All of a sudden it’s the final WEC race of 2018, with the ‘Super Season’ now into its second half.
The next stop on the current world tour is the Shanghai International Circuit, which often throws up a surprise or two during WEC races.
As it stands there’s no titles decided, though in LMP1 Toyota is edging closer, helped hugely by the #3 Rebellion R-13’s tough outing at Fuji. We’ll get to that later though.
The entry list for the race is 35 cars strong, and features a very nice addition in GTE Pro.
Here’s a look at how things stand, class by class.
Toyota in control
In LMP1, there’s now almost an expectation that Toyota Gazoo Racing will remain dominant. At Fuji, after multiple EoT changes, the pair of TS050 HYBRIDs were near-untouchable, despite the privateers’ best efforts.
To make matters worse, Rebellion’s title challenge with its Silverstone-winning #3 R-13 of Gustavo Menezes, Mathias Beche and Thomas Laurent suffered a blow in Japan, when Menezes hit the barriers hard on the greasy track during the opening stint of the race, forcing the team to retire the car and therefore leave with no points on the board.
What’s the effect? With a second-place finish, Fernando Alonso, Sebastien Buemi and Kazuki Nakajima sit atop the standings with 84 points, ahead of Jose Maria Lopez, Mike Conway and Kamui Koabayashi in the #7, who now sit second with 71 points, both now ahead of the the #3 Rebellion trio who are on 63 points.
A strong result at Shanghai is therefore paramount if the Swiss team wants to continue to fight for the title by Le Mans.
Elsewhere in the class, SMP Racing will hope to continue on an upward trend, its pair of BR1s having their most competitive run to date in Fuji, showing off pace capable of taking the fight to Rebellion, especially early on and coming away with a fourth-place finish for Jenson Button, Vitaly Petrov and Mikhail Aleshin.
However, in order to challenge Toyota or at least a podium in China, SMP, like ByKolles and DragonSpeed have to hope for reliability and the EoT to give them a fighting chance.
For the race, the privateers have been given a fuel break. These changes are designed to address sharp criticism levelled by the Privateer teams at Fuji that their cars were still having to lift and coast on each racing lap to meet the required fuel numbers per lap, and per stint despite two changes in EoT prior to the event.
Both values have been increased for the race in China alongside the regular minor changes that are made for each circuit, the latter measure also seeing adjustments for the Toyotas, the base values linked to the lap length at each track.
Fuel per stint has been adjusted to ensure that the privateers are able to match the lap stints of the Toyotas.
Minor changes have been made too to the refuelling rig fuel flow restrictors to equalise fuelling times across the Hybrid Toyotas, and the turbocharged and normally aspirated non-Hybrid privateers.
The organsiers have also added a practice session purely for Michelin tyre testing in LMP1 to the weekend’s schedule, which hopefully will help the French constructor reduce the deficit between the Toyotas and privateers even further.
Let’s hope that all this provides the type of racing up front we’ve all been eager to see!
Jackie Chan DC Racing vs Alpine in P2
One of the most impressive runs since Le Mans has been Jackie Chan DC Racing’s. The team, which won the Le Mans 24 Hours last year, continues to be a force in the LMP2 class, and heads to its home race off the back of two consecutive 1-2 finishes.
And to add to the team’s chances, both its line-ups are performing well consistently. The Malaysian trio of Nabil Jeffri, Weiron Tan and Jazeman Jaafar in particular, continue to improve, and will be confident of their chances this weekend after scoring their first win in Fuji.
But, Alpine, with its now-official Le Mans win, are still very much in the fight. In fact, Stephane Richelmi, Pierre Thiriet and Andre Negrao still lead the class standings by a single point.
It won’t last though if the French outfit continues to lag behind JCDC in the six hour races, finishing third. A big result here will go a long way in keeping the LMP2 title battle close until the end of the season.
There’s every chance though that we could see a new winner in Shanghai. DragonSpeed’s trio of Pastor Maldonado, Anthony Davidson and Roberto Gonzalez are due for a breakout race, especially running an ORECA with the Michelin tyre, which continues to impress.
TDS Racing too, is more than capable of challenging, Francois Perrodo, Mathieu Vaxiviere and Loic Duval eager to build on their fourth place finish last time out.
Enter the outsiders in Pro?
The GTE Pro race at Fuji was the best of the year, with all five marques finally able to go toe-to-toe. This gives real optimism to Aston Martin and BMW, who lagged behind at Spa, Le Mans and Silverstone, as well as the fans watching along.
Aston Martin’s new Vantage AMRs had the pace before the race, the #95 in particular turning heads by snatching pole. The pace though didn’t hold up through the race with the conditions changing.
As the Vantages faded (finishing seventh and ninth), BMW’s M8s came to the fore, the #82 in particular impressing with Tom Blomqvist (in only his second start) and Antonio Felix Da Costa finishing a close second, scoring MTEK its best result to date.
The mood in both camps is improving rapidly. Obviously, BoP has played a part here, but both teams getting used to their new cars, and MTEK in particular getting used to racing in the championship means the upward curve should continue.
If this weekend’s race isn’t the first race win for either the M8 or Vantage AMR though, it’s likely to have a real effect on the title battle, which thus far has been controlled by Ford and Porsche.
Michael Christensen and Kevin Estre in particular have had a strong run to this point, winning at Le Mans and Fuji, in turn giving themselves a sizable 31-point advantage over the rest of the field.
The Spa-winning #66 Ford of Olivier Pla and Stefan Mucke sits second, but has conceded a lot of ground over the past two races, with a pair of sixth place finishes.
This has allowed the #51 AF Corse Ferrari to catch up and slot in third, the team’s performance headlined by a big win at Silverstone for Sam Bird and Davide Rigon. The #51 though, is a further 9.5 points adrift.
Big results in China for the #66 or #51 will go a long way in helping the title race climax at Le Mans.
In the Manufacturers’ standings, it’s a similar story, Porsche has 152 points and a 39 point lead over Ford.
However, the big interest for this weekend’s GTE Pro action will come in the form of a one-off entry from Corvette Racing, which has opted to ship a silver C7.R to China for a one off race with Tommy Milner and Oliver Gavin.
It’s been a long time since Corvette last ran in a WEC event outside of Le Mans (CoTA 2014 to be exact), so it’ll be good to see the GM-brand back. How will the car fare? Fresh off winning the GTLM title in IMSA, the C7.R has little to prove. It will however, run as the second heaviest car in the field, after the pre-event BoP saw the ‘Vette receive an extra 27kg to the weight it ran at Le Mans.
Adding to that, the other cars in the class bar the Ferrari 488s have been handed a small 5kg weight break for Shanghai too. The Aston Martin Vantage AMRs will also run with a slight increase in turbo boost pressure in China.
Project 1 enters the Am title race
It’s fair to say that Team Project 1 is up to speed with racing in the WEC now. The Porsche one-make racers have adapted to competing in the championship remarkably quickly, finishing in the top three at Le Mans and Silverstone before winning in convincing fashion last time out at Fuji.
Egidio Perfetti, Jorg Bergmiester and Patrick Lindsay though, are not leading the standings despite their consistent run since Spa. Instead, it’s Dempsey Proton’s Christian Reid, Matt Campbell and Julien Andlauer in control with 80 points, their wins at Le Mans and Silverstone enough to withstand the post-race penalties for fuelling-irregularities handed out at Fuji which cost the team dearly in points terms.
Project 1 though, is another strong finish away from being in striking distance come Sebring, its second-place 14 points off the lead.
Third is TF Sport, its Vantage heading to China in the midst of two consecutive second place finishes (with a third coming in the season opener at Spa). Full-season drivers Salih Yoluc and Charlie Eastwood are a further 12 points adrift of Project 1 though, due to retiring at Le Mans.
Outside of the championship battle, which is the immediate interest in GTE Am, the race at Shanghai will be important for a team not in contention for the title – Clearwater Racing.
The encounter in China will be Weng Sun Mok’s final race, bringing an end to a remarkable career which has seen him and Clearwater win multiple races and titles over the years in a variety of championships and big events.
The team will continue after Shanghai, but without Weng, who decided it’s best for him to hang up his helmet at the conclusion of the Asian-leg of the season.
For that reason, Weng and his long-time teammates Matt Griffin and Kieta Sawa will be desperate to make it a memorable weekend.
The Ferrari (which thus far has yet to win Am in the ‘Super Season’) may be the car to have too, as the pre-round BoP has seen the 488 recieve an uptick in boost pressure, and the Astons and Porsches recieve a 10 and 20kg weight increase respectively.