The FIA World Endurance Championship (WEC) lands in Japan for round 7 of 9, the Six Hours of Fuji, and the leading contenders in each category are becoming clear. The season’s narrative also identifies some strategies and would-like-to-see scenarios and we will endeavour to navigate you through a few of those in this preview.
The big news of the weekend broke early Thursday morning in Japan with Porsche announcing that this season will be Mark Webber’s final as he moves to become a Porsche special representative, a diverse and varied role carved out seemingly especially for Mark. At SportsCarGlobal we thought he might hold on for another stab at a Le Mans victory in 2017, but perhaps turning 40 and getting married over the summer has moved his thoughts on to the next phase of his career. Sitting on seven career WEC victories including the current run we can be sure that the #1 Porsche 919 Hybrid will continue to challenge for victory all the way to the chequered flag at Bahrain.
Whilst this seems counter-intuitive given the championship standings (the #2 car heading the table) as long as the #2 car is not trailing home in second it makes sense for the #1 to take the wins to reduce the points differentials available to competitors.
There are still two key competitors to the #2 Porsche (130pt) lead. #8 Audi (92.5pts) and the #6 Toyota trailing by just a further 0.5pt (92pts). Each can expect support from its sister car for the remainder of the season.
Notionally this is very much a fly-away race for all of the teams, but of course it is home turf for Toyota, and after the heart-break of coming so very close at Le Mans, it would be some consolation to pick up a win at Fuji for either car. With the long straight at the 4.536km Fuji Speedway and its excellent layout for energy recovery the Ts050 should be well-suited to its surroundings, which of the leading cars is most derived from similar Le Mans-based data.
In recent races we have seen reliability issues impact both Audi and Porsche, though Porsche delivered a 1-2 hammer blow at Fuji in 2015, so with that knowledge and current form Porsche continue to stand-out as SCG favourites.
Quick mention of the ailing Privateer sub-class, we are down to just the #13 Rebellion and #4 ByKolles who will both hopefully be around at the end. Everything being equal on its day the R-One comfortably outpaces the ByKolles and again low downforce configuration will only aid the more modern Oreca chassis. This should suffice to tie-up the title for Rebellion Racing one last time as since the last race they have announced their intention to join the ranks of the LMP2 category in 2017, chassis to be decided, but we would put a Swiss Franc or two on Oreca given the history and performance of the 05 in the preceding seasons.
The progress of the #36 Signatech-Alpine(156pts) appears unstoppable. Nico Lapierre is a man at the pinnacle of his personal form and should a suitably connected seat come available must be a prime candidate for a return to LMP1. The RGR Sport by Morand Ligier(118pts) continues to show improved pace in recent races especially after the inspiring result at Hermanos Rodriguez Circuit in Mexico, but trading firsts and seconds with the above car takes it no close in the Championship with fewer rounds (three) to make up the difference.
Clashes this weekend with the DTM Finale see Rene Rast unavailable for defending category champions #26 G-Drive Racing(3rd on 88pts) and in Will Stevens they no doubt have an able, rapid, and increasingly experienced replacement, but the gap requires multiple non-finishes for the Signatech car, and of all the cars in the category it is not only quick but solid as a rock on reliability.. (Ed. And if that statement doesn’t stop it! nothing will)
Other points of interest in the category –
- Unfortunate news of a lung infection for Nick Leventis (get well soon Nick from all at SCG) whilst en-route to Fuji, which given the short notice limited the option of a recall for Danny Watts. On the upside and Nick would be first to acknowledge (even expect?) that this presents the team and Messieurs Kane and Williamson the opportunity of extra seat time and the high potential of a podium having been barely a step away at both the Nurburgring and in Mexico!
- Manor Motorsport have the #44 rock steady (yet exceptional fast) crew of Rao/Bradley/Merhi and the return of their #45 car! The second car sees Tor Graves back for the first time since Nurburgring, but partnered by the ever rapid Japanese hero Shinji Nakano and on Alex Lynn. It is great to Alex (reserve driver at WilliamsF1) getting a run out and taste of the current WEC scene, and typical of Manor to be a part of that story.
With a circuit more akin to a ‘petit’ Le Mans (if we can steal that US nomenclature for a second) we would expect to see a resurgence in form for the Ford GTs.. They have made one notable change since Circuit of the Americas and reduced the #67 driver squad to Priaulx/Tincknell ( see Ford Performance Data Clues ). As an aside and surely just coincidental Harry Tincknell got his first Upgrade on BA, which is nice! This was the final GTE-Pro car to drop to a two-driver line-up, symptomatic of the efficiency required and reflects back on the conversation we had with James Calado at Silverstone (check the SCG SoundCloud account for that one to hear more..)
In terms of Championship, Aston Martin Racing need to put their strategic weight behind the #95 car which leads by just 12pts (109 v 97) over the #71 Ferrari 488 GTE of Rigon & Bird. Obviously the best result for AMR would be a 1-2 which would open up the 6pt spread in the GT Manufacturers table too. Everything to play for here then..
The #78 KCMG Porsche RSR will be looking for a big result at what is as close to a home (Hong-Kong) race as they can get, and that would build on the second place at the previous round. The #83 AF Corse Ferrari 458 (137pts) has delivered an advantage year to-date for its drivers in both sustained pace and reliability, leading the driver standings by 33pts from the #88 Abu-Dhabi Proton Racing Porsche (104pts) with the #98 Aston Martin (96pts) needing a strong performance to keep any semblance of championship hopes alive.
Previous races at Fuji have always twisted and turned with the weather playing a formidable role.. Current weather forecasts are for seemingly cool but relatively stable, dry conditions. This should give the engines plenty of air to get hold of, and with practice starting in just a few hours the process of getting a significant amount of lappery in and rubber down will be under way. Traffic has played its part in previous years, and indeed last year combined with weather lead to the troubles in LMP2. Lets hope for cleaner and fairer fights this year, there is still plenty to play for and a rich variety of machines and strategy to be explored over the six hours to determine the outcomes up and down the field.
It is an awkward race for us to follow in Europe, but should make us realise how committed our fellow WEC fans are on the other side of the globe, they face these decisions far more often than us. So shift your sleeping pattern slightly on Saturday evening, let your partners enjoy their sequins & wannabes, slope off for an early night, so that come 0300uk Sunday you can caffeine up for the Six Hours of Fuji !
あなた沿線を参照してください！ See You Trackside!
According to current EPGs you should get Race Coverage from 0230uk on both MotorsTV & BT Sport ESPN plus of course the WEC App & website for Live Timing.
@SportsCarGlobal will naturally be manned with its usual ramblings and updates 🙂