Nick Cassidy’s storming drive from last to fourth in the final Super Formula race of the 2020 season in Fuji will no doubt rank as one of the series’ best in recent history.
The New Zealander came into the round as an outside title contender due to a spectacular engine failure at the previous round in Suzuka.
However, all hope of a competitive qualifying position was quickly ruled out come Sunday morning when Cassidy was dealt two penalties for track infringements. Consequently, race officials deleted both of his fastest lap times and he was obliged to start from the last row of the grid.
Cassidy has executed wily drives from lowly starting positions in the past. Last season he surged from 14th to fourth at the chequered flag in Sugo.
However, this year’s shortened championship season has highlighted a vivid issue with the series – overtaking is becoming ever more difficult.
The Japanese are very pure about their racing and don’t like DRS, so instead, they use a push-to-pass formula. It works by bypassing the fuel-flow restrictor and can be used when on offence or defence.
Still, overtaking has proven challenging all year. The series made the contentious decision to remove dual tyre compounds this year, further narrowing strategic opportunities for teams and drivers. It meant races on the more technical circuits where overtaking is already challenging, can feel soulless with the lack of passing.
But for Cassidy, he lined up on the last spot on the grid yesterday knowing this would be his final race in the series as he prepares for a switch to Formula E next year.
“I am a fighter,” he said on the grid before the race. “I don’t think I was over the line in qualifying, so I am not very happy about that. But I am a fighter and will see what I can do.”
With all to gain and little to lose, Cassidy marched from 20th to 12th in the opening tour. His moves were effortless he swiftly carved through the tail-enders to sit on the fringe of the top-ten.
Despite then being mired in the aerodynamic wake of the leading cars and unable to further accelerate his progress, Cassidy bided his time and minimised the level of stress he put through the tyres.
When the rest of the field make their pitstops between laps 10 and 16, Cassidy was still going strong. Promoted to the race lead, the TOM’S Toyota was continually extending his lead, and he looked to have put himself in the prime position for a shot at victory.
Unfortunately, when one of his rivals picked up a puncture and halted at Turn 1, Cassidy was forced to pit on an incredibly late lap 31 in anticipation of a safety car. But the race remained green, and when the Kiwi re-joined the circuit, he was now sixth.
A pair of assertive overtakes over the final few laps had him sit just outside the top-three, a feat he fell tantalisingly short of achieving.
It was a champion’s drive from Cassidy considering almost everything in the build-up to the race had weighed against him.
Not only was he made to start last, but his engine was a two-year-old model after his 2020-spec power unit burst into flames in Suzuka. He was also tasked with assisting TOM’S teammate Ryo Hirakawa in his championship assault. But Cassidy would ultimately finish some five seconds up the road from his stablemate.
“It was very difficult for tyre temperature today, even with the tyre warmers on the first lap it was difficult, but I made some nice moves,” said Cassidy.
“In warm-up I was P1, so I knew my car was really good on long runs. When I saw people pitting, I had clean air and my tyres didn’t drop so I could keep going. So that was nice.”
The Kiwi now leaves Super Formula as one of its best. Champion in 2019 and part of two teams’ titles in 2018 and 2020, Cassidy’s final race was very nearly the perfect farewell and a timely reminder of what to expect when he takes on a new challenge at Formula E.