The ex-Renault F1 protege gunning for Japan title glory

Sacha Fenestraz is way from the primary driver to have moved to Japan after working out of alternatives in Europe, and he received’t be the final both. However, after scoring his first win in Tremendous System in June’s Sugo spherical, it’s secure to say that the transfer is understanding.

Only a few brief years in the past, Fenestraz had been positioned on the Renault F1 junior scheme scrapheap, his profession hanging within the stability. And now he seems well-placed to problem for his first Tremendous System title, probably whilst early as this season.

Granted, Fenestraz wanted till the midpoint of his third marketing campaign so as to add himself to the Tremendous System winners’ listing. However doing so in his 14th begin in Japan’s high single-seater collection is broadly in keeping with the gaijin racers he’s making an attempt to emulate: 2019 champion Nick Cassidy took 10 goes at it, 2011 conqueror Andre Lotterer wanted 13, and 2010 title-winner Joao Paulo de Oliveira needed to wait till his nineteenth begin.

And that overlooks the gaping five-race gap Fenestraz has in his Tremendous System CV for many of final yr, which was the results of visa points and Japan’s ultra-strict journey restrictions in the course of the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic, that are solely simply loosening now.

Certainly, this chat with Fenestraz in Dubai airport – by full accident, Autosport booked the identical flight again to Europe as the topic of this interview – would have been unthinkable this time a yr in the past, when the now 22-year-old was capable of do little greater than wait to be allowed again into Japan. It was a wait that ended up taking one of the best a part of 9 painful months.

“Mileage-wise, I wouldn’t say I’m a rookie, however I’m pretty inexperienced,” Fenestraz displays, additionally noting how his rookie marketing campaign was affected by on-track incidents not of his making and greater than his justifiable share of mechanical issues.

“The 2020 season was nearly a joke by way of every little thing that occurred; I feel I solely had one race with no points. It was pure dangerous luck all season. And in 2021 I couldn’t enter Japan till the final two races. If I have a look at the entire image, it’s a terrific end result and I’m blissful, however possibly some folks from the surface say, ‘Oh, Sacha has been in Japan for 3 years and solely simply received a race’. It may possibly seem like that, however when you realize what you went via, it’s fairly cool.”

Sacha Fenestraz, KONDO RACING

Sacha Fenestraz, KONDO RACING

Photograph by: Masahide Kamio

From the beginning of 2022, issues have been wanting up not just for Fenestraz however the Kondo Racing camp usually, together with his team-mate Kenta Yamashita. All the Toyota groups have been having fun with extra competitiveness in opposition to their Honda-powered rivals due to an upturn in engine efficiency this yr, however for Kondo the distinction from 2021 – when it toiled to a depressing ninth within the groups’ standings – is particularly stark. A variety of that may be attributed to Fenestraz merely being there from the beginning, as a result of Yamashita was lacking a team-mate that would push him ahead for many of final yr.

“It’s not simply because I’m again, but it surely’s possibly one of many causes, as a result of me and Kenta can push one another lots,” says the Franco-Argentinian. “Kenta didn’t have that final yr, as a result of the particular person changing me [Yuichi Nakayama] didn’t have the identical pace, so Kenta didn’t have something to check himself to. And I really feel like Kenta is the form of driver who wants somebody to be combating in opposition to to push himself extra. Additionally the staff has extra motivation and so they know the mixture between Kenta and I could be actually robust.

“It’s additionally partly all the way down to me making quite a lot of conferences between races and pushing the staff to share extra info. In 2020, it felt like two one-car groups; the engineers didn’t share something between them. I actually tried to vary that.

“I perceive the Japanese engineers have quite a lot of respect for one another and so they attempt to not copy one another, but when we wish to combat for the championship, we have to work as a staff and share info – in any other case why have two automobiles? I’ve been pushing for that and it’s slowly altering. All of that collectively helps, and it’s these small issues that make an enormous distinction in the long term.”

The place Fenestraz’s profession goes from right here is an fascinating query. He might find yourself like 2019 Tremendous System champion Cassidy and easily up sticks each time a greater alternative presents itself, and as a reserve driver for Jaguar in System E (he was first to drive the British marque’s Gen3 automotive in testing), following Cassidy into the all-electric collection would seem like the obvious different to what he’s doing now

For any European driver heading to Japan, the language barrier is an inevitable complication, however this may be kind of of an issue relying which staff you drive for. At a staff like TOM’S, the place most of the workers communicate English, issues shall be simpler than they’re at someplace like Kondo, the place Fenestraz has needed to battle speaking together with his race engineer Takuji Murata, who doesn’t actually communicate English in any respect, since final yr.

Fenestraz made a severe effort to be taught the native lingo in his debut season, however throughout his exile final yr it was comprehensible that his zest for finding out Japanese dwindled. Assist arrived firstly of 2022 within the type of Japanese racing veteran Michael Krumm, who is ready to act as a bridge and permit Fenestraz to give attention to what actually issues: driving.

“With Michael, I can speak utterly overtly, whereas earlier than I might solely use ‘straightforward’ phrases,” he explains. “Now I don’t have to fret concerning the man not understanding and Michael simply interprets every little thing into Japanese. Really, it was [TOM’S owner Nobuhide] Tachi who proposed it. We have now a terrific relationship, so once I advised him I wanted somebody to translate, even when it’s for a unique staff, he organized it with Kondo and helped me out.”

Sacha Fenestraz, KONDO RACING

Sacha Fenestraz, KONDO RACING

Photograph by: Masahide Kamio

The place Fenestraz’s profession goes from right here is an fascinating query. He might find yourself like 2019 Tremendous System champion Cassidy and easily up sticks each time a greater alternative presents itself, and as a reserve driver for Jaguar in System E (he was first to drive the British marque’s Gen3 automotive in testing), following Cassidy into the all-electric collection would seem like the obvious different to what he’s doing now. However Fenestraz insists he wouldn’t merely go for the cash, and would solely take into account driving for a confirmed high staff.

With that in thoughts, Fenestraz additionally has the possibility to ascertain himself as a extra everlasting fixture on the Japanese scene within the mould of Lotterer, Loic Duval or Benoit Treluyer, all of whom received titles in each Tremendous System and Tremendous GT earlier than being picked as much as race within the FIA World Endurance Championship by Audi. Fenestraz, certainly, can also be now a longtime a part of the TOM’S line-up in Tremendous GT, and has scored six podiums since 2020. Contemplating endurance racing’s forthcoming growth, it’s definitely doable that Fenestraz’s profession might unfold in comparable trend.

However all of that’s sooner or later. For now, there’s the query of a title to exit and win, though following an unlucky crash within the latest sixth spherical at Fuji the hole to championship chief Tomoki Nojiri stands at a frightening 36 factors with 4 races left.

Fenestraz is reminded that, if he overcomes the chances and beats Nojiri, he’d grow to be Kondo Racing’s first ever Tremendous System drivers’ champion. He hesitates earlier than responding: “I by no means considered that… My coronary heart is thrashing quicker now that you just point out it! That may be wonderful. It’s loopy to suppose we now have an opportunity, however that’s the fact. I wish to maintain pushing the staff lots, as a result of it’s working nicely, everyone seems to be pushing in the proper course. If we don’t have any extra mechanical points, I feel we do have a shot at it. It’s thrilling!”

Giuliano Alesi, Kuo VANTELIN TEAM TOM’S

Giuliano Alesi, Kuo VANTELIN TEAM TOM’S

Photograph by: Masahide Kamio

Alesi’s struggles to show issues round

If the season to date has been one for Fenestraz, it’s been a nightmare for the one different non-Japanese driver on the Tremendous System grid this yr: Giuliano Alesi.

It was final yr when Alesi moved to Japan after being spat out by the System 1 help paddock, with TOM’S providing him a drive within the second-tier Tremendous System Lights collection. With COVID conserving Toyota WEC star Kazuki Nakajima away from the paddock for many of the yr, Alesi additionally made 5 begins within the high class with the Toyota squad, notably successful in simply his second Tremendous System begin in torrential situations at Autopolis.

That rain-soaked day in Kyushu should now really feel like probably the most distant of reminiscences given how this yr has gone to date. In six races, Alesi has mustered only a single factors end of eighth, and has been comprehensively outperformed by team-mate Ritomo Miyata.

Alesi’s race engineer Kenta Odachi defined earlier this yr that his driver was pursuing a really totally different set-up path to Miyata, primarily based on his tendency to brake very late and aggressively – a behavior picked up driving the a lot heavier F2 automotive. Given Miyata has certified within the high 4 for each dry race this yr, and Alesi’s finest grid slot is ninth, it’s in all probability time that the son of F1 cult idol Jean made a much bigger effort to adapt his driving.

Relations between Alesi and TOM’S are stated to be strained, not helped by the Frenchman’s struggles upon his step as much as Tremendous GT’s high GT500 class. Solely an enormous end result within the remaining two double-header weekends of the season at Motegi and Suzuka can ease the strain.

Giuliano Alesi, Kuo VANTELIN TEAM TOM’S

Giuliano Alesi, Kuo VANTELIN TEAM TOM’S

Photograph by: Masahide Kamio

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