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The perfect start for Red Bull's latest F1 hopeful in Japan

Red Bull Formula 1 junior Liam Lawson achieved an unprecedented feat when he won on his debut in the Super Formula championship in Japan. With all eyes now on him, the pressure is on for Lawson to use this as a springboard into F1 just as Pierre Gasly did in 2017

At around 4pm Japanese time on Saturday, Liam Lawson’s phone wouldn’t stop vibrating.

After his stunning debut Super Formula victory at Fuji, the messages of congratulations were flooding in. One of them was from none other than Red Bull junior scheme taskmaster Helmut Marko, who no doubt was keenly following his protege’s progress from afar.

“Normally if we win a race, we get a message from Helmut,” mentioned Lawson. “That’s obviously encouraging. I had a crazy amount of support, I was really surprised how many people saw the race. I was very appreciative of that.”

Rookie winners in Super Formula have become relatively commonplace in recent seasons, but Lawson made a piece of Japanese motor racing history by vanquishing two-time champion Tomoki Nojiri in the Fuji opener to stand atop the podium in his very first outing in the series.

You have to go all the way back to 1978, when Marc Surer won in a one-off outing at Suzuka in what was then known as All-Japan Formula 2, to find the last time anyone achieved such a feat. But according to the official records kept by current series promoter JRP, which only start when it took over the running of the series in 1996, what Lawson did is unprecedented.

So just how did the ice-cool Kiwi - who likewise won on his race debuts in Formula 2, DTM, Euroformula Open and the Toyota Racing Series - end up defying his own prediction that it would take him time to build up to the level where he could hope to challenge his team-mate Nojiri?

Besides prodigious talent and a seemingly extraordinary ability to adapt to any new series you care to mention, there were a few other factors at play that helped ease Lawson’s path to a place in the Super Formula record books.

Lawson's Super Formula switch has been aided by joining the series' best team in Mugen

Lawson's Super Formula switch has been aided by joining the series' best team in Mugen

Photo by: Masahide Kamio

The first of these is obvious, but bears repeating. Lawson is blessed to have made the move to Japan with what now must be regarded as by far the strongest outfit on the grid in Team Mugen. He has inherited the car and set-up of Ukyo Sasahara, who won two races last year as Nojiri’s team-mate, as well as a young and ambitious race engineer in the form of Tomo Koike.

“The base set-up was the same as Ukyo’s from last year [when he won at Fuji],” Koike told Autosport after Lawson's triumph. “The long-run pace from the Suzuka [pre-season] test was also good. Liam’s driving style is different to Ukyo’s, but this doesn’t matter so much with the long-run concept.

“His feedback is not as good as it could be because he still doesn’t have much experience in Super Formula, but he is able to take advantage of Nojiri’s feedback, and we had a good base set-up anyway from last year, so I want to say thanks to Ukyo!”

"Foreign drivers tend to give it 120 percent from the very start, and then gradually calm down, but in Liam’s case, he is increasing his pace step-by-step and building the car accordingly. He is very cautious, yet somehow also fast" Hirokatsu Tanaka, Mugen team director

In fact, Mugen demonstrated its incredible strength again in what was the first race with the new SF23 car, a refresh of the previous Dallara SF19 with an all-new aerodynamic package combined with more degradable (and environmentally-friendly) Yokohama tyres.

This was proven when its Red Bull-liveried cars qualified first and third in qualifying on Saturday morning, which marked the first session of the weekend. Friday’s practice session was ostensibly cancelled due to poor weather, but paddock rumour has it that Mugen’s rivals felt there was an advantage to be gained by refusing to run, feeling that a night to pore over the data would only benefit the reigning champion team. How wrong they were…

That leads us on to the second point, which is that the 45-minute session held on Saturday morning helped Lawson, allowing him to get within a couple of tenths of poleman Nojiri. By contrast, the 21-year-old found the usual knockout format on Sunday much tougher, qualifying fourth and half a second shy of Nojiri as he didn’t quite nail his tyre warm-up.

Lawson made a clean start from third on Saturday to hold that position early on, making a better fist of Super Formula’s notoriously tricky hand clutch than fellow rookies Kakunoshin Ota and Raoul Hyman, who quickly went a lap down after stalling on the grid.

Getting on top of Super Formula's tricky hand clutch off the line in Saturday's race contributed to Lawson's victory charge

Getting on top of Super Formula's tricky hand clutch off the line in Saturday's race contributed to Lawson's victory charge

Photo by: Masahide Kamio

After a ballsy pass on Toshiki Oyu for second following an early safety car period - both cars ran off-track at the fast Turn 3 left-hander but the move was allowed to stand - Lawson was in a position to go on the attack against Nojiri as the pitstop phase approached.

Both Mugen drivers left their stops until around half-distance amid tyre degradation fears, but contrary to the original plan, it was Lawson who came in first on lap 21 of 42, with Nojiri responding a lap later.

“Originally, Liam wanted to pit in one lap later than Tomoki and try the overcut, and that was the plan,” reveals Koike. “But there was a risk of the safety car, so we changed to an undercut. I knew that Nojiri would pit in one lap later, but I was also confident that Liam’s out lap would be good.”

In fact, it was that out lap that made all the difference - Lawson’s was a full 2.5 seconds quicker than Nojiri’s out lap, with only around four tenths of that gap being accounted for by a slightly brisker pitstop for the rookie. As Nojiri struggled to get his tyres heated up, Lawson swept around the outside at the long 100R right-hander, and pulled away before finally taking the chequered flag behind the safety car.

Nojiri admitted afterwards he had no response to Lawson’s searing pace, and Mugen team director Hirokatsu Tanaka was generous in his praise of the squad’s new signing.

“Foreign drivers tend to give it 120 percent from the very start, and then gradually calm down, but in Liam’s case, he is increasing his pace step-by-step and building the car accordingly,” said Tanaka. “He is very cautious, yet somehow also fast.

“That said, his out lap speed was typical of a foreign driver. He is unique among the foreign drivers we’ve had in our team up until now, and I think we can expect him to perform consistently in the future.”

Lawson sits second in the Super Formula standings after his dream 2023 season start

Lawson sits second in the Super Formula standings after his dream 2023 season start

Photo by: Masahide Kamio

Nojiri managed to strike a blow back on behalf of the Super Formula establishment by winning the second race from pole, while Lawson ended up fifth, losing third place due to a five-second penalty for driving too slowly behind the safety car. But as Lawson himself noted post-race, whatever he did, he was going to lose out being the second Mugen car in a queue of 20 cars all streaming into the pits at the same time under caution.

The upshot is that Lawson is second in the standings, 14 points behind Nojiri, with seven races still to run. But by winning first time out, the New Zealander is already ahead of the game in the eyes of his engineer.

“My original strategy was to focus more on Suzuka, because we have three races there and if we can win all of them, we can win the championship,” said Koike. “By winning a race at Fuji, we are already ahead of what we planned.”

However, if Lawson is really going to take the fight to Nojiri this year, qualifying is an area where he will have to improve. Nojiri bagged six bonus points at Fuji for his two poles, versus just one for Lawson, and while Fuji is a track where passing on circuit is just about a viable strategy, that’s a much tougher proposition at the other four venues on the schedule.

Next up is Suzuka, where Lawson has the benefit of having already tested. Then again, so does Nojiri, and counter-intuitively, there’s a school of thought that says the whole field having no experience of the SF23 at Fuji prior to Saturday qualifying might have also helped rather than hindered the ultra-versatile Lawson (there was no pre-season test at Fuji this year).

Either way, while Lawson's year may be off to a dream start, he has to keep up the pressure on his team-mate if he really wants to work his way into contention for a drive in Formula 1 with Red Bull’s backing, just as Pierre Gasly did back in 2017 when he demolished Mugen’s top man of the time, Naoki Yamamoto.

Much will depend on the progress of AlphaTauri incumbents Yuki Tsunoda and Nyck de Vries, but Marko will surely have been impressed that Lawson managed to win from the very off in Japan, instead of taking until the halfway point of the season like Gasly did.

If Lawson can make a habit of beating Nojiri, then perhaps it won’t be long until his phone is abuzz again with another message from Marko with rather more exciting contents than a simple note to say congratulations.

Lawson will now hope to emulate Pierre Gasly's Super Formula to F1 push from 2017

Lawson will now hope to emulate Pierre Gasly's Super Formula to F1 push from 2017

Photo by: Masahide Kamio

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