Japan’s Ukyo Sasahara took two dominant wins in the opening races of the 2019 F3 Asian Championship Certified by FIA at Malaysia’s FIA Grade 1 Sepang International Circuit today. The Hitech GP driver twice headed home team mate and Red Bull Junior driver Jack Doohan of Australia, with Absolute Racing’s Daniel Cao third in Race 1, and F3 debutant Brendon Leitch of New Zealand earning the final podium place after Race 2.
In the Masters category, B-Max Racing Team’s DRAGON of Japan took both wins, the first after team mate Tairoku Yamaguchi and BlackArts Racing’s Thomas Luedi had a coming together which resulted in retirement for both. DRAGON took the win from another championship newcomer, Paul Wong of the 852 Challengers by ZEN Motorsport. The second victory came after a strong start saw DRAGON take the category lead off the start and lead home Yamaguchi and Wong.
Sasahara’s two wins put him top of the F3 Asian Championship Driver classification with 50 points, giving him an advantage of 14 points over Doohan after two races. Cao and Leitch are tied on 27 points, with Absolute Racing’s Eshan Pieris seven points behind them. DRAGON tops the Masters leaderboard on 50 points, with Wong second head of Yamaguchi and Luedi yet to score a point after a challenging weekend so far. Defending team champions Hitech GP have got their season off to a flying start having amassed a 39-point lead from Absolute Racing in second.
As the lights went out for the first time heralding the start of the second F3 Asian Championship season, the 17-strong field of burgeoning talent roared off the grid on the quest for victory.
Starting alongside pole-sitter Cao, having missed out on pole by just four 100ths of a second, Sasahara seized the race lead with a lightning getaway which saw the Japanese driver rocket off the line. Behind him, team mate Doohan also made a good start, passing Cao and setting off in pursuit of Sasahara.
Leitch was another driver to benefit from a strong getaway, the New Zealander up to fourth from the third row ahead of Eshan Pieris by the end of the opening lap. M-Sport Asia’s Akash Gowda of India, meanwhile, had stormed up to sixth from ninth on the grid, while W Series driver Jamie Chadwick of Seven Grand Prix had, like Cao, lost out at the start and lost the advantage of her second row starting position.
Demonstrating impressive discipline, the entire field made it through the notorious opening series of turns despite each being on the limit and pushing hard.
At the front of the pack, Sasahara did well to keep his Australian team mate at bay and out of striking distance, the pair closely matched on pace. “To be honest I didn’t expect that because in practice I wasn’t really sure about that,” said Sasahara. “But I managed a good start. I was happy to be first straight away because then I could manage the gap. I don’t feel any strange feeling [with an unfamiliar car].”
In the Masters class, Yamaguchi got by pole-sitter Luedi early on to lead the category.
Despite making up places at the start and running strongly in the opening laps, Gowda dropped down the order, overhauled by Chadwick on lap 3, and later by Super License drivers Tomoki Takahashi and Yu Kanamaru, the Indian eventually crossing the line in ninth.
BlackArts Racing’s Tom Beckhäuser was an early retirement, pulling into the pits with a clutch issue on lap 4. At the front of the pack though, Sasahara continued to manage the gap from Doohan, with Cao unable to make inroads into the quick pair. Leitch, meanwhile, had a determined Pieris looming large in his mirrors for most of the 15-lap race but 23-year-old refused to be rattled.
Yamaguchi continued to lead the Masters field until two thirds through the 30-minute race when a coming together with rival Luedi saw the Japanese B-Max Racing Team driver end his race in the gravel, and Luedi retiring into the pits minutes later. Yamaguchi was later handed a three-place grid penalty for the start of Race 2 for his role in the incident. The retirements meant Yamaguchi’s team mate DRAGON inherited the lead, crossing the line to take the win ahead of 852 Challengers’ Paul Wong, taking a podium finish on an impressive championship debut.
With the chequered flag in sight, Sasahara continued his flawless championship debut to take with opening win of the season by more than 2.5 seconds from Doohan, with Cao claiming the final podium place head of Leitch, Pieris and Chadwick. Sasahara also set the fastest lap of the race, neatly locking in pole position for Race 2.
This time starting from pole, Sasahara made another blinding start, immediately putting clear air between him and what was a frenzied field behind. Doohan held on to his P2 grid position, but Pieris was immediately in his mirrors having shot from a P5 grid position. Takahashi too was a man on the move, up to fourth by the end of the opening lap.
Casualties of the opening lap charge were Cao, who dropped from P3 to seventh in the order, and Chadwick. The Briton then made contact with Takahashi, losing her front wing in the process and being forced to pit for repairs.
By the end of lap 2, Leitch had got past Takahashi and up to fourth behind Eshan, leaving the Japanese Super License driver to fend off a determined Cao, Gowda and team mate Kanamaru. Cao made his move a lap later, a tidy move at Turn 1 seeing him move up to fifth behind Leitch.
In the Masters class, DRAGON had got by pole-sitter Luedi at the start of the race, and was leading from team mate Yamaguchi and the BlackArts Racing driver.
As Sasahara pulled away at the front, Doohan was forced to focus on keeping air between him and Pieris – and a hard-charging Leitch. Pieris tried a move on the Australian, briefly taking the place before running too deep and forfeiting the position. Leitch pounced, and the Sri Lankan was forced to make a swift shift from attack to defense.
“I just don’t think we really had the pace for the race,” said a slightly disappointed Doohan after the race. “The other guys coming from behind were definitely a lot quicker, and Ukyo as well. I was struggling to keep [Leitch] behind me and make the least amount of mistakes I could. I knew he was going to be there the whole time, so I just wanted to try and maintain my position to the end and luckily it held up.”
Sasahara’s hard-earned five-second margin evaporated on lap 9, however, when the safety car was called out to retrieve the stranded car of Luedi. The Hitech GP driver controlled the restart masterfully, but Pieris was glued to the back of Doohan, the Australian holding firm into Turn 1 with just six minutes remaining on the clock. Seconds later, an error by the Sri Lankan saw him swamped by both Leitch and Cao who dived past, demoting him down to fifth ahead of Kanamaru who had passed team mate Takahashi.
For the second time in as many races, Sasahara sailed across the line unchallenged, a 2.656 second margin between himself and team mate Doohan, with Leitch taking a podium finish in just the second race.