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WEC: Fuji returns as championship enters title-deciding phase

  • gb

For the first time since 2019 the FIA World Endurance Championship returns to Japan, with this weekend’s 6 Hours of Fuji promising some scintillating battles across the four classes in the penultimate round of the 2022 season

Fuji International Speedway is located 100km west of Tokyo, nestled in the foothills of the iconic Mount Fuji and will play host to 36 cars this weekend with five apiece in the Hypercar and LMGTE Pro classes and thirteen each in LMP2 and LMGTE Am.

Originally conceived as a NASCAR-style venue before being repurposed as a road course, at 4.56km, the circuit is almost 800 metres longer than Mount Fuji, Japan’s tallest mountain, 3776m in height. Fuji International Speedway is also cited as being the first race track to be featured in a video game. 

The circuit boasts one of the longest straights in motorsport, at 1.475km long, highlighting power and aerodynamic efficiency, with the first turn a natural overtaking opportunity.

Typhoon Hinnamnor (Typhoon No.11) attacked Japan at the start of this week with its path accurately predicted by the Japanese Meteorological Agency as well north of Fuji but nevertheless, thunderstorms and their less thundery brethren are predicted across the weekend with low cloud, humidity and temperatures nudging 30C. 

Home advantage in the Hypercar class is most certainly Toyota’s, with the Japanese concern owning the circuit and proving victorious in seven out of the eight times it has been run since FIA WEC began a decade ago. Porsche enjoyed the only non-Toyota win at the track, in 2015. Of note, Toyota didn’t take the chequered flag in the 2013 edition of the event, when extreme rain meant the race didn’t start and the result was declared from qualifying positions. 

36 cars on the entry list means both the biggest-ever WEC field at Fuji, six more than in the 2019 running. Just 54 of the 103 drivers at Fuji have competed there before in the series, with 49 individuals new to the 6 Hours of Fuji.

Mount Fuji itself is a dormant volcano, and over the weekend, the action should once more erupt on track.

In the Hypercar class it’s a brace of Toyotas and Peugeots against the Alpine Elf Team that went so well in Monza, with no appearance from the Monza pole-sitting Glickenhaus.

With such a successful history at the venue which has been owned by the parent company since 2000, the Toyota Gazoo Racing GR010 Hybrid Hypercar will make its home debut with much anticipation. 

The most recent 6 Hours of Fuji in 2019 was won by Sebastien Buemi, Kazuki Nakajima and Brendon Hartley and this was the fourth in a row at Fuji for the Japanese manufacturer. 2022 Le Mans winners Sébastien Buemi, Brendon Hartley and Ryo Hirakawa, in the #8 GR010 HYBRID, were runners-up last time out in Monza are second in the drivers’ championship, 10 points behind the leading Alpine crew of André Negrão, Nicolas Lapierre and Matthieu Vaxiviere.

Reigning champions, Mike Conway, Kamui Kobayashi and José María López, finished third at Monza after a ding-dong battle with the winning Alpine whilst leading the race, and they aim for a second win of the year in their #7 GR010 HYBRID.

Just 15 points behind Toyota in the manufacturer standings, Alpine comes to Japan on the back of the Monza win.

The second victory of the season for Lapierre (a winner at Fuji for Toyota in 2012 and 2013), Negrão and Vaxiviere extended their advantage in the standings to 10 points over Le Mans 24 Hours conquerors Hartley, Buemi (also a Fuji victor in 2014 and 2017) and Ryo Hirakawa in the #8 Toyota, who finished second in Italy. The #7 Toyota of Kobayashi, Conway and López remains third in the standings, albeit a further 20 points behind.

While the Peugeot Sport TotalEnergies team may be new to Fuji, its #94 lineup of Loic Duval, Gustavo Menezes and James Rossiter boast plenty of Japanese pedigree. Duval was victorious at Fuji on his way to the 2009 Formula Nippon crown and had won at the track in Super GT in 2006 and 2007, while Rossiter scored his first Super GT win at Fuji in 2013. Could their local knowledge pay dividends and bring Peugeot’s first big WEC result this weekend.

It couldn’t be closer in the points race between Ferrari and Porsche in GTE Pro. With just two races to go before the class bids farewell, there is just one point between the leading crews of the respective manufacturers as each bids to have the last word before moving into the Hypercar class in 2023.

Finishing third last time out was enough to move defending champions James Calado and Alessandro Pier Guidi in the #51 Ferrari above the #92 Porsche of Gianmaria Bruni in the standings, while the sister #91 car of Kevin Estre and Michael Christensen is just one point further back in third.

After testing positive for COVID-19 and being replaced at Monza by Fred Makowiecki, Bruni’s regular co-driver Richard Lietz returns to the #92 Porsche for Fuji, where he and Marc Lieb took victory over Bruni (then driving for Ferrari) and Giancarlo Fisichella in 2012.

Corvette Racing took its first win of the 2022 WEC at Monza with a superbly-judged fuel-saving display from Nick Tandy and Tommy Milner, and the Anglo-American pair will hope to continue their form as the #64 C8.R makes its Japanese bow.

In LMP2, the #38 Jota Sport crew has the biggest points advantage of any class leader with 19 points in hand over their nearest rival. Second at Monza after winning their class at Le Mans and placing third at Spa, this enviable consistency of Antonio Felix da Costa, Will Stevens and Roberto Gonzalez has put them in the driving seat over Oliver Jarvis and Josh Pierson in the #23 United Autosports USA Oreca-Gibson. 

LMP2 is the solitary category where the class title can be claimed in Fuji with the #38 Jota capable of winning the title in Japan. #38 currently sits 19 points ahead of the United Autosports USA #23 car, and 27 points ahead of both #41 RealTeam by WRT and #9 Prema Orlen Team car. If #38 Jota wins, while #23 United, #41 RealTeam and #9 Prema wont’ finish, then then #38 wins the titles.

Only 15 of the 39 LMP2 drivers at Fuji have raced at the circuit in the WEC previously. Prema #9, Vector Sport #10 and Jota #28 all comprise a trio of Fuji rookies, whilst Jota #38 is the only trio who have all raced here before.

But with RealTeam by WRT’s crew of Ferdinand Habsburg, Rui Andrade and Norman Nato hitting their stride with victory at Monza, Jota can’t afford to let its concentration drop. The #41 Realteam crew sits third in the standings, 27 points down on Jota, close enough to strike in the event of an issue for the points leaders.

Rene Rast will be replaced in the sister WRT entry by fellow Audi factory driver Dries Vanthoor, who drove the third car for the Belgian outfit at Le Mans, while two-time Daytona 24 Hours winner Renger van der Zande joins Vector Sport in place of DTM bound Nico Müller. 

In the GTE Am class, just four points separate the two leading Aston Martin contenders. A dramatic crash at Monza for Henrique Chaves in the #33 TF Sport Vantage meant the Le Mans-winning car he shared with Marco Sorensen and Ben Keating collected no points in Italy, but the #98 NorthWest AMR machine of Nicki Thiim, David Pittard and Paul dalla Lana was unable to take full advantage by finishing eighth.

Aston Martin took GTE Pro (with Thiim/Sorensen) and GTE Am honours (with TF Sport) in 2019, so watch out for a battle royale from the British cars. Their closest challenge may come from #77 Proton Dempsey Porsche drivers Harry Tincknell, Seb Priaulx and Christian Ried, the only crew to have won twice so far this year are 20 points off the summit in third. 

It’s a home race for D’Station Racing who will be hoping for great things in the #777 Aston whilst the sister #33 TF Sport car is using its European Le Mans Series chassis after the Monza crash for the squad. 

20 of the 39 GTE Am drivers are making their WEC Fuji debuts in 2022. Eight of the 19 drivers who have competed in Japan before have won at the circuit, including the current top three Platinum-rated drivers Marco Sorensen, Nicki Thiim and Harry Tincknell.

Driver changes are seen in the #54 AF Corse Ferrari with Italian Davide Rigon sitting in for Kiwi Nick Cassidy who’s on DTM duties at Spa, whilst a late driver change for the #56 Team Project 1 Porsche sees American driver Brendan Iribe replaced by Japanese racer Takeshi Kimura.

Track action for the 6 Hours of Fuji starts on Friday with the first two 90-minute practice sessions, with Saturday seeing final practice then qualifying from 14:40 local time. The race begins at 11:00 local time on Sunday.

2022 FIA WEC 6 Hours of Fuji schedule

Friday 9 September 2022
Free Practice 1: 11:00-12:30 local
Free Practice 2:  15:30-17:00 local

Saturday 10 September 2022
Free practice 3: 10:20-11:20 local
Qualifying 1: 14:40-14:50 local
Qualifying 2: 15:00-15:10 local

Sunday 11 September 2022
Race: 11:00-17:00 local