After a two month wait, the FIA World Endurance Championship is back at Fuji Speedway later this week, and there are several talking points to be shared ahead of an exciting penultimate round of the 2023 season.
The circuit marks its 60th anniversary this year, and will host an exciting weekend of WEC action in the presence of the famous Mount Fuji.
So far this year, the increased Hypercar competition has put on a thrilling show during the races, as the fight for the win is less predictable and showcases the work of notable drivers who stand out from the tightly matched field.
Last year, the WEC returned to Japan for the first time since 2019, during which the Covid-19 pandemic had made it unfeasible on a logistical level to make a stop in Japan.
Toyota won last year’s race on home territory, securing their eighth win in nine total WEC Fuji appearances, an impressively consistent record at their home venue.
Their only Hypercar rivals last year, however, were the grandfathered Alpine A380 – the former Rebellion R13 LMP1 car – and a relatively new Peugeot 9X8, which arguably dampened Toyota’s glory on the lack of competition.
But this year, although Ferrari won at Le Mans, it has become clear that the Toyota GR010 Hybrid was the Hypercar which set the pace over everyone else. Accordingly, at Fuji, Toyota are the ones to beat.
After their Monza win, Toyota’s #8 crew of Sebastien Buemi, Brendon Hartley and Ryo Hirakawa lead the Hypercar standings on 115 points, ahead of the second-placed #7 crew of Kamui Kobayashi, Mike Conway and Jose Maria Lopez on 92 points.
Toyota currently lead the manufacturers standings on 152 points as both their cars have delivered strong performances in tandem with one another, however Ferrari are behind them on 126 in total.
The Le Mans-winning #50 crew (Alessandro Pier Guidi, Antonio Giovinazzi and James Calado) sit on identical points with the #7 Toyota, as their sister #51 Ferrari 499P sits behind on 85 points.
Their aim to win on home ground at Monza did not come to fruition thanks to the #7 Toyota’s strong pace throughout, although claiming the maximum double-points from Le Mans has certainly boosted their chances in overcoming the Toyota dominance in odds to other Hypercar competitors.
The top six in the Hypercar standings are in the mathematical run for the Hypercar Drivers’ Title, however the number of contenders will reduce after Fuji to only those within a 39-point margin to the #8.
Needless to say, both Ferraris and Toyotas are the favourites heading into this penultimate race and will need to conduct utmost effective fuel and tyre strategies.
This will be the final visit by LMP2 machinery in the WEC’s selection of categories, with LMP2 only making its appearance at the Le Mans round after the end of this season.
Last year, Team WRT won the race and currently, their #41 Oreca 07-Gibson leads the standings prior to Fuji on 110 points.
Closely behind are a team whose efforts have often gone underrated in the WEC, Inter Europol Competition.
Prior to their maiden Le Mans victory, they had just finished on the podium for the first time at Spa-Francorchamps.
Louis Deletraz, Robert Kubica and Rui Andrade have proven themselves as a strong trio scoring podiums at all five races thus far, although unsurprising for the former drivers who together won the European Le Mans Series title last year.
Albert Costa, Fabio Scherer and Kuba Smiechowski triumphed at the Centenary Le Mans after winning from 13th, and displaying both strong race pace throughout the disruption which the rain caused across the field, and they made it without any reliability woes, a factor which halted a potential win last year when an alternator needed to be replaced.
At only 10 points behind the #41, they will need to score not just a healthy points haul, but to ideally finish ahead of the #41; the greater difference in points between the two cars, the better chance they have at snatching the title lead into the 8 Hours of Bahrain.
The #23 United Autosports trio will be keen to make the most of any incident or reliability woes from the others, and potentially propel themselves into the championship lead.
It is worth considering that in the #23, Ben Hanley will take the place of Tom Blomqvist who is occupied with Indycar duties, and Andrea Caldarelli replaces Mirko Bortolotti in the #63 Prema Racing, who is busy with DTM at the Sachsenring.
The demands of Fuji Speedway
The previous round took place at Monza, a notorious ‘temple of speed’, however prosing tight chicanes which required patience and composure from the drivers in the midst of lapped traffic. An example where this was not applied would be Sebastien Buemi’s ambitious entry into the Ascari chicane, where he made contact with the #777 D’Station Racing Aston Martin Vantage GTE, and ended their Monza race.
Since Fuji is D’Station’s home circuit, their hopes will be high as to perform in front of their home fans, scoring a podium last year behind the Iron Dames and TF Sport. That’s promising for the Aston Martin package, as the Iron Dames are yet to seek their maiden WEC win.
Fuji Speedway boasts a long start-finish straight, followed by the acute Turn 1 hairpin. The width of the circuit enables cars to run two wide easily, with exception to the Dunlop Chicane.
Furthermore, the track is a fast configuration with a technical, tricky final sector. Such highlights, such as the demanding 100R corner, could tempt drivers into going through it aggressively.
As a result, tyre management will be a focus for the drivers, with the fast corners require instinct to judge how much speed is safe for managing optimal tyre temperature and degradation, as 100R is one of nine right-handers around the 16-corner circuit. Meanwhile the final sector requires patience, especially when prototypes lap the GTEs.
The weather is likely to be cloudy but with a high humidity level, which should additionally put drivers under pressure to fight the heat.
A reminder of the schedule
Japan has a time zone of GMT+9, which means the schedule timing is alternate compared to what we are used to with the 2023 schedule stopping in North America and Europe.
Fri 8 Sep
03:00 – 04:30
11:00 – 12:30
07:30 – 09:00
15:30 – 17:00
Sat 9 Sep
02:20 – 03:20
10:20 – 11:20
06:40 – 07:45
14:40 – 15:45
Sun 10 Sep
03:00 – 09:00
11:00 – 17:00
The one-and-a-half hour first and second free practice sessions take place in the early hours of the morning in the UK. FP3 (which will be live on the WEC YouTube channel), qualifying and the race which will be broadcasted live, and those are the much-anticipated sessions to watch.
In FP3, teams make their final preparations ahead of qualifying, which is split into three 15-minute sessions for each of the three WEC classes, and so will run qualifying simulation runs in advance of the real thing.
After qualifying, the next day will follow; six hours of daylight racing at Fuji Speedway.