In some of the worst weather conditions the drivers had ever seen, round seven of the World Endurance Championship unfolded last weekend at a rain-soaked and foggy Fuji International Speedway.
The race was started by friend of the tribe Patrick Dempsey, who waved off a grid formation that would be forced to start under the safety car due to deep standing water and visibility hampered by thick fog at various parts of the 4.5km circuit at the foot of Mount Fuji.
Earl Bamber took the first stint in the pole-sitting 919, building a 12 second lead over the pursuing Toyotas. But his advantage was lost under a safety car brought out for fog on lap 28, after which he would need to pit for fuel. Shortly after that the first red flag of the day would see the whole field parked on the main straight for over half an hour awaiting instructions from race officials.
Car No. 2 would ultimately spend a frustrating day behind the safety car, unable to exploit the 919’s pace over distance against the speed the Toyotas were enjoying from the restarts.
Trouble with tyre temperature played a significant part in this, with the No. 1 car’s front row advantage quickly ceded to the Toyotas, who swept past at the start on more responsive rubber, leaving Andre Lotterer to mount a dogged comeback. He would eventually re-pass Kamui Kobayashi’s No. 7 Toyota for second, before pitting for damage repair and a driver change. At one point towards the end of the race teammate Nick Tandy would retake the lead, but he was again unable to defend it on the restart from full-course yellows.
The race was red flagged for the second and final time after 144 laps, at which point car No. 2 was in the pits for fuel, car No. 1 lying third.
In a final act of bizarre drama, the drivers were called back to their cars for a proposed 10-minute shoot-out when the fog appeared to be lifting. But by the time everyone was buckled in and ready to run, visibility had again fallen to unsafe levels at various parts of the circuit and the idea was abandoned.
Team Principal Andreas Seidl still saw the positives in a trying weekend in LMP1: “Congratulations to Toyota for winning in Fuji. The pendulum today swung back and forth several times. Before the first red flag, we were gambling. If it would have been the end of the race, we would have won it with our No. 2 car. But with the timing of the ultimate red flag we were unlucky. If the race had continued, we would have seen a battle for victory between the No. 7 Toyota and our No. 1 car. We generally had difficulties getting the tyres to work at the re-starts causing us to drop back a few times. However, it is important that we take home some more points for both championship classifications. It was a very difficult weekend for our drivers and the entire team but everyone stayed focused which I thank them for.”
Over in the GT camp, Porsche had a more successful weekend, although one similarly fraught and frustrating. Both 911 RSRs enjoyed a good start, with Richard Lietz defending his pole and Michael Christensen quickly pushing the sister car into third. After the first red flag period Lietz would pit and Christensen assume the lead, but as the safety cars began to appear, refuelling and driver changes were implemented that saw them cede their advantage over the GTE field.
Kevin Estre, who had waited over three hours for a stint, fought the No. 92 car back into a commanding lead before being hit by a Ford GT that was attempting to unlap itself. Losing a second a lap due to damage, it hung on for a bittersweet third, while Frédéric Makowiecki battled bravely with the pursuing 488 Ferrari, finally losing the lead in a tight overtake at the last gasp.
Richard Lietz summed up a weekend dominated by the weather: “We had an excellent car this weekend. In qualifying we posted pole position and our 911 RSR was also very fast in the race. Our team had the right strategy for every situation, no matter whether it was for the safety car or Full Course Yellow – everyone kept their cool and made the right decisions. It was sometimes very hard to see with the spray flying up from the prototypes in front. It was almost like driving through a wall. Plus, there was so much water on the racetrack we could easily have swum a few laps. Still, our 911 RSR performed really well under all conditions. We’re currently second in the championship. The title race is still open. Now we’ll do everything we can to earn plenty of points in Shanghai.”
It was a similar story in the GTE-Am class, with Porsche Young Professional Matteo Cairoli and his German teammates Christian Ried and Marvin Dienst netting another podium place with third. With this they reclaimed the lead in the overall classification of the FIA Endurance Trophy, so will head to Shanghai on November 5th a deserved high.
In the manufacturers’ world championship standings, Porsche continues to lead LMP1 with 270 points against Toyota’s 211.5. Bamber/Bernhard/Hartley top the drivers’ rankings with 172 points, but their advantage over the best-placed Toyota drivers has eroded to just 39 points, leaving the door ajar with two races to go.