Whilst nothing anywhere close to the deluge of 2013 for the infamous ‘Race That Never Was’ here at Fuji, the elements and Fuji San threw plenty enough challenges in the direction of the FIA WEC, the teams, drivers, and absolutely not the least, to Eduardo Freitas and his team in Race Control.
Safety Car periods have become something of a rarity these days and the fact that this race saw six of them speaks volumes of the rapidity of changes of the conditions.
Remarkably, whilst rain was a factor, it was not, against almost all predictions and forecasts, the predominant weather issue facing the race organisers.
That came the way of fog, and from this writer’s (physically) elevated position atop the main stands, visibility went to and fro throughout the race, at times everything beyond pitlane was entirely obscured, 10 minutes later it would clear completely. Judging the decisions via TV makes for great armchair criticism, but in this case, believe me, every single call appeared to be entirely correct, with just one Safety Car period appearing to last just a lap or two longer than it was perhaps needed.
The procedure of installing a slow zone in the tricky first sector for most of the restarts was a particularly clever measure, easing the field back to green flag running whilst employing a sensible level of risk mitigation.
Better still, as the cycle of caution, neutralisation and stoppage began again, the communication from the top was impeccable. Gerard Neveu, a man who has had an exhausting few weeks in a traumatic period for the FIA WEC, immediately making himself available to explain the process, the challenges, and the timescales involved. It was an altogether professional display in very tricky conditions and circumstances.
On track there was mercifully little incident of a damaging nature, though both Mathias Beche and Jean-Eric Vergne would do well to take a look at their eventful lap and ask themselves if the various shenanigans were altogether wise or necessary. From this observer’s vantage point, both drivers have reason to question their choices.
Post race it appears that Vergne was dealt a suspended stop-go penalty and Beche a reprimand, both for the start/finish straight incident. The consequences for the #13 Rebellion though were by far the more serious. The #13 has been excluded from the results – as if the accident didn’t do that effectively enough – for, astonishingly, an as-yet unexplained driver hours infraction. It’s a seemingly bizarre decision when so many crews scored points without drivers running at all!
Andy Priaulx will not look back at this race as one of his favourites, and for that matter neither will his team-mate Harry Tincknell. They may well both live to regret, in championship terms, the unforced error from Priaulx to leave the pitlane with the red light showing (and the subsequent 60 second stop-go) and then later the rather urgent attempt to un-lap the #67 from the #91 Porsche (to get the chance for any subsequent wave around) that left the Porsche spun around and led to the cut rear tyre that put Priaulx, first into the wall and then into the gravel at Turn 1.
Aston Martin Racing found, for the first time since its highly successful technical partnership with Dunlop began, that the conditions counted against its regular ‘edge’. The Vantages struggled badly in the streaming wet conditions and were never remotely in the hunt.
Porsche’s LMP division had a not dissimilar day. Neither car was able to switch on their Michelins in the conditions, whilst the Toyotas found several sweet spots, to the delight of the under-siege team and of their multitude of loyal fans here, all of whom, as always, stayed the very challenging course!
The points gap tumbled as a result; Porsche still hot favourites, but their tormentors live to fight another racing day, or two!
In LMP2 the resurgent form of Vaillante Rebellion continues to chomp away at the once-towering advantage of the Jackie Chan DC Racing #38 crew. They have scored 29 points in the last three races though, whilst the chasing #31 has scored 65, and the #36 Signatech Alpine 63. That leaves a 10 point lead, and a 25 point gap to the #36 with 52 points still up for grabs!
Force Majeure needed to be employed to ensure that several drivers came away with points. Thomas Laurent, Matt Rao and LMP2 race-winner Julien Canal were three of the drivers that saw no seat-time in the disrupted event. The #28 TDS Racing crew will likely be more than a little peeved that having ensured that Francois Perrodo drove his full required hours before an epic Manu Collard stint pulled the car back to the class lead, other teams finally finished ahead of them with no no-Pro hours at all.
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune battered both of the GTE class orders. The lead changed hands in both, and after another once-dominant effort, the #67 Ford now has a massive fight on its hands to get back into a championship-winning position. The #51 Ferrari crew of Alessandro Pier Guidi and new dad James Calado had another stunner. The Italian driver did the vast majority of the driving and put in a world class effort, taking the fight to Porsche who looked, at times, to have the measure of the field. Fourth in the points standings coming into this race, they now lead it tonight.
There was a not dissimilar picture in the GTE Am category. The #98 Aston Martin effort had a poor day – pitstop penalty, pace and misfortune all playing a part in a result that saw them lose the lead in both team and driver standings. Two points now separate the top three in the Teams’ Championship (with the Clearwater Ferrari crew retaking the lead), and a single point the difference between the now championship-leading #77 crew and the Aston trio in the Drivers’ Championship.
Kudos too to the #54 Spirit of Race Ferrari crew, the trio taking their first FIA WEC race win. Thomas Flohr put in an excellent effort and Miguel Molina fended off Matt Griffin for the lead at what proved to be a critical time for the final result.
Six hours of uninterrupted wheel-to-wheel action would have been the much preferred format here, but under the circumstances (almost) all involved can head back to Tokyo happy that they dealt with the worst that the Mountain could throw at them in fine fashion.