Dissecting a SUPER GT season to forget for TOM'S
Toyota's flagship SUPER GT team TOM'S suffered its worst season since 2012 as it failed to get either of its cars into the top five of the standings this year. So what went wrong, and what can the team do to return to winning ways in 2023?
TOM'S went into this month's final round of the championship at Motegi with the smallest of chances of defending its unexpected 2021 title, but a disappointing run to sixth for the #37 KeePer-sponsored Toyota GR Supra of Sacha Fenestraz and Ritomo Miyata put paid to any such hopes.
Worse than that, they slipped a place in the final points table, beaten by fellow Toyota runners Kenta Yamashita and Kazuya Oshima in the Rookie Racing car.
Things weren't much better on the other side of the TOM'S garage as outgoing champion Sho Tsuboi and GT500 rookie Giuliano Alesi rounded off their season by finishing ninth, leaving them 10th overall.
Not since the 2012 season, when Kazuki Nakajima and Loic Duval ended up seventh overall, has Toyota's traditional number one outfit endured such a miserable campaign. No doubt some of that was down to the GR Supra's drop-off in competitiveness in the second half of the year.
But with Rookie Racing taking over as this year's top Toyota team - helped by none other than long-time TOM'S technical guru Tsutomu Tojo - questions need to be asked about how the team can recover next year.
TOM'S has been to a certain extent a victim of driver market machinations. Both halves of its title-winning 2017 pairing, Nick Cassidy and Ryo Hirakawa, are no longer around, having departed to race in Formula E and the FIA World Endurance Championship respectively.
Fenestraz, in many ways the heir to Cassidy as he moved to the #37 car last year after a learning year in the #36, has now gone the same way as the New Zealander after signing a two-year FE deal with Nissan.
Initial hopes that the Frenchman might be able to stay in his seat for the majority of the new season have come to naught, meaning Toyota and TOM'S are having to search for a replacement.
"Every year somebody is going…" laments TOM'S team director Jun Yamada. "Just when the driver reaches a good level, they are gone!
"For next year, TOM’S will remain a two-car team with four drivers. Of course Sacha is leaving and we’ll have one new driver. But the combination is the point we are thinking about."
In the #36 car, it's clear that Alesi has struggled even more than would normally be expected for a rookie, and that in turn has prevented the talents of Tsuboi from being exploited to the fullest.
A fortuitous second place (worth half-points) in a shortened Fuji race in May was the partnership's best finish, followed by fourth on the series' return to the track in August. It was no coincidence that the races where the #36 car earned its best results were those where Tsuboi drove two stints.
On Alesi's performance, Yamada says: "The performance is still not good. It has been getting better, he is growing, but some points are still very weak.
"In this race [Motegi], his stint was good at the start, but the end of the stint was not good. So he still has something to learn with tyre management."
Fuji was also the happiest hunting ground for the #37 pairing of Fenestraz and Miyata, who scored their first win together at the track in August after losing out due to a penalty in the May race (a result of Miyata colliding with Alesi).
May's Suzuka 300km race yielded the duo's only other visit to the podium, a third place, although this was largely helped by arriving at the circuit weightless following a poor opener at Okayama, where Fenestraz by his own admission underperformed in his 'A-driver' debut, and the penalty at Fuji.
Reflecting on the season, Miyata says that the late-season improvement from both Honda and Nissan, but especially the latter, left he and Fenestraz with little hope in their quest to become SUPER GT's youngest champions.
"Nissan and Honda have turned up the engine power, so our engine power is not good enough," sighs Miyata. "I always tell Toyota we need to improve the car balance and engine, because this year the Nissan is always overtaking us at the end of the race.
"Toyota is always just trying to defend its position. This is a big problem. We have to improve the engine power and downforce. Nissan has both power and downforce, so they can win more easily."
With SUPER GT entering a new aero freeze for 2023, Toyota won't be able to do much to improve on the downforce side, meaning any hopes of a GR Supra revival likely hinge on an engine breakthrough.
"We are worried because the regulations are the same," adds Miyata. "We can still improve the engine, but we don’t know how to improve the power. We also need to improve the downforce, but we don’t know how. We are nervous about next year."
Yamada echoed his driver's opinions, even if he admits that the relative inexperience of Fenestraz and Miyata may not have helped with tyre selection, another factor that blunted the TOM'S charge at Motegi. Indeed, Fenestraz remarked that choosing the wrong tyres was something that had "happened too many times" in 2022.
"The car performance is not good enough yet," admits Yamada. "That includes the set-up, engine, tyres… the whole package is not strong enough.
"Nissan has a new chassis, which is different to ours. Our car is a bit older in terms of design. So it’s difficult. I will try to push Toyota on the engine side, and also to bring some more lightweight parts."
While TOM'S has only limited power to influence the development of the GR Supra, getting the driver line-ups right next year will be crucial.
Tsuboi, Alesi and Miyata are all expected to stay at the team, and while it remains unclear who will take over Fenestraz's place in the #37 GR Supra, current indications are that it will be a Japanese driver, and therefore almost certainly somebody from within the Toyota stable.
Current Racing Project Bandoh driver Sena Sakaguchi, who replaced Fenestraz for five races aboard the #37 car last year, seems the most logical option, but there have been recent suggestions that it could be a more experienced driver making the transition to TOM'S.
There also remains the possibility that the newcomer could be paired with Alesi, paving the way for a Tsuboi-Miyata combination that would arguably maximise TOM'S' prospects for the coming season.
With the aero package staying the same, and doubts as to how much more power can be extracted from the Toyota engine, such a strategy would represent the best chance of avoiding a repeat of a 2022 campaign to forget.
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