How Toyota domination on home turf set up WEC title showdown
While Toyota often dominates on home soil in the FIA World Endurance Championship, the margin of victory for the #8 car over the sister #7 runner ensured it had the perfect weekend playing catch-up against Alpine. Here’s how Toyota mastered Fuji once again to set up a thrilling finale in Bahrain.
There’s nothing unusual in Toyota winning a WEC round at Fuji. Victory for Sebastien Buemi, Brendon Hartley and Ryo Hirakawa last weekend was the eighth in nine attempts since the rebirth of the series in 2012. What was atypical on Sunday was that they pretty much destroyed their teammates in the sister GR010 Hybrid on the way to one-minute winning margin at the head of a Toyota 1-2.
The #8 car looked pretty much unbeatable from late in the second hour when Buemi took over the lead from pole winner Kamui Kobayashi in #7 shared with Mike Conway and Jose Maria Lopez. The Swiss more or less disappeared after his team principal ceded position into Turn 10 at the start of the twiddly third sector of the 2.84-mile Fuji Speedway on lap 64.
The winning Toyota was more than three seconds clear by the time Buemi came in to hand over to Hartley, who then extended the lead when he went up against Lopez. Hirakawa then continued to pull away from Conway over the final stages of the race as he increased a lead that stood at a minute and eight seconds after six hours of racing uninterrupted by a single yellow-flag caution.
An unfamiliar-looking contest between two cars that are usually closely matched was the result of some unfamiliar conditions, or rather the reaction of the two driver crews to them. It was significantly hotter on race day than earlier in the week and, explained Toyota Gazoo Racing Europe technical director Pascal Vasselon, Buemi and co anticipated them better with the set-up tweaks they made. “It is absolutely unusual to have such a big gap between the two cars,” said Vasselon. “It can be explained by the race happening in very different conditions to testing [practice]. There has been a better set-up anticipation on #8, and #7 had a balance problem.”
The drivers of #7 struggled with oversteer, which was exacerbated on the second stint on a set of Michelin tyre and doubly so as the temperatures rose further in the afternoon. Hartley had the lead up into double figures by the time he stopped for the first time, and when he came in to hand over to Hirakawa he was more than half a minute to the good. The race was as good as over. “I drove the car in the hottest part of the race and we clearly had a big advantage over the other car — the differential between us seemed to grow the hotter it got,” said Hartley. “I was a bit surprised at the gap I was able to build. We went in a different direction on car set-up to #7 and it clearly paid off. I think we worked really well in getting the car in the window.”
Conway concede that it wasn’t his and his teammates day: “We couldn’t do much more on our car today; car #8 was just a bit quicker so we couldn’t challenge them but we had a clean race and made no mistakes.”
The #7 Toyota led the early stages but it wasn't to last at it suffered balance problems
Photo by: Masahide Kamio
A win for the Buemi, Hartley and Hirokawa in the penultimate round of the 2022 WEC was the correct result for Toyota in terms of the title battle. They arrived in Japan 10 points down on the championship-leading Alpine crew, winners previous time out in Monza, whereas the drivers of the sister Toyota were 30 points in arrears. Vasselon didn’t rule out invoking team orders during the race in the name of the pursuit of the championship, but the domination of the best-placed crew in the points saved the Toyota Gazoo Racing squad from having to make any difficult decisions.
The rest of the five-car Hypercar field was nowhere in Fuji. The Alpine A480 trailed home two laps down in the hands of Andre Negrao, Matthieu Vaxiviere and Nicolas Lapierre, while Peugeot’s pair of 9X8 LMHs were seven and 15 laps down after suffering identical technical problems.
Or at least Toyota’s rivals were nowhere in terms of the overall result. Vasselon insisted straight after the race that Alpine and Peugeot were far from uncompetitive in terms of outright performance, and analysis of the full race shows that he wasn’t trying to fly some kind of political kite. Buemi, Hartley and Hirakawa enjoyed an advantage of somewhere in the region of two tenths over their team-mates — a veritable country mile in Toyota terms - but neither the Alpine crew nor the combinations in the two Peugeots were far behind the #8 GR010.
We didn’t have the pace to fight. I don’t want to talk about BoP, but we can’t be satisfied with our race
The fastest of the Peugeots, the fourth-placed car of Jean-Eric Vergne, Paul di Resta and Mikkel Jensen was only 0.049s second behind Kobayashi and his team-mates using a 100-lap average, and the Alpine 0.055s.
“If you look at the first stint on the tyres we are a little faster, but in the second stint we were a lot faster,” said Vasselon. “The biggest gap today was in tyre management, but then our drivers are very fast in traffic and then there are the pitstops.”
Alpine arrived in Japan looking for no more than a podium after receiving a Balance of Performance hit ahead of the race that robbed the normally aspirated Gibson engine in the back of its old Oreca LMP1 design of 35bhp. The Signatech Alpine team, also the winner first time out at Sebring in March, was racing with its lowest power level of the season. So it was mission achieved even if the Renault brand’s drivers were hardly in celebratory mood afterwards.
“We had a great car, but we were too slow overall,” said Vaxiviere, who brought the Alpine to the finish. “Clearly, we didn’t have the pace to fight. I don’t want to talk about BoP, but we can’t be satisfied with our race. It’s still cool that we will arrive in Bahrain equal on points [at the head of the championship].”
Alpine were muzzled by BOP but still achieved its own target of the podium
Photo by: JEP / Motorsport Images
Peugeot made a massive step forward from the debut of its LMH prototype at Monza in July and, but for the reliability issue that afflicted both cars, it might have made it onto the podium. The #94 car shared by James Rossiter, Loic Duval and Gustavo Menezes looked more than capable of taking the fight to Alpine early in the race.
Rossiter, who has lost time behind teammate Vergne early on, jumped Negrao for third during the first round of pitstops and was initially able to edge away. The 9X8 was clearly looking after its Michelins better than the A480. The positions switched around at the next round of stops after Rossiter was pushed off circuit by a GT car on his in-lap and then Lapierre was able to pull away on fresh rubber.
But everything pointed to a close fight to the end. And that’s without factoring in the extra pitstop that the grandfathered LMP1 car always has to make in comparison to the LMHs because its fuel tank can’t accommodate the full energy allocation allowed under the BoP.
The end of Peugeot’s chances of going home with some silverware was signalled by a stream of oil smoke from the back of the car halfway through hour three. The oil was coming out of a plug in the oil system. “Nothing dramatic,” said Olivier Jansonnie, technical director of the 9X8, “but the consequences were quite big.”
Twenty minutes were lost to repairs, though when the same problem reared its head on the sister car late in hour four, the in-house Peugeot Sport team were able to get it on its way in only seven and a half minutes.
Jansonnie reckoned third place was possible and so did Rossiter. “I’m confident we could have made a good fight of it without the problem,” said Rossiter, whose car also lost time with a 60s stop/go for exceeding its energy allowance later in the race. “Negrao came back at me a bit in the middle of my second stint, but I knew I had enough left in the tyres to push a bit more.
“We’ve made a massive step forward on Monza, so thanks to all the men and women back at Peugeot Sport. We’ve made a step in reliability, performance and also in terms of all the procedures inside the team. That was positive.”
Rossiter and his co-drivers went home unrewarded for their efforts: they came home in 20th place. The sister Peugeot ended up fourth and was the quicker of the two cars over the second half of the race after Vergne haemorrhaged time over the first two stints. The team put it down to a tyre issue without elaborating.
Oil leaking from a plug triggered identical reliability woes for both Peugeot cars
Photo by: Masahide Kamio
Peugeot conceded that it still has to make another step to get on terms with Toyota, and there may or may not be some help from the rulemakers. A change in the LMH BoP will be allowed for the series finale in Bahrain in November; the tweaks for Fuji were only made in relation to the LMP1 Alpine, witness the fact that both the Peugeot and the Toyota received identical 18kg weight reductions last weekend.
Peugeot’s learning curve and Alpine’s BoP hit meant Toyota had it easy at Fuji. It made for a dull race, but that didn’t bother Vasselon: “I like boring races.”
WRT beats JOTA for LMP2 gold
The best of the WRT and JOTA Orecas were separated by a dozen or so seconds on track at the top of the LMP2 order after six hours at Fuji. But the two teams opted for very different strategies to get to positions one and two in class.
The #31 WRT Oreca 07 driven by Sean Gelael, Robin Frijns and Dries Vanthoor took the victory by pushing as hard as possible from lap one to the end. The JOTA car driven by Roberto Gonzalez, Antonio Felix da Costa and Will Stevens went off kilter on strategy in what turned out to be an unsuccessful victory bid.
When you are trying to win a championship, the last thing you want to be doing is racing out of the pits for the lead and banging wheels into Turn 1
Sam Hignett, JOTA team boss
But JOTA’s decision to go onto aggressive fuel-save regime to try to save a pitstop had logic to it. The crew of the #38 Oreca arrived in Fuji with a 19-point lead in the championship and much to lose in a tooth-and-nail fight with the WRT car languishing down in fifth in the points.
“As soon as we saw the #31 was going to be doing 27 laps, we went onto a 28-lap strategy,” explained JOTA boss Sam Hignett. “When you are trying to win a championship, the last thing you want to be doing is racing out of the pits for the lead and banging wheels into Turn 1.”
JOTA needed to find nine laps to avoid the required late-race splash. It got to six, but the team was left to rue a rare yellow-free race. The short Full Course Yellow that it needed to pull off the win never came.
WRT led most of the way, for 162 of the 225 laps it completed to be precise. Gelael got into the lead at the start and hung on to it until midway through his second stint when Jonathan Aberdein came past in the #28 JOTA car. Frijns jumped the leader in the middle of his first double after which WRT only lost the top spot during the pitstop cycles.
Vanthoor, standing in for DTM-contesting Rene Rast, lost time during his double when he got hemmed in during his pitstop, but apart from that the only worry for WRT team was if JOTA or Prema, which also opted to save fuel, got the required yellow. It was still much closer than it looked in the results after Stevens pitted #38 with four laps to go. The victorious Toyota finished between the top two in P2, meaning the winner completed a lap more the chasing car.
The #31 WRT ORECA's sprint strategy paid off as no Full Course Yellow came to rescue its rivals
Photo by: JEP / Motorsport Images
The second JOTA entry Aberdein shared with Ed Jones and Oliver Rasmussen look third after the last-named fought a solid rearguard action to hold off Norman Nato in the Realteam by WRT Oreca, which had the benefit of much fresher tyres on the all-important left side of the car.
The race for Nato and teammates Ferdinand Habsburg and Rui Andrade was compromised by two unscheduled stops, one for a damaged tyre and one for a slow puncture. The #28 JOTA, meanwhile, had to fight back from the rear of the field after Aberdein was assaulted on the first lap by the Algarve Pro entry of Steven Thomas.
The United Autosports Oreca shared by Alex Lynn, Oliver Jarvis and Josh Pierson was nowhere for two thirds of the race before coming alive in the final two hours and charging to fifth. Prema ended up sixth after abandoning its fuel-mileage strategy.
Ferrari leads the way in GTE Pro
Ferrari took a 1-2 in GTE Pro to put one hand on the final drivers’ title to be awarded in the soon-to-disappear division. Alessandro Pier Guidi and James Calado extended their lead to 11 points going into the Bahrain finale on a day that the Italian marque’s 488 GTE Evo enjoyed a clear advantage over class rivals Porsche and Corvette.
A duo looking for their third WEC title had to overcome a strong challenge from the sister AF Corse-run factory car shared by Antonio Fuoco and Miguel Molina. Fuoco on the fresher rubber was able to charge down Pier Guidi in the fourth hour, eventually moving past with an hour and 20 minutes to go. The pendulum swung the other way after the final stops when Calado had the better Michelins under him for the run to the flag.
The Brit got past Fuoco, who drove the final four stints in the second Ferrari, with 50 minutes to go, though was never more than a second ahead over the remainder of the race. It was unclear if a delay of around three seconds for Fuoco when an airline snagged on the rear wing at his final stop had any effect on the outcome.
Calado and Pier Guidi insisted that there were no team orders involved, even with the championship situation to consider. “It was just strategy,” said Pier Guidi. “The sister car was in a different tyre situation, so I let him go. After we pitted, we were on the better tyres, so we could take the position back. Consistency was always going to be the key and I think we made the right choices on the tyres.”
Porsche was only briefly in the game despite a Balance of Performance change that gave it a few extra horsepower courtesy of a larger-diameter air restrictor. Kevin Estre took pole, lost out to Calado at the start, got the lead after 10 laps and then lost it again after another 10. More significantly, the #92 Porsche 911 RSR-19 Estre shared with Michael Christensen was 15s down by the first round of pitstops.
Ferrari dominated the penultimate GTE Pro outing in WEC
Photo by: JEP / Motorsport Images
Estre had started on the soft Michelin, like the Ferrari, but the Porsche’s performance dropped off the cliff over the second half of the stint. That forced Porsche to switch to the medium tyre, which offered no way back into contention. Instead, the team opted to go into fuel save mode in the hope that a caution period would come to the rescue, but the race remained green for the duration.
The best-placed of the two Porsches was still only 32s down at the finish, half of that deficit lost in the opening hour. The second Manthey-run factory 911 ended up fourth in the hands of Gianmaria Bruni and Richard Lietz was a lap in arrears after an early drive-through for a track limits violation.
Corvette Racing followed its Monza victory with a disappointing weekend and a disastrous day on Sunday. The car edged closer to the pace through practice and qualifying as the American team came to terms with a 10kg weight hit under the BoP and Nick Tandy was able to run in the lead train early on before getting a drivethrough for exceeding track limits.
Things went from bad to worse when the C8.R ran out of fuel 100 or so yards short of its pit at the end of his first stint. The mechanics had to run down and push the car to its pitstall. It turned out that the car Tandy shared with Tommy Milner had a fuel leak when its tank was brimmed, which further compromised a race that it finished fifth place and two laps down on the winners.
TF bounces back from Monza smash
The TF Sport Aston Martin squad returned to the winner’s circle in GTE Am after coming out on top in the battle of the bronzes. The key portion of the race came in the opening two hours when TF’s bronze-rated driver Ben Keating went up against opposite number Sarah Bovy in the Iron Dames Ferrari. Keating had a lead of approximately 30s over the Ferrari when he vacated the car and that was more or less the margin in favour of the Vantage GTE co-driven by Henrique Chaves and Marco Sorensen at the finish.
Keating, on the medium tyre, had the edge over a full stint, which proved decisive come the end of the race
The all-green race played into the hands of the TF Aston and the Iron Dames Ferrari 488 GTE Evo Bovy shared with Rahel Frey and Michelle Gatting. No one else was able to get on terms with the top two after the best bronzes in the pack by some margin had done their stuff.
Keating had taken the pole by just six hundredths from the Ferrari driver, but Bovy started on the soft Michelin and was initially able to take the lead. Keating, on the medium tyre, had the edge over a full stint, which proved decisive come the end of the race. TF’s victory margin was actually a full lap because the winning Toyota finished between the top two in class.
TF’s D’Station Aston claimed its first podium of the year with Tomonobu Fujii, Satoshi Hoshino and Charlie Fagg. Bronze driver Hoshino made amends for getting the car sent to the back of the grid for ignoring a double yellow flag in qualifying with a strong perform on his local track, while Fagg had to get back past Ferrari factory driver Davide Rigon after losing out to the AF Corse entry after his final stop.
GTE Am was decided in a battle of the bronzes
Photo by: JEP / Motorsport Images
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