Kamui Kobayashi, Jose Maria Lopez, and Mike Conway have won the FIA World Endurance Championship’s 6 Hours of Fuji for Toyota, after a race-long battle with both the team car, the sister #8 Toyota, and the #6 Porsche 963.
Laurens Vanthoor, who started the #6 Porsche, took the lead at the start, going up the inside of Conway in the pole-sitting Toyota. Conway slipped to third as Miguel Molina, in the #50 Ferrari 499P, went from sixth on the grid to second, although he did make contact with Sebastien Buemi in the #8 Toyota, although no action was taken by the stewards.
After a quick safety car period to recover the stricken Luis Perez Companic in the #83 AF Corse Ferrari 488 GTE Evo, who had got stuck in the gravel at T1, the race restarted. Conway attempted to pass Molina for P2, but was pushed wise, losing P3 to James Calado in the sister #51 Ferrari.
This put the Toyotas fourth and fifth, once Buemi had cleared Alex Lynn in the #2 Cadillac V-Series.R.
Over the course of the stint, Conway and Buemi battled with Calado, but Calado had the pace to keep the Japanese-German c ars behind. However, Calado began to struggle with tyre wear, and Conway finally overtook his British countryman, with Buemi following through a little while afterwards.
Conway also then got Molina to retake P2, but by this point Vanthoor had a nine second lead. The Belgian then pitted, giving Conway the lead, until the Briton too pitted five laps later.
With the pit stops now shaken out, Vanthoor leads by 17 seconds from Conway, with Buemi third and Antonio Felix da Costa in the #8 JOTA Porsche 963 a surprise fourth, thanks to quick pit work from the JOTA crew.
At the second hour, Kevin Estre replaced Vanthoor at the wheel of the #6 Porsche, but at this point Lopez, now in the chasing #7 Toyota, was catching the Frenchman. Estre reported an upshift problem on board the Porsche, which may have affected the car’s pace.
However, he retained the lead, even when Lopez had caught up to the back of the Porsche. The two had a fantastic battle as they weaved in and out through the traffic, with the lead ebbing and flowing. Lopez’s Toyota had more pace but not enough to overtake, while Estre couldn’t quite pull away but was doing enough to keep the lead.
The battle between the two leaders enabled Ryo Hirakawa, in the #8 Toyota, to catch both of them, making a two-car battle and three-way fight for the lead. The younger, braver Hirakawa passed Lopez, and then passed Estre with a daring move into the Dunlop Chicane, outbraking the Frenchman as Estre lifted and coasted as he tried to eek out enough energy to finish the lap, upon which he pitted as scheduled, to be replaced by Andre Lotterer.
Hirakawa, now the leader, pitted a few laps later, with Brendon Hartley taking over. Lopez also pitted, with the experienced Kobayashi, the man who’d set the pole lap that Ferrari’s James Calado described to the media as “magical”, now in the #7 Toyota to finish the race.
Hartley led but Kobayashi wasn’t far behind. The Kiwi was struggling with balance problems on board his car, telling his engineers that he had understeer in the slow speed corners and oversteer in thne high speed bits.
The Japanese driver duly caught and passed Hartley, who said on the radio, “if he gets close he can pass”.
Kobayashi used his knowledge of the Fuji Speedway circuit — gained not just from WEC races but from his time racing in the Super Formula and Super GT series — to pull away from Hartley. He wasn’t challenged from thereonin, finishing 38.175 seconds ahead of his teammate at the flag.
Hartley continued to struggle with balance problems for the entire stint, although he managed to nurse his car home almost nine seconds ahead of Lotterer in the #6 Porsche.
It wasn’t Ferrari’s day at Fuji, finishing fourth and fifth, with Antonio Fuoco bringing home the #50 Ferrari 20 seconds ahead of Alessandro Pier Guidi in the #51.
Calado and Molina sat second and third for much of the first hour, delaying both Toyotas and allowing Vanthoor to pull away in the lead. But the Italian cars once again struggled with high tyre degradation, and once Conway and Buemi got passed towards the end of hour 1, the Japanese-German machines pulled away from the liveried cars, leaving Ferrari to come home a somewhat lonely fourth and fifth, with Fuoco just over a minute behind Kobayashi.
The #38 JOTA Porsche 963 of Antonio Felix da Costa, Will Stevens and Yifei Ye finished sixth, although it could have been much more for the gold-coloured car. An uncharacteristically scrappy opening stint for Antonio Felix da Costa gave the car a drive-through penalty, as a result of hitting an LMP2 when attempting an overtake.
It wasn’t just any LMP2, however — it was JOTA’s other car, the #28 JOTA Oreca 07-Gibson. Previous to taking the penalty, fast pit work by the team enabled Da Costa to get as high as third, but the penalty dropped the car to 10th in class, and from then on it was a recovery drive.
The two Peugeots were seventh and eighth, Gustavo Menezes in the #94 Peugeot 9X8 followed by the sister #93 car with Jean-Eric Vergne bringing the car home. The two French cars were largely anonymous pace wise, although the leadiung Peugeot only finished a lap down to the Toyotas. Peugeot will also be encouraged by the reliable run for both cars, with the #93 only suffering a small issue mid race.
Neel Jani brought the #99 Proton Porsche 963 home in ninth. Much like JOTA, Proton’s race promised so much more, with Proton running as high as fourth at one point, with Harry Tincknell on board. However, when Tincknell pitted, ready to be replaced by Gianmaria Bruni, the team faced an odd problem the seatbelts, whereby one had bhecome unsecured from the chassis — an obvious safety issue.
Although they managed to fix this, it ended any chance of competing for a better result, and they finished eight laps down after six hours.
The #2 Cadillac V-Series.R of Earl Bamber, Alex Lynn and Richard Westbrook finished 10th after issues with tyre wear all race, 10 laps down.
Second-placed finishers Phil Hanson, Filipe Albuquerque and Frederick Lubin, in the #22 United Autosports, started on pole, with the WRT behind them. However, the latter slipped down the order, with an early United Autosports 1-2, as the sister #23 car moved up from third on the grid to second.
This lasted, in fits and bouts, for much of the race. However, as you’d expect from WRT, they were always there or thereabouts, and clever strategy plus excellent driver from all three drivers allowed them to take the win over the Anglo-American squad.
Third was the sister #31 WRT machine, pilotted by Sean Galael, Ferdinand Habsburg, and Robin Frijns. Again they were always there or thereabouts throughout the race, leading at certain points, but didn’t quite have the pace of their teammates.
And in GTE-Am, Thomas Flohr, Francesco Castellaci, and Davide Rigon claimed victory in the #54 AF Corse Ferrari 488 GTE Evo, in yet another close battle with multiple cars, including the team who finished second — the #57 Car Guy Ferrari 488 GTE Evo of Takeshi Kimura, Scott Huffaker and Ritomo Miyata.
For much of the race it looked like the win would once again go the way of the #33 Corvette C8.R crew of Ben Keating, Nico Varrone, and Nicky Catsburg. Keating somehow managed to save 30 minutes of fuel compared to the other cars in his car — something he attributed to right-foot braking and coasting down the downhill sections of the undulating Fuji circuit — but a penalty for a clash with the eventual class-winning Ferrari put paid to hopes of a win, with the yellow American Corvette eventually taking third.