1. The weather
It almost goes without saying that without the help of the weather, Alesi couldn’t have realistically expected to win on his first trip to Autopolis. In his first Super Formula race at Suzuka, the 21-year-old qualified eighth and finished ninth, which was arguably more or less in line with expectations given that his TOM’S teammate Ritomo Miyata was sixth. And that was with two days of pre-season testing at Suzuka.
By contrast, Alesi had never previously driven at Autopolis – a long, technical track with many off-camber and challenging turns, with little margin for error. It’s not unheard of for rookies to win there, as Pierre Gasly demonstrated in 2017, but that was in his sixth Super Formula start, not his second.
Alesi’s lack of experience was effectively negated by the weather, as knowing where the ‘traps’ were in the wet and where to push and where to back off was more important than intimate knowledge of the track itself. Which was helped even more by…
2. Racing in Super Formula Lights
In the wet, Alesi had a unique advantage over the rest of the field at Autopolis in that he was the only driver also contesting Super Formula Lights as well. SF Lights was supposed to be Alesi’s main programme this year with the TOM’S squad, but with Kazuki Nakajima out of action due to his WEC commitments and Japan’s strict quarantine rules, it was decided to give Alesi the chance to race in both Super Formula and SF Lights – partly out of necessity, but also in a bid to speed up the learning process for the ex-F2 racer.
At Suzuka, Alesi proved that racing in both categories on the same weekend was no problem physically, but at Autopolis the extra mileage was clearly a big help – not just for getting to know the track, but to get an understanding of where the grip was (and more importantly, wasn’t) in the wet.
Just before qualifying for Super Formula, he had the first SF Lights race, in which he finished second while several drivers ahead of him spun off the road. That meant he was armed with better knowledge than anyone else of where standing water and rivers had formed around a circuit with notoriously poor drainage, allowing him to find the 0.085 seconds on his last run needed to beat Miyata to pole.
Likewise, Alesi was also in action ahead of the Super Formula race, albeit with just two green flag laps being completed in the truly awful conditions.
Atsushi Miyake (10) crosses the line ahead of Alesi (36) and Shunsuke Kohno (35)
3. Pit box allocation
The other key factor that set up that surprise pole lap was TOM’S occupying the pit boxes closest to the pitlane exit. That allowed both Alesi and Miyata to get out on track before anyone else in between the numerous stoppages, giving them a clear view of the track ahead and crucially allowing them to get their laps in before the conditions worsened. While TOM’S monopolised the front row, the team with the second-most favourable pit allocation, Inging, also fared well, with its drivers Sena Sakaguchi and Sho Tsuboi ending up third and fifth on the grid respectively.
Alesi (36) leads Miyata (37) at the exit of the pits
4. The start
Given how short the race turned out to be, this was really the main point at which the race was likely to be won or lost for Alesi once he had scored pole. Having flunked his start at Suzuka (not uncommon for rookies given the tricky nature of Super Formula’s hand clutch), he didn’t make the same mistake twice, getting a perfect getaway to head into Turn 1 pretty much unchallenged. By contrast, teammate Miyata, who started second, was sluggish off the line and compounded that error by running wide at Turn 1.
Alesi (36) leads Sakaguchi (39) into Turn 1. Miyata (37) can be seen in Alesi’s wake amid the spray
5. Sekiguchi’s mistake
After the chaos of the first corner, it was Yuhi Sekiguchi – from fourth on the grid – that took over as Alesi’s nearest challenger. Autopolis was the scene of Sekiguchi’s most recent Super Formula win two years ago, and as the 33-year-old proved that day, when he is on form he can be unbelievably fast.
But, Sekiguchi threw away a chance to challenge Alesi for the win by running off-track at the penultimate corner and tumbling down the order before the restart after the safety car, taking the pressure off Alesi and giving him a comfortable margin over Nobuharu Matsushita.
That was enough for Alesi to stay out front until a second safety car period, and when the race was red-flagged and any attempt to restart it was finally abandoned some time later, it was job done.