Amid a frustrating season in Formula 2, Liam Lawson was passed up for the vacancy in the AlphaTauri Formula 1 team for 2023. Now the New Zealander is hoping to use Super Formula to convince Red Bull to give him a shot in 2024.
It’s been five years since Pierre Gasly finished runner-up in Super Formula on his way to a Toro Rosso F1 drive, but his 2017 campaign is still looked back upon with fondness in the Japanese series’ paddock.
That’s partly because no other Red Bull junior since has come close to matching Gasly’s achievements, but also partly because it represented a high point in the series’ reputation as a stepping stone to the big-time that has since faded.
Red Bull F1 reserve driver Liam Lawson is hoping to re-establish that link next season as he becomes the latest protege of the energy drink firm to make the move to Super Formula, and the comparisons with Gasly are irresistible.
He’ll be driving for the same Mugen team that took Gasly to within half-a-point of the title in 2017, and also with two full seasons of GP2/F2 under his belt (although the Frenchman went to Japan as GP2 champion) . Like Gasly was, he’ll be 21 years old when the season begins. He also faces the challenge of going up against one of the big beasts of the Honda stable within the same team – for Naoki Yamamoto in 2017, read Tomoki Nojiri in 2023.
Lawson certainly isn’t underestimating the scale of the task that lies ahead, as he bids to impress to land a seat in F1 at AlphaTauri in 2024. In fact, he’s been a keen follower of the series since his compatriot Nick Cassidy lifted the crown back in 2019.
“The biggest thing I understood from watching Super Formula is how good the local drivers are,” Lawson tells Motorsport.com in an exclusive interview at Honda’s Tokyo headquarters. “Just because you’ve raced in Formula 2 or been involved in Formula 1, it doesn’t mean you’ll come here and do well immediately. In fact, most guys don’t. Even Pierre struggled for his first few races.
“And from my experience from the test, I can understand it’s really tough. In testing, the top 10 were all Japanese drivers. I knew I wasn’t going to be on the pace straight away, and that it will be a grind, so it’s just about making the process as quick as possible.”
Lawson had his first experience of Super Formula machinery in this month’s post-season rookie test at Suzuka. He was the sole focus of Mugen as the team opted to conserve resources and run just one car, with two-time champion Nojiri staying on the sidelines, safe in the knowledge knowing next year’s updated aero will change the game anyway.
Under the auspices of race engineer Kaito Tsuji, Lawson completed a total of 138 laps across the two days of running, with a best time within a second of the pace on the first day. Despite a more subdued second day, Mugen’s first impressions of the New Zealander were good, and the feeling was mutual.
“The team is really quite impressive,” says Lawson. “It’s a slightly bigger team than I am used to working with in Formula 2. Everyone is very focused and professional, they have also been very welcoming and supportive since I arrived.
“I was impressed with how quick the mechanics were, we were making quite complex changes that we wouldn’t normally be doing within the same session. When they explained things to me, they were good at making sure it’s clear and detailed.”
The language barrier and resulting communication difficulties are often cited as one of the biggest barriers facing ‘gaijin’ racers coming to Japan, but Lawson says that Mugen has made a special effort to ensure that this won’t be the case next season.
“Honestly, so far it has been less bad than I expected,” he adds. “The team has done a really good job to ensure that the guys I am working most closely with can all speak English, and are good at explaining things to me. Sometimes they draw graphs and things to make it clear when it’s too hard to explain with words.”
Inevitably, sharing a garage with Nojiri means that Lawson will be measured up against the reigning champion, which is perhaps something of a mixed blessing. That will be especially true in qualifying, as Nojiri scooped no fewer than six of a possible 10 poles this year.
“It is [pressure], but I get to learn from the best, which is cool,” he says. “I am in the best possible position with the best team, up against Nojiri, but I’m going to learn a lot about the car. It’s a massive thing for me to have access to the best guy’s data.
“[At the Suzuka test] he was completely open to everything I asked him, he also did the track walk with us, which was nice. He is very experienced at Suzuka, so he was able to give me some pointers there, as well as some procedural stuff in the car. It will be important for me going to all the new tracks, I’ll need that as much as possible.”
For Lawson, there could hardly be a better time to be joining Super Formula, which is preparing to introduce a new car for the first time since 2019 next season. Admittedly, the Dallara SF23 is merely a refresh of the existing SF19, but the wholesale change to the aerodynamics (designed to produce slightly less downforce and a lot less dirty air) and new Yokohama tires will provide a reset that renders previous data virtually worthless.
It’s a double-edged sword, because it could mean Mugen losing its pre-eminence, although the change to the pecking order is unlikely to be quite as dramatic as it was in 2019. Either way, Lawson will have just one more test at Suzuka before the season starts, and he’ll be heading to the opening double-header at Fuji having never driven there previously.
“The new aero could be a good thing, because I tested F1 and this is the direction the cars are going with the floor becoming more important in terms of creating downforce,” says Lawson when asked for his thoughts on the topic. “On that side, potentially it’s good, and hopefully I can bring something to the team.
“I would say normally I’m quick to adapt to new cars, just because of the variety of cars that I have driven, not just in single-seaters, but things like DTM. Hopefully I can adapt to the tracks quickly as well. They are old-school, like the tracks at home [in New Zealand]but we can’t test the car outside of official sessions, so simulator work will be very important.”
It’s clear that Lawson is relishing the chance to prove himself in Super Formula, particularly after a couple of frustrating seasons in Formula 2. While he may have scored four sprint race wins with Carlin last year en route to an eventual third in the championship, a lack of pole positions and feature race wins appears to remain a major frustration.
But he knows the value that Red Bull places on Super Formula, and that a Gasly-esque performance this year has the potential to hugely strengthen his case for a move to F1.
“All of the issues we had this year came either in qualifying or the feature race, and we lost out a lot of points,” he reflects. “On raw speed, especially in the races, our pace was good.
“One of the most frustrating things is the difference between an F2 car and F1, and how your suitability for F1 can be judged from F2. Super Formula is closer to F1, and people are aware of that fact. So it’s probably going to be the most important part of deciding my future.”
Red Bull’s junior scheme overlord Helmut Marko hasn’t set foot inside the Super Formula paddock since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, but one has to imagine the famously tough-to-please Austrian will be keen to see his protege up close in Japan at some point.
“Every season is the same… you need to be fighting for the championship,” replied Lawson when asked if Marko has set him any specific targets. “But from my side, I want to win anyway. The goal is to get to F1, but I want to do really well in this championship as well.”
It would be wrong to frame Lawson’s quest for an F1 drive as 2024 or never. Just look at Nyck de Vries, seven years the senior of Lawson, being chosen to replace Alpine-bound Gasly at AlphaTauri in 2023.
But as far as Super Formula goes, the expectation is that for a driver of Lawson’s experience, it’s a one-year program.
“Most likely,” he says when asked if he thinks this will be the case. “But the good thing is I have age on my side a bit, because in New Zealand, we could start racing cars from 13.
“I’m 20 years old, but I’ve already done two seasons in F4, two seasons of F3 and two seasons of F2. And now I’m doing Super Formula. So I’m quite lucky in that respect. But at the same time, it’s a very important year for my career.”