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Jamie Klein

How Honda has revolutionised its young driver programme

For the first time arguably since 2019, there’s a driver on the Super Formula grid who could be said to have a realistic pathway to a Formula 1 seat: Honda and Red Bull junior Ren Sato.

The first full member of the Red Bull junior scheme to drive in Japan’s top single-seater series since Juri Vips in 2019, Team Goh rookie Sato has been handed a golden opportunity to use Super Formula as a springboard to a return to the European stage.

But not only is Sato’s early promotion a sign of the potential Honda sees in the 20-year-old. It’s also indicative of a new approach the marque is taking towards all its young drivers.

At 20 years old, Sato has been given the nod at an earlier stage of his career than practically all the marque’s other drivers, although it should be noted that Honda felt it was better for him to focus on just one category this year after he appeared to struggle somewhat to switch back-and-forth between his two drives in Super Formula Lights and SUPER GT's GT300 class last year.

So far, the move looks like it was more than justified, as Sato stormed to a front-row start for his first-ever SF start at Fuji Speedway. The race didn’t go according to plan as he was tipped into a spin on lap 1 after a bad start, but the point was made nonetheless, and at Suzuka he made a strong recovery from 15th to grab a point for 10th place.

Sato has made a positive start to his season in Super Formula with Team Goh

Of course, whether Sato gets a chance to return to Europe depends on what kind of results he can produce on-track for the rest of the season, but it’s clear the intent from Honda and Red Bull to open up the pathway is there. And not only that, the entire process of selecting which drivers move up, stay where they are or get the axe is also getting an overhaul.

The old way of doing things was simple, but rather blunt: pay for a driver to have a seat, be that in a European junior category or on the domestic stage in Japan Formula 4 or Super Formula Lights, and wait and see what kind of results are produced. If they are good enough, the driver moves up; if not, they either stay put or make way for the next driver in line.

Now, Honda is taking a much more involved approach that should not only result in better outcomes for the drivers themselves but also ensure that the Sakura marque doesn’t end up accidentally ‘missing’ a top talent because of some quirk not explained by results.

Starting this year, Honda has started to ask for much more detailed feedback on its proteges from the various teams they are running with - not only about their speed, but their way of working, technical knowledge and, where relevant, their ability to communicate in English.

Sato is working on his English in preparation for a second chance in Europe

This valuable information will not only will be used to make better decisions about driver promotion, but also to improve the quality of the instruction that the marque’s future stars receive lower down the ladder in the Honda Racing School (formerly Suzuka Racing School) and the Honda Formula Dream Project (HFDP) Japan F4 squad.

The change in branding from SRS to HRS is a clear sign of Honda’s increased involvement in figuring out what to do with its bumper crop of young drivers when it is lucky enough to already have a strong talent pool representing it in SUPER GT and Super Formula.

In Europe, there is Ayumu Iwasa in Formula 2 as well as last year’s SRS graduates Souta Arao and Yota Nomura, while in Japan, following Sato’s move up to Super Formula, next in line are Iori Kimura and Kakunoshin Ota, both of whom are racing in Super Formula Lights.

The support series to Super Formula is another place where Honda’s more hands-on approach is visible, with both Kimura and Ota running in largely HFDP liveries (yellow for Kimura, red for Ota) with their respective teams, B-Max Racing and Toda Racing.

Iori Kimura, B-MAX RACING TEAM (Photo by: Masahide Kamio)
Kakunoshin Ota, TODA RACING (Photo by: Masahide Kamio)

B-Max running an official Honda junior for the first time in 2022 further solidifies a relationship that was already strengthened by the team’s Super Formula driver Nobuharu Matsushita becoming a works Honda driver last winter. And the team proved to be the perfect fit to provide a second cockpit with which to evaluate the marque’s youngsters.

Previously, there was just one Honda-backed seat available in SF Lights (previously All-Japan F3) with Toda, which for many years persevered with its own self-built engine against the dominant TOM’S and Spiess units. The team finally switched to Spiess engines last year after some “encouragement” from Honda, and now adding B-Max to its roster of teams allows its drivers to be evaluated much more fairly than was the case before.

One level below that in Japan F4, Honda is again supporting a three-car HFDP team this year. Shun Koide, who missed out on a SF Lights berth, spearheads the team, joined by a pair of finalists from last year’s SRS intake, Yusuke Mitsui and Kazuma Nishimura.

HFDP F4 trio Yusuke Mitsui, Kazuma Nishimura and Shun Koide

Of course, there won’t be space for all these drivers to have works Honda seats in future; inevitably difficult decisions will still need to be made. But the new approach should ensure that those who miss out on promotions or are even dropped entirely are given more complete feedback about what exactly they were judged to be missing, and what they have to work on, instead of simply being told they didn’t score good enough results.

In that sense, Honda deserves credit for not only making sure it picks the best drivers to move up, but also to allow those that don’t make the cut the best chance of still having good careers as professional racing drivers.

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