How a Honda hopeful could become Toyota’s next superstar

He won no fewer than two of the ten Super Formula races in 2022 and gave Team Mugen the team championship together with the unbeatable Tomoki Nojiri. Yet there is no place at the same racing stable for Ukyo Sasahara, who cannot even get a place at Honda. The 26-year-old Japanese is making a high-profile transfer by joining Toyota. Feeder Series explores a potentially brilliant switch.

By René Oudman

How well do you have to drive to earn an honours degree? For years, Ukyo Sasahara has been one of the most stable factors in Super Formula. The only problem is: the Japanese twenty-something has almost never had a permanent seat. Sasahara, who unlike many of his compatriots has a previous history in European racing, did not make his debut in Japan’s top racing class until 2020.

Sasahara somewhat has the Covid-19 pandemic to thank for his arrival in Super Formula. The Red Bull sponsored Team Mugen car Sasahara raced in during 2020 was actually reserved for Jüri Vips, but travel restrictions to the Far East at the time meant Vips was unable race in Japan. In his debut season, Sasahara fails to score any points in the first six races, yet he leaves a reasonably good impression. With the exception of a horrific crash at Suzuka, Sasahara finishes every race. In the final race of the season, he crowns his maiden Super Formula season with a neat seventh place.

Super sub

For the 2021 season, Sasahara is once again called up by employer Honda to fill in. This time the problem is not measure-related, but a result of illness. Dandelion has a seat open due to first-choice driver Tadasuke Makino suffering from meningitis. In the nasty conditions, Sasahara manages to squeeze out the maximum. He finishes fifth at the opening race in Fuji and even a podium at Suzuka.

Many expect Sasahara to have done enough with his performances at Dandelion entry to warrant a permanent seat for 2022, but nothing could be further from the truth. When Honda presents its racing system for 2022, Sasahara’s name is not be among the Super Formula drivers. Nominated to race in the Super GT again, that’s it.

A last-minute opening for Sasahara arises. The B-Max Honda team has two cars at its disposal, but only one driver. So Team Mugen, which is only using one car for champion Nojiri, manages to negotiate an extra car to help Sasahara get a seat thanks to a sponsor. It turns out to be a brilliant move. Sasahara take pole in the first race and wins at both Fuji and Suzuka. With 57 points, he finishes a respectable sixth place in the final standings.

Poor communication

Expectation is on Sasahara to have done enough for a permanent contract for 2023 but the Japanese driver falls between two stools during the winter of 2022-23. Red Bull wants its protégé Liam Lawson to drive Team Mugen’s second car, B-Max expands to two cars but awards the second drive to Raoul Hyman after Team Goh’s finances appear to have dried up.

Inter-communication between Honda teams is also proving to be an obstacle. Dandelion, for which Sasahara substituted so superbly in 2021, chooses Super Formula Lights driver Kakunoshin Ohta, an unwritten page with no top-class experience. When Toshiki Oyu believes he is ready for a new challenge and cancels his deal with Nakajima Racing, Satoru Nakajima’s racing stable chooses Goh driver Ren Sato.

Amazingly, the paddock is unaware of Sasahara’s free status and so the revelation of the 2022 season falls by the wayside. Honda can only offer him a spot in the Super GT Series, but that is not a gratifying option for a 26-year-old driver who certainly has aspirations in the single-seater world. Sasahara could be fist on the table, having notched up two Super Formula victories in the past six months.

Toyota

Honda’s biggest rival Toyota knows what it takes to entice Sasahara: a seat in Super Formula, combined with a tenure in Super GT. The renowned TOM’S team is looking for a stick to beat the disappointing Giuliano Alesi with, preferring a more competitive teammate for Ritomo Miyata. Let Sasahara be exactly the person they are looking for.

For the post-season test at Suzuka, Sasahara gets an invitation from Toyota to test Alesi’s TOM’S car and the Japanese does not disappoint. For 2023, there is still room with the TGR Team Deloitte TOM’S in Super GT and, moreover, the #36 entry in Super Formula is still unfilled. There is a chance of Sasahara getting both seats. With Sasahara in the ranks, Toyota has a third person alongside crown princes Miyata and Sho Tsuboi, who should be capable of making a quantum leap forward.

Given Kamui Kobayashi’s advanced age and his growing responsibilities within the management of the Toyota (WEC) racing teams, the likelihood of the brand needing a new Japanese star is particularly high. Just as Ryo Hirakawa was allowed to replace the retiring Kazuki Nakajima, Toyota will no doubt choose between Miyata, Tsuboi and possibly a well-performing Sasahara for the 2024 WEC season.

Resilience

As mentioned, Sasahara does not boast an awful lot of experience. He finished two full seasons in Super Formula thanks to good luck, one of which was about adapting and integrating and the second as a kind of nice little bonus for Honda. So it is not experience that is Sasahara’s strong point, but his mental resilience all the more. What driver faces so much adversity and yet gets back up so strongly?

From 2020 to 2023 Sasahara was never offered a full-time seat in Super Formula. Nevertheless, he always managed to keep his spirits up and even turn that into fine results on the track. If Sasahara does indeed turn out to be the diamond in the rough overlooked by Honda, big rival Toyota could actually score a giant hit with him.

Header photo credit: Red Bull Content Pool

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