The clash occurred at Turn 5 on lap 44 of the 63-lap race while Yuhi Sekiguchi in the #36 Toyota GR Supra and Nick Cassidy in the sister #37 car were fighting over sixth place.
Clearly faster at that stage of the race – helped by only running a stage one fuel restrictor as part of the #37 car’s success handicap, while Sekiguchi struggled with the harsher stage two restrictor – Cassidy swept to the right-hand side of the track as both TOM’S cars lapped the GT300 Tsuchiya Engineering Porsche to set himself up for an inside pass.
Cassidy appeared to take Sekiguchi by surprise, and the latter tried to initially squeeze the former before the pair arrived at the braking zone. As they drew nearer to the corner, Sekiguchi turned in, leaving Cassidy with nowhere to go, and the two cars came to blows, the #37 car’s front-left clattering into the rear-right corner of the #36.
Initially, it was Sekiguchi that had looked to come off best from the clash as Cassidy was tipped into a half-spin, but it soon became evident that the #36 Toyota had sustained damage in the hit, losing a rear-wing endplate and a major piece of right-rear bodywork. The safety car was soon called for the second time to allow marshals to clear the debris.
Sekiguchi was relegated to seventh as the Kunimitsu Honda of Naoki Yamamoto capitalised on the incident to gain a place, with Cassidy dropping all the way down to 11th. But after the race restarted, it was the New Zealander who had the last laugh, going around the outside of an ailing Sekiguchi at Turn 5 for eighth on lap 55.
In the end, Cassidy picked up two more places on his way to sixth, scoring valuable points for himself and Ryo Hirakawa, while Sekiguchi eventually brought home the battle-scarred #36 Supra home outside of the points in 11th place.
Immediately after the race, Cassidy was in no doubt who was to blame for the clash, but speaking to Motorsport.com subsequently he offered a more measured view.
“In the end, when appreciating the interests of the team, I think both of us wish things could have gone differently,” reflected Cassidy.
“At that stage, considering the pace advantage I had, maybe I assumed too much, but that can be discussed internally to improve our relationship for the future.
“I have a lot of respect for Yuhi and think he’s a talented driver, so I don’t expect any issues going forwards. It’s something both him and I will learn from.”
Yuhi Sekiguchi（#36 au TOM’S GR Supra）
Photo by: Masahide Kamio
Sekiguchi is understood to have apologised to Cassidy after the race, although he also told Japanese media he equally didn’t feel he was to blame for the incident.
“At one point I was able to move up to sixth, but there was some contact, and as a result of that the car became unbalanced,” said Sekiguchi. “The pace got worse and gradually we slipped back to 11th place, so it was a bit of a disappointing race.”
Finishing outside of the points, Sekiguchi and Fenestraz gave up the lead of the standings to Real Racing pair Bertrand Baguette and Koudai Tsukakoshi, who ran out dominant winners for the second time in three races at the wheel of the #17 Honda NSX-GT.
Sekiguchi and Fenestraz now trail Baguette and Tsukakoshi by two points, with only another three points separating the #36 and #37 TOM’S crew.
Fenestraz, who drove the opening stint in the #36 car, took a dim view of the incident between Cassidy and Sekiguchi – questioning why Cassidy felt the need to make such an aggressive move when he had a clear speed advantage and would have had more chances.
“Of course, we want to do our best and finish in front of each other, but I think it’s wrong to take so much risk at this stage of the season,” Fenestraz told Motorsport.com.
“To be honest, he [Cassidy] was a lot quicker, we were struggling a lot on the straights so he would have had other opportunities to pass. Yuhi closed the door, but this is racing. I would have closed the door too on Ryo when he passed me, but he took me by surprise.
“Without the contact with the sister car maybe we could have been P8 or P9. Those points would have been useful for the championship at the end of the year.”
If there was any impatience on the part of Cassidy to find a way past Sekiguchi, it can be at least partially explained by the fact he and Hirakawa, for a second race in a row, gave away precious time and positions in the pits.
#37 KeePer TOM’S GR Supra
Photo by: Masahide Kamio
Indeed, in the first stint Hirakawa had already cleared Fenestraz before pitting on lap 23, with Fenestraz coming in the following lap. And yet, when the pitstops shook themselves out, Sekiguchi found himself eighth, three places ahead of Cassidy.
“I think it’s difficult to judge the what-if situations, but I am very pleased with my stint otherwise and how many cars we could pass,” said Cassidy when asked for his opinion on what kind of result could have been possible without the slow stop.
“In end I started the stint last and could recover to sixth even after the spin, losing five positions. We know we have work to do in the pits, but also on the car, as the #17 car [Real Racing Honda] showed it is the reference at this stage of the season.”
It’s important to bear in mind that while the two TOM’S cars are nominally part of the same team, they function as mostly separate entities, with different engineers, team directors and sponsors. Team orders don’t come into play, even when the title is on the line as it was for Cassidy and Hirakawa last year at Motegi in the season finale.
From that point of view, Fenestraz doesn’t expect much to change in future races should the team’s two cars find themselves squabbling over the same piece of tarmac in future.
“It’s too early in the season for team orders, we just race each other, we know we cannot risk everything, but I guess this is a learning experience,” said Fenestraz.
“I don’t think they are going to tell us not to fight each other, but they [the team] might say to have more respect or to take our time more [overtaking]. Ryo didn’t risk it all when he passed me, it was a normal fair move on a teammate.
“It ended up badly for both of us, because we both could have ended up with better results [without the clash]. It’s something that shouldn’t have happened.”
#37 Team TOM’S Toyota GR Supra: Ryo Hirakawa, Nick Cassidy
Photo by: Masahide Kamio