I always love racing in Japan and this year certainly didn’t disappoint!
Aside from it being one of my favorite countries in the world, with undoubtedly the best fans in the world, it’s also a place I had the pleasure to call home during my 2007 season in Japanese Formula 3 as well as racing in the Super GT500 championship in 2014.
Coming from Austin where we had a clear pace advantage over both Porsche and Toyota, we knew life would be much more difficult in Fuji and even after the 3 practice sessions there still wasn’t a clear pecking order ahead of qualifying.
However, I don’t think anybody could have predicted just how close it would be with our car managing to grab pole by a mere 0.025 seconds.
More impressive was how close the three manufacturers were with Audi and Porsche on the front row but with Toyota locking out row two and having set the quickest lap of the qualifying.
I took the start of the race and with a long drag to Turn 1 I was conscious that it would be very tough to keep the Porsche and Toyotas behind but I timed my start to perfection managing to get a jump on Mark Webber into Turn 1 and then set about pulling a gap.
Before the end of the 1st stint, Kobayashi in the No. 6 Toyota had passed Mark but I was able to maintain a gap ofs seven seconds before the first pit stops. Pitting from the lead we decided to change to our qually (used) tires and for me to stay in the car.
After a good pit stop I exited the pits knowing that with a good pit stop and the gap we had it should be enough to stay ahead of the No. 6 when they pitted a few laps later.
Unfortunately, I had re-joined the race in the worst traffic possible. That meant as I came down the start finish straight, I could see the No. 6 car exiting the pits ahead. I entered Turn 1 right behind and knew that my best chance to overtake would be immediately so I dived down the inside into Turn 3.
After regaining the lead, I set about again trying to open up a gap this time to Mike Conway in the No. 6 Toyota. It felt like our British F3 days all over again! By the end of my second stint the gap was around 5secs as I pitted to hand over the car to Lucas.
For the next 3.5 hours it continued with us in No. 8 car pushing flat out trying to maintain and even increase the gap to the chasing Toyota and Porsche with the lead varying from as little as a few seconds but very rarely more than 10 as our competitors kept us in their sights.
We knew it was important to try and build a gap as with the fuel capacity advantage our competitors have it means that they are able to run a few laps longer each stint and therefore they have to fill a lot less at their last pit stop as they have a much shorter stint to the finish.
With Loïc now in the car and due to run to the end with little over one stint remaining it was looking as if the biggest threat for the race win might come from the Porsche as we had a 10-second advantage over the No. 6 Toyota and they were due to make their last pit stop only a lap later than ourselves due to cutting a previous stint short.
Whilst the Porsche could run significantly longer making their last fill much shorter. We also considered that because of their much shorter stint to the finish they might take a gamble and not change tire in order to jump us on track and gain track position.
As it happened it was the Toyota that in fact did this meaning they emerged from the pits 13seconds ahead after we had both made our final stops.
Even though they were in the lead with 45 minutes to the end I was confident that we would comfortably catch them before the finish as all the information from the tests suggested that the tyre performance would significantly drop in the double stint.
With Porsche having elected to also change tires like ourselves and returning to track just behind us it was a straight fight to the finish. With new tires Loïc quickly set about reducing the gap to Kobayashi in the No. 6 Toyota and it was looking as if we would catch them comfortably before the end of the race.
However, some unfortunate traffic on our side and the fact that Kobayashi was setting some sensational times on 50 lap old tires meant the gap had stabilized at 8seconds with time fast running out.
With five laps to go and us having lost the peak of the new tires it looked as if Toyota would take a comfortable win but then in the next four laps we gained considerably to cross the line of the last lap less than 2 seconds behind to set up a grand stand finish.
At this point I thought that the Toyota’s tires had fallen of a cliff and that the win was still possible especially with traffic ahead before the end of the lap. As it was Toyota did enough to take the lead by the narrowest ever WEC margin.
We were gutted once again to not take the victory but full credit to Toyota on a perfect race!
After Le Mans I don’t think anyone would begrudge them victory at their home race. With the performance of the No. 2 Porsche there’s still hope for the Championship but we need to win both the remaining races.