With two championship potentially being wrapped up this weekend, all eyes turned to the Fuji Speedway as the seventh round of the 2017 World Endurance Championship got underway. Porsche started the weekend with clear intent, locking out the top two with their cars in the first 90 minutes. Jackie Chan DC Racing look to have had a return to form after a few mediocre races, with the #37 in the hands of Alex Brundle leading the LMP2 class. More Porsche dominance was seen in the LM GTE Pro class as both Porsche GT Team cars took fastest and second fastest when the chequered flag dropped. Aston Martin look like they may have a difficult weekend as they did not show any outstanding pace in either Pro or Am. The Am class was lead by the Ferrari of Spirit of Race, with the second Am Ferrari racing under the Clearwater Racing banner second.
Wet weather loomed over the track for the 90-minute session and forced drivers into wet setup as the rain fell from the sky. Porsche looked to instantly have their usual advantage with the high-downforce package as they set about fighting between themselves for the fastest lap. Earl Bamber laid down the benchmark with a 1:35.660, looking like it was going to remain unbeaten for the duration of the session. A mid-session collision for the championship-leading Porsche forced the LMP1 car into a spin. The car recovered and both the Porsche and the Clearwater Ferrari, at the time beign driven by Weng Sun Mok, continued in the session,but there was nothing notable about the rest of the Porsche’s session.
Andre Lotterer finished the session fastest in the #1 Porsche, having set a 1:35.527 half an hour before the chequered flag. Toyota Gazoo Racing had been hoping that they would have a home advantage on Porsche to try and secure a win in this half of the season and prevent the German team from taking both titles this weekend. Their fastest car was thrid, 0.483 seconds off the pace of the leading Porsche. The top four were covered by just over half a second, so the pace has been indicated as being close.
Brundle brought the Jackie Chan cars back into contention at the top of this weekend, setting a 1:42.735 in his ORECA 07/Gibson machine. The LMP2 class had been led by #28 TDS Racing at the start, with Matthieu Vaxiviere setting the time to be beaten. Not many of the teams improved on their initial laps times in the 90-minutes of first practice as Vaxiviere’s time was fast enough to keep them in second at the end of the session. Vaxiviere’s team mate, Emmanuel Collard, had been pushing hard in his stint in the car, trying to improve on Vaxiviere’s time to get them back as the fastest team. An error into Turn One and the unforgiving wet weather saw the TDS go into a spin. Luckily Collard was able to save it before any damage occurred to the car and carry on without incident.
Looking to reboot their championship hopes and extend their lead over the rest of the field again, Ho-Pin Tung, Oliver Jarvis and Thomas Laurent are on a mission this weekend. Pushing hard, the trio managed to place their #38 car third before the chequered flag called time. Their main championship rivals in the #31 Vaillante Rebellion finished seventh, nine tenths off the pace of the #38. If Rebellion do struggle this weekend and Jackie Chan can bring some competitive pace, the class leader could extend their lead by a big margin this weekend.
Porsche had a strong run in LMP1, but also dictated the pace in the Pro class. Michael Christensen put the #92 Porsche GT on top with a 1:47.365. The sister team of Frederic Makowiecki and Richard Lietz were second, just two tenths off the pace produced from the #92. It seems that in both classes the Porsches are suited to the sweeping layout of the Fuji Speedway and it gives the German manufacturer an advantage.
Coming off such a successful 6 Hours of Austin, AF Corse pushed hard to try and maintain the advantage they had found. They locked out third and fourth on the timing sheet, keeping Porsche honest s they finished just a few tenths off the time that the #92 had set. The #71 Ferrari 488 GTE was only a tenth off the time set by the #91. Alessandro Pier Guidi had a spin in the #51 but managed to keep going. He was one of many almost moments throughout the wet first practice session.
The Am class were on a very similar pace to the Pro class in this session. The fastest Am car – #54 Spirit of Race – placed fourth fastest overall in the GTE standings, fastest than fourth-in-class James Calado and Pier Guidi. Matt Griffin‘s best time of a 1:48.246 in the #61 Clearwater put the second fastest Am car seventh fastest in the GTE standings, with both Aston Martin’s and the class-leading Ford of Andy Prialux and Harry Tincknell fighting to stay faster than the other Am cars.
Last race’s winners and now Am class championship leaders #98 Aston Martin Racing were right at the bottom of the timing sheet, only faster than the #89 Gulf Racing Porsche. It was not a good start to the weekend for Aston as the #97 Le Mans-winning Aston was stuck just ahead of the #98, slowest of the GTE Pro cars. The #77 Dempsey-Proton Racing car was third in Am, ahead of the #98 in fourth. Dempsey-Proton is Aston Martin’s championship rival in the Am class so it will be interesting to see how the weekend unfolds with the competition between the two of them.
There were two full course yellows during the session for debris on track. No big crashes or collisions affected the 90-minutes of track time but there were a lot of spins on the damp track.