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Toyota locks out front row at home

Toyota Gazoo Racing has locked out the front row for its home FIA WEC race at the Fuji Speedway tomorrow, after a dominant performance in Qualifying this afternoon.

The No. 7 GR010 HYBRID will lead the field across the start line tomorrow from pole position, after a 1m27.794 from Kamui Kobayashi. The Japanese ace was the only driver to set a time under 1m28 in the session, which was affected by a late rain shower that prevented any improvements in the final few minutes.

“We know this circuit well, I know how to build the temperature in the tyres. It’s critical. I made a pretty good lap, the car felt pretty good after practice. I was not expecting this lap time, I was shocked. Tomorrow we hope for sunshine,” Kobayashi said after the session.

Brendon Hartley was entrusted with the task of qualifying the No. 8, and managed to set a 1m28.418 to make it an all-Toyota front-row for Sunday’s six-hour race, in which Toyota is looking to score its fifth win in six races this season and extend its win streak on home soil.

Behind, Porsche Penske enjoyed its strongest qualifying performance of the season to secure third and fourth on the grid. The faster of the two 963 LMDh-spec prototypes was the No. 6 of Kevin Estre, who got within nine-tenths of pole with a 1m28.687. Fred Makowiecki’s set a 1m28.717 in the No. 5.

It was a tough session for Toyota’s main title rival Ferrari, which ended up claiming sixth and seventh on the grid, behind the Cadillac Racing V-Series.R, meaning both LMH 499Ps set times slower than all three factory LMDh cars. The faster of the two was the Le Mans-winning No. 51, which was over a second off pole after a 1m28.991 from James Calado.

“It was a surprise honestly,” Calado said in reaction to the Qualifying result. “I expected a little better than that, but we knew going into this weekend that we were at a slight disadvantage compared to Monza. It’s still disappointing.
 
“I did get compromised on my first lap in the last sector. But I don’t think we could compete with the Toyotas on lap time, it was a magical lap from Kamui (Kobayashi), so congratulations to them.

“Tomorrow will be difficult, degradation is high, but we will see what we can do with strategy.”

For Peugeot, it was a disappointing run too. Its 9X8s, which have prior experience here from the team’s maiden WEC season last year, could only manage 10th and 11th after struggling to find outright performance in the mixed conditions.

LMP2 saw a hugely impressive performance from Phil Hanson score the class pole for United Autosports and its No. 22 ORECA. This was also his first WEC pole from behind the wheel.

The Briton bettered WRT driver Louis Deletraz’s best time by less than a tenth, forcing him and his teammates in the No. 41 ORECA to settle for second on the grid.

Adding to United Autosports’ strong performance was Oliver Jarvis’ 1m32.453 to put the No. 23 third.

“Really happy with pole position today, especially at Fuji where we haven’t been the strongest in the past,” Hanson said. “So to come here and be as competitive as we have been, and ultimately to put it on pole … and for me to be the one who did it … I’m incredibly grateful and very happy with the job I’ve done.

“I’ve got confidence in the car for tomorrow but with all the mixed conditions and lack of long running, I think there’s going to be a bit of learning. But I think we’ve got a good package, and starting from pole is the first piece of the puzzle to the ultimate reward at the end, which is our only goal and ambition tomorrow.”

JOTA’s ORECA ended up fourth, with the Le Mans-winning No. 34 Inter Europol example fifth.

In GTE Am, Ben Keating secured his third pole position of the 2023 season in the No. 33 title-winning Corvette Racing C8.R, with a 1m38.338 with just over four minutes remaining in the first of the three sessions.

Am Qualifying saw multiple cars briefly claim provisional pole, as the times steadily improved across the board when the drivers got used to the grip levels available on the greasy track surface. But again it would be Keating who would steal the show, with a lap that seemingly came out of nowhere, especially as Corvette hadn’t laid down any markers during practice.

The time bettered the best tour from Iron Dames’ Sarah Bovy by just 0.035, which was good enough for provisional pole for a handful of seconds before the Texan completed his best lap.

“I don’t know why (race engineer) Tyler Neff has to wait until qualifying to give us the really good setup!” said Keating. “I went more than two seconds per lap faster in qualifying today than I have at any other time this weekend. It’s because the setup is that much better. It was so confidence-inspiring. I could really push the car without losing grip, even on a damp track.

“I don’t know what they did, but the car was really nice to drive. I wasn’t expecting to be on the pole. It’s always so much fun to be that close with Sarah. She did a good job. I thought I had a pretty good lap and then the team said she did a 1:38.3, and I came across the line at a 38.3 and not knowing who was going to be in front. It was super, super close.”

Behind the Corvette C8.R and Iron Dames Porsche, the No. 777 D’Station Racing and No. 98 Northwest AMR Aston Martins took the spots on the second row, with the fastest Ferrari – the No. 21 from AF Corse – securing fifth on the grid after a strong performance from Hiroshi Koizumi.

Tomorrow’s 6 Hours of Fuji is set to get underway at 11:00 local time in Japan.

Story originally appeared on Racer