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Sawa (Clearwater): “We’ll Be Back Stronger Next Year”

Hungry for more, Sawa San looks ahead to the FIA WEC 'Super Season'

Clearwater Racing driver Keita Sawa says that the Singaporean GTE Am team will be even more competitive in the ‘Super Season’, after narrowly missing out on the class title in its debut WEC season this year. As announced in Bahrain, the team will return to GTE Am, which is set to feature a bumper grid, and gun for the title once again.

The team, which raced a Ferrari 488 GTE in the hotly-contested class, was in the title race all season long, before eventually having to settle for second to the Aston Martin Racing crew.

It was a remarkable run though, Weng Sun Mok’s team proving to be arguably, the series’ surprise package of the year. It was a real step up for the outfit to jump into GTE competition in the WEC after racing mainly in GT3 in Asia. However, Mok, Sawa and Matt Griffin were able to compete for podiums on a regular basis and played a big part in the countless dramatic battles in the class during the course of the year.

Sawa explained to DSC that a big part of Clearwater being able to perform at such a high level at each WEC meeting was down to the relationship between Sawa and Mok. Aside from the rounds closer to home at Fuji and Shanghai, and Le Mans (after they raced at the 24 Hours in 2016) they were completely new to the WEC calendar, having to learn the circuits on the fly. But over the past 10 years, Sawa San, a pro driver and instructor at Fuji Speedway, has mentored Mok, and that chemistry, he said, made each weekend easier.

“The WEC for me is the biggest challenge in my racing career, which has been 20 years long now,” he said. “When Clearwater decided to go to WEC, I was so excited, but I wasn’t sure if I should be confident or not before I headed to the Prologue. I really wanted to join with them because we have 10 years of racing together under our belts, but I wasn’t sure if I was up to it.

When Clearwater decided to go to WEC, I was so excited, but I wasn’t sure if I should be confident or not before I headed to the Prologue.

“I met Weng back in 2007 during Carrera Cup in Sepang and he’d just started racing. Step by step we’ve built a relationship, and now I’m here and have a role in the team to coach Weng and other gentlemen drivers at Clearwater. We’ve done GT Asia, Asian Le Mans, and I’ve helped him take championships.

“Then we went to Le Mans together, and it was our performance there that made me decided to continue with them this year. And now, we’re in WEC, and the progression has been great. After Silverstone, where we won, but were lucky, we improved a lot, at Spa, Le Mans, sometimes we were unlucky, but looking at the whole season, it’s been great, we’ve been competitive and come close to the championship.

“It’s amazing to race at this level with someone like Weng San, who is like a brother to me, we golf, eat, drink and spend a lot of time tougher away from races. And I think that aspect of our friendship has carried over into the racing and made us stronger and better at working together in the garage.”

On a typical race weekend, Sawa is very hands-on with Mok, in helping him learn each circuit and get him focused on the task at hand. This approach, he says, has turned him into one of the best gentlemen drivers around.

“Weng San has done so well, he’s been one of the best gentlemen drivers in Asia, every gentlemen driver in Asia wants to be like Weng now when they start racing. He worries about circuits that we aren’t used to, but he pushes hard and it shows.”

But getting Mok up to speed sometimes is at the detriment of his own performance on occasion, as selflessly, Sawa believes that it’s more important to get Mok seat time, than himself. Despite him also having little circuit knowledge most weekends, he feels there’s more time to be gained by ensuring the Am in the team is as fast as he can be, rather than the pros.

Every gentlemen driver in Asia wants to be like Weng now when they start racing

“It’s a problem if it takes me a long time to learn a circuit, because Weng San needs to learn it more than me. So we kept my driving time before races as short as possible, it means I have to watch a lot of youtube and use simulators. I effectively have to learn a circuit in three laps during practice.

“Having Matt (Griffin) has helped us both too, he is a good competitor and he knows that in the four hours of practice that he has to do everything he can to help us out. When I see his data, I can understand what I need to do, it’s taken adapting, but he isn’t my teacher, we’re both in the team to help Weng San.

“My goal anyway is not go be the fastest, it’s about being the best coach I can be. I don’t need to be super quick, I don’t need to fight for that extra tenth, I need to ensure Weng is as fast as he can be, and consistent too. If I push hard, I gain tenths, if Weng San does, it can be gains of multiple seconds, which over a long race is crucial.

“And anyway, I’m so strong in the races, because we use new tyres and full tanks when I’m in at the start usually, and that makes a big difference to practice, and because I can adjust quickly, it means I can do well even with such little practice.

“We look at the Silver driver rankings on average times, and I’m always top of the Silvers, so I must be doing something right!”

Looking back on the season, Sawa feels that his run at Fuji in the heavy rain, where he pulled away from the field at the start of the race, was the defining moment of the season, and one of the most incredible moments of his career.

“I’ve really enjoyed the battles, I didn’t do much in Silverstone and Spa, but I had a great battle with Castellacci at the Nürburgring and at Fuji,” he said.

“Fuji was my highlight this year. I know the track well, I drive there about 100 days a year, so I don’t need to open my eyes to drive it, even in the rain. We had bad luck in the end and didn’t win because of the red flags. But in the wet that time, I was in my element, I was passing Pro Astons, a Pro Ferrari and even an LMP car!

“I had so many sponsors there that day too, and they loved it, I was so happy to show what I could do on my own circuit. This year so many times I’ve had to work extremely hard, but at Fuji I was used to it, I didn’t worry and it was great.”

Despite the level of success and enjoyment, it was never a certainty that Clearwater Racing would return for the ‘Super Season’. Sawa, who says he will race with Mok until Mok retires, explained to DSC that he’s overjoyed that the team will continue racing in 2018/19, as the 2017 season, was originally supposed to be Mok’s final ride.

“I’ve been really excited since the announcement. When I started this season this year, I thought it was the last season for me, as Weng San said it was the end. Because I’ve been with him from the start, I think it’s right for me to be there at the end. If he finished this year, I’d have finished too. I don’t know what I’d do for the future, but I couldn’t continue.

“I race with this team because they’re a great group of guys, and because I have a lot of personal sponsors, who have really put faith in me. It’s not easy to tell sponsors in Japan, that you want to race outside of Japan, because Japanese racing is very insular, and big nationwide. Breaking away from Asia and Japan, isn’t an easy decision, it’s not easy to get sponsors. But I’m so lucky that everyone was excited about this, because of Le Mans, and because of it being a World Championship.

I race with this team because they’re a great group of guys, and because I have a lot of personal sponsors, who have really put faith in me

“Weng changed his mind though, the season went so well that he started to consider coming back when we were in the summer months. He kept quiet, but I was expecting that he may well continue for another year. I know him, I know when he’s planning things.

“So, now we’re back, the ‘Super Season’. I think we’ll be back strong next year, because we know how everything works, we know the car and all the tracks aside from Sebring. But most of the Am field won’t know Sebring well, so it’ll be pretty equal I think.

“This year, we always had a chance to win, and next year, if we are perfect on a weekend, we will win, I’m sure of it. It won’t be easy, but I’m looking forward to it.”