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Honda’s “super sub” Hiroki Otsu was back in Super Formula last weekend at Fuji, with the TGM Grand Prix marking the fourth different team he has driven since the start of the season.
Including official testing, Otsu has now sampled all but two Honda-powered outfits during the 2023 campaign, with the 29-year-old having previously driven for Dandelion Racing, Team Mugen and B-Max Racing so far in 2023 in his role as Honda’s reserve driver.
The circumstances surrounding Otsu’s second call for a racing seat were a little less dramatic compared to the last time, when he was parachuted into the car freed by Tomoki Nojiri at Autopolis after the two-time champion suffered a collapse. lung on Friday of race week. .
This time it turned out that TGM regular Toshiki Oyu broke his collarbone while playing squash on Monday. After undergoing surgery on Tuesday, Oyu showed up to the circuit on Friday with his arm in a sling and initially hoped he could still compete. But the youngster hinted the decision to sit out the race was made for him – with Honda keen to have him fit for next month’s Fuji SUPER GT round.
And it turns out that Otsu was already present on the track in a coaching role for the B-Max Super Formula Lights team, which means there is no repeat of the crazy Friday night race. to get to the track he knew at Autopolis.
Last weekend’s race was something of a reunion for Otsu, who made his 2021 Super Formula debut with Team Mugen while still operated in partnership with Servus Japan – the team that runs TGM , formerly known as Team Goh.
TGM is renowned for the high level of its engineering staff, one of the reasons Oyu left Nakajima Racing to join the team this year, and speaking after qualifying, Otsu said the big step he was able to do between free practice and qualifying left him stunned. .
“I could feel the strength of the team,” Otsu told Motorsport.com. “From free practice to qualifying, there were a lot of people who exchanged various ideas on how to prepare the car. I think that’s what allowed me to set the second fastest time in Q1.
“A lot of people (engineers) are involved, and I was surprised by how many people whose opinions helped us find the good and bad points of the car.
Comparing TGM to the other teams he’s driven this year, he added: “I got to experience how different teams do things and how they build the car. Each car has a different character, they all generate grip in different ways.
“They are all suitable for different circuits and different conditions. It’s interesting to see the different ways of thinking of the teams.
Unfortunately for Otsu, being caught in traffic while still warming up his tires in Q2 limited him to ninth place on the grid. A strong start put him up to fifth briefly, but he didn’t have the pace to stay there, slipping to seventh behind Ritomo Miyata and Kakunoshin Ota (the pilot in his old seat at Dandelion) before the stage. pit stop, then loser. to Nojiri with a slow ride.
Having also been passed by latecomer (and very fast) Ryo Hirakawa, Otsu was on course for ninth place – and the #53 car’s first points in a race from lap one – until his tire front left mysteriously separated from the rest of the car on the penultimate lap, leaving him stranded.
Later analysis showed that a piece of debris had become wedged between the brake caliper and the wheel itself, damaging the wheel and causing what Otsu described as an “explosion” as he rounded the long 100R right turn, something that can be seen on-board footage.
Over the radio, Otsu shouted, “What the hell is that?” before quickly regaining his composure and saying, “I think it was a good race so far. The pace improved as I tried things to manage tire pressure and temperature. (Failure) can’t be helped. Thank you so much.”
Reflecting on the race, Otsu said he was at least happy to have given the team (almost) a full race’s worth of data to review for the first time since Fuji’s April curtain-raiser. .
“The start was very good and we gained a few positions, but the strategy didn’t work well and the pace wasn’t very good compared to the cars around us,” explained Otsu.
“But even when Oyu was driving the car, the drop in race pace was a problem, so I tried various things to combat that and the pace picked up slightly in the second half. Hopefully that’s something that will help the team in the future.
“I felt like I still had the ability to fight, and starting is one of my weapons. It’s always difficult to jump in the car mid-season, but even then I would have liked to set everything up.
After his previous outing for Mugen ended in a disappointing 14th place following a crash in qualifying, Otsu has arguably redeemed himself to some extent at Fuji, and the pressure of driving for TGM is no surprise. certainly would not have been close to the level he experienced. at Autopolis when he had to replace Nojiri in the #1 car.
The fact that he was drafted in to help B-Max out of their current slump at the in-season test at Fuji last month was another encouraging sign that Otsu remains firmly on Honda’s radar for a ride in 2024.
“It felt good to stay sharp,” Otsu said. “I had a good time in Q1 so hopefully that will be recognised. Even though it was just a one-off appearance, we really felt like we had the potential to fight towards I really want to come back (full time) next year.