The quest to become SUPER GT’s youngest-ever champions
The way Toyota reshuffled its SUPER GT line-ups for 2022 may have raised eyebrows in certain quarters, but one decision that few would argue with was pairing Sacha Fenestraz and Ritomo Miyata aboard the #37 KeePer GR Supra at the TOM’S squad following Ryo Hirakawa’s departure from the team to focus on his new FIA World Endurance Championship drive.
Both Fenestraz and Miyata are 22, making them by far the youngest GT500 driver pairing on the grid. Their combined age of 44 is less than the actual age of Toyota’s oldest driver, 46-year-old Cerumo stalwart Yuji Tachikawa!
And that gives Fenestraz and Miyata a unique opportunity – to succeed their predecessors in the #37 TOM’S car, Hirakawa and Nick Cassidy, as SUPER GT’s youngest champions.
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Hirakawa and Cassidy were both 23 when they achieved the feat in 2017, the same age that Fenestraz and Miyata will be by the time of this year’s season finale. But while Cassidy was marginally younger that season than the current occupants of the #37 are now, Hirakawa was a few months older, so Fenestraz and Miyata have a shot at the record.
It’s clear for Miyata that’s the target: “We’re the youngest pairing on the grid, so it’s a good situation. We want to become the youngest-ever champions and beat Ryo and Nick. I hope I can achieve that in my first season with Sacha.”
Like Hirakawa and Cassidy before them, Fenestraz and Miyata, who were born just two weeks apart, have a genuine rapport that’s rare for first-year teammates.
Besides being close in age, perhaps it helps that they fought for the 2019 All-Japan Formula 3 title (Fenestraz came out on top), fostering a healthy dose of mutual respect. On top of that, Miyata’s English is better than most Japanese drivers, and Fenestraz is the type of gregarious personality who can easily get along with practically anybody.
Miyata (L) with Fenestraz (R) and race engineer Kenta Odachi (centre)
The third part of the puzzle is the #37 car’s race engineer, Kenta Odachi. At 28, Odachi is unusually young for a GT500 race engineer, more than a decade the junior of the man he replaces in the role, Masaki Saeda – who now holds a chief engineer role at TOM’S overseeing both the #37 and title-winning #36 machines.
Odachi joined TOM’S in 2017, initially as a data engineer, but was promoted to the role of Super Formula race engineer in 2020, initially working alongside Kazuki Nakajima and then Giuliano Alesi. On the SUPER GT side, Tsutomu Tojo’s departure at the end of last year meant Saeda was promoted into his role, with Odachi taking over the reins of the #37.
Top of the agenda for Odachi has been to find a new set-up direction that works for Fenestraz and Miyata, which has involved a shift away from the philosophy that worked so well for Hirakawa and Cassidy during their almost-four seasons together in the #37 car.
“The set-up is a bit different to what Saeda-san did last year, we had to adjust it for Ritomo and Sacha’s driving style,” Odachi told Motorsport.com. “They need more stability on the braking. Ryo and Nick had almost the opposite style, they prioritised the rotation of the car, whereas now we focus on braking stability. The set-up direction is completely different.
“We started pre-season testing with Saeda-san’s old set-up for Ryo and Nick, but we had a different set-up to try for Okayama, and maybe now the car is getting better. Also for Fuji, we went in another new direction, and I think that was even better.”
It seems that these changes have helped the #37 crew claw their way into contention. Pre-season, Fenestraz was positively downbeat about his chances, highlighting the speed of the Honda and Nissan cars. But almost paradoxically, the Franco-Argentine is much more bullish for his chances now two races into the campaign, despite scoring zero points.
“The car was pretty competitive, I didn’t expect that,” said Fenestraz. “Definitely I think we can be in the [title] fight. We’ve already played our ‘tokens’, so from now on we need to score points. Ritomo has been quick and we’ve been racey.”
Of course, it should be remembered that Fenestraz is coming off a year in which he was able to contest just three races alongside Hirakawa due to his visa issues, and that meant he was racing a GT500 car at Okayama for the first time during the season-opener in April.
And on the tight layout of the ex-Pacific Grand Prix venue, qualifying down in 13th – and then losing a place on the opening lap – restricted Fenestraz and Miyata to 11th at the finish.
“My driving wasn’t mega to be honest, I did a few mistakes,” Fenestraz said of his qualifying effort. “I locked up the rears going into the hairpin and lost three or four tenths, and then the rest of the lap was a bit messy. And then at Okayama it’s really hard to overtake and in a straight line we didn’t have that much speed.
« I got stuck behind one of the Hondas [the #64 Nakajima Racing car], but once we overtook them and the WedSport [Racing Project Bandoh] Toyota and I had some clear track, I had good pace. I think we could have been in top five if qualifying had gone better. It shows the speed is there.”
In true Japanese style, Odachi is also keen to shoulder some of the blame for the #37 car’s subdued start to the year. “It’s just my first year as track engineer, so I think I haven’t been able to give them a good car yet,” he says earnestly. « We still have some issues with the braking stability, which we had in pre-season testing and Okayama as well. »
Fuji was generally much more positive for Fenestraz and Miyata, who ran towards the head of the field for the entire race until it was red-flagged for Nissan driver Mitsunori Takaboshi’s huge accident on the start/finish straight. Miyata was right behind Takaboshi at the time of the crash and was visibly shaken up post-race, refusing requests for interviews.
Although Miyata took the chequered flag in second, a time penalty handed out for contact with the sister #36 TOM’S car of Giuliano Alesi at Turn 1 dropped he and Fenestraz out of the points for a second race running.
That means the pair head to Suzuka with no success ballast, and while Suzuka has never been an especially happy hunting ground for the GR Supra, Fenestraz and Miyata have a great chance to kickstart their campaign before they head back to more friendly Toyota territory at Fuji in August.
« The team is basically completely new, and we want to gain experience this year. But the atmosphere is good and the aim is to be the youngest team to win the championship. Of course it’s the target. »
Fenestraz and Miyata may only have one shot at it, but for now at least, the dream of becoming SUPER GT’s youngest champions remains very much alive.