My first trip to Fuji was one to remember. The culture, history and passion was everywhere throughout Japan and you could feel the energy all weekend at Fuji Speedway.
Two weeks ago, the motorsport community lost a good friend and a friend that was very close with the Larbre team. Kaneko-san had been serving as translator for our teammate Yutaka Yamagishi over the past few races as well as his other managerial duties.
Kaneko passed away shortly after the Austin race weekend and this weekend the team was racing for him.
This was my first time to Japan but fortunately both of my teammates had raced in Fuji multiple times so they were able to pass along their knowledge to me leading up to first practice.
We proved to be quite competitive throughout all of the practice sessions and Yutaka was especially having a strong weekend performance at his home race.
Our engineer Charlie worked through his test plan over the three sessions and we continued to make the car better. With how strong our car was and considering Yutaka’s strong showing through practice we felt like we could fight in the top two in qualifying.
In WEC, qualifying takes the average of the fastest lap between the Bronze driver and Gold/Platinum driver.
We had a very strong car in qualifying and only had enough time to do three timed laps each, which meant the tires would probably only be at their peak for one or two.
During my run I did the second best lap on my second timed lap and was up on my lap time on the final lap until making a mistake in the final sector, leaving us second at the time. Yutaka hopped in and did a great job, doing his personal best lap of the weekend, leaving us P3 to start the race.
At the start, is was like a group of Wayne Taylor Racing veterans in the top-three with Pedro Lamy on pole (drove at the Rolex 24 with WTR in 2009 and 2010) and Emmanuel Collard P2 (Rolex 24 2004, 2005, 2006).
I got a bad jump at the start but luckily maintained the position in third before slipping past collard for second in Turn 3.
We ran nose to tail for a few laps and went back and forth a few times between Collard and me before he got me into Turn 1 I settled into third until the first pitstop where I handed the car over to Yutaka. He did a solid job fighting between 3rd and 4th position.
Pierre followed Yutaka in the car and managed to gain loads of time on the 2nd place car after an excellent battle with Wolf Henzler. He was doing great lap times eating into the gap to Aguas and put us in a great position to finish on the podium and possibly put us in the fight for second.
It was still only halfway through the six-hour race when Pierre handed the car back to Yutaka to complete his minimum drive time requirement. This was a tough stint with the track getting hot and greasy, we slipped back to P4 and about 30 seconds behind the KCMG Porsche of Reid.
At this point it was about the push to the end, trying to make back 30 seconds plus a bit of extra pit time in the final two hours to get back our podium position.
Pierre was on a mission, taking about seven-tenths out of Camathias per lap and getting the gap down to around 15 seconds with about 15 laps left in his stint before handing the car over to me to go to the end. He was on a roll and in a great rhythm. We were all thinking we could do it and get back onto the podium.
Suddenly the crew rushed to put their helmets on and grabbed the dollies. I knew something must’ve been seriously wrong. Everyone’s expressions dropped but the team was focused on their job. A stub axle was the culprit and it had torn other things to bits while it was rattling around on the in lap. Oil was everywhere.
It would be a major repair but the guys were not giving up. We needed 15 more laps to get points for finishing 70 percent of the race.
That left the guys with only about 50 minutes to do serious repairs to the right rear of the car. It was an amazing sight to see the guys all working together, everyone had a purpose and the goal was simple, to get the car out with at least 24 minutes remaining in the race.
A proper repair would require dropping the gearbox out of the car to get the end out of the box as well as replacing the seal on the end but there was not enough time to get back out.
Crew chief Phillipe macgyvered a plastic cup into a seal with a rubber grommet get the car to the finish. With 25 minutes and 30 seconds left in the race the car rolled back onto the pit lane.
One final pit stop to check for leaks and Pierre was set to bring the number 50 to the finish. They made it, the car finished the race with only one lap to spare.
It was an amazing effort by the team to not give up and to get the car to the finish. Although it was not the result the team was hoping for, the team showed amazing spirit, perseverance and teamwork to finish race.
Kaneko was in the back of everyone’s minds and without a doubt he was looking down and smiling on the job done by the Larbre Team.