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Analysis

Toyota faces 2023 driver headache amid Fenestraz uncertainty

The fact that new Nissan Formula E signing Sacha Fenestraz is pushing to stay in Japan next season is great news for fans of Super Formula and SUPER GT, even if calendar clashes mean he won't be contending for either title next year.

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Masahide Kamio

It's borne out of a genuine wish on the part of the 23-year-old not to leave Toyota in the lurch - after all, the easy choice would just be to focus on Formula E next year, a la Nick Cassidy two years ago - as well as a pragmatic desire to keep his future career options as open as possible.

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But if Fenestraz doing both Super Formula and SUPER GT has been ruled out, then Toyota faces a major dilemma about how to rearrange its driver roster around his absence in at least one of those series.

Disregarding the fact that three weekends out of seven are set to clash with FE, Fenestraz is arguably worth more to Toyota in Super Formula. He currently sits second in the points behind Tomoki Nojiri and would be in with a real chance of the championship if not for some misfortune earlier in the season.

More to the point, his return after missing most of the 2021 season has led to a Kondo Racing revival, with he and Kenta Yamashita gelling well as teammates and pushing the whole team forward.

Fenestraz and Yamashita have formed an excellent partnership at Kondo Racing that will be hard to replicate

Fenestraz and Yamashita have formed an excellent partnership at Kondo Racing that will be hard to replicate

No offence to Yuichi Nakayama, but last year demonstrated clearly that if Yamashita doesn't have a fast driver in the other side of the garage, the whole team suffers. And it's hard to think of any replacement who would fit the bill who is also obviously available. 

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

If Toyota went down this route, it has to replace Fenestraz for three weekends - Round 2 at Suzuka, Autopolis and Round 5 at Fuji - and Kondo will likely suffer anyway when he is away on FE duty, although perhaps less so than it would if he left the team altogether. It’s also worth mentioning that, if the number of double-header weekends doesn’t change next year, the missed events would only represent three races out of 10.

All of that said, SUPER GT still has to be regarded as the more likely option for Fenestraz to stay. That’s thanks to the considerable influence of TOM’S owner Nobuhide Tachi, who is said to be loathe to split up his title-contending driver combination of Fenestraz and Ritomo Miyata, even if the Franco-Argentine driver has to miss one or two races.

Unfortunately for TOM’S, the obvious candidate to step in for Fenestraz in the June Suzuka race and, potentially, the Fuji Golden Week race, Ryo Hirakawa, is unavailable in both cases due to the timing of the Le Mans 24 Hours test day and WEC Spa round respectively.

It means that, unless TOM'S alumnus Kazuki Nakajima can be tempted out of retirement for a couple of one-offs, the unenviable task of replacing Fenestraz when needed will probably fall to a Toyota youngster like Kazuto Kotaka or Hibiki Taira, both of whom have been gaining valuable experience with the Toyota-affiliated apr team in the GT300 class lately.

Could Super Formula Lights points leader Kotaka benefit from Fenestraz's absence?

Could Super Formula Lights points leader Kotaka benefit from Fenestraz's absence?

In the event that Fenestraz does drop out of SUPER GT, there seems to be a simple solution for Toyota: Giuliano Alesi could potentially to be moved over to join his Super Formula teammate Miyata in the #37 TOM'S car, where he would also be able to work with his current SF engineer Kenta Odachi, with Sena Sakaguchi stepping up to fill the breach alongside Sho Tsuboi in car #36.

That would then allow a new Toyota youngster such as Kotaka or Taira to be bedded in at Racing Project Bandoh.

If he wins the Super Formula Lights title, Kotaka would expect to step up to Super Formula, and Fenestraz’s possible exit opens up a desirable seat at Kondo Racing. But Kotaka hardly shone in his substitute outings last year at KCMG in place of Kamui Kobayashi and could probably do without the spotlight of replacing Toyota's current top driver in the points.

Instead, a more wholesale reshuffle of the Toyota roster would be preferable. Current Inging driver Tsuboi springs to mind as one driver in the Toyota stable who could benefit from a change of scenery and could push Yamashita at Kondo.

Things could still change if the FE calendar also gets tweaked between now and the start of 2023, but either way Toyota has some serious thinking to do about how to best utilise the partly-unavailable but formidably fast Fenestraz.

TOM'S boss Nobuhide Tachi is said to be keen to keep Miyata and Fenestraz as a pairing for 2023

TOM'S boss Nobuhide Tachi is said to be keen to keep Miyata and Fenestraz as a pairing for 2023

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