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WEC Fuji

10 things we learned from the 2023 WEC 6 Hours of Fuji

Toyota fended off the strongest challenge yet from an LMDh car in the World Endurance Championship's 6 Hours of Fuji to secure the Hypercar manufacturers' title with a race to spare, while one of its proteges made a strong debut in the GT ranks. Here's what we learned in Japan

#7 Toyota Gazoo Racing Toyota GR010 - Hybrid: Mike Conway, Kamui Kobayashi, Jose Maria Lopez

The World Endurance Championship's two-month summer break ended with its annual trip to Fuji, where Toyota continued an unbeaten stretch dating back to 2016 with a 1-2 finish. But the Japanese marque didn't have it as easy as the result on paper suggested, as Porsche emerged as GR010 HYBRID's closest challenger to lead the most laps in its best showing to date.

Le Mans Hypercar rivals Ferrari and Peugeot were usurped in the pecking order while Cadillac also had a weekend to forget, and Porsche's customer teams underlined the potential of the 963 LMDh package.

Meanwhile, victory for the #41 WRT ORECA put the Belgian squad in prime position to secure a second LMP2 title in three years as the #54 AF Corse Ferrari crew became the fourth different GTE Am class winners of the season after a penalty handed to class champions Corvette.

Here are 10 things we learned from the 2023 WEC 6 Hours of Fuji.

1. It's difficult to beat a local driver at Fuji

Local knowledge for Kobayashi helped him take the fight to Hartley in the final double stint

Local knowledge for Kobayashi helped him take the fight to Hartley in the final double stint

Photo by: JEP / Motorsport Images

Kamui Kobayashi was the undoubted star of the Fuji weekend in the #7 Toyota GR010 HYBRID. After scoring pole by a comfortable margin of 0.624 seconds ahead of Brendon Hartley in the sister #8 car, during the final two stints of the race Kobayashi was by far the quicker, pulling away to the tune of 39 seconds after being ordered by the Kiwi.

After both qualifying and the race, Toyota Gazoo Racing Europe technical boss Pascal Vasselon cited the “Kamui effect” when asked about the #7 car’s speed. Kobayashi’s intimate knowledge of the circuit thanks to his many visits to the Shizuoka Prefecture venue in Super Formula over the years gave him an edge, said Vasselon.

There was praise too for Ryo Hirakawa, who took just two laps to find a way by Kevin Estre’s Porsche for the lead of the race after Jose Maria Lopez had spent the best part of an hour bottled up behind the Frenchman. That was despite Hirakawa being told by the team not to take risks, given that the Porsche was on a different pit cycle to the Toyotas.

There were suggestions that some lingering damage to the #8 car from being nudged from behind by the #50 Ferrari during the Turn 1 chaos might have been to blame for Hartley’s lacklustre pace, but that didn’t seem to hold back Hirakawa. Instead, as the track cooled in the latter stages, Hartley appeared to struggle with understeer and was unable to adjust the car to his liking as Hirakawa and Kobayashi had been able to.

Just how much of an edge racing at Fuji in a Super Formula car twice a year gives Kobayashi and Hirakawa at their home track is unclear, but it’s unlikely to be a coincidence that the two local heroes were the standout performers in their respective cars. JK

2. Le Mans double points could skew title outcome again

The #7 Toyota crew won for a fourth time in six races, but the title remains a long shot

The #7 Toyota crew won for a fourth time in six races, but the title remains a long shot

Photo by: JEP / Motorsport Images

One driver line-up has already won more than half the races in the 2023 WEC, but probably isn’t going to take the title. Kamui Kobayashi, Mike Conway and Jose Maria Lopez claimed a fourth victory in six races at Fuji, yet they still trail Toyota team-mates Sebastien Buemi, Brendon Hartley and Ryo Hikakawa by 15 points with only 39 up for grabs at the Bahrain finale. The odds on a third WEC title for the crew of the #7 GR010 HYBRID are shortening, but remain in the long-shot category.

The WEC championship battle is still skewed by the double points on offer at the Le Mans 24 Hours, just as it’s always been with the exception of 2018/19. The presence of two editions of the French enduro on the calendar in the so-called ‘superseason’ explained why only points and a half were up for grabs.

Think back to 2016 when Porsche drivers Neel Jani, Romain Dumas and Marc Lieb took the 50 points on offer at Le Mans and went on to take the title without finishing better than fourth in any of the remaining six races. You can call it the WEC’s post-Le Mans hangover, something it tried to shrug off with the ‘winter series’ format climaxing with the 24 Hours. That, of course, fell foul to COVID.

The events of this season haven’t really re-opened the debate on double-points at Le Mans. Conway, admittedly not the most emotional or demonstrative of drivers, went as far as to say that the present system is “a bit annoying” ahead of Monza in July. A move away from it, he reckoned, would “make the championship more interesting”.

The simple fact is that the domination of the championship by one manufacturer, as the WEC is by Toyota at the moment, is always going to queer the patch when there are a relatively small number of races. When one of its cars doesn’t score when the big points are on offer and also has another bad or unfortunate weekend — as Conway and co did at Portimao — it’s going to be a long way back when their team-mates chalk up a strong result at Le Mans as Buemi, Hartley and Hirakawa did with second position. GW

3. Porsche proves LMDh cars can cut the mustard

Porsche couldn't hold off Toyota for the win, but it demonstrated that LMDh cars can challenge the LMH machines

Porsche couldn't hold off Toyota for the win, but it demonstrated that LMDh cars can challenge the LMH machines

Photo by: JEP / Motorsport Images

The naysayers who’ve proclaimed that an LMDh will never be able to beat the Le Mans Hypercars and win in the WEC are probably going to have to change their tune. Porsche proved over the course of the Fuji 6 Hours that its 963 is now a competitive proposition. It was undoubtedly the best performance yet by one of the LMP2-based prototypes in the series.

PLUS: How Porsche ensured Toyota's WEC homecoming was anything but straightforward

It wasn’t just that Laurens Vanthoor, Kevin Estre and Andre Lotterer finished third - they did that before at Portimao back in April. Rather, it was the consistent pace of the German car that suggested the ‘other’ route into the Hypercar class will yield victories.

Cadillac had hinted at what might be possible at Le Mans, particularly with the #3 Ganassi V-Series.R that ultimately finished fourth after a messy race. But the podium for the #6 Porsche last weekend was the most coherent performance by an LMDh over a full race distance so far.

It would be wrong to say that the Porsche could have won, even though it did lead for the better part of four hours. But it might have been second between the Toyotas. Or at least that’s what the Japanese manufacturer believed.

There was a refuelling glitch after the reconnaissance laps to the grid, which forced an early first fuel stop and then some heroic fuel saving by Vanthoor to ensure the car didn’t need to splash at the end. PPM played down its effect on the result (as it probably would!), while Toyota pointed to a significant time loss resulting from the fuel saving.

Anyway, Porsche went home with a podium that had nothing to do with other cars running into problems and the wider paddock with a belief that there really are two ways to skin a cat in Hypercar. GW

4. Ferrari won't be baited on BoP gripes

Ferrari wasn't truly in the fight in Japan and both cars were lapped

Ferrari wasn't truly in the fight in Japan and both cars were lapped

Photo by: Andy Chan

Ferrari has got its personnel well trained. Try as the press corps might in Japan, there seemed to be no chance of getting anyone dressed in red to say the words Balance of Performance or even the BoP acronym, let alone to discuss it.

The rules, if you didn’t know, forbid manufacturers and their staff from discussing the BoP in public at pain of sanction by the stewards. And Ferrari is sticking by that right now, though its refusal to mention the pre-Monza changes that have left it trailing Toyota can be taken as a sign that it's a sore point.

BoP baiting at Ferrari at Fuji was consistently met with a response that clearly came off some kind of company crib sheet. It asked us to cast our mind back to a classic Le Mans 24 Hours in which the Italian manufacturer’s 499P prevailed in a tooth-and-nail fight with Toyota’s GR010 HYBRID. We were then asked to compare that to the events of Monza and subsequently Fuji. GW

5. Proton has strong potential with customer Porsche

A freak problem with seatbelts denied Proton a likely fourth place in only its second outing with a customer Porsche 963

A freak problem with seatbelts denied Proton a likely fourth place in only its second outing with a customer Porsche 963

Photo by: JEP / Motorsport Images

In just its second WEC race with the Porsche 963, customer squad Proton Competition hinted at its enormous promise. Harry Tincknell had been running in the top five in the second hour, hassling the Ferrari of James Calado for fourth, only for what Neel Jani called a “freak issue” with the seat belts to strike as Tincknell got out to hand over to Gianmaria Bruni.

Proton had been using a different car at Fuji to the one with which it made its Hypercar debut at Monza, which was shipped off the United States to become the German squad’s IMSA car from August’s Road America race onwards. The new car had only been given a brief shakedown at Porsche’s Weissach headquarters before it was raced at Fuji - so a number of teething issues were inevitable, according to Jani, even if the belt slipping out of its buckle has to rank as one of the more unfortunate ways to lose a top result.

Without that drama, the Proton car would have likely finished fourth, which would have been a remarkable result. And the good news for the team now is that it has a proper test coming up in Road Atlanta ahead of the Petit Le Mans IMSA finale at the same track in October, where it can finally start focusing properly on extracting performance from the 963. A star turn in Bahrain, which follows Petit, wouldn’t come as a big surprise. JK

6. Outlier Peugeot's concept is difficult to balance

The twisty final sector was too slow for the Peugeot to get the power down as its Monza promise seemed a long time ago

The twisty final sector was too slow for the Peugeot to get the power down as its Monza promise seemed a long time ago

Photo by: JEP / Motorsport Images

Any confidence that balancing the avant-garde Peugeot 9X8 with the rest of the Hypercar pack is going to be truly possible went out the window at Fuji. A car that was right in the mix at Monza two months ago was pretty much an also-ran on Sunday.

The French machine has always struggled with traction, no surprise given that it has less rubber at the back than its rivals. It runs the same size wheels and tyres all-round — a key component of its wingless concept — whereas everyone else has bigger rears than fronts.

The lower deployment speed of the front-axle hybrid system for the Peugeot in comparison with the Toyota and the Ferrari reflects that - less grip at the rear under acceleration means the 9X8 needs more help at the front. That help was increased a Fuji: the 150km/h deployment minimum (compared with 190 for the other LMHs) came down to 135km/h in the pre-Monza Balance of Performance changes for Japan and Bahrain to reflect the proliferation of low-speed corners at the these circuits.

Put simply, it wasn’t enough. The final sector at the Fuji Speedway, surely not one of track designer Hermann Tilke’s finest works, was just too slow for the new deployment speed to have any affect.

The 9X8 remains an outlier conceptually and that’s a problem when it comes to setting the BoP. GW

7. Cadillac can no longer rely on outpacing Porsche

Even before it lost a wheel, Cadillac had struggled on old tyres and appeared unlikely to challenge for a strong result

Even before it lost a wheel, Cadillac had struggled on old tyres and appeared unlikely to challenge for a strong result

Photo by: JEP / Motorsport Images

Cadillac was left with plenty of homework to do after a disastrous outing at Fuji that yielded a solitary point in 10th. That was despite Alex Lynn qualifying a promising fifth, ahead of both factory Ferraris and Peugeots, and a rapid first pitstop at the end of the first hour thrusting the Chip Ganassi-run car into the thick of the podium fight.

But it quickly became clear that the Cadillac V-Series.R was struggling on old tyres, something that is supposed to be the car’s strong point, with Lynn dropping like a stone in his double stint to eighth. The left-front wheel coming loose due to a sheared wheel ring in the fourth hour and two on-track penalties rubbed even more salt in the wounds.

While its 10th place finish at Monza was largely down to bad luck, this time it was simply too uncompetitive to take the fight to the front. Post-race, General Motors sportscar programme manager Laura Wontrop Klauser said the unstable weather may have been a factor in what was probably the car’s least competitive showing of the year.

“When the track conditions are constantly shifting it's really hard to get a gauge for what you need to do,” she said. “What we had [for the race] was very different to what we had the past few days so that didn't help, but it is what it is and everyone has the same problem.

“The good news is that we have got six hours of data of the car on the track surface, so we can take that back and we can review it and be ready for next year.” Rachit Thukral

8. Fuji microclimate hampers single-car teams

Adding a second 963 to the mix for 2024 could help Jota in similar events with changeable conditions

Adding a second 963 to the mix for 2024 could help Jota in similar events with changeable conditions

Photo by: JEP / Motorsport Images

As well as Cadillac, Jota was left to lament the changing conditions at Fuji, team boss Sam Hignett suggesting that the unstable weather prevented the team from getting a proper handle on set-up - although fourth could have been on the cards had Antonio Felix da Costa not picked up a penalty for making contact with the team’s LMP2 car early on.

This was also true for the Jota P2 machine, which won at Monza but could manage no better than sixth at Fuji. Matters weren’t helped by David Heinemeier Hansson being turned around by da Costa, but even before that it didn’t seem like the team’s decision to go off-strategy was going to pay off as two-car squads WRT and United Autosports asserted themselves, locking out the top four places in the class between them.

Around a circuit like Fuji, where teams generally never test and which features its own micro-climate with rapidly changing weather conditions, it’s easy to make a mistake on the set-up that sends you off in the wrong direction. Having a second car therefore could be said to be a greater advantage at the Japanese track than elsewhere.

With Jota looking more and more likely to get a second 963 next year, such issues could soon be a thing of the past. As Hignett noted, when you go from one cars to two, “the rate of learning doesn’t just double, it’s exponential. We’ll upset some people next year!” JK

9. Toyota protege Miyata makes his case

On his WEC debut Toyota reserve Ritomo Miyata put in an impressive showing for Kessel in GTE Am

On his WEC debut Toyota reserve Ritomo Miyata put in an impressive showing for Kessel in GTE Am

Photo by: JEP / Motorsport Images

Observers of Super Formula and SUPER GT will already know how good newly-signed Toyota WEC junior Ritomo Miyata is, but there will have been plenty of people seeing Miyata in action for the first time at Fuji on board the Kessel Racing Ferrari 488 GTE.

Miyata had got the call from Toyota about replacing absent Ferrari factory driver Daniel Serra on Tuesday while he was at Motegi for SUPER GT tyre testing, and spent the lunch break that day studying the manual for the Ferrari. He did his first laps in both a GTE car and on Michelin tyres on Friday, sharing his knowledge of the track with team-mates Takeshi Kimura and Scott Huffaker as they helped him acclimatise to a wholly unfamiliar car.

Come race day, Miyata was installed at the wheel of the CarGuy-liveried Kessel car for the final two stints, and was closing in on Davide Rigon in the leading AF Corse car for the first of those. Engine trouble reared its head in the second stint, costing Miyata time and preventing him from mounting a proper victory challenge, although a 10-second penalty for speeding under full-course yellow might have seen to that anyway.

While Miyata’s programme for 2024 remains up in the air, there’s a very good chance he’ll be getting laps in the Toyota GR010 HYBRID under his belt sooner rather than later, with a race seat for the squad a distinct possibility in 2025. Remember the name… JK

10. Crowd attendance is up, but Japanese fans yet to be totally convinced

Local fans got to see another home victory for Toyota

Local fans got to see another home victory for Toyota

Photo by: Andy Chan

The official attendance for the Fuji round was 54,700 over three days, with 33,600 coming on race day. That’s less than either the Monza or Spa WEC races managed, but it was a significant improvement on the 2022 race. Indeed, it marked a record for the track, just about surpassing the previous benchmark set during the height of the LMP1 era in 2016.

And yet, the venue didn’t always feel as full as it might have done. Fuji’s gigantic main grandstand is always a challenge for any series outside of Formula 1 to fill, but even the pit lane during the autograph session didn’t feel especially crowded, while there were far fewer tents erected than you would expect to see for a SUPER GT race.

Indeed, SUPER GT’s big-ticket Fuji Golden Week fixture attracted 80,200 fans over two days, while the August race at the same venue attracted a still-respectable crowd of 50,400 despite running to the exact same format three months later.

Perhaps it shows that the Japanese fans haven’t fully warmed up to Hypercars, preferring the silhouette GT500 cars that look much more like their road-going brethren. That’s probably not helped by Toyota domination having become the norm in WEC - perhaps if Honda or Nissan could be convinced to throw their hat in the ring, things could change… JK

Japanese fans were drawn to Fuji but their number was fewer than at Super GT meetings

Japanese fans were drawn to Fuji but their number was fewer than at Super GT meetings

Photo by: JEP / Motorsport Images

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