Toyota resists Porsche pressure to take Fuji 1-2

Toyota Gazoo Racing scored a memorable 1-2 finish on home soil and secured the FIA WEC Hypercar Manufacturers’ World Championship in the FIA WEC 6 Hours of Fuji. Its No. 7 GR010 of Kamui Kobayashi, Mike Conway and Jose Maria Lopez led home the sister No. 8 car after a lengthy battle with the No. 6 Porsche Penske Motorsport 963 during the race.

A front-row lockout, a 1-2 finish and a title win suggests a simple day’s work at first glance, but this was far from a walk in the park. The No. 6 Porsche Penske 963 of Laurens Vanthoor, Kevin Estre and Andre Lotterer led more than half of the race and forced Toyota to work hard in its pursuit of a fifth victory in 2023 and a sixth consecutive victory at Fuji.

In the end, Toyota had enough pace and consistency with both of its cars to create a comfortable margin by the end of the race, but this was still a hugely encouraging day for Porsche and for the LMDh platform in the WEC. Vanthoor and later Estre demonstrated that the 963 is capable of fighting for wins in this company in what was the Penske-run team’s most convincing performance, by some distance.

Porsche’s Vanthoor takes the lead from the Toyotas at the start. Motorsport Images


Vanthoor laid the foundations for a thrilling first half to the race when he took the lead from Mike Conway into Turn 1, with a daring move up the inside at the start. It was a messy run through the hairpin for much of the Hypercar field, with many cars taking evasive action and driving off the track.

The No. 6 took control while both Toyotas ran wide and fell back down the order, behind the two Ferrari 499Ps. For Conway in the No. 7, the task quickly switched from building a lead from pole, to fighting back through the field.

Before the end of the opening hour the fightback was well underway and he found himself up to second after making moves on the No. 51 Ferrari of James Calado and No. 50 of Miguel Molina, leaving him just one more move to make. But Vanthoor had created a healthy 16-second gap and had the pace to go toe-to-toe with the Briton, who eventually handed over to Jose Maria Lopez to finish the job.

The race for the lead came alive towards the halfway mark after Lopez reeled in Kevin Estre, who took the wheel of the No. 6 after Vanthoor. The Argentinian tried everything, yet couldn’t find a way through and was eventually caught by the recovering No. 8 Toyota, then piloted by Ryo Hirakawa, who in the space of a few minutes made a move on Lopez for second and then Estre for the lead at Turn 10 just before the fourth set of stops.

Once that move was made it effectively ended Porsche’s chances of victory, as Lotterer emerged from the pits down to third. There was one final twist though, as the No. 8 dropped to second behind the No. 7 at Turn 1, the team ordering Brendon Hartley to let Kamui Kobayashi through with the final hour approaching.

The 1-2 finish, with the No. 7 coming home first for a fourth time this season, has had significant repercussions for the title battles. Toyota claimed the manufacturers’ title for a fifth season in a row after Ferrari AF Corse’s 499Ps failed to finish on the podium.

“I need to congratulate everyone back in Cologne and here in Japan,” Lopez said. “There are so many people behind this project, and we must thank them for making this result. I knew we had the car to do it.”

“I hope this gets a lot more people looking at our championship, that’s what I am looking for,” Kobayashi added.

The drivers’ title isn’t yet settled, though as Kobayashi, Conway and Lopez closed the gap on the No. 8 crew heading into the finale. Hartley, Hirakawa and Sebastien Buemi sit on 133 points while today’s race winners now have 118. Ferrari’s Le Mans winners in the No. 51 are third with 108.

Heading into the race, much of the talk centered around whether or not Ferrari could snatch a home win from Toyota after it failed to achieve the same feat at Monza, and how much of an impact Peugeot could make on its second trip to Japan with the 9X8, following its head-turning podium in Italy.

But it was Porsche that would prove to be the disruptor and a surprise package, claiming a second podium of the season, but in far more convincing fashion than at Portimao. Ferrari and Peugeot meanwhile, had equally forgettable races.

Off the podium, the two 499Ps finished fourth and fifth, with the No. 50 ahead of the No. 51. The cars started strongly but quickly faded. Ferrari’s lack of experience showed today. For the first time this season, it headed into the race with no prior testing at the circuit and simply didn’t have the pace.

The drivers reported issues with grip. Miguel Molina explained that the team started the No. 50 on the hard tyre on each corner, before making a gamble with running the mediums on the left side after the first stops. It didn’t work either and in the end neither Ferrari finished on the lead lap.

What about Peugeot? The team headed into the race weekend with confidence that it could make an impact after its performances at Le Mans and Monza, but neither 9X8 had the pace to feature and finished seventh and eighth.

The remaining four LMDh cars in the field were also unable to make the top five, with various incidents and issues proving costly.

The sister Porsche Penske 963 had a torrid time, with a puncture on the opening lap (after being hit), a penalty and a power steering issue. The Proton example, which was brand-new for this weekend, also hit trouble with a seatbelt failure that caused two trips to the garage. Hertz Team JOTA had a better outing and finished sixth, but had to serve a penalty for hitting the team’s LMP2 car.

Cadillac’s V-Series.R, meanwhile, finished 10th, its biggest delay coming late in the race when Earl Bamber had to limp back to the pits after the front-left wheel became detached.

In LMP2, WRT came seconds from scoring a 1-2 finish, after a race-long duel with United Autosports’ ORECAs. The No. 41 crew of Robert Kubica, Louis Deletraz and Rui Andrade came alive in the second half of the race, recovering well from contact with the No. 23 United ORECA early in the race that dropped it outside the top five in the opening hour.

Rui Andrade, Robert Kubica, and Louis Delétraz took a comfortable LMP2 win. Motorsport Images.

In the end, though, Robert Kubica would steer the No. 41 home with a 16-second gap to the No. 22 United Autosports ORECA of Filipe Albuquerque that was involved in a door-to-door scrap with the No. 31 WRT ORECA in the final few laps.

“In the last 90 minutes we got undercut by the No. 23 but I knew they had to fuel save, I managed to take the lead, create a gap and bring it home,” Kubica said. “This was really important for the championship, as Inter Europol didn’t score a lot of points and we finished in front of the No. 22.”

Robin Frijns, who briefly took second from Albuquerque, would have to settle for third (the crew’s first podium of the year) in the No. 31 after their tussle through traffic.

The No. 23 United Autosports ORECA ended up finishing fourth, ahead of the No. 36 Alpine that finished fifth.

WRT’s No. 41 trio haven’t quite won the title with their second win of the season, but they head to the finale in firm control. They have 135 points, while Inter Europol’s drivers have 102 after a disappointing ninth-place finish and the No. 22’s full-season drivers, Frederick Lubin and Phil Hanson, are a further point back on 101.

“The strategy was to have a clean race and score as many points as possible. We lost a bit with the contact at the start, but we got there in the end,” added Deletraz.

Thomas Flohr, Francesco Castellacci and Davide Rigon emerge triumphant in a wild GTE Am battle at Fuji. Motorsport Images

GTE Am was another thriller, with twists and turns all the way to the end. The No. 54 AF Corse Ferrari of Davide Rigon, Francesco Castellacci and Thomas Flohr took their first win of the season, finishing 19 seconds clear of the No. 57 Kessel Racing Ferrari that made it a 1-2 for the Italian manufacturer with its best finish of the season.

“Fuji brings us a lot of luck (after the No. 54 crew won Am previously in 2017). There was a big scare when I was hit by the Corvette, but my past rally experience allowed me to miss the wall. If we are put down, we fight harder and that’s the spirit of the team,” said a delighted Thomas Flohr.

The result would change after the flag, though, as the No. 57 Ferrari received a post-race 10-second time penalty because Ritomo Miyata “didn’t reduce speed to 80 kph within the required time under FCY” during the race. This promoted the No. 33 Corvette Racing C8.R to second place, adding to what was a rollercoaster race for Ben Keating, Nico Varrone and Nicky Catsburg.

Had the No. 33 not ended up serving two costly penalties — one for the aforementioned contact with the winning No. 54 Ferrari into Turn 10 — and another for forcing the GR Racing Porsche off track, Corvette would surely have scored its fourth win of the season. The fuel-saving strategy the team attempted to employ was simply staggering, Ben Keating in the opening stints of the race tasked with trying to limit the car to four pit stops.

“I am a right-foot braker,” Keating said to WEC TV after his stint. “Because I only use my right foot on the pedals, I use a lot less fuel. Turn 1 is downhill, Turn 3 is downhill, and you can save without losing much lap time. They gave me a target to hit.”

But his swipe on Thomas Flohr, which sent the Swiss off track and onto the grass would force the team in for both a door change at a regular stop and a 30-second stop and hold.

After the penalties were served, Nico Varrone fought hard to claw back the lost time and put the car back into contention before Catsburg’s stint. The second penalty put the final nail in the coffin though, dropping the car to third late in the race, with a margin to the cars ahead that Catsburg was unable to make up before the end of the race.

The penalty for Kessel dropped its Ferrari to fourth. Further back the No. 85 Iron Dames Porsche, which was in the mix throughout ended up finishing fourth, ahead of the Project 1 AO 911 RSR 19. The best of the Aston Martins, the No. 98 Northwest AMR Vantage, ended up seventh, behind the No. 77 Dempsey Proton Porsche.

Next up is the final race of the 2023 FIA WEC season, which is set to be held on November 4 in Bahrain.


Story originally appeared on Racer