Alongside team-mate Giuliano Alesi, Sasahara headed into the penultimate round of the season 15th and last in the GT500 standings with just nine points to their credit in the opening six races of 2023.
But Sasahara kicked off the Autopolis weekend with the fastest time in practice on Saturday morning, which he followed up with the quickest time in the first segment of qualifying, and although Alesi was only fifth-fastest in Q2, Sasahara was fastest again in warm-up.
Although Sasahara and Alesi finally finished seventh, the Japanese driver ran inside the top four in the opening stint and reported afterwards that the car hasn’t felt so good since the Okayama season opener.
“All weekend the car was strong,” Sasahara told Motorsport.com. “It’s a great sign for the future. I know it’s the penultimate round, but finally the car feels the way I want.
“There was something happening with the car that me and the team couldn’t understand, something strange, something wrong with the car. It took us four or five rounds to find this.
“[The issue was] why struggle so much when the pick-up starts. These things are related to the car itself; the car wasn’t working properly in that sense. We tried to solve it step-by-step, but finally at Autopolis it felt like the car was back to normal.
“It was probably the first time we were competitive since the opening round. I feel like if we can fix some of our smaller issues, like the balance, we will be mega-quick.”
However, Sasahara’s satisfaction with pace he showed was tempered by frustration at two rapid-fire full-course yellow periods that prevented him from completing his first stop for two laps in succession.
The first of these was called when the Yogibo Racing Honda GT300 car shed its front-left wheel, falling just as Sasahara passed the closed pit entrance, and the following lap the FCY was deployed again when the Yogibo car ground to a halt at Turn 1 having made it back to the pits.
Sasahara finally pitted on lap 30 of 97 when the second FCY ended, and stopped again to hand over to Alesi on lap 60.
“It was unbelievable,” he said. “Especially the first FCY… I don’t know why they did that, because it was just for a few seconds. I was in sector three, and I wanted to pit that lap. That was unfortunate, but even more so because they restarted just as I passed the pits.
“And then there was another FCY [on lap 28]. I think we lost 16 to 20 seconds as a result of that, which is massive. We would have been ahead of the #17 [Real Racing Honda] and the #38 [Cerumo Toyota], and we could have fought for a podium.”
However, Sasahara conceded that there’s no way he and Alesi could have beaten the sister TOM’S machine of Sho Tsuboi and Ritomo Miyata, who scored their second win of the season from 12th on the grid to take the lead of the standings heading into next month’s Motegi finale.
“The #36 car did a mega job, really quick, so I don’t think we would have won,” he said. “But at least, we had the pace to have been on the podium. It’s a shame, but it’s racing.”