The No. 7 Toyota Gazoo Racing TS050 HYBRID crew of Kamui Kobayashi, Mike Conway and Jose Maria Lopez became the third overall winners of the 2018/19 WEC season today at Fuji Speedway, with a controlling victory over the Japanese marque’s sister car that crossed the line second, scoring the team’s third 1-2 finish in four races.
Forced to start at the back of the prototype field after Lopez’s qualifying time was deleted for exceeding pit lane speed, the No. 7 climbed the order early on in the rain, before taking the lead and dominating much of the race. The No. 8 of Fernando Alonso, Sebastien Buemi and Kazuki Nakajima eventually crossed the line 11.4 seconds behind the winning trio, but three laps clear of the nearest non-hybrid car in the class, the No. 1 Rebellion Racing R-13 Gibson.
“A thousand thanks to everyone working on this program, this one is a very important race,” said Lopez after the race. “We’ve been so close and to this point hadn’t got a win. This is my first win with Mike and Kamui, it’s a great feeling.”
“My teammates did a great job, yesterday in qualifying we were disappointed but we came back to win,” added Kobayashi.
Once again, it wasn’t really ever a contest in LMP1, even with the two Equivalence of Technology changes since the last encounter at Silverstone. After the only safety car period of the race ended at the end of Hour 1, the Toyotas were able to take the lead positions and cruise to the finish, without the need to take risks through traffic or push for times. The only car to lead aside from the Toyotas was the No. 11 SMP Racing BR1 AER, but they only achieved that feat by staying out of the pits during the aforementioned safety car period.
When the race went green at the start of Hour 2, the No. 11’s pace wasn’t there, and the car faded as the track dried, eventually finishing fourth after the team suffered an alternator belt issue which cost it multiple laps. That left the No. 1 Rebellion Racing R-13 to take a third-place finish and Neel Jani, Andre Lotterer and Bruno Senna’s second podium finish in a row.
On the other side of the garage, it was a different story for Rebellion. The sister No. 3 R-13, which was in the title fight after its Silverstone victory and Toyota’s exclusions, suffered a major blow to its championship hopes when Gustavo Menezes had a big off at the exit of Turn 1 on slick tires in the wet just before the end of the first hour. The American put the power down too quick and went veering off the road into the barriers. It’s an incident that sees Toyota take a big stride closer to wrapping up the title before the end of the season. To be in with a chance, the No. 13 crew can’t afford any more non-scores.
As a whole for the privateer runners in the top class it was a race of attrition. Aside from the No. 1 Rebellion, only one other car had a clean race – the ByKolles ENSO CLM NISMO, which didn’t have the pace to challenge Rebellion’s sole finisher anyway, and finished fifth behind the No. 11 SMP BR1 which recovered from its mechanical woes to take fourth in the final stint after a spirited drive from Jenson Button.
Fourth was a notable result for Super GT points leader Button, who made the finish for the first time this season, in a race which marked real progress for him and his teammates Vitaly Petrov and Mikhail Aleshin. They proved to be the only real threat to the No. 1 crew, but were robbed of a chance to show their true capabilities and instead were forced to spend the second half of the race fighting back through the field.
LMP2 meanwhile, was dominated by Jackie Chan DC Racing, the Chinese-flagged team scoring its second 1-2 finish in a row. This time however, the No. 37 all-Malaysian crew took the win over the No. 38 crew. Jazeman Jaafar, Nabil Jeffri and Weiron Tan all drove faultlessly and took control of the race in the second hour, going on to their first win as a trio by just under 30 seconds.
“It’s unreal, it feels unreal. It was a solid team effort, I feel so proud, there’s more to come,” a jubilant Jaafar said after the race.
Third behind the two JCDC 07 Gibson was the newly crowned Le Mans-winning Signatech Alpine A470, which had a strong outing, but couldn’t match the pace of the cars ahead when it mattered most, in the final act of the race.
A podium finish was deserved though, and was sealed early in the race for the French team, when Nicolas Lapierre muscled past Matthieu Vaxiviere’s TDS Racing ORECA to take third in the second hour of the race at Turn 1.
The race might have panned out differently in the class, which stayed static for long periods of time, had DragonSpeed not had such a tough outing. Its pole-sitting No. 31 ORECA looked set to contend until the very end, but multiple slip-ups proved costly. The team lost time at the start due to Anthony Davidson being on the wrong tires, before the car’s fate was eventually sealed when Pastor Maldonado was involved in a collision with the No. 51 AF Corse Ferrari which forced the team into the garage.
Going into the next race at Shanghai, Signatech Alpine leads the championship with 87 points; Jackie Chan DC Racing’s 37 and 38 ORECAs jointly hold second.
The best racing of this year’s 6 Hours of Fuji was undoubtedly in the GTE Pro class, which for the first time this year saw all five marques at times involved in the fight for the win.
Once the rain subsided and the track dried out, the No. 92 Porsche GT Team 911 RSR, No. 82 MTEK BMW M8, No. 67 Ganassi UK Ford and No. 71 AF Corse Ferrari 488 emerged as the contenders.
However, that list was cut to three prematurely, because the No. 71’s chances of winning ended early; Davide Rigon’s incident with the DragonSpeed ORECA damaged the car’s left-rear corner enough to warrant a trip to the garage for repairs. It was a real gut punch for the team, especially as Sam Bird had driven superbly before Rigon climbed in, fighting to the front.
That left the other three cars fighting for the win. In the end the No. 92 Porsche of Kevin Estre and Michael Christensen was strongest toward the end, and took the win, just 12 seconds ahead of the No. 82 BMW, which scored the marque its best result of the season, and left the team with a real confidence boost.
“The team is beginning to get comfortable and hit its stride,” BMW’s Tom Blomqvist told RACER after stepping off the podium. “We’re still learning but we can compete now. All the marques had a chance here, which made it really enjoyable.”
“We were wrong on our tire choice in the rain, then made a wrong strategy call. But we fought back, maintained our pace and were strong until the end. Mega teamwork from Manthey and Porsche,” Estre said.
The No. 67 Ford finished up third, Harry Tincknell and Andy Priaulx extracting the most out of the car, which didn’t quite have the pace to finish any higher up the order as the race wore on.
Aston Martin was the enigma here. After its Vantage AMRs showed real pace before the race, qualifying first and third, they fell away in the race. The turning point after a strong start for both cars came during the safety car; the team opted to pit both cars after the race went green again, losing both crews heaps of time. It left them playing catch-up for the rest of the race. The No. 95 finished seventh, ahead of the No. 97 down in ninth.
GTE Am saw a landmark result for Team Project 1, taking its first-ever WEC win, after a standout performance from all three of its drivers, but in particular, Egidio Perfetti, who was unfazed at the start of the race when the conditions were at their worst. Near faultless drives from Patrick Lindsey and Jorg Bergmeister meant the the car crossed the line 19 seconds clear of the other teams.
While Project 1 were in control in the final hours, the other podium spots in the class were decided late on. The No. 88 Dempsey Proton Porsche snatched second right before the end of the race when Matteo Cairoli got the better of Jonny Adam in the TF Sport Aston Martin at the Dunlop corner, forcing the Scotsman to settle for third.
Mechanical woes prevented a strong finish from the Proton team’s other car, which held a healthy title lead going into the weekend. For Christian Reid, Julien Andlauer and Matt Campbell, a non-score here puts the pressure back on the team heading into the final race of the calendar year.
The next race of the season is the 6 Hours of Shanghai, on 17-18 November.