson & What Is Super Formula?

By making his short-notice Formula 1 debut at the Dutch Grand Prix in place of an injured Daniel Ricciardo, Liam Lawson became AlphaTauri’s fourth driver of 2023 – the team now has more drivers than points this season.

Lawson, 21, from New Zealand, brings an impressive resume along for his unexpected foray into F1. The young Kiwi finished ninth and third in the 2021 and 2022 Formula 2 seasons, respectively, as well as nearly taking the 2021 Deutsche Tourenwagen Masters title in what may go down in history as the most controversial end of a season to ever feature in DTM. For 2023, Lawson has been competing in Japan’s Super Formula Championship – and winning his debut race, to be sure.

Never heard of it? I’m sorry to hear. We’ll come back to that.

First things first – what of Lawson’s debut?

Not too shabby, considering he was called up the Friday before the race. Lawson came home in 13th, ahead of teammate Yuki Tsunoda, and did so after picking up a pit lane penalty early in the race. Considering the horrid conditions the race was contested in, as well as the generally difficult nature of the AT04, Lawson has nothing to hang his head over from his debut.

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He also did so after being involved in one of the most spectacular incidents in recent memory at the Aug. 20 Super Formula race in Motegi.

Lawson will be back in the car in place of Ricciardo at the Italian Grand Prix tomorrow (Sunday, Sept. 3) and will likely stay in the car beyond Monza if Ricciardo is not fit to race by the next round.

With two seasons of F2, and five wins, as well as a season of DTM (three wins) in his pocket, where has Lawson been if not in F1? If you ask the F1 commentary crew, he’s been in summer school.

I know, I raised my eyebrows too.

Owing to the number of Red Bull Junior drivers who have spent time in Super Formula, the booth described it as a place for drivers whom Helmut Marko feels still have something to prove. Among these one-time Red Bull drivers who passed through Super Formula are Pierre Gasly, Dan Ticktum, Pato O’Ward, and Juri Vips. Alex Palou also spent time in Japan, though not with Red Bull.

The numbers add up, but I have to say – for my conscience’s sake – that this is a criminal dismissal of the nature of Super Formula.

What exactly is Super Formula, then? We can’t call it “Japanese IndyCar,” it’s too fast. And we can’t write it off as the Japanese counterpart of F1, it’s too slow.

The highest level of open-wheel racing in Japan, the series contests its entire season in the land of the rising sun. The 2023 calendar features nine races contested at five circuits. Autopolis, Motegi and Sugo each hold one race, while Fuji and Suzuka hold three apiece.

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The field is dominantly Japanese as well – the four drivers not hailing from Japan for the 2023 season are Lawson, Giuliano Alesi, Cem Bolukbasi and Raoul Hyman.

Like IndyCar, the series has a Lights programmed dubbed Super Formula Lights. Also like IndyCar, the series is spec, meaning across teams the cars are as close to uniform as they can be without meeting the criteria of cloning. Honda and Toyota serve as the series’ only engine suppliers, and each car is equipped with an overtake system which functions similarly to push-to-pass in IndyCar.

Looking to the iconic Suzuka Circuit for numbers, we find that the cornering speed of Super Formula is rather close to that of F1, despite the Japanese series’ cars being down almost 50% on F1 in terms of horse power. For the 2022 F1 Japanese Grand Prix, Max Verstappen took pole with a time of 1:29.304, while Tomoki Nojiri took the Super Formula pole at Suzuka three weeks later with a time of 1:36.020. Not bad for a car down by 400 hp.

Super Formula awards points to the top 10 finishers as well as the top three qualifiers.

Finishing Position1st2nd3rd4th5th6th7th8th9th10th
Qualifying position1st2nd3rd

For the sake of brevity and decency, I won’t go into the characteristics of the Super Formula car, but it would suffice to say that while it is well off the pace of F1 in a straight line (topping around 180 mph in most conditions), the current Dallara SF23 is no joke in cornering speed.

The field is competitive with the 2022 season seeing seven winners across 10 races. The calendar has character; Suzuka and Fuji speak for themselves, but the variety of courses from the fast, flowing nature of Autopolis to the tight and technical Sugo, with Motegi somewhere between the two. Internationally inclined NASCAR fans can even find a familiar face to pull for in the form of Kamui Kobayashi.

The final two rounds of the 2023 Super Formula season will take place at the Suzuka Circuit over the weekend of Oct. 27-29. Lawson (86) currently sits eight points behind championship leader Ritomo Miyata (94) and two points ahead of teammate Nojiri (84). A rookie-season title may well be in the future of F1’s newest rookie, unless his services are needed for the Mexico City Grand Prix, which falls on the same weekend.

Rounds eight and nine of Super Formula can be streamed with a premium membership to Motorsport.tv, the streaming platform of Motorsport Network.

About the author

Alex is the IndyCar Content Director at Frontstretch, having initially joined as an entry-level contributor in 2021. He also serves as Managing Director of The Asia Cable, a publication focused on the international affairs and politics of the Asia-Pacific region which he co-founded in 2023. With previous experience in China, Japan and Poland, Alex is particularly passionate about the international realm of motorsport and the politics that make the wheels turn - literally - behind the scenes.

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