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Analysis
Super GT Okayama

Should TOM'S be worried by low-key start to SUPER GT season?

While Toyota got its 2022 SUPER GT season off to a winning start with Rookie Racing last weekend at Okayama, the team that delivered the marque last year’s title, TOM’S, suffered a rather anonymous opening to its campaign with both cars.

#36 au TOM'S GR Supra

The #36 car of Sho Tsuboi and GT500 rookie Giuliano Alesi came home sixth despite dominating much of official pre-season testing, while the sister #37 machine duo of Sacha Fenestraz and Ritomo Miyata fared even worse, ending up a point-less 11th.

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On the #36 side of the garage, it was always clear that Alesi was going to be up against it on his first GT500 start. He may have had 10 days of pre-season testing to get used to the GR Supra, including four days at Okayama, with the advantage of working with largely the same group of people at TOM’S he’d become familiar with in Super Formula last year, but he never looked like matching the scorching pace of reigning champion Tsuboi.

In the official Okayama pre-season test, Alesi’s best lap was around one second down on Tsuboi’s, and in free practice on Saturday – for which Alesi took the wheel for the final 10 minutes of GT500-only running – the deficit was a little under eight tenths.

Tsuboi was at the wheel for Q1, topping the segment with a 1m17.177s, a time good enough for pole had it been replicated in Q2. Alesi didn’t disgrace himself in the pole shootout with a 1m17.834s to go sixth, but it vindicated the team’s choice to play it safe by putting Tsuboi in the car for Q1 and sacrifice a shot at pole in the process.

Alesi unsurprisingly took the start in the #36 car, but far from making progress, he lost out to Bertrand Baguette’s Impul Nissan on the opening lap and then spent the rest of his 31-lap stint soaking up pressure from Ronnie Quintarelli's NISMO Z, with their battle producing a couple of moments of wheel-banging that almost ended up in disaster.

 

All the while, the leading group gradually disappeared out of sight. Despite not getting held up by the car in front (Daiki Sasaki’s Kondo Nissan), Alesi gave away 10 seconds to Kazuya Oshima in the Rookie Racing Toyota in the opening nine laps, and that gap was out to 24 seconds at the end of lap 18. When the pit window opened on lap 28, Oshima was a full 30 seconds up the road, while the four-car battle for P2 was 13 seconds ahead.

Drilling down further, the main issue was that Alesi was too inconsistent in traffic. While it would be unfair to expect the Frenchman to match an experienced hand like Oshima right out of the gate, it’s worth comparing their slowest laps. Excluding the opening lap, Oshima dipped into the 1m24s only three times in 29 laps before pitting in, and the 1m25s once. Alesi meanwhile posted five laps in the 1m24s bracket and four in the 1m25s.

In other words, 31% of Alesi’s laps were slower than 1m24s, which compares with 14% for Oshima and 16% for Tsuboi, who had 45 laps in his stint excluding his out lap and five laps under full-course yellow. More than half of these were in the 1m22s or faster, compared with 38% for Alesi, who had the benefit of a clear track for the first handful of laps.

All in all, Alesi’s stint left Tsuboi with too much work to do to make the #36 car a serious threat. After the stops, Tsuboi found himself in a net ninth, which became eighth after he cleared the Yokohama-shod Kondo Nissan (a car that should have been easy meat for a Bridgestone-shod Supra in the first stint). In the final dozen laps, Tsuboi picked off two more struggling cars, the SARD Toyota and the Impul Nissan, to come home in sixth.

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While Rookie Toyota driver Kenta Yamashita didn’t have the greatest stint either, allowing the 17s buffer gifted to him by Oshima to be whittled down to less than two seconds amid a messy end to the race, Tsuboi took the flag 13s down on the winner and only four seconds behind the Cerumo Toyota that had been running second when the pitstops began.

It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that with another driver of Tsuboi’s calibre, the #36 car was capable of winning the race, or at the very least repeating last year’s second-place finish.

 

Alesi’s GT500 debut also has to go down as a disappointment when compared to other examples from recent years. Sena Sakaguchi scored pole in the #37 TOM’S car at the same track last year in just his second outing in the top class, and the year prior Fenestraz looked every bit a match for his teammate Yuhi Sekiguchi right from the get-go in the #36 car, despite having had the same amount of prior experience as Alesi (one year in GT300s).

That said, Fenestraz didn’t exactly put in his finest performance at the wheel of the #37 KeePer-sponsored machine at Okayama either. Mistakes on his hot lap in Q1 meant he was the only Supra driver to fall in the first segment of qualifying, giving he and new teammate Miyata a mountain to climb from way down in 13th on the grid.

Fenestraz initially went backwards at the start, losing a place to Katsumasa Chiyo’s Nissan, before settling into a rhythm and picking off the Nakajima Racing Honda and the Racing Project Bandoh Toyota to move up to 12th. With no places gained at the pitstops, that became 11th when the Kondo Nissan was t-boned by the K-tunes Lexus GT300 car late on.

It would be unfair to solely blame Fenestraz for the #37’s poor performance, however. The Frenchman, who missed most of last year with visa issues, is still somewhat inexperienced for an ‘A-driver’, having never raced at Okayama in a GT500 car before. Super-sub Sakaguchi might not have done either last year, but he had the guiding hands of experienced teammate Ryo Hirakawa and veteran engineer Masaki Saeda to make his task that much simpler.

 

On the other hand, Miyata is still getting his head around the Bridgestones after two seasons on Yokohamas and race engineer Kenta Odachi is also in his first year in his role.

The good news for TOM’S is that both its cars head to the next round at Fuji in with a good chance. Tsuboi and Alesi are set to carry only 10kg of success ballast, virtually negligible in terms of laptime, while Fenestraz and Miyata go into the 450km event ballast-free on a track where the GR Supra is always a force to be reckoned with.

Having got through his GT500 debut without making any serious mistakes, Alesi should find the task of negotiating traffic around Fuji a lot easier than he did at the tight, fiddly Okayama layout, and the longer race distance combined with plentiful passing opportunities also makes qualifying at the head of the field considerably less important.

Fenestraz and Miyata meanwhile have a point to prove, but both have strong records at Fuji. Miyata took pole for last year’s Golden Week classic at the track, while Fenestraz has four podium finishes in a GT500 car in just five visits (including three second-place finishes). Memories of their Super Formula podium finishes at the track earlier this month also remain fresh.

It’s not game over for TOM’S’ title hopes by any stretch, but Fuji will give us a better indication of whether either of its cars are likely to be in real contention this season.

  • Stream every qualifying session and race of the 2022 SUPER GT season only on Motorsport.tv.

 

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