On Friday, on-track activity for the FIA World Endurance Championship got underway at Fuji Speedway in Japan. As you can tell from the picture above, it was a bit dicey at times. Porsche LMP Team’s André Lotterer was fastest overall, lapping the 2.8403-mile road course in 95.527 seconds (107.039 mph).
Free Practice No. 1
Lotterer’s time from the slightly less moist opening session held up to be the fastest lap of the day. The time was a little more than one-eighth of a second faster than Earl Bamber in the No. 2 Porsche 919 Hybrid. Bamber, like Lotterer’s teammate Nick Tandy, traveled directly to Japan from Atlanta, where they competed in last weekend’s Motul Petit Le Mans.
In LMP2, Jackie Chan DC Racing’s Alex Brundle was fastest overall with a lap of 102.735 seconds (99.529 mph). The lap was nearly a half-second faster than TDS Racing’s Matthieu Vaxiviere. Ho-Pin Tung was third quickest in the No. 38 Jackie Chan DC Racing ORECA 07-Gibson, followed by Ben Hanley in CEFC Manor TRS Racing’s No. 24. Gustavo Menezes, fresh off of an impressive showing at Road Atlanta, was fifth quickest for Signatech Alpine Matmut.
GTE-Pro saw the Porsches show that moving the engine forward doesn’t affect their form in the wet. It was a Porsche GT Team one-two in the first session with the No. 92 of Motul Petit Le Mans GT Daytona runner-up Michael Christensen on top with a lap of 107.365 seconds (95.237 mph). That lap was a quarter of a second faster than teammate Richard Lietz in the No. 91 Porsche. AF Corse’s Davide Rigon was just one-hundredth of a second slower than Lietz in third. Alessandro Pier Guidi was fourth fastest in the No. 51 Ferrari, while Ford Chip Ganassi Racing UK’s Stefan Mücke was fifth quickest.
In GTE-Am, Miguel Molina turned in a lap at 107.655 seconds (94.980 mph) in his Ferrari 488 GTE to top the slower GTE class. The lap was fourth fastest of all the GTE cars on-site.
Molina’s lap was nearly six-tenths of a second faster than Clearwater Racing’s Matt Griffin in a similar Ferrari. Dempsey-Proton Racing’s Matteo Cairoli was third fastest in his Porsche, nearly 1.4 seconds off of Molina’s pace.
There were no red flags in the opening practice session. However, there were a series of off-course excursions that are somewhat typical of a wet racing surface.
Free Practice No. 2
As Friday wound on in Fuji, the rains picked up in intensity. As a result, the times slowed down significantly. Lopez was fastest overall in the second practice session, but his time of 99.202 seconds (103.073 mph) was nearly three seconds slower than what he turned in the opening session.
Lopez’s time was 1.321 seconds faster than Porsche LMP Team’s Neel Jani in second. Kazuki Nakajima in the No. 8 Toyota was another nine-tenths back in third, followed by Timo Bernhard in the No. 2 Porsche.
LMP2 saw Thomas Laurent take Jackie Chan DC Racing’s No. 38 to the top of the class with a lap of 107.437 seconds (95.173 mph). That lap was eight-hundredths of a second faster than Valliante REBELLION’s No. 31 for Bruno Senna. Vitaly Petrov in the No. 25 Manor entry was third fastest, but his session was overshadowed by a big crash. Petrov spun the No. 25 into the tire barriers, forcing a 43-minute red flag for barrier repair. Petrov was able to drive his car back to the pits, but it took no further part in the session.
GTE-Pro saw Ford Chip Ganassi Racing UK’s Olivier Pla break the Porsche claim to the top of the speed chart. Pla’s lap of 112.658 seconds (90.762 mph) was half a tenth of a second faster than Porsche GT Team’s No. 91 for Frédéric Makowiecki. Kevin Estre was third quickest in the second Porsche, followed by Andy Priaulx in the No. 67 Ford GT. James Calado was fifth quickest in the No. 51 Ferrari.
Keita Sawa, the only GTE driver to sit out Free Practice No. 1, was fastest in GTE-Am in the wetter second session. Sawa’s lap of 113.381 seconds (90.183 mph) in the Clearwater Racing Ferrari was the fourth fastest GTE lap of the session. However, it was also only 26-thousandths of a second faster than Spirit of Race’s Francesco Castellacci. Ben Barker was third in class in the Gulf Racing UK Porsche, more than two seconds off of Sawa and Castellacci.
All 26 cars entered turned in laps during the sopping wet Free Practice No. 2. However, only 30 drivers ventured onto the circuit. Ford Chip Ganassi Racing UK’s No. 66 turned in the most laps in the session with 16, but only four other teams ran more than nine laps.
The rain is forecast to hang out Fuji Speedway for the whole weekend. Historically, rain has be a problem at the circuit. The first Formula One race held at Fuji in 1976 occurred in rain heavy enough that Niki Lauda chose to pull in and retire voluntarily due to the conditions. That decision more or less gave the World Championship to James Hunt. The 2007 Grand Prix of Japan had the first 19 laps run under the safety car because of heavy rains. Finally, the 2013 6 Hours of Fuji never had a lap under green before the race was flagged complete after 16 laps due to heavy rain. Half-points were awarded as a result.
Teams have one more practice session, Free Practice No. 3, scheduled for 10:30 a.m. local time Saturday morning (9:30 p.m. EDT Friday night). Qualifying is scheduled for 1:30 a.m. EDT Saturday morning.