It's the six hours of Fuji this weekend, and with two Toyota TS030 Hybrids up against two Audi R18 e-tron quattros, this will be as close to a stand-alone race as we will have in the World Endurance Championship outside France. Make no mistake, it is very, very important indeed for Toyota to win this one, but just how likely is it?
Rather late, I've begun my homework, and have been trying to figure out what we might expect to see in Japan, based on what we have seen so far this year. Certainly, it would be a surprise if the Audis were not quicker over a single lap, not only in the race, but also in qualifying. So expect another front row lock-out for championship leaders: in which order, I wouldn't like to say, as a vital championship point is a stake, and there is a real fight between the two Audi teams going into the final three rounds of the championship.
My prediction? A four-lap average for the better of the two Audis of 1m 26.2s, whereas Toyota will be more like 1m 26.9s, I think.
But what of the race? Here's where looking at the season so far is not as much help as you'd like it to be. Le Mans is very much a special case, so can't really be used as a guide to other races. Interlagos saw the only Toyota out of the race before the end of the first stint, which only leaves Austin, Texas, as a basis for predictions. And even there, the Toyota had a problem picking up all the fuel in the tank, so the stints there were shorter than they should have been.
I expect Toyota to be able to run for 37 laps at Fuji, compared with 34 for Audi. Actually, I think that Audi might only manage 33 laps on a tankful, but that will depend a little on the lap times that they do. My projection is that they will expect to do average lap times of 1m 28.1s. The problem with that is that they will then end up five minutes from the end of the race, needing to make one more stop for fuel, unless the safety car makes an appearance at some point, and slows the pace.
Toyota should have no difficulty in completing the race on six stops. The trouble is, of course, that they seem to struggle to match the pace of Audi. I expect the average lap time to be around half-a-second slower. This is just enough, given that extra pit-stop, to put them on the same lap as Audi at the end of the race, but 15 seconds adrift after what my projection says will be 295 laps of racing.
Now, if you're paying attention, you'll notice that I've made three crucial assumptions here:
(1) that the race is dry throughout;
(2) that there will be no safety car periods;
(3) that neither Audi nor Toyota will be able to double-stint the tyres.
Taking these one at a time:
(1) the long-range forecast that I have seen suggests heavy rain for Sunday, so it may well be a case of who is better able to adapt to the conditions - and you can consign the foregoing to the dustbin.
(2) it is probably safer to assume that a safety car will appear at some point - in which case, it will be a matter of timing, who gets the benefit. Statistically, since Toyota will be behind Audi (probably) more of the time than they will be ahead, it is more likely to benefit Toyota than Audi, since the safety car will bunch up the field; but in either case the reduced pace will benefit Audi more than Toyota, because it will remove the need for that extra stop.
(3) at Austin, the Toyota was easier on its tyres than Audi, but Fuji's track surface leads to a higher wear rate, so perhaps this assumption is the least unreasonable.
The top brass at Toyota did not expect to have been so comprehensively beaten by Audi thus far this year, and a good showing on home turf is essential to everyone involved in the Japanese manufacturer's efforts. Although budgets for 2014 will have already been allocated, senior managers will want to be confident that their investment is sound. This weekend's race is Toyota's best opportunity to demonstrate the fact.