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The next F1 hopefuls striving to follow Lawson's footsteps in Japan

OPINION: With Super Formula re-established as a showcase for Formula 1 talent-spotters, it presents a prime opportunity for young drivers to shine. Two notable names switching from Formula 2 in particular will hope a season in Japan may help them force an opening on the grand prix grid for 2026

Theo Pourchaire, ITOCHU ENEX TEAM IMPUL)

Photo by: Masahide Kamio

After a tough few years amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Super Formula re-emerged as a viable stepping stone to Formula 1 last year thanks to the exploits of Liam Lawson. Although Lawson wasn’t quite able to convince Red Bull to give him a race seat at the team now known as RB, success in Japan helped put him firmly on the F1 radar even before his five stand-in appearances for Daniel Ricciardo at AlphaTauri last year.

This season, another high-profile gaijin with clear F1 aspirations is hoping to make a similar impact in Super Formula: reigning F2 champion Theo Pourchaire. Pourchaire finds himself in a slightly different position to Lawson, however.

For one thing, unlike the Kiwi, he comes to Japan with the F2 title under his belt, and as such his stock in F1 circles is arguably slightly higher than Lawson’s was this time a year ago. On top of that, he won’t have the luxury of driving for Super Formula’s dominant team of recent times, Mugen, as Lawson did. Instead, he will be representing Team Impul as it aims to win a drivers’ title for the first time since Joao Paulo de Oliveira back in 2010.

Pourchaire toyed with a Super Formula move for 2023, even entering discussions to succeed Sacha Fenestraz at Kondo Racing, but he and his Sauber Academy backers chose instead to stay in F2 for a third season. After winning last year’s title, a fourth year wasn’t an option for the Frenchman, who called a move to Japan “logical”.

“I had two choices: I could stay as just a reserve driver in F1, which I am really happy to do, but it means almost all simulator work and almost no actual driving, maybe one or two practice sessions all year,” said Pourchaire. “The other option was Super Formula.

“It’s a bit difficult to just stay on the sidelines and wait for something that may never happen. Driving on the simulator is great, but I am super-happy that I can do what I love to do: drive super-fast cars around beautiful circuits, in a great team.”

After winning the F2 title in 2023, Pourchaire was keen to keep racing this year

After winning the F2 title in 2023, Pourchaire was keen to keep racing this year

Photo by: Masahide Kamio

For fans of Japanese racing, Team Impul needs no introduction. But Kazuyoshi Hoshino’s squad is no longer the dominant force it was in its noughties pomp. The Toyota-aligned team goes into 2024 with an all-new line-up, Pourchaire and 2016 Super Formula champion Yuji Kunimoto replacing now-McLaren F1 reserve Ryo Hirakawa and Yuhi Sekiguchi.

While Impul didn’t make the best transition to the updated SF23 aero package last year, there is another reset of sorts this year with the ban on open damper development and the switch to common Ohlins material, potentially eliminating one of the team’s weaknesses.

Pourchaire equally recognises that he has a role to play in bringing Impul back to its former glory, bigger than the one he had during three seasons of F2 with ART Grand Prix.

"It’s still my dream to race in F1 and become champion, but there is no guarantee I will become an F1 driver. So I’m focused now on Super Formula" Theo Pourchaire

“The way the driver works with the team is different to F2,” said Pourchaire. “I have more responsibility inside the team, even as a young driver, which I really like. It’s not easy sometimes, but I have to make more decisions and help the team with the set-up.”

Pourchaire won’t be the only driver on the Super Formula grid with ambitions of making the step up to F1 as soon as 2025. Taking over Lawson’s seat at Team Mugen is Red Bull junior Ayumu Iwasa, who like Pourchaire is making the switch from F2. However, with Lawson already firmly established at the head of the queue for any F1 vacancies with either of Red Bull’s teams, Iwasa arguably faces an even tougher task than his old F2 rival Pourchaire to try to force his way into the grand prix paddock.

In any case, Iwasa will have to overcome his two-time champion team-mate Tomoki Nojiri, who is hungry to earn a third crown after a punctured lung forced him to miss a race and left him as the rank outsider against Lawson and Ritomo Miyata in last year’s title fight.

With Miyata moving in the opposite direction to Pourchaire and Iwasa to race in F2 this year, his successor at TOM’S, Sho Tsuboi, goes into the new season among the favourites. Last month’s pre-season test at Suzuka also suggests that Dandelion Racing’s Tadasuke Makino is likely to be a serious contender at the head of the field.

Iwasa has moved into the Team Mugen seat that Lawson occupied to great effect last season

Iwasa has moved into the Team Mugen seat that Lawson occupied to great effect last season

Photo by: Masahide Kamio

With some pieces of the 2025 F1 driver market already falling into place, Pourchaire doesn’t have time on his side to make an impact in Super Formula. But he isn’t letting the pressure faze him. In fact, he seems sanguine about the possibility that F1 may not happen for him.

“On a personal level, I am a competitor and I want to win,” said Pourchaire. “So even if I am not going to F1, I will enjoy every lap this season, give my best and try to win as many races as possible. I try not to think about [going to F1] much to be honest. 

“F1 is a very complicated world. It’s still my dream to race in F1 and become champion, but there is no guarantee I will become an F1 driver. So I’m focused now on Super Formula, just like last year I was focused on F2, doing my best and enjoying life here.”

Can Pourchaire prize open the door to F1?

Can Pourchaire prize open the door to F1?

Photo by: Masahide Kamio

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