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Sacha Fenestraz, The Rookie Contender at TOM’s Racing

From F1 academy prospect to Toyota factory driver in Japan, hear what Fenestraz has to say about racing in Japan and competing for a title in GT500

Sacha Fenestraz never had a favourite GT500 car growing up as a child. He admits that he never envisioned himself racing full-time in Japan as a factory driver. After all, his goal, like that of many other young racing drivers, was to race in Formula 1. And not that long ago, Fenestraz was on a direct path to that goal.

“I mean, of course, I’m not happy with how it went in Europe when I was back in the F1 Academy,” says Fenestraz, as he commutes back to his apartment from a meeting with Toyota Gazoo Racing on a Wednesday evening. “But I think I’m quite happy now, and enjoying it here, compared to where I was two years ago.”

Fenestraz turned 16 in the middle of his first season of single-seaters, the 2015 French Formula 4 Championship – where he finished second in the championship. The next year, he stepped up to Eurocup Formula Renault 2.0, where the only rookie driver that bested him that season was the eventual series champion, his fellow prospect from British management firm ADD Management, and his one-time flatmate, future McLaren F1 driver, Lando Norris. But Fenestraz had done enough in his rookie season in the Eurocup – including a maiden victory on the streets of Monaco, to attract the attention of Renault, who signed him up to the Renault Sport Academy. Fenestraz rewarded his new supporters with the Eurocup title in 2017, beating out the likes of current Formula 2 top prospects Robert Schwartzman and Dan Ticktum along the way.

But as soon as Fenestraz began the climb towards F1, the bottom seemed as it had dropped out. His rookie year in the European Formula 3 Championship was solid in a vacuum. Many young drivers would be happy with a win and 11th in the standings in their first year. But it was well below the goal of a top-three finish in the championship that the French automaker had set out for Fenestraz. Not even a cup of coffee in the series now known as FIA Formula 3, or even a third-place podium finish at the Macau Grand Prix at the end of the season, was going to be enough to convince Renault to retain Fenestraz in their academy for 2019.

© Toyota

So Fenestraz and his management team found a new opportunity in Japan, where he immediately set out to reinstate himself as one of the brightest young stars of his generation. The partnership of Motopark Academy and B-Max Racing Team gave Fenestraz a properly competitive seat in the 2019 All-Japan Formula Three Championship, and after winning five of the first six races, he took the championship over TOM’s Racing and third-year driver Ritomo Miyata, the odds-on preseason favourites to win the championship. This also made Fenestraz the series’ final champion before All-Japan F3 was repackaged into Super Formula Lights for 2020.

And while he was no longer a Renault Sport Academy prospect, he did manage to land his first ride in sports cars with a Renault-Nissan Alliance angle: Kondo Racing were moving their Super Taikyu ST-X Class programme up to the GT300 class of Super GT, and in their new Nissan GT-R NISMO GT3, Fenestraz and Kazuki Hiramine competed for victories and the championship in 2019.

Sacha Fenestraz was surely on the way up to GT500 this season, but instead of staying with Nissan, he signed a factory contract with rival manufacturers at Toyota. He remained at Kondo Racing for his step up to Super Formula, since Masahiko Kondo’s team already competed in that series with Toyota engines. But in terms of his GT500 step-up, Fenestraz got the opportunity of a lifetime, not just to race for Toyota in their new fifth-generation GR Supra, but to race for TOM’s Racing, in their flagship number 36 car.

Yes, the number 36 TOM’s Toyota GR Supra, the descendant of the iconic, championship-winning Castrol TOM’s Supra of the late ’90s, the descendant of the Petronas-sponsored Lexus SC430s that were perennial title contenders with Juichi Wakisaka and André Lotterer in the late 2000s. And he was also jumping in to be the replacement for the man who could arguably be Toyota’s all-around ace driver, the reigning Le Mans champion and WEC LMP1 title winner, Kazuki Nakajima. It was a big ask, but how did this all come about? Was it just a stroke of good fortune? Not necessarily. In fact, Fenestraz could have broken into F3 right away with TOM’s.

“I don’t think it was luck. But it was just,  like a bit of everything in motorsport, just good timing,” says Fenestraz, about how the opportunity came to join TOM’s in the number 36 car came to be. “So of course, last year, had a quite a good season in F3. I beat TOM’s – which, of course, is the strongest team here in Japan, and even more so, in F3. I always had a bit of contact with them, even before last year, but they just didn’t have any space. Then after winning the championship last year, we have always been in contact and, and I knew that there was a seat available in the 36, as Kazuki was leaving to the WEC, so yeah, it was just perfect timing.”

The sponsor and the colours are different nowadays compared to the Castrol and Petronas years, with mobile phone carrier au (KDDI) sponsoring the car now, but there is still a weight of expectation that comes with driving this specific car and number for this specific team. And right out of the gate, Fenestraz didn’t buckle under that weight. In his first race, he put in some dazzling overtakes on the Hondas of Nirei Fukuzumi and Naoki Yamamoto, finishing 2nd on debut in a TOM’s 1-2 finish. Then he racked up another second-place finish at Fuji three weeks later, and then two weeks later at Suzuka, Fenestraz finished third, for a hat trick of consecutive podiums to open his premier class career.

© GT Association (GTA)

“It has been a very great start for us. We’ve had great results, and I’ve learned a lot,” explains Fenestraz. “But also, we’ve had some difficult times, as we saw in the last couple of races.” After those three straight podiums, Fenestraz and co-driver Yuhi Sekiguchi went scoreless in three of the next four races. Much was made of a clash between Sekiguchi and TOM’s stablemate Nick Cassidy in the 37 car at Twin Ring Motegi in September, but any friction between the two sides of the TOM’s Racing stable was quickly resolved. One factor that’s been hurting the number 36 TOM’s crew specifically, however, has been how the team have handled the accumulation of Success Ballast during the middle stages of the seasonm a problem that has been a hard one to solve in the last several seasons.

“It’s just been difficult for us as soon as we started adding weight. We’re just struggling more than the rest with a heavy car, that’s just managing worse than the other ones [at Toyota].” “That’s why even at Motegi, we kind of had a good qualifying, but just, car wise, we were struggling the whole way [during the race]. So yeah, it’s just a bit difficult. And as we saw the last couple of seasons for the 36 team, they’ve been good at the start of the season, but then as soon as they added weight, they started struggling. I’m thankful, at least for this last round, that we’ve been kind of trying to copy the 37 car’s setup, to try to go back onto the top step of the podium. Because I really want to have a win this season – for my first season in Super GT! Apart from that, I’ve been quite happy about how my season went so far, for my first time here in Japan as a professional driver.”

Fenestraz now lives in Tokyo, the youngest member of the current “Gaijin Racers’ Club” that also includes the likes of veterans Ronnie Quintarelli and João Paulo de Oliveira, and fellow youngsters Jann Mardenborough and Cassidy. “It’s very, very different to be honest,” Fenestraz says about his new environment. “You just need to arrive really with an open mind and knowing that it’s going to be completely different to what you’ve been used to back in Europe, or in my case Argentina, and so on. But that’s good. It’s kind of the way I like it! Everything is organized. The people very nice, very kind and so on. And I did get used to it pretty quick. And I really love it now.”

When asked what his favourite part about living in Japan is? “The food!” Fenestraz laughs. “No, I mean, living in Japan is great. And also the racing, it’s just unbelievable really, the support that you have. While this year, unfortunately, it’s a bit less because of this situation, but until last year, you know, the fans, being able to be right there, close to you. And they really bring massive support, even when I was in GT300 for my first season. I already felt good support, and this season, I felt that even more. Everything is so crazy. But the support of the people, living in Japan, the food is great, the people are great, I really love everything from here.”

© Toyota

It wasn’t all that long ago that Fenestraz was making regular appearances in eSports events to stay occupied when the first wave of novel coronavirus lockdowns disrupted the 2020 season. Just as Fenestraz was finding a rhythm in pre-season testing, on-track activities ceased. So Fenestraz instead became a fixture of the eSports boom of 2020. His ties with Veloce eSports saw him compete in their “Not the GP” and Veloce Pro Series, and mix it up in the Virtual 24 Hours of Le Mans. For him and for many young drivers, sim racing turned from a hobby to an extension of their full-carbon racing lives, with all of the professional obligations included.

“Well, yes, it’s been a quite a weird year – sim racing and just not, normal racing, with everything being delayed,” says Fenestraz. “But yeah, it went pretty smoothly in the end. Now it’s been very busy, because the season started late, and then we had to catch up and do so many races in such a short time. A lot of races, in only three or four months. So it’s been very busy. But, I kind of like it.”

The density of the calendar doesn’t bother Fenestraz – not nearly as much as the way his Super Formula season has turned into a running tab of Murphy’s Law, where after finishing on the podium in his first race at Motegi, he’s suffered three straight DNFs, two in the first lap alone, going into the double-header JAF Grand Prix at Suzuka. Likewise, the current cold streak for the #36 au TOM’s Supra has been a change of fortunes from that hat trick of podiums in Super GT. But Fenestraz & Sekiguchi did scrap their way to a seventh-place finish at Suzuka in October to stop the rot a bit.

Speaking of Yuhi Sekiguchi, here is a driver who experienced a turbulent time as a young driver between Japan and Europe, often taking the hardest paths before his career finally took off in Japan’s top championships. Sekiguchi is now a well-travelled GT500 veteran, settling into the role of the lead driver nicely after Nakajima’s departure this off-season.

“Of course, he’s been very helpful to me, at the start of the season,” says Fenestraz. “I think he is still one of the fastest drivers here over in Japan. It’s the same with Kenta [Yamashita], my teammate in Super Formula. Both of them are very, great, well, known drivers here.

“It’s been good learning a lot from [Sekiguchi]. In terms of qualifying, I mean, he’s very, very fast. And I also like how he speaks about the car, his input helps us a lot. And then, just watching his onboards, of how he manages traffic, it is also very helpful.”

Born in the French Alps in the city of Annecy, raised by his parents in the Argentine metropolis of Córdoba, Fenestraz represents both France and Argentina’s flags on his racing overalls. He represents two nations with a rich motorsport heritage. France, of course, has had its fair share of successful Super GT drivers over the years, Érik Comas, Benoît Tréluyer, Loïc Duval, Frédéric Makowiecki, Sébastien Philippe, and even Romain Dumas among them.

“In a way, of course, I feel Argentinian. But I still was born in France. It’s kind of nice to be able to have the support of both countries. I really enjoy that.” But there’s a different connection Fenestraz has with Argentina. “I mean, I really feel even bigger support from Argentina, quite a lot more than from France, to be honest,” admits Fenestraz.

“Some fans actually are watching Super GT for the first time this year, as I did last year,” says Esteban Garcia, an independent motorsport journalist from Argentina who has covered Fenestraz for publications such as MotorBox. Garcia is one of a number of motorsport journalists who, through telling the reports of Fenestraz’s successes in Japan to the fans back home, have given Argentine fans a new form of motorsport to latch onto.

This is, after all, the homeland of the great champion Juan Manuel Fangio and the perennial contender Carlos Reutemann, the home of Turismo Carretera, the oldest silhouette touring car series in operation, and the home of current Toyota LMP1 ace José Maria López, Fenestraz’s brother-in-law.

© Toyota

In fact, Sacha Fenestraz isn’t even the first Argentine driver to have raced in Japan in Super GT. Oscar Laurrari was a premier class race winner with beloved privateers Team Taisan, driving their iconic Ferrari F40. Norberto Fontana cut the path to his short-lived F1 career through Japan, and after being displaced from F1, landed a ride with TOM’s in the number 36 Castrol Supra in 1998 alongside the great Masanori Sekiya.

“It was very funny when last year he returned to Argentina, and we spoke in Spanish, English, and Japanese for a bit,” says Garcia. “I am surprised by the fans who are following him in Japan, and see our flag on the tracks in Japan, it’s quite emotional.”

Fenestraz, in turn, feels the love from the fans in the home where he was raised as a child and wants to repay it to them in full. “Hopefully one day I can have the Argentinian flag up on the podium, I hope that can happen, someday,” he says.

Fenestraz and Sekiguchi have the opportunity to win the GT500 Championship this weekend at Fuji Speedway, in the final round of the 2020 Autobacs Super GT Series. He hopes to combine the knowledge that he and the rest of TGR Team au TOM’s have accumulated in three previous races at Fuji this season, with the challenge of tackling a unique set of conditions compared to those races in the past.

“We’ve learned a lot from the last three races at Fuji,” Fenestraz says. “The last one was kind of tough for us,” referring to the October Round 5 at Fuji when a last-lap puncture put them out of the points, “but we’ve been learning a lot. There’s a big difference, temperature-wise, this weekend. We’re expecting very low temperatures this weekend. It’s going to be quite a bit different, as far as who chooses what tires for the weekend, that’s going to play a big role. Honda has been very strong recently in the cold conditions, as always, or at least in like the last two or three seasons in the cold conditions, they’ve always been strong, either in Super Formula or Super GT. I think they’re gonna be our main rivals this week. But even without looking at that, it’s going to be hopefully a good weekend for us, no Success Ballast, just like the first round, so hopefully we can have a good one.”

© Toyota

A championship victory for Fenestraz would put him in elite company as only the fifth rookie champion in GT500 history since 1994. But unlike Fenestraz, past rookie GT500 champions David Brabham, Toranosuke Takagi, and Jenson Button arrived straight into the GT500 class with F1 experience already in their CVs, and John Nielsen had previously won the 24 Hours of Le Mans outright.

“Sometimes the thought goes through my mind, but that would be an amazing achievement, to be a rookie champion [in GT500]. But as I said at the start of the season, not too long ago, I just need to keep my feet on the ground and, and just be realistic. Already, this season has been very great from my side. Of course, many things could have been better, but I think I’m going to come away happy with how it went. Of course, it’s great that we still have a chance, you know, if we win this last round this weekend, and the top two teams (the #17 and #37) don’t finish on on the podium, or something like that.”

In fact, the #17 Keihin NSX-GT of Koudai Tsukakoshi/Bertrand Baguette and the #37 KeePer TOM’s GR Supra of Ryo Hirakawa/Kenta Yamashita could finish as high as third, and Fenestraz could still be champion if he and Sekiguchi win the race. “There’s still a chance, and I’ll still do my best.”

“But even if we don’t get the championship, to be honest, I’m already happy with how this season went, with three podiums and hopefully, one more this weekend!”

And likely, many more podiums in the years to come, be it in Japan where Fenestraz has begun to come of age, or in another championship on the international level, somewhere down the road.