Wednesday 11 October 2017

FIA WEC 2017 - 6 Hours of Fuji: Preview

The FIA World Endurance Championship arrived in Japan this week for the seventh race of the 2017 season in the shadows of Mount Fuji.

The 6 Hours of Fuji is the home race for Toyota Gazoo Racing, not just as the Japanese round of the FIA World Endurance Championship, but also because the Higashi-Fuji technical centre where Toyota's engine and hybrid systems are being developed, is just a few kilometers from the track.  Since its return to the World Endurance Championship, Toyota has won 5 out of races on their home soil in Japan. The performance gap the TS050 had compared with the Porsche has been significantly reduced in Austin last month, so Toyota will be eager to chase their third win of the season this weekend.

Last years winners Mike Conway and Kamui Kobayashi are joined by José Maria Lopez this season in the #7 TS050 Hybrid. Anthony Daivdson returns to his driving duties after missing the race in Texas, joining Sébastien Buemi and Kazuki Nakajima again in the #8 Toyota.

The future of Toyota in the FIA World Endurance Championship remains unclear so far. An announcement is expected for this month, but accoring to the team's latest press release isn't necessarily during the Fuji event.

© Porsche

Porsche arrives in Fuji as leaders in the championship with a total of 242 points, giving them an advantage of 73,5 points over Toyota. The German manufacturer also leads the drivers championship with Brendon Hartley, Earl Bamber and Timo Bernhard who have scored 159 point so far in the #2 919 Hybrid.  Kazuki Nakajima and Sébastien Buemi occupy second place with their #8 Toyota, but are already 51 points behind.

If the trio racing in the #2 Porsche finish ahead of the #8 Toyota, they will be crowned as world champions on Sunday evening. Porsche can also claim their third successive manufacturers championship if they manage to score a fourth one-two victory of the season. To achieve that goal, Porsche will race with the high downforce kit on the 919 Hybrid, which will be tuned towards medium downforce within the prescribed possibilities.

In LMP2 the crew of the #38 Jackie Chan DC Racing Oreca will be out for a good finish after 2 disappointing races in the Americas, losing out a lot of their lead in the championship. A season low ninth place finish after a desastrous race in Mexico and a non podium finish in Austin didn't really add to their title challenge. The #31 Vaillante Rebellion scored 40 points in the last 2 races compared to DC Racing's 14, reducing the gap to just 20 points with 3 races to go (130 points vs 110).

Third in the championship is Signatech Alpine Matmut who scored their first victory of the season in Austin and always have been strong in Fuji. The #37 DC Racing Oreca leads the rest of the field in fourth place, but already 33 points behind the Signatech Alpine.

In the drivers championship it's the #38 crew on top of the leaderboard with Ho-Pin Tung, Oliver Jarvis and Thomas Laurent at 130 points. Bruno Senna and Julien Canal share second place with 110 points, ahead of Gustavo Menezes in third with 102 points. Nicolas Prost -who missed out the race in Germany – is fourth with 92 points so far.

One driver change is to be noted compared to Austin last month: James Rossiter replaces Alex Lynn in the #26 G-Drive Racing Oreca.  Rossiter raced with ByKolles earlier in the season in the 6 Hours of Silverstone and Spa. It's unsure if we will see Lynn back at the wheel of the G-Drive after the Fuji round.

Ferrari has been the most succesful team so far in the GTE Pro class with 3 wins out of six races and a 1-2 finish in Texas last month. They lead the manufacturer championship with a total of 203 points, 40 points ahead of Ford in second place.  Finishing first and second in Austin last month has certainly boosted their confidence, opening the road to the 2017 championship for Ferrari.

Ford looked strong in the beginning of the season, but struggled for pace since the 6 hours of the Nürburgring. Fuji might be a turning point for Porsche though, since they dominated the race last year, taking the two top spots of the podium.  With 163 points, the American team is just one point ahead of Aston Martin that won at Le Mans and Mexico and has been closing the gap with Ford in the past races. Porsche has collected podium places in almost every race since Le Mans, and is now fourth in the championship, just 4 points shy of Aston (157 points).

Ford might have lost touch with Ferrari in the manufacturers championship, in the drivers championship, they still hold the lead with Andy Priaulx and Harry Tincknell in the #67 Ford GT. The Brits have collected 102 point so far and are leading Fréd Makowiecki and Richard Lietz in the #91 Porsche with 6 points (92).  Davide Rigon is third in the championship with 95,5 points, half a point ahead of his co-driver Alessandro Pier Guidi in the #51 Ferrari.  The drivers of the second Ferrari (#71) James Calado and Sam Bird are tied with Pier Guidi in fourth place with 95 points. Rounding out the top five are defending champions Marco Sorensen & Nicki Thiim in the #95 Aston Martin, both with 81 points.

Daniel Serra won't be racing with Aston Martin anymore this season. The #97 Vantage now also features a two driver line-up with Darren Turner and Jonny Adam for the remainder of the year.

The fight for the championship in the GTE Am class has been very close all season long so far and will be a 3 car battle for the remaining races of the season.  Championship leaders Dalla Lana, Lamy and Lauda dominated the race in Suzuka last season, putting evey other car in class a lap behind after 6 hours. Winning again this weekend could give them a bit of breathing space in a so far thrilling championship.

FIA WEC debutants Clearwater Racing had the best start of the season with an unexpected win at Silverstone.  After Le Mans, in which non of the full season entrants managed to finish on the podium, Aston Martin and Porsche have been in a close battle for the lead in the 2017 championship, both winning 2 races so far.

Winning in Austin last month gave the #98 Aston Martin of Paul Dalla Lana, Pedro Lamy and Mathias Lauda the lead again in the championship with a total of 136 points. Out of the 6 races which have been run so far in the 2017 championship, the trio scored 5 pole positions, only missing the top spot of the grid in Mexico. Despite an unlucky race in Austin, the #77 Dempsey – Proton Racing Porsche still holds on to second place with a combined total of 132 points, just 4 points behind the Aston.  A very close third is the #61 Clearwater Racing Ferrari with 130 points after being able to score points in each race.

The #54 Spirit of Race Ferrari (77 points) and #66 Gulf Racing UK Porsche (61 points) complete the leaderboard in the GTE Am class, but too far behind for a top spot by the end of the season.

In the drivers championship Dalla Lana, Lamy and Lauda are leading with 130 points, 4 points ahead of Christian Ried, Marvin Dienst and Matteo Cairoli. Keita Sawa, Matt Griffin and Weng Sun Mok are third with 116 points.

The #77 Dempsey-Proton Porsche of Christian Ried, Matteo Cairoli and Marvin Dienst will race in a distinctive pink livery in Fuji this weekend, in support of the Pink Ribbon foundation for breast cancer awareness. In the other Porsche in the AM class, the #96 Gulf Racing UK, Mike Hedlund replaces Mike Wainwright. Hedlund has race with one of the Dempsey-Proton Porsches at Le Mans this year, finishing ninth in the Am class.

Track action starts in Japan on Thursday morning at 11.00h with the first 90 minute practice session for the World Endurance Championship.

Useful links: 
Provisional Entry list
Spotter Guide

Kristof Vermeulen.