With the FIA WEC’s summer break in the rear-view mirror, the penultimate round of the season this weekend in Japan sees the resumption of the most hotly contested top-class title battle in many years between Toyota and Ferrari’s Hypercar teams.
Currently, in the drivers’ title race, the No. 8 crew of Sebastien Buemi, Brendon Hartley and Ryo Hirakawa lead the standings in Hypercar. The gap between them and the sister No. 7 GR010 and the No. 51 AF Corse Ferrari 499P crews is 23 points, after the No. 7’s victory at Monza. The driver in the second Ferrari, the No. 50, sit fourth, a further seven points adrift.
The gap in the manufacturers’ world championship standings is 26 points with Toyota leading the way.
With just 65 points still up for grabs in the final two races, this weekend’s round at Fuji Speedway is set to be crucial. After Ferrari missed out on a home victory in Monza to follow up its Le Mans triumph, it is vital that the Italian marque make finds a way to close the gap before the eight-hour season finale. The task is mountainous, though, as Toyota has always been strong on home soil at Fuji and is looking to extend its win streak at the venue to six races on Sunday.
Granted, recent seasons with lesser competition since Porsche departed LMP1 have made for an easier ride for the Japanese manufacturer, but it remains the firm favorite even with the increased competition in the top class. This is primarily because the GR010 HYBRID, in addition to being arguably the strongest all-round package in the category, has raced at Fuji before.
No. 7 driver Mike Conway, who along with Jose Maria Lopez and Kamui Kobayashi is looking to make gains on the sister car in the points tally, says the level of expectation and pressure is therefore high on the team. He expects the battle for the win on Sunday to feature multiple teams.
“It’s going to be close between us, Ferrari and Peugeot,” Conway told RACER. “They have a pretty good shot with the way the BoP has worked out.
“Ferrari seemed a bit quicker at Monza, as did Peugeot in straight-line speed. But we have a little more kinetic energy, and Ferrari will run a fraction heavier. But it’s small adjustments. This place is all about the middle of the lap, even if you’re quick in a straight line if you can’t get through the other sectors, with the way the tires wear here, you won’t be strong.
“Since Monza, we’ve done simulator work in Germany ahead of the race to keep us sharp,” he continued. “We’ve been here early, since last week doing factory and partner visits. We’ve seen that there are so many more fans coming to the races, there’s good momentum and it’s a buzz to be here in Japan. There’s big pressure.”
Ferrari has also been hard at work with the end of the season in sight. The team tested at Barcelona over the summer, as it did last year following the 499P’s first rollout at Fiorano. Testing at the Spanish circuit during that time each year “is a tradition we would like to keep,” said Giuliano Salvi, the Ferrari GT and sports race cars race and testing manager, because it represented a good benchmark of the car’s progress over the past 12 months.
“We did almost two weeks of simulator work and we are happy with it,” he said. “Part of our success this season has come from the work of our drivers and engineers who have found a good correlation (between the simulator experience and on-track performance).”
“We split the days between the six drivers, it was very demanding mentally,” added driver Miguel Molina. “Physically it’s not as much of an effort, but mentally it’s a lot — we have to keep stopping, clear our minds, have a coffee and go again.”
While the 499P hasn’t competed or tested at the Fuji Speedway before, Salvi’s expectation is that the car won’t be best suited to the circuit’s layout.
“This is the first time we are facing a circuit we haven’t tested at before,” Salvi noted. “It’s more difficult than normal to have a prediction, as every other circuit we have faced so far we were able to test at before the racing, even Le Mans. We are still beginners. We don’t have a lot of data.
“It shouldn’t be a track that suits us — the layout is tricky and the third sector (which is tight and technical, featuring seven corners) is something we have never experienced in previous races. There are some sections that are similar to Portimao, where we struggled in places compared to the others. So we need to find a way to improve on that sort of section.
“It’s an important race for us, because of the championship. Until the math is against us we will give everything.”
Looking further ahead, Ferrari is also going to make the most of the gap between this weekend’s race and the season finale in November, before shifting its focus to the 2024 season. The team still has seven days of testing left from its pre-defined allocation and intends to use it all. In the Middle East, Salvi said it will use its track time to “replicate the conditions of the race (which runs into darkness) as much as possible.”