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Opinion: TOM’S benching Alesi brutal, but the right move

After another DNF at Sugo, TOM'S has decided to bench Giuliano Alesi for the rest of the Super Formula season. Although undoubtedly brutal, there can be little doubt it was the right call for all concerned, says Jamie Klein.

Giuliano Alesi, VANTELIN TEAM TOM’S

The news that Giuliano Alesi is stepping down from his TOM’S Super Formula drive was both surprising and unsurprising in equal measure. Few expected he would survive beyond the end of 2023 with his current form, but equally a mid-season change of drivers didn’t seem to be on the cards either until Tuesday’s bombshell press release landed.

But, with two-time race winner Ukyo Sasahara taking over at the cockpit of the #36 car from this week’s in-season test at Fuji Speedway, TOM’S has undoubtedly made the right choice, and even deserves admiration for its ruthless pragmatism.

It was clear that Alesi was on notice from when Sasahara drove his car in last year’s post-season test at Suzuka. But the switch to the SF23 chassis offered a much-needed chance of a reset after a dreadful 2022 campaign, as did the arrival of Tatsuya Kataoka in the TOM’S garage as an advisor to the Frenchman.

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TOM’S team director Jun Yamada described Alesi as being “more relaxed” than he had been the previous year, and was expecting an upturn in form. In the opening race of the season at Fuji, Alesi was on course for much-needed points until he made contact with Nirei Fukuzumi’s ThreeBond car in the latter stages, setting the tone for what was to follow.

True enough, there were points at Suzuka as Alesi came home eighth for his first top-10 finish in over a year, but on a day that team-mate Ritomo Miyata scored his first win, the difference in performance between the two TOM’S cars was in sharper focus than ever.

While Miyata came close to winning at Autopolis and then scored another triumph last time out at Sugo, Alesi registered two more zeroes, with the Sugo race proving particularly embarrassing as he spun on the first lap and was collected by Yuhi Sekiguchi.

 

In Alesi’s defence, he was running side-by-side with Naoki Yamamoto heading into the Turn 5-6 chicane and was put on the kerbs by his rival, but trying to force a move at that part of the track was inadvisable at best. Moments later, TOM’S owner Nobuhide Tachi was shown on TV grimacing, no doubt wondering if he’d made the right decision to keep Alesi in the car.

Post-race, Yamada told Motorsport.com: “Looking at him, it’s not the usual Giuliano. The pressure seems to be having an effect on him mentally. Of course, Ritomo being so fast is also probably having an impact. It’s natural that would put the pressure on. But, as long as you are working with two cars, that’s a problem that is always bound to happen.”

Alesi himself cut a relaxed figure in the media pen, even shaking hands with Sekiguchi, the driver whose race he had ruined with his spin. He spoke of looking forward to the chance to reset in this week’s Fuji test, but instead he’ll be left to contemplate on losing his seat.

The other side of the coin is TOM’S being blessed to have such a well-qualified replacement waiting in the wings. Had ex-Honda man Sasahara not been around, it’s likely that Alesi would have seen out the season purely on the basis of no better alternative being available.

It should be remembered that Sasahara was an important part of Team Mugen’s dominant title success last year, matching Tomoki Nojiri’s tally of two race wins and showing that he could go toe-to-toe with the two-time champion on several occasions. For him to have spent the opening five races of 2023 on the sidelines always felt like a huge waste of potential.

 

Indeed, TOM’S putting Sasahara in the #36 car for the remaining four races of the year will have been made with the current teams’ standings in mind.

Mugen leads the way on 102 points, with TOM’S second on 72 - of which 69 have been scored by Miyata. It’s not an insurmountable gap, and this week’s test provides the perfect chance to bed in Sasahara and allow him to go into next month’s Fuji race fully prepared and ready to score big.

Alesi’s future with TOM’S, and by extension in Japanese motorsport, now has to be regarded as far from certain. It was only two years ago that he was handed a golden chance to deputise for an absent Kazuki Nakajima, winning in just his second Super Formula start at Autopolis, but that foggy, rain-soaked day already feels like ancient history.

Given how Alesi has performed subsequently, it’s hard to view that race, which featured just a handful of green-flag laps in terrible conditions, as anything other than an anomaly, and one that perhaps created unrealistic expectations. While there wasn’t much to choose between Alesi and Miyata that year, the gulf between them has only grown and grown since.

Alesi’s high profile in Japan - which he owes more to mother Kumiko Goto, a famous singer and actress, than ex-Formula 1 racer Jean - makes him something of a unique case. It explains why he has been given more chances than most would be, but also why he was fast-tracked into a plum SUPER GT ride with TOM’S before he was anywhere near ready.

 

A low-pressure environment like Racing Project Bandoh would have been the ideal place for Alesi to learn the GT500 ropes. Instead, he was parachuted into the #36 Toyota GR Supra, putting him in the unenviable situation of sharing a car with the super-quick reigning champion Sho Tsuboi, and having to learn the tricky Bridgestone tyres with minimal testing opportunities.

Yes, Alesi was off the pace and error-prone, but he should never have been in the #36 car to begin with. The pressure to perform there no doubt fed into his poor performances in Super Formula, and vice versa. And even though he was moved to the #37 TOM’S car in SUPER GT this year, it was as the ‘B-driver’ to Toyota newcomer Sasahara, hardly a vote of confidence.

TOM’S said in its statement on Tuesday that it hopes Alesi focusing all his energies on SUPER GT will lead to an uplift in performance. With five races to go in that series, it feels like it will be his last chance to prove he still belongs at the pinnacle of Japanese motorsport.

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