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MCNISH: Fuji Debrief

Allan McNish files his latest Sportscar365 column after the wet weekend…

Photo: Audi

Photo: Audi

When I arrived in Japan in the week leading up to Fuji, all I kept seeing were tweets and test day reports from Petit Le Mans. It brought out an element of jealousy, an element of frustration that we didn’t have the opportunity to even come and visit the final Petit Le Mans because of a date clash.

I personally would have loved to be there, even as a pure spectator because I had seen the first one in 1998 and had raced a few since, won four and would dearly have loved to been there and have raced in the final one. That wasn’t to be.

We had our focus on the WEC round in Japan. Obviously from Tom and Loic’s point of views, it was trying to ensure we maintained our advantage in the drivers’ World Championship, as well as from Audi’s point of view to see if there was a possibility of wrapping up the manufacturer’s title.

Last year was very impressive. Obviously with Toyota being on home turf, but also that they own the circuit, there’s a lot of people there that I know from the Formula One days. But there’s a heck of a lot of fans. From 2012, pretty much all predominantly waving Toyota flags.

From our side at Audi this year, it was really cool. Because on Thursday when we arrived into the circuit, there were all these drawings that were on the back of our pit garage window. It was from the local schools. They had done paintings and drawings, all up and down the pit lane, for all of the teams, of Mt. Fuji and racing cars and things.

Then there was probably about 100 school children and their teachers, that dropped by to go down the pit lane and see the cars. It was pretty cool to see the local community getting very involved. You need that little spark sometimes, in a child to get that spark and imagination going. I know it happened to me when I was a little boy.

I’ve got a memory of being at Oulton Park with David Leslie in 1977 when he was racing his Formula Ford. It was just these little things that start people on to careers. I’m sure there will be another generation of Japanese drivers and engineers coming out of that walk on Thursday.

On to the racing side, we had a new chassis for the weekend. It wasn’t for any particular reason except the rotations. This one, our mechanics have called “Harald.” We’ve seen “Harald” before because we raced him in Sebring. He was also our test car for the pre-test at Le Mans.

Unfortunately, Harald’s got a bit of a reputation because at Sebring, I had the traction control problem at the start of first practice. At the Le Mans pre-test, Loic had a problem coming off Tetre Rouge. And in Fuji, three laps into the first session, he got harpooned by a GT car, which spun him off into the barrier.

Three events and three incidents but certainly we were able to get the guys to do a really good job putting the car back together because it was quite heavily damaged. We had to have an engine, gearbox, rear wing, floor, sidepod, radiator all replaced. There was a lot of work that had to be done. But they did a very good job getting back ready for the second Free Practice.

That compromised us quite a lot. We knew there was rain coming but we didn’t know exactly quite how much. We’ve got to be prepare for every eventuality but we now had to get three hours of running basically into 1 hour and 25 minutes, which meant from the driving time, we also had to get everybody up to speed, never mind try to get setup information on the car.

We were able to glean information from our sister car but we do set out the test schedule using both cars. If one’s out of the game then, the other one has to double up or do as much as possible.

I basically ran 10 laps, which was just trying to get a feel for the circuit. That was Friday over for me.

Saturday was an odd one as well because it was drier than expected. We looked to try to run our qualifying simulations right out of the box. We knew Loic and I would be qualifying so straight at 9:30 a.m. when the session started, the first three laps were my qualifying simulation.

I was all ready to go! We went into qualifying not necessarily with the car balance we wanted. Honestly, it was a pretty scruffy session. We didn’t get the right feel for the car. We struggled to find the grip. I had quite a bit of traffic, but some of it we could have avoided ourselves, within the team.

We qualified fourth, which ultimately we were a bit frustrated about, more than disappointed about. Our sister car got pole, which was great news in terms of an Audi at the front.

Then we just waited to see what the weather would do for Sunday.

But Sunday was torrential. Petit Le Mans 2009, that seemed like a beach holiday in comparison. From the moment I woke up at 6:30 a.m., it was raining all the way through until I arrived in Tokyo at about midnight on Sunday night.

It was heavy, heavy rain at times, where the circuit just flooded instantly. Going to the grid, I think three or four cars went off and we had to start behind the safety car, no question about it.

They were correct to stop because Loic, by this point, who was starting the race, was second in the queue and couldn’t see a thing. Could you have imagined if you were 15th? And they were doing 60 mph.

It would have been a complete lottery who finished and were you’d finish. It wouldn’t have been possible for it to be a race in reality.

After a lot of waiting, another restart, another heavy downpour and looking at the weather forecast, ultimately the race director made the correct, logical and safe solution to call the race.

It was frustrating for everybody, there was no question because we went there to fight. We went there to have a real battle and it was so, so close between us and Toyota. In all sessions, it was basically a tenth of a second in either way.

Ultimately, it wasn’t to be. I don’t think there’s anybody that’s got the wider view of the sport and safety in mind that wouldn’t agree with the decisions. I do think they did the only thing that was right, to call the race.

From the championship point of view, it moved things forward a little bit because there’s one less race to go. With China and Bahrain only to go, there’s a lot of drivers that have got the feeling and energy and will be pushing like mad to release all of that extra energy we stored up through the Fuji race.

I look forward to the next round of the WEC. Really for me, the true superstars and the true people that showed their metal through this whole Six Hours of Fuji were the fans. The Japanese fans were superb. They stood out there, had little parties and were cooking underneath flags they had gotten.

There was one little Japanese lady who was there all of the time with her little Scottish flag. She was drenched. When I came back from the podium ceremony, she was standing around the back of the garage. You just think, ‘Crikey, you sat out there for seven or eight hours.’ That is real, real support.

For all of the Japanese fans, I thank you from the bottom of my heart for the support you gave all of us in the pit lane, and also for the race direction, for keeping us all safe.

Allan McNish (@allanmcnish) is a three-time Le Mans winner and 2013 FIA World Endurance champion, driving for Audi Sport Team Joest. The rapid Scot is also a former American Le Mans Series champion.

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