Red Bull Racing reserve driver and Red Bull Junior Team prospect Liam Lawson hopes to break into Formula 1 as a full-time racing driver in 2024. But to get there, he will take a similar path to the one Pierre Gasly and Stoffel Vandoorne tread not long ago, leaving Formula 2 behind to compete in the Japanese Super Formula Championship.
Super Formula and its predecessor series have served as a waypoint to Formula 1 for many accomplished drivers in the past 50 years, but by no means is this a “junior formula” category like the one Lawson leaves behind. That’s something that the 21-year-old from New Zealand is well aware of.
Lawson said his goals for 2023 is “to eventually be fighting for the title, that’s what everyone’s here to do. I want to be winning races this year. But I think it’s going to be tough, especially early on in the season.”
Racing at unfamiliar tracks, in a brand-new Dallara SF23 chassis which will be quicker than all but the handful of Formula 1 cars he’s sampled as a Red Bull test driver, Lawson will have to match up to a field comprised mainly of true professional factory racing drivers that are paid to race by Toyota and Honda.
“I need to learn as much as possible, I think,” Lawson said. “Fortunately, I’m quite okay at adapting to new cars.”
The SF23 won’t be too dissimilar to the F2/18 chassis that he won five races in across the last two seasons. Any driver of his calibre should relish not only a car that’s lighter and more powerful and with Honda and Toyota supplying their own inline four-cylinder engines, it shouldn’t be as prone to the sort of mechanical failures which have hurt many F2 drivers in recent years.
The SF23 is new for everyone, which should help level the playing field. It has a new aerodynamic profile and some veteran drivers adapted to its characteristics better than others in testing. Lawson backed up his confidence in his own adaptability by finishing 10th-fastest in the two-day official pre-season test at Suzuka in March.
Another thing Lawson is enjoying is the ability to work with a larger crew than the ones he’ll have been used to in the European junior categories – driving for no less than the world-famous Team Mugen, the 2022 teams’ champion. “The [Mugen] team is bigger than what I’m used to working with,” Lawson said after the Suzuka test. “In Formula 2, it’s much more limited numbers, with the staff. And here, there’s quite a lot more people.”
Lawson will go up against Japan’s top single-seater racers “It feels more professional to work with, so far. And everyone’s really passionate as well, which I like – everybody I can see, they’re really serious about winning. So, for me, it’s the perfect environment to be in.”
“So far, getting used to this car has been a challenge, but we’re getting there. So we need to try and do that process quickly and be ready for round one.”
While he is in a great environment to succeed, Lawson is blessed and cursed to have back-to-back, defending series champion Tomoki Nojiri occupying the garage opposite his at Mugen. On one hand, Nojiri is 33 years old, entering his 10th season in the series. He’s had highly-touted F1 prospects as team mates in years past, including Vandoorne, Dan Ticktum, and Pato O’Ward. He’s the ideal driver for a rookie like Lawson to lean on in order to acclimatise to the new environment.
On the other hand, Nojiri has been the hottest driver in the series since the start of 2021, dominating the championship by matching outstanding qualifying pace with flawless racecraft. He followed up three wins in seven races in 2021 with a further two wins, eight podiums and six pole positions in 2022, and only once in the last two seasons has he finished lower than fifth place (he was sixth). Even if the series didn’t award bonus points to the top three qualifiers, Nojiri would have handily won last year’s championship.
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Even a driver as humble as Nojiri won’t be keen to be upstaged by a rookie. To that end, Nojiri was the fastest driver in pre-season testing.
Gasly impressed in Super Formula, earning promotion to F1 And that’s not even accounting for Honda’s other decorated veteran, Naoki Yamamoto, the three-time series champion who’s looking to bounce back after two difficult seasons. Or Toyota drivers Kamui Kobayashi and Ryo Hirakawa, who’ve become household names through their respective exploits in the World Endurance Championship and, in the former’s case, F1. Or a cavalcade of young drivers with big ambitions of their own – Ren Sato, Toshiki Oyu, Tadasuke Makino, Sho Tsuboi and Ritomo Miyata among them.
Lawson is not expecting to run roughshod over the competition in his first season – and it’s not something that should really be expected by his followers in Europe who will be staying up late at night or waking up early in the morning to follow his Japanese adventure.
Vandoorne started slowly during his 2016 campaign, but he did win two races and finish fourth in the championship table. He was only the second-ranked rookie behind the feisty Yuhi Sekiguchi, but he also scored double the points of the next-highest-ranked Honda driver in a low-key year for the brand.
Similarly, Gasly kicked off his 2017 season late, with back-to-back race wins and a close second-place finish. He was half a point behind 2015 champion Hiroaki Ishiura heading into the JAF Grand Prix at Suzuka before the devastation of Typhoon Lan forced the cancellation of the series’ double-header finale and left Gasly to end the year as the championship runner-up.
But it’s been over a quarter of a century since Ralf Schumacher won the championship as a rookie. His 1996 remains the only time a newcomer has taken the trophy.
Regardless, if Lawson can achieve what his more recent contemporaries were able to in Japan – win races, put in a decent account in the championship, and be receptive to the new environment – then it should be enough for even the notoriously tough Red Bull system to take notice and put him front and centre for an opportunity in F1 next season.
All the while, having Lawson around will draw new audiences to a top-quality open-wheel championship which emphasises the skill of the driver – and hopefully, those new viewers will be around to stay and watch for the other 21 heroes on the grid, too.
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