Toyota Gazoo Racing’s two-year winless drought in the FIA World Endurance Championship came to a welcome end after a thrilling Six Hours of Fuji, with the trio of Stephane Sarrazin, Mike Conway and Kamui Kobayashi winning on the manufacturer’s home soil in Japan. It’s been a happy hunting grounds for Toyota, who also won in Fuji in 2012, 2013 and 2014.
In a neck-and-neck dogfight all race between the No. 6 Toyota TS050 Hybrid, the No. 8 Audi R18 and No. 1 Porsche 919 Hybrid, the Toyota prevailed at the end by just 1.439 seconds over the No. 8 Audi.
“This was a very tense and exciting race between all three LMP1 manufacturers; it was a six-hour sprint race,” said Toyota team president Toshio Sato. “We could do no more; everyone in the team performed to the maximum today against such close competition. It was a clean fight, decided by speed on track and in the pits as well as strategy. All credit to Audi and Porsche for their part in this great show.”
Pit strategy helped determine the positioning with Kobayashi, who finished the race, taking fuel only on his final stop. But the driver known for his brave and daring passing attempts from his Formula 1 days played out an excellent strategic defense against Loic Duval in the Audi, who shared that car with Lucas di Grassi and Oliver Jarvis.
“Everyone in the team performed so well; they really deserve this,” Kobayashi said. “After qualifying we had a positive feeling and we did everything to get a win in our home race. So to get this result in front of our local fans and our colleagues from Toyota makes us very happy; I would like to say thanks for their big support.
“Actually, it is still difficult to believe we did it; we worked so hard for this. It was a really tough race. The double stint at the end was a risk but we were only focused on the victory and now this feels great, just perfect.”
Toyota’s most recent win prior to this came at Bahrain in 2014, with Sarrazin, Conway and Alexander Wurz. The cruel heartbreak at the 24 Hours of Le Mans this year was obviously the closest they’d come since.
The No. 8 Audi fought hard, Duval turning in a particularly solid drive, en route to second place.
“Our three drivers showed a brilliant performance,” said Head of Audi Motorsport Dr. Wolfgang Ullrich. “We battled up until the end. When Toyota, for the last stop, were able to benefit from the strategic advantage of pitting late, and chose not to change tires, they took the lead for the first time. Loïc Duval did everything to recover the top spot, almost making up a 12-second deficit. Unfortunately, it wasn’t quite enough but, once again, we saw fascinating endurance racing.”
The No. 1 Porsche of Timo Bernhard, Mark Webber and Brendon Hartley saw their three-race win streak come to an end but were still on the podium, 17 seconds and change in arrears.
The sister Toyota recorded its best finish of fourth this year, while the points-leading No. 2 trio of Romain Dumas, Neel Jani and Marc Lieb in the second Porsche had a relative off day in fifth.
At least that day went better than for the No. 7 Audi, which was forced to retire from the race owing to a failed MGU on its hybrid system after Lap 18. Despite asking the FIA to clarify whether the car could continue with the front driveshafts removed, the FIA deemed the car to be in breach of the regulations and outside the homologation.
“Obviously, that’s a real shame,” said Dr. Ullrich. “Because the squad demonstrated a tremendous spirit and did everything to make a central idea of endurance racing reality, which is to finish even under circumstances like these.”
Rebellion Racing picked up another win in the LMP1 privateer category of the two cars entered there.
G-Drive Racing, the now Jota Sport-run outfit, recorded its first win of the season in LMP2 with its No. 26 Oreca 05 Nissan, driven by Alex Brundle, Roman Rusinov and Rene Rast’s fill-in, Will Stevens.
It capped off a see-saw battle in LMP2 throughout the race between G-Drive, the pair of Extreme Speed Motorsports Ligier JS P2 Nissans, the No. 36 Signatech Alpine A460 Nissan, the No. 42 Strakka Racing Gibson 015S Nissan the No. 43 RGR Sport Ligier and the No. 44 Manor Oreca, all of which diced in the lead pack throughout the race.
For a second consecutive year in Fuji, Manor’s Richard Bradley had a fun exchange battling a Gustavo, this time young American Menezes for Signatech rather than Yacaman with G-Drive last year, in what proved to be a dramatic moment in that year’s LMP2 title fight. Menezes ran off course and briefly caught air exiting Turn 1 while racing Bradley but otherwise drove well as he had all year.
RGR’s trio of Filipe Albuquerque, Bruno Senna and Ricardo Gonzalez came second ahead of the Signatech trio (Menezes, Stephane Richelmi and Nicolas Lapierre). Extreme Speed’s new Jagonya Ayam-supported trio of Antonio Giovinazzi and Sean Gelael on their FIA WEC debuts, with Giedo van der Garde, came fourth ahead of the full-season ESM trio of Pipo Derani, Ryan Dalziel and Chris Cumming. Strakka, running just a two-driver lineup with Nick Leventis sidelined, led the middle of the race and fell to sixth late with Jonny Kane and Lewis Williamson, and the Bradley/Matt Rao/Roberto Merhi Manor car came seventh.
The GTE races were a bit more straightforward, with the “Noah’s Ark”-style grid playing itself out in GTE-Pro as the U.K. branch of Ford Chip Ganassi Racing won its first FIA WEC race of the year. The No. 67 car of Andy Priaulx and Harry Tincknell took the spoils over the polesitting No. 66 car of Stefan Muecke and Olivier Pla in a 1-2 for the Ford GTs. Tincknell, a past LMP2 winner at Le Mans, now has a GTE-Pro win on his resume as well.
The two Ferraris, Aston Martins and single Porsche rounded out the field, none able to throw a spanner in the works to the Fords here.
Aston Martin Racing’s trio of Paul Dalla Lana, Pedro Lamy and Mathias Lauda captured their fourth GTE-Am win in seven races, also from pole, in the No. 98 Aston Martin Vantage V8. The No. 83 AF Corse Ferrari F458 Italia and No. 78 KCMG Porsche 911 RSR completed the podium, with the AF Corse Ferrari second for the fifth time this year and the KCMG Porsche on the podium for the third race running.
The FIA WEC continues from Shanghai in three weeks time on November 6.