Sunday 15 October 2017 saw the running of Round 7 of the WEC Fuji, in Japan. It is quite typical to encounter heavy rain, even typhoons, in Japan at this time of the year, as a quick trip back through the motorsport history books will show. The teams and the drivers know this, so it should not have come as a great surprise.
Qualifying for Round 7 at the Fuji Speedway, located in the shadow of Mount Fuji, produced perhaps the result expected by most, which saw the two Porsche 919 Hybrids on the front row of the grid. Likewise, the #91 911 RSR was on pole position in the GTE class, and so, it all looked good for Porsche ahead of the third-last race of the season.
Patrick Dempsey waved the green flag and sent the 26 starters on their way, which got underway behind the safety car as a result of a heavy downpour, but eventually the race went green after five laps. The six-hour race was hampered by persistent rain, fog and several accidents which required innumerable safety car phases. But having said that, the conditions were the same for everyone in the field.
Lotterer started from P2 in the #1 Porsche as the safety car led the pack until the end of lap 5. On lap 6, the two Toyotas got past and Lotterer dropped back to fourth but after contact with the #8 Toyota, a flap on the front right was knocked off. Half an hour into the race, the fog descended, and at the end of lap 22, Lotterer overtook the #7 Toyota to take third place. On lap 29 the safety-car was back on track again and on lap 33 Lotterer pitted for a full service. Jani took the wheel after getting some new front body work and fresh rain tyres, but the race was red flagged after 39 laps with Jani in P4. The race was restarted at 12h50 and Jani moved up to P3 but after 60 laps, the safety car was back on track again. Tandy took over and on lap 77, when the #8 Toyota pitted, Tandy moved into the lead but immediately came under pressure from López in the #7 Toyota. Two laps later the safety car was back on track, but when the race restarted after 87 laps, an LMP2 accident initiated the next safety car period. When the race eventually got underway after 94 laps, Tandy could not defend against the two Toyotas and dropped back to third. The safety car was called upon again on lap 111 due to worsening fog and after 114 laps, the race was again red flagged and not re-started.
Earl Bamber led off from pole in the #2 Porsche, his first WEC start in the 919 Hybrid. When the safety car pulled in at the end of lap 5, Bamber stayed in the lead. Before the second safety car period at the end of lap 28 (because of fog), Bamber had already built up a 12 second gap to the #8 Toyota. Bamber impressively recorded the fastest race lap (1:37.702 minutes) on lap 19. When the race was red flagged after 39 laps, he was the only LMP1 car not to have refuelled and at the restart he needed to pit immediately. Bernhard took over after 40 laps, and was lying fourth behind the two Toyotas and Neel Jani. Bernhard was lapped by the #8 Toyota on lap 56, but the next safety car period started just moments later. After 63 laps, Bernhard handed over to Hartley who continued behind the safety car in P4. At the end of lap 65 the safety car once again released the field, but at the end of lap 79 it was back on track, and later again after laps 88 and 111, leaving Hartley unable to unlap himself. When the race was red flagged after 114 laps, he was sitting in the pits being refuelled, which is where the race ended.
With just over 75 per cent of the scheduled race distance having been completed, full points were awarded with Porsche finishing in third and fourth places in LMP1. Fritz Enzinger, Vice President LMP1, saw it this way, “Heavy rain, thick fog, a start behind the safety car, two red flags and numerous safety car periods and yellow zones. Given these adverse conditions, we can be glad that nothing serious happened today. In the end, it was a lucky one-two race win for Toyota. But we were close, and in Shanghai we will do everything in order to defend our championship titles.”
In the GTE-Pro class, Richard Lietz in the #91 car got away perfectly from pole position, with Michael Christensen following in the #92 car in fifth place and by lap seven, he had gained two positions and was running in third. When the weather turned worse, the safety car was deployed for almost an hour, before the race was eventually red-flagged due to bad visibility, and the drivers parked their cars on the start/finish straight. The restart came after 32 minutes, and when Richard Lietz pitted for the first time with the race two hours old, Michael Christensen moved into the lead. After twenty minutes later, the stewards again decided to send the safety car out due to poor visibility. Both 911 RSRs came into the pits for a splash-and-dash, but it was already clear that race strategy would play a decisive role. This time the safety car stayed out for 26 minutes. After half the distance, Christensen was fourth with Lietz in fifth. Christensen had just fought his way up to third place when his charge was again thwarted by another safety car phase. The team summoned the two 911 RSRs into the pits for a driver change, where Estre replaced Christensen in the #92 car and Mako taking over the #92 Porsche from Lietz. When the race director gave the go-ahead shortly afterwards, Kévin Estre snatched the lead, with Fred Mako running in third.
The fourth safety car phase was the first as the result of an accident. The race quickly picked up the pace and the rain eased slightly, but then the fog rolled in. This was when the already lapped Ford driver rammed Kévin Estre in the leading RSR almost without braking, forcing him into a spin. Unsurprisingly, the collision affected the aerodynamics at the front as well as the diffuser at the rear. The result of this was that not only did the vehicle fall back to third place, but from this point on it lost around a second per lap to the front-runner. The fact that his teammate Fred Mako inherited the lead was only a small consolation. Later, Makowiecki lost his top spot to the class-winning Ferrari, and continued in second place with Kévin Estre in third. When the fog became thicker the drivers complained of worsening visibility, and the stewards opted for another safety car phase. Thirteen minutes later, the field was halted again with the red flag, and with no improvement expected, the race was not restarted.
Alex Stehlig, Programme Manager WEC, commented afterwards, “The conditions today were very tricky. The many safety car phases and red flags made it very difficult for the engineers to make the right decisions. It was bitter that an already lapped competitor cost our leading #92 car a possible win, but second and third are still great results. We were among the fastest over the entire race weekend. It’s a shame that it wasn’t enough to yield our first win in this world championship.”
Christian Ried, Matteo Cairoli and Marvin Dienst driving the #77 Dempsey Proton Racing 911 RSR, who have already notched up two wins this season, scored another podium with a third place in the GTE Am class. Team co-owner of the Dempsey Proton Racing RSR, Patrick Dempsey, was at the pit wall to watch the team. With this result they reclaimed the lead in the overall classification of the FIA Endurance Trophy. The #86 Gulf Racing Porsche came home in fourth place in the GTE Am class.
In the manufacturers’ world championship standings, Porsche continues to lead with 270 points, with Toyota on 211.5 points. Bamber/Bernhard/Hartley top the drivers’ rankings with 172 points, with Jani/Lotterer/Tandy in fourth position on 98 points.
Round 8 of the Sports Car World Endurance Championship will be contested in Shanghai, China on 5 November.
Edited by: Glen Smale
Images by: Porsche