The World Endurance Championship reconvenes at Fuji International Speedway this weekend, and according to the meteorologists, the weather is set fair for the whole of the weekend. Some sunny spells, temperatures in the high teens or low twenties; but importantly, no rain. Bear in mind though that these are the same meteorologists that suggested that the 6 hours of the Circuit of the Americas would also be dry... weather forecasting was never an exact science.
But after last weekend’s formula 1 race at Suzuka, and last year’s washout at Fuji’s WEC round, the Japanese fans deserve a dry race, and as rain has affected so much of the WEC season thus far, it would be good to have six hours of uninterrupted racing on Sunday.
And if we do have an uninterrupted, dry race on Sunday, then surely Sébastien Buemi and Anthony Davidson will be rubbing their hands together in glee. They currently hold (along with Nicolas Lapierre) an eleven point advantage in the drivers championship, but they know that it is the eighteen point deficit in the Manufacturers’ championship that their Japanese employers are particularly concerned about. They also know that, in the Austin race, Buemi enjoyed a very handy advantage indeed in his TS-040 Hybrid. Looking at the average lap times from the first hour and the last two hours of the race alone reveals that the Swiss driver was substantially quicker than anyone else.
In the first 42 laps, each of Buemi’s best 10 laps was, on average, more than 1.4s quicker than the best of his rivals (Lotterer in the Audi). And in the final 64 laps, each of his best 15 laps was still more than half a second quicker (although this time it was Lucas di Grassi that was best of the rest). During both of these periods the track was fully dry, and conditions were pretty much ideal for fast lap times. If a similar superiority can be achieved in similar conditions in Fuji, then neither Audi nor Porsche are going to be able to keep up. And surely Davidson will not allow himself to be slower that Buemi. There are advantages to two driver teams in a six hour race - drivers tend to stay more focussed - and provided both are on form, I think ‘Sebant’ will be tough to beat on Toyota’s home ground.
In Austin, both Toyotas made three driver changes, whereas both Audis changed only twice, so that each driver only had one stint at the wheel. This certainly didn’t make the difference between winning and losing, but is just another example of Audi's habit of optimising every little detail, so that when an opportunity presents itself, as it did in Texas, the team has the best chance of turning that opportunity to its advantage.
Austin showed that the Toyotas are not only quick on the track though, but they have better fuel consumption than Audi too. Neither of the Audis could manage more than 29 laps on a tank of diesel, whereas both Toyota and Porsche demonstrated that they could run 30 laps. At Suzuka, that means that Toyota and Porsche will be able to manage at least 35 laps, enough to get by on just six stops for the race. Audi may be able to conserve the tyres more than their competitors, but will still have to make an extra stop for fuel, by my reckoning.
In the GT class, Ferrari and Aston Martin seem to have the current BoP advantage over the Porsches, although it is interesting that only AF Corse has all Platinum-graded drivers in its two crews. Having said that, for my money Olaf Manthey has the strongest line-up in its two Porsches, whereas at Aston Martin, there is really only one car capable of challenging for class honours.
In Austin, Toni Vilander was slightly off the pace of Gianmaria Bruni - possibly because of the conditions not being ideal whenever he was in the car, but even Gimmi was not able to match the average lap times of Darren Turner and Stefan Mücke in the no. 97 Aston. However, it will not have gone unnoticed that the AF Corse team was able to turn their 458 Italia round much more quickly in the pits than the Vantage. At the end of the day, I believe that the advantage rests with Aston Martin Racing, but they have to sharpen up in every area in order to catch their rivals in the championship points standings. In the GTE-Am class, AMR is ahead: due as much as anything to its professionalism; in the PRO class, small things have caught the team out. It is not a question of outright speed, but dealing with the challenges of endurance racing: be that the changing weather conditions, mechanical reliability or efficiency in the pits.
If some of those variables can be removed in this weekend's round in Japan, then indeed, conditions might align themselves for Toyota and for Aston Martin. Will it happen that way? We’ll have to watch it and see!