Following my FIA World Endurance Championship debut last month at Circuit of The Americas in Austin, Texas, I was really hopeful that I would have another opportunity to drive with 8Star Motorsports and AF Corse before the end of the season.
In Texas, we had a disappointing result that really didn’t reflect our pace or potential as a team. In my experience, the best way to put these types of disappointments behind you is to come out swinging at the next event, so I was really excited when the call came to rejoin the team for the FIA WEC round at Fuji Speedway, in Japan.
The first order of business prior to taking off for Fuji was to learn as much as I could about the circuit itself. The team is very helpful in supplying data and video from prior years, but there is only so much you can learn from this type of information without actually driving the track for yourself.
I’ve raced for quite a while on all of the circuits across North America, and one of the things that I find the most attractive about the FIA WEC is that the calendar is filled with new challenges and new experiences all around the globe.
My preparation for Fuji suggested that it was a pretty straightforward track to learn—a good mix of low speed and medium speed corners, lots of elevation changes, long straightaways, but no single corner really stood out. The team had advised that they struggled to make the tires work correctly at Fuji the year prior, but everyone felt confident that this would be rectified with different Michelin tire compounds available to us this year.
Cautiously optimistic would have best described my mindset heading into the weekend, then. I flew to Japan early in the week to allow plenty of time to adjust to the time change and recover from the flights, as well as to be sure that I could walk around the circuit prior to practice. It is an incredibly long journey to Japan, and recovering from this was definitely more of a challenge than I had anticipated!
The first day in Fuji, I was wide awake at 5 a.m. and ready to go… Thank you very much, jetlag! I arrived at the circuit and walked around the track, and immediately I could see that the layout is a bit trickier than I had expected.
The elevation changes are more dramatic than any video can capture, and each corner has at least some type of subtle camber change mid-corner, which usually makes car setup really difficult to perfect. The third sector of the track looked particularly challenging, with an emphasis on precision and car-placement rather than on attacking the corners.
As soon as we started Free Practice, we knew we were in for an uphill battle. Our car was very nervous at the rear-end, and the rear tires seemed to fall-off dramatically very early in a stint. We struggled to keep the rear stable under braking, and as well to have any traction at all on the exit of the corners.
Sometimes you can make driving adjustments to suit the weaknesses of the car, but when you are weak on entry and also at the exit of the corners, you don’t really have much to work with.
Through the other Free Practice sessions, it was clear that we were not the only ones struggling to match the setup to the track conditions. Usually the LMP1 cars look pretty well planted and solid on-track, but even they were fighting fistfuls of snap-oversteer through the final sequence of corners. Not always much fun for a driver, but definitely exciting to watch from the side of the track!
We threw a bunch of changes at the car to try and make the rear-end work a bit better, and by the time we had finished with the final Free Practice session we were second place amongst GTE-Am competitors and feeling better about our chances, even if the car was still quite challenging to drive.
It was interesting to see people having similar issues to us at various points in the weekend as the weather changed and track conditions evolved, and I think the window for the setup to make the tires work well at Fuji was much smaller than usual.
One word comes to mind to describe our Qualifying session: DISASTROUS! All of the improvements that I thought we had made to tire-life and rear grip were suddenly nowhere to be found, and it was a real struggle to even match the pace I had done on much older tires earlier in the day.
It seemed like the conditions had changed a bit, and our car was not happy at all—in fact, nobody on the team was happy, as we qualified last in our class! It wasn’t the qualifying result we had expected, and it certainly wasn’t where we should have been.
The great thing about this team is that despite the qualifying result, nobody gave up. We spent a lot of time analyzing the data, trying to understand what had gone wrong and where we might improve for the race.
It isn’t easy to put a bad qualifying behind you, especially when there isn’t a morning warm-up to validate any changes, but the team seemed confident that we would have a better car for the race, and that helped a lot.
The team’s confidence seemed well-founded, as my co-drivers Paolo Ruberti and Gianluca Roda were able to take the car from last on the grid to third in class in the opening hours of the race, with both drivers reporting that the car was the best it had been all weekend, and that we were genuinely back in business.
The good news was short-lived, though, as just one-lap before Gianluca was going to pit and hand the car to me for my first stint, he reported a loud bang and a total loss of drive—a broken axle the likely culprit, and unfortunately he had to retire the car at the side of the track.
So, another weekend where the result doesn’t represent the effort that the team put in, nor does it show the strong potential we had to get to the podium at Fuji.
It really stings a bit more for everyone on the team to travel all the way to Japan and suffer this kind of heartbreak during the race, but now I think we’re all even more determined to come out swinging at the next one…