Toyota Gazoo Racing scored its first FIA WEC win since the 6 Hours of Spa Francorchamps earlier this year, after a chaotic stop-start 6 Hours of Fuji which ended under red flag conditions due to poor visibility trackside from thick fog and heavy rain. It’s the team’s fourth win in five years at the circuit.
Crucially, the winning car was the #8 Toyota Gazoo Racing TS050 HYBRID, Anthony Davidon’s teammates Sebastien Buemi and Kazuki Nakajima’s title chances receiving a boost as a result, after the #2 Porsche LMP Team 919 that leads the championship finished fourth in LMP1.
Brendon Hartley, Earl Bamber and Timo Bernhard finished far back, off the lead lap after suffering from a lack of pace in the middle portion of the race and having to pit under green when the other runners had stopped under safety car conditions before the first red flag.
The gap in the LMP1 World Driver’s Championship has reduced significantly with their poor finish, from 52 points to 39 with two races to go.
The race organisers had to bring out the safety car six times (once for an on-track incident) and red flag the race twice, the second stoppage coming with an hour and 40 minutes to go. Crucially, it was just seconds after the teams and drivers had completed 75% of the original race length, meaning the finishers were able to score full points.
It was officially called with 14 minutes left, shortly after a scramble to get the race restarted with 10 minutes remaining that was thwarted by the fog descending once again.
Had it restarted, the winners in the #8 may have suffered a crucial blow, as it was due to pit before the field was neutralised, which would have likely seen it drop down the order in the final dash to the flag if a splash of fuel was needed.
“It was a really strange race. We were quite competitive from the start, the #1 Porsche was good but in the rain we were better,” Buemi said. “I’m really happy for the entire team, it’s an amazing result.”
“It’s good for Seb and Kazuki to close the gap in the points,” added Davidson, who didn’t get to drive in the race. “I put on my helmet two times, but sadly didn’t get to drive. This is the second time I’ve come here and won without driving, and I think Kaz did all the work in that race back in 2013 too!”
Second on the road was the #7 Toyota, making it a 1-2 for the Japanese marque on home soil; the #1 Porsche ended up third.
It was an interesting race between the #7 and #1 throughout, the two cars changing places multiple times – the #1 having to change its nose due to a collision on the opening lap and the #7 needing a steering wheel and dashboard change due to a leak in the car.
The Toyota had the advantage in the wetter periods of the race, which Neel Jani felt was the main difference between the two in the end.
“We struggled with tyre temperatures when the rain got heavier,” he explained. “As the conditions got worse we just weren’t as quick as Toyota. They did a great job on strategy too, as being in the lead at the right time was a big part of this.”
LMP2 points gap tightens after second win for Rebellion
In LMP2, the #31 Vaillante Rebellion ORECA took its second win of the season, Julien Canal, Bruno Senna and Nicolas Prost – who won in Mexico – led from the start, but were forced to battle hard through the stoppages to secure the victory.
“It was a real challenge,” said Senna. “There were many times I couldn’t see where I was going, it was tough on the teams, drivers and race officials in a difficult situation to get the show going. It was too difficult and tense at times. The team did a good job though, they pushed the strategy and at a certain point we were nowhere, luckily the conditions panned out and we got to the front.
“It was a long tough day, and I’m just happy that everybody made it through ok.”
The race in LMP2 was at times a lottery, as Senna eluded to, with multiple restarts, and out of sync pit cycles shaking up the running order throughout. The key cars in the race for the win though were always the eventual winners and the Signatech Alpine, #13 Rebellion, TDS Racing and #38 Jackie Chan DC Racing ORECAs.
Eventually finishing second on the road was the Signatech Alpine of Andre Negrao, Nicolas Lapierre and Gustavo Menezes (who didn’t race), which fought through the field multiple times, first during Lapierre’s opening stint, and later when Negrao was in before the final red flag. Negrao beat out Ho Pin Tung in the #38 Jackie Chan DC Racing ORECA after a lengthy battle, forcing the championship leaders to settle for third.
The result up front means that Oliver Jarvis, Thomas Laurent (who didn’t race) and Tung’s lead in the LMP2 standings has shrunk to just 10 points over the winning Rebellion crew with Gustavo Menezes a further 15 adrift.
Despite having cars finish on the podium, it was a bitter sweet result for both Jackie Chan DC Racing and Vaillante Rebellion. The #37 DC ORECA which looked strong all weekend and in the opening stages was forced to retire with a battery voltage issue. As did the #13 Rebellion, which started from Pole, spun at Turn 1 at the start, fought back into the top five before crashing out with two and a half hours left.
Mathias Beche’s accident – in which he slammed into the outside wall at the middle hairpin, destroying the car’s rear end – came after one of the most bizarre sequences of the race. It came just after a restart, in which Beche ran alongside Jean-Eric Vergne in the #24 Manor ORECA down the pit straight, Vergne weaving and making contact with Beche while they navigated an imposed slow-zone into Turn 1. Beche then clipped Vergne through traffic just corners later, which sent him into the barriers and retirement.
Off the podium was the TDS Racing ORECA, after an incredible recovery drive from Emmanuel Collard and the team’s strategy callers, after Francois Perrodo slipped down the order at the start to the back of the pack due to a moment at Turn 1. The #24 Manor ORECA had another strong top five finish, with the G-Drive Racing example slipping to sixth after a late spin by Roman Rusinov at Turn 15, robbing them of a top five spot.
Third win for Calado and Pier Guidi shakes up GTE Pro title race
GTE Pro was won late on, when Alessandro Pier Guidi steered the #51 AF Corse Ferrari 488 GTE to the lead just before the red flag, getting past Frederic Makowiecki in the #91 Porsche which led much of the race, with a gutsy move. The #92 Porsche came home third, surviving a collision with the #67 Ford GT at Dunlop corner with two hours to go making it a double podium for the German marque.
“Alessandro did such a great job in the car, I didn’t drive for that long,” Calado said after the race. “It’s been a crazy week. I became a father on Tuesday so I have to dedicate this to my daughter and my family back home who have looked after her while I’ve been a way.”
By winning their third straight race, the #51 AF Ferrari of James Calado and Pier Guidi have taken the lead in the class standings by six points over the #91 crew of Makowiecki and Richard Lietz, and 14 over the #67 Ford which had a disastrous race.
Andy Priaulx and Harry Tincknell will leave Japan frustrated and disappointed. After being in the running for a podium early on, they were forced to serve a minute stop-hold penalty for leaving the pits under a red light, losing them a lap, before Priaulx made contact with Estre at Dunlop Corner.
Trying to get a lap back, Priaulx hit the rear of Estre’s Porsche, tapping it into a spin, which caused a second hit to the rear of the Ford. Priaulx then had a puncture at the start of the next lap, which sent him veering into the barriers at Turn 1, ripping off the rear wing, and sending him into the gravel.
“It’s been a terrible race for us starting with the drive-through,” Priaulx explained. “I was following Estre, who was stopping the car mid corner, then when we hit each other he hit the right rear of the car, and we had a catastrophic tyre failure as a result. I’m not sure why we had to have that collision. I need to look at the footage to understand why.”
The duo were classified, and scored valuable points, but have lost the lead of the championship.
First win for Spirit of Race
Spirit of Race’s trio of Thomas Flohr, Miguel Molina and Francesco Castellacci took a hard fought first WEC win, taking the lead at the end after a quicker stop allowed them to leapfrog the Clearwater Ferrari before the final red flag. All three Spirit of Race drivers performed well throughout, and took a deserving win; Flohr in particular running mistake-free in the tough conditions.
“We all did a great job, and were mistake free which was key to keeping in the fight,” Molina explained. “I’m a member of the Sean Edwards Foundation, and today is four years since he left us, so this one goes out to him.
“It’s going to be a good end to the season, as we have got so much stronger recently.”
It left Matt Griffin powerless in the Singaporean Clearwater 488, unable to fight back past Molina to score the team its second win of the year. It will come as a frustrating result, after local favourite Keita Sawa proved the class of the field at the start and Weng Sun Mok pushed on during the middle stint.
Nevertheless it was a crucial result and leaves them in the lead of the Team’s Championship once again, and just seven points off the Driver’s Championship which Demspey Proton’s trio now lead by a point over the #98 AMR crew.
The Dempsey Proton Porsche leapfrogged the #98 Aston Martin Racing trio by coming home third, ahead of the Vantage of Paul Dalla Lana, Mathias Lauda and Pedro Lamy, which got caught out in a pit cycle and had to serve a 10 second time penalty in the pits for a pit infringement, leaving them down in fourth.
It was a bizarre 6 Hours of Fuji, with weather playing its part in both the exciting periods of action and disappointing stoppages which robbed those watching of a final act.
Nevertheless, the race organisers did a stellar job of prioritising safety, which is paramount in such tough conditions. The fans on hand too, refused to leave the circuit and while they weren’t rewarded with a full six hours of racing, were on hand for one of the more entertaining duels this season between Toyota and Porsche, which saw the local favourites come out on top.