Nick Cassidy believes he and TOM'S Lexus teammate Ryo Hirakawa were only denied their second SUPER GT title in three seasons by the timing of the safety car in August's Fuji race.
Victory in Sunday's Motegi finale was not enough to prevent Kenta Yamashita and Kazuya Oshima from claiming the championship for Team LeMans, as Yamashita crucially passed the sister #36 TOM'S car for second place behind Cassidy and Hirakawa.
It came after Yamashita and Oshima's back-to-back wins earlier this year at Buriram and Fuji, the latter assisted by a well-timed safety car period that gave the #6 Lexus a free stop and essentially handed it victory in a race it was carrying considerable success ballast.
"We were a safety car away from the title," lamented Cassidy, who went on to highlight that the #37 car was only beaten in a straight fight by the #6 car in one race, Buriram.
"I think we did the maximum [from Fuji onwards]," he told Motorsport.com. "They were heavy, but we were also heavy, so to then catch them back was really tough.
"From round three onwards we finished every race in the top four. We had a lot of podiums these last races, catching the gap, even in the changing weather. We beat [the #6 car] in six out of eight races, which says it all really.
"The championship is structured in such a way that if you win, you get heavy, and then you don’t usually score big points. But at that race [Fuji], we were both hugely heavy already, so it threw the whole weight system out the window."
Cassidy also acknowledged the disappointment that a number of SUPER GT drivers felt with the situation at Fuji, even suggesting that it could have contributed to Jenson Button's decision to exit the series after this season.
Button and his Kunimitsu Honda teammate Naoki Yamamoto would have won the Fuji race had the decision been made to penalise Yamashita and Oshima.
"I can’t say much, but I can say it’s probably the reason why the series is losing a high-profile driver," said Cassidy when pressed on the matter.
Cassidy blindsided by change of team strategy
Cassidy was at the wheel of the #37 Lexus for the opening stint of the Motegi race, handing over to Hirakawa having moved up from fourth on the grid to second behind Kazuki Nakajima in the #36 TOM'S car.
But the Kiwi admitted post-race that the plan had been for Nakajima to hand over to Yuhi Sekiguchi as late as lap 26, only for the #36 crew pit on lap 20, the lap after Cassidy.
"At that stage of the race, I was not worried about overtaking [Nakajima] because our pace was much better than P3 or P4," Cassidy explained. "So I was more focussed on trying to extend the gap than fight.
"I had one little look and he covered me. If I was racing him for the championship I would have attacked more, but because he’s my teammate I was a little bit gentle.
"And I knew I was coming into the pit two laps later, so I knew it was not important if I got ahead or not. Their strategy [pre-race] was to pit on lap 26, so I was really surprised to see them cover our strategy."
Asked whether he felt the team had let he and Hirakawa down by pitting the #36 car earlier than planned, Cassidy said: "I respect them, they are fighting for the win, so it was their decision. I respect that they wanted to race [us]."