This weekend the FIA World Endurance Championship will return to Japan’s imposing Fuji Speedway for one of the most popular rounds on the eight race calendar.
Fuji is a track steeped in history and oozes with the local passion for motorsport. It formed part of the FIA World Sportscar Championship in the 1980s, starting in 1982 when Jochen Mass and Jacky Ickx won in a Porsche 956. After a series of renovations and necessary safety improvements, Fuji returned to international prominence with two Formula One races in 2007 and 2008.
The current circuit boasts a mix of technical corners and fast sections, including the 1.5 km main straight that dominates the layout. It has featured in every season of the FIA World Endurance Championship so far, with Toyota winning all three previous events.
Once again, Fuji will play host to a crucial round of the World Endurance Championship, both in terms of the overall and class standings. Two wins for the Mark Webber, Brendon Hartley and Timo Bernhard Porsche 919 Hybrid at the Nurburgring and COTA have brought them to within 10 points of the championship-leading Audi R18 etron quatrro of Andre Lotterer, Benoit Treluyer and Marcel Fassler, with three races still to run.
After playing a distinct second fiddle to Porsche at the previous two rounds, Audi has stepped up its game for the Fuji encounter. A brand new aero package has been affixed to both cars, based around the low downforce configuration that it has used in every race since the 6 Hours of Spa. Porsche, meanwhile, has been experimenting with different aero set-ups during testing at Monza but has yet to confirm what it will run this weekend.
Toyota, meanwhile, will return to its adoring Japanese fanbase with the aim of development and track time, with the TS040 Hybrid continuing to run consistently behind the other two manufacturers. The home faithful’s hopes of seeing four Japanese-based manufacturers on the grid were quashed earlier this week when Nissan announced that it would delay the competitive return of the GT-R LM NISMO until 2016, after suffering a number of technical setbacks following its debut at Le Mans.
The race for the LMP1 privateers’ title has bunched up in a similar way to the overall class standings, following a pair of wins for Team ByKolles. The CLM AER P1/01 has delivered encouraging reliability in the last two rounds and will be fancied to close the gap further to the two Rebellion Racing entries.
KCMG’s impressive winning streak in LMP2 came to an end at Austin, but a second place finish ensured that the Chinese squad remains atop the class standings heading into the 6 Hours of Fuji. The Richard Bradley, Matt Howson and Nick Tandy shared ORECA 05 Nissan leads the way by 14 points ahead of the G-Drive Racing Ligier JS P2 Nissan of Sam Bird, Julien Canal and Roman Rusinov, while the sister G-Drive machine of Gustavo Yacaman, Pipo Derani and Ricardo Gonzalez lies a further four points adrift.
Tandy in particular will be one to watch, after he and Porsche GTE driver Patrick Pilet won last week’s Petit Le Mans event overall, adding to his documented Le Mans victory in June.
United Sportscar Championship regular Chris Cumming will make his first FIA WEC appearance since Le Mans as he steps into the Team SARD Morand Morgan line-up. Cumming, who is no stranger to open cockpit prototype machinery, will partner Pierre Ragues and Oliver Webb.
There have also been changes aplenty in GTE-Pro, which was dominated by Porsche Team Manthey at the 6 Hours of COTA. The 911 RSRs will receive a weight increase for this weekend’s round to bring them in line with the other manufacturers, while Aston Martin Racing’s V8 Vantages will gain power for the same reason.
Stefan Mucke will return to the FIA WEC fold at Fuji, but not with the #97 Aston Martin that has traditionally born his name. The German stalwart will instead partner Alex MacDowall and Fernando Rees in the #99 car as a replacement for Richie Stanaway who is racing in GP2 at Sochi this weekend. The reshuffling means that Jonny Adam will once again partner Darren Turner in the #97 machine, which finished sixth last time out at COTA.
Richard Lietz leads the GTE-Pro drivers’ championship heading to Fuji, with a reasonably comfortable margin of seven points separating him and the James Calado/Davide Rigon Ferrari 458 Italia. The second of the AF Corse Ferraris, piloted by Gianmaria Bruni and Toni Vilander, lies a distant 29.5 points behind the in-form Lietz.
SMP Racing’s hat-trick of victories at Le Mans, Nurburgring and COTA have elevated the #72 Ferrari to the top of the GTE-Am standings, and we can expect another strong performance from the Russian squad in Japan. 35 points adrift in second is the #83 AF Corse Ferrari, which, like its SMP Racing rival, has finished on the podium at every round of the FIA WEC, but is yet to achieve its first win.
Several GTE-Am changes have been announced to the entry list prior to the 6 Hours of Fuji, including the addition of two debutants. Danish GT3 driver Nicolai Sylvest will act as a temporary replacement for the business-bound Kristian Poulsen in the Larbre Corvette C7.R, while British GT star Liam Griffin will get his first taste of GTE action in the #96 Aston Martin, standing in for Roald Goethe.
Like the GTE-Pro category, there has been some adjustment from the Balance of Performance department in the Am class. Having struggled for results throughout 2015, Larbre Competition will receive a 20 kg weight reduction that could bring the luckless French team into contention for a top five finish.
Weather-wise, fans should be able to avoid a repeat of the torrential rainfall that placed the 2013 race at a standstill, with this weekend’s event set to run under largely dry conditions, although light showers are forecast for the race on Sunday.
Track action at Fuji Speedway gets underway tomorrow (Friday, October 9) at 11:15 local (03:15 UK time). The race itself will take place in daylight on Sunday, October 11, with the green flag set to fall at 11:00 local (15:00 UK time).