In only three years, French-Argentine racing driver, Sacha Fenestraz, was dropped from European racing and moved to Japan. I spoke to him about how he overcame these setbacks and how he continues to live out his dream of being a professional racing driver.
Born in Annecy, France but raised in Córdoba, Argentina, twenty-one-year-old Sacha made the decision to move to Japan after being dropped by Renault Sport Academy in 2018. With the possibility of quitting motorsport altogether, the choice to move to Japan to compete is one he cant regret. In 2019, Sacha became Japanese Formula 3 Champion with eight wins, eighteen podiums and five pole positions. Toyota signed him for the 2020 season as a result of his success and now, he races for them in Super Formula and Super GT.
After Sacha came to terms with a bug invasion, we spoke about how he began karting and racing, along with his life in Japan. We discussed how his aspiration is to one day reach the pinnacle of motorsport, Formula 1.
ELLIE: How did you get into karting and know it was for you?
SACHA: I started thanks to my parents. Actually, my dad used to do some go karting with my brother and one day, there was a go kart and I jumped in and started driving off. I think my dad was running behind me and they thought I was going to crash, you know, not turn or go straight. I started doing a lap of the small track we were doing and when my dad stopped me, I started crying. My dad was like, ‘oh, he likes this’, so, a little while after that, he gifted me a go-kart and that’s where it started. My dad and my brother stopped, maybe a couple of years after and I just continued, and here I am.
ELLIE: What would you be doing if you weren’t racing?
SACHA: If not something in motorsport, it would still always be related to engines. I used to race Motocross when I was a kid in Argentina and that’s one of my favourite sports after racing. Or rugby… rugby’s a very nice sport as well.
ELLIE: Why did you choose Japan?
SACHA: Of course, there was Europe, but it was difficult. In 2018, I was racing in Europe and I got dropped by Renault [Sport Academy], so I asked myself, ‘what do I do now?’. I didn’t have the budget to stay in FIA F3 or Formula 2, so I was either continuing or stopping. It was a terrible year; I was very close to stopping racing. I gave it a chance in Japan. I knew a couple of drivers in Europe who raced here [in Japan] and they were like, ‘give it a chance. If you do a good job, they will open more doors for you and they will help you’. That’s what happened, really. I came to Japan at the end of 2018, after F1 in Abu Dhabi, to visit my brother who was working here, and I was like, ‘yeah, I like the country, let’s come race here and see how it goes’. Last year , I won the championship here and Toyota signed me for the 2020 season.
ELLIE: What is the best thing about living and racing in Japan?
SACHA: It’s very, very cool. It’s just very different. You need to arrive with a very open mind because it’s very different in terms of how people are. The culture here is very different. What I love the most here is the respect between each other, it’s incredible, the respect they have for each other. The fans as well, to be honest, during race weekends, are amazing. There’s so much support. If you see the F1 Grand Prix in Japan, it’s always massive. You have such great support, even me, after last season, but mainly this season. In everyday life, it’s nice as well. Security wise, in Japan, it’s so secure. You can leave your home open, your car open… nothing would happen. It’s really nice to be able to live like that.
ELLIE: Would you come back to race in Europe if the opportunity arose?
SACHA: I would, but I’m really, really happy here to be honest. Japan is an amazing country. Of course, I would never say no to any proposals from Europe, but, at the moment, the only reason I think I’d go back to Europe is for a Formula 1 chance in the future or maybe a Formula E chance. I think that’s one of the reasons I would go back to Europe, but I am happy here.
ELLIE: What is the biggest challenge you have faced when it comes to racing? Does it differ depending on where you race?
SACHA: In terms of lifestyle, I would say the moment when Renault dropped me and, as I say, I was very close to stopping racing because mentally, it was a very difficult time. It was horrible really because I went from, the year before becoming European Champion, to one year after being dropped by Renault. Nowadays, I’m happier that I didn’t give up. During races, it’s just difficult, with how you can manage the pressure being the most challenging thing. Like if you see people like Gasly and other F1 drivers… the amount of pressure they have and overcoming such difficult times, with Gasly winning one year after being dropped by Red Bull. I think that’s how you see the drivers, the very good drivers, overcome difficult times, too.
"In my life, I always had two dreams."
ELLIE: Out of all the tracks you've raced at, which is your favourite?
SACHA: Generally, it would be Macau for me, it’s incredible. I think every driver you ask would say Macau; maybe not their favourite, but the most difficult track in the world. It’s very, very, very difficult. I would say Macau, but then, in Europe, of course, Monza or Spa. Monza, of course, because the racing is just amazing. You can start last and you have a chance or at least a good chance to have a good result because of the long straights and it’s fairly easy to overtake. Spa is my favourite but now, after losing a big friend there, I have more respect for the track, to be honest. I haven’t driven there since what happened to Anthoine [Hubert] but I see it in a different way now. It’s a risk that we take but we don’t realise until it happens, unfortunately.
ELLIE: Considering all of your race entries, which race would you say is your favourite?
SACHA: Last weekend [Super Formula at Twin Ring Motegi, August 30, 2020] was one of my favourite races, to be honest. Being able to achieve what I did [P3], it was nice, but apart from that, I think Macau Grand Prix, achieving third place [in 2018]. In my opinion, and other people’s opinion as well, the car was not good enough to be able to finish in that position but somehow, we managed it. It’s difficult to say, actually… Macau, or Monaco, when I won in Formula Renault . The first year was a bit lucky with Lando [Norris] getting penalised so I got Pole position (thanks, Lando). The second year was a proper race, but Monaco and Macau, both of them are my favourites.
ELLIE: What is your favourite category you’ve ever driven in?
SACHA: Super Formula. Super Formula this season, the car is amazing. Both Japanese categories are very different [Super GT and Super Formula]. In Super GT, I have a teammate, there’s traffic, it’s a different car but Super Formula by far is my favourite. Imagine it’s Suzuka; Formula 1 race times compared to Super Formula Quali times is three seconds off, or something. It’s very quick and it’s very nice. I’ve missed it a lot. My favourite category is definitely Super Formula.
ELLIE: Super GT or Super Formula? Why?
SACHA: It’s difficult to compare, it’s completely different, but the one that you know, Super Formula. It’s just so similar to an F1 car, it’s so quick. And why? The amount of downforce, speed, and when you drive in Suzuka, it’s really incredible. You can really feel how powerful and quick the car is. It’s super nice to drive as well.
ELLIE: Which European category is your favourite?
SACHA: FIA F3. The last one I did was FIA F3 and I still think after Super Formula, the F3 car is one of the nicest cars. It’s a very nice car to drive, light and good downforce, good power. A lot of drivers, even F1 drivers, I think, they say that F3 [cars] are a nice car to drive.
"That's why this coming season and next season is quite important for my future."
ELLIE: What is your proudest or most memorable racing moment?
SACHA: Macau again. It’s one of the most important races for every driver, after an F1 Grand Prix or something. It’s one of the most famous races in the world. Every F1 driver and, I think everyone in F1, watches it. A lot of teams might even contact you because of how you did in Macau. It’s a very, very tough race. I think that one because after 2018, I was going through a very difficult time and then, at the end of the year, that race weekend, everything was perfect and I managed to get a good result. It cheered me up a lot. As I said, I was very close to stopping racing and I gave myself a target for Macau, saying ‘if it goes well, give it another chance next year and find a drive. If not, I really need to think about what I can do for my future’. So, I set a target for Macau and of course, I worked very hard, but I didn’t work any harder, just what I know. I had a great result, so I think my favourite moment was that one, overcoming a tough year and being able to achieve that, it was nice.
ELLIE: Do you have any career goals?
SACHA: What do I think? I struggle to put myself somewhere. Where I think I’ll be? I really don’t know. In my life, I always had two dreams, as I said before, F1 and being able to live out my passion of being a professional racing driver. That happened this year with Toyota, so that’s a dream I’ve achieved, but of course, the next step; I hope in the near future, within one or two years, or as soon as possible, to be an F1 driver, or at least achieve a drive in F1, or a test. You know, FP1 or the new rookie test they do. Something like that would be an unbelievable achievement in my opinion. Yeah, just take it step by step. Short term [2/3 years] would be to get an F1 test, at least. Then, in eight to ten years time, still be racing, at least.
ELLIE: Where do you think, or hope, competing in Super Formula will take you? Do you think you will get an F1 seat?
SACHA: I think, through Japan, you can get to F1. You see Gasly, you see Vandoorne, you see many drivers [reach F1 from Super Formula]. I can’t say it’s going to get me an F1 drive, but it’s not impossible. Of course, coming to Japan takes me out of the normal route to F1, but, it’s still not impossible. There’s a lot of recent examples, like Gasly and Vandoorne who came here and raced, did a good job and then went to F1 so it’s not impossible. I think you just need to get it right and that’s why this coming season and next season is quite important for my future.
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Photo credit: Sacha Fenestraz