Going from his debut on the European racing scene to the top step of the Formula 2 podium in three seasons, Ayumu Iwasa has had a remarkable rise up the order and surprised many along the way. Off the back of a solid rookie Formula 3 campaign where he finished 12th, ahead of both his teammates, some weren’t too sure what to expect from the young Japanese talent in the highest tier of junior motorsport.
Whilst his first F2 campaign has had some bumps along the way, Iwasa has shown that when he’s got the all the pieces together, he’s got the speed to take his rivals by storm. Most importantly for any young driver, he’s shown an eagerness to learn race by race, and even session by session. Gaining knowledge from those around him, particularly his DAMS team, the rookie has carved himself out to be one of the biggest standouts of the 2022 season.
As the field get prepared for the upcoming triple-header, we look at his overall performance and Iwasa gives us his take on how he’s fared across the 10 rounds so far and what areas he’s looking to develop across the final four rounds.
Throwing himself firmly into the fight for the top five, Iwasa currently sits seventh in the Drivers’ Championship on 90 points, two points clear of fellow Red Bull junior Liam Lawson and only four points off fifth-placed Jehan Daruvala.
The Honda Formula Dream Project driver has four podiums to his name, including an impressive maiden victory in the Le Castellet Feature Race – where he made a decisive overtake on the opening lap to lead the pack all the way to the chequered flag.
IWASA’S SEASON SO FAR
“I would rate my season so far a seven and a half out of 10 because the last two events were quite good, but until then my performance was quite bad. I made a quite a lot of mistakes and found myself in a lot of bad situations. For example, pit stop mistakes and changing conditions like at the Red Bull Ring, which were quite difficult situations for me.
“I think this season so far has been quite good, especially our approach has been very, very good. We were struggling in the first few events, particularly with my driving, the tyre management and brake management etc. I was struggling quite a lot to be honest, but I could learn a lot of things from the team and from the races, so I think that’s been a key point for us. Then finally, I won the race in Paul Ricard and got pole position at the Hungaroring.”
Initially, Iwasa’s season did not get off to the best of starts, as an issue during the opening Qualifying session in Sakhir left him unable to set a time on the board. Lining up last on the grid for the Sprint Race, the 20-year-old was rapid, making up 14 places in 23 laps to take his first points in seventh. This was followed up with back-to-back points finishes in Jeddah and a fifth-place result in the frenetic Imola Feature Race.
However, it was in the Barcelona Sprint Race where we saw more of his true potential. A blistering getaway saw him climb from fifth to second off the line, whilst he left room for error with some sharp defensive moves to keep Logan Sargeant at bay and claim the second spot on the podium.
Yet understanding the Formula 2 machinery isn’t an overnight job and as Iwasa acknowledged, there was much for him still to learn across an underwhelming mid-season run of form. Following his first F2 podium, he recorded six non-points scoring finishes in eight races. Struggling to get to grips with the Monte Carlo and Baku streets circuits, he endured a messy two weekends where overtaking mistakes cost him valuable points.
It wasn’t all doom and gloom though, as the 20-year-old proved he had the chops to fightback after a difficult Friday. Qualifying in P13, he was one of the biggest movers and shakers in the Baku Sprint Race, as he sliced his way through to finish eighth.
Putting those difficulties behind him, Silverstone’s wet conditions during the Sprint Race were an ideal playground for Iwasa. Adapting to the ever-drying track, his late-race charge up the order from sixth saw him put race leader Jack Doohan under pressure but run out of laps to try to wrestle the win out of his hands. It was in the Sprint Race that Iwasa also demonstrated his growing confidence behind the wheel, using the outside line to his advantage to swoop past Jüri Vips at Luffield and Daruvala into the Vale chicane.
Gambling on slicks in the Spielberg Feature Race paid off for the DAMS driver as he made a return to the points in seventh, but a five second time penalty for exceeding track limits demoted him from a likely top five finish.
Having shown many moments of promise, it has been during the two most recent rounds where Iwasa’s talent, alongside his burgeoning confidence, and knowledge have really shone through. Narrowly missing out on pole in Le Castellet, he more than made up for it with a mature performance in the Feature Race to stand on the top step of the podium. Taking advantage of the pole sitter’s poor start, he ensured his tyres were primed to perfection and smartly used the tow down the Mishal Straight to seize the lead and carve out an unassailable 8.6s gap to his nearest rival.
Perhaps though, it was Qualifying in Budapest where Iwasa impressed the most. Errors on his opening runs around the Hungaroring left him teetering in the midfield, but as those around him failed to improve, the DAMS driver caught everyone by surprise – lighting up the timing screens at the last second to stake a dominant claim on pole, over three tenths clear. Whilst the pole didn’t translate into another victory in the Feature Race, his greater understanding of how to manage the complex Pirelli tyres allowed him to hold on to another podium finish in third.
STRENGTHS AND THINGS TO IMPROVE
“I think at the moment the car is really, really fast and I also have the potential to drive fast, so that is a good combination between the team, myself and the car. Still as a team, we need to make some small improvements to our strategy, pit stop timing, tyre management and set up for the races. I think the setup for the races is quite nice already because I won the race in Paul Ricard with quite a big gap. For me, I need to improve small things and from the team’s side, we need to improve the small things but not a lot because we are already strong enough to progress and get some more victories.
“I’ve learnt a lot about my driving and tyre management, but I’m learning about the car as well. That is a key point because honestly, we were not strong during the pre-season test and the first few events. The car was not quick enough and from my side I was not quick enough, but we could improve a lot and that’s why I got stronger than last year across the beginning of this season.”
Looking back on his season so far, there’s a great deal of positives Iwasa can take with him going forward. One of the most consistent qualifiers in 2022, the Red Bull junior has made six top six appearances and to be in contention for a top five finish in the Championship after a rocky mid-season run demonstrates how far he’s grown in a relatively short space of time.
In Iwasa, DAMS have got both an impressively fast talent and a very willing pupil and it is that relationship between the driver and team that has been so instrumental in his evolution throughout the rounds. Naturally, there are areas that need to be worked upon, particularly his starts and eliminating mistakes, but as all drivers must learn the hard way, those usually come with experience. Being able to provide the feedback needed to maximise his setup and find the ideal sweet spot will be of paramount importance across the three vastly different circuits coming up.
NEXT STAGE – THE FINAL FOUR ROUNDS
“For the last four events, I’d like to get another race victory. We are already strong; all we need to improve on our progress to be even stronger and I think we can do it. We need to put it all together and push much more for everything to the end of the season. I will be pushing my driving further all the time.”
With the drive to continue to improve himself, the sky is the limit for Iwasa and the upcoming rounds in Spa-Francorchamps and Zandvoort will be welcome returns given his previous successes there. Combining the familiarity of the tracks with his development since the start of the year could be a recipe for further podiums and carve out a place for him in and amongst the frontrunners.