A fortunate Nick Cassidy has claimed sixth place in the Super FORMULA season-opener at the Twin Ring Motegi circuit after a chaotic few laps saw several drivers run into strife.
The TOMS Toyota pilot came into the round aware the drastically revamped race format would likely not sit well with his car’s performance, and the Kiwi was struggling over the opening half of the race.
Down in tenth, Cassidy would ultimately be promoted to sixth with ten laps in hand as those drivers ahead of him ran into both mechanical dramas and collisions.
Victory and the championship lead went to Cassidy’s Super GT co-driver Ryo Hirakawa who resisted a late push by Kenta Yamashita for the opening win of the truncated season.
Pole-sitter Hirakawa immediately went on the overtake button to give himself a boosted launch off the line, fending Sacha Fenestraz off the front row to maintain the lead.
A mature start by Cassidy from 11th had the Kiwi jockey for early track supremacy but he knew to avoid an unnecessary collision and maintained his position through the opening host of corners. The defending champion would then be elevated inside the top-10 when Toshiki Oyu slowed to a sudden crawl on the exit of the Turn 10 hairpin.
Cassidy then went on the assault of Yuji Kunimoto as a train of cars extending from fifth to tenth allowing the leaders to escape upfront.
Yuhi Sekiguchi was the cork in the bottle of the train but despite the drop in pace it, proved incredibly difficult for drivers to overtake one another despite the use of the overtake system.
New regulations for the 2020 Super FORMULA meant drivers where no longer mandated to change tyres. Consequently, the majority of the field were compelled to nurse their rubber, nullifying their aggressiveness as they ran in single file.
Lap times from the leaders were upwards of seven seconds slower than their qualifying pace, leading to Red Bull Team Mugen to whistle Ukyo Sasahara in for a fresh set of tyres on Lap 15.
A trailblazer of the alternative strategy, Sasahara set the tone for several drivers further down the field who trickled into the pitlane for fresh tyres. Sasahara immediately came to life on his fresh boots, taking upwards of two-seconds per lap out of the pace of the race leaders.
After an opening lap push, Cassidy was ailing in worn tyres and was slowly beginning to fall off the pace of the battle for fifth. However, he was elevated two spots courtesy of a clash between Nirei Fukuzumi and Kamui Kobayashi came to blows along the back straight.
The former F1 driver suffered a right-rear puncture as Fukuzumi’s front wing made hefty contact with the rear of Kobayashi.
Fukuzumi soldiered on with his damaged front wing but one lap later would be involved in an uncannily similar incident with Sekiguchi who picked up a puncture, spinning into the gravel at Turn 5 in a graceless crash.
Surprisingly, neither Safety Car nor Full Course Caution was deployed but fortunately for Cassidy, he found himself on the fringe of the top five when Kunimoto retired to the pitlane with technical problems to end a manic few laps.
Fenestra then yielded the second podium position to Yamashita as the Frenchman had used the best of his tyres, the top-three running in procession all the way to the chequered flag.
The lead driver to make a pitstop in the 35-lap race, Sasahara would come up shy of the final points-paying position in 11th.
The second round of the Super FORMULA season will be held from the Okayama International Circuit on September 27.