After a strong result for Ferrari and AF Corse at Fuji last year, we were sure we’d have a good weekend but you can’t predict the weather, or what happens in the race, as we’ve seen many times.
It therefore felt really good being back on the podium, especially considering the conditions… every other day in Japan dry and sunny (well, qualifying not so sunny but at least dry), and then wet and cool for race day.
It was our first win since Silverstone at the start of the year, and we’ve got some more valuable points for Ferrari in the GT Manufacturers battle too. There were a lot of very happy people this weekend.
People might not know that I also went to Fuji in July to drive in a GT Asia race. There have been a few tracks on the calendar where I’ve been doing okay but still didn’t have a feeling of 100 percent confidence about them, so when Ferrari proposed that I did some extra races in the Asian series I specifically requested to do Fuji.
So, I was confident going into our WEC race as we won in July. I knew the track, my car, how to drive there, and I can confess it really worked out. It had also been mixed weather conditions in July so good practice.
I started the race and the conditions were very difficult, with the first 16 laps behind the Safety Car. I think Mr. Freitas and Race Direction made the right call to start like this, and I appreciate that he tries to understand what we all go through in the race car – not just the guys at the very front of the field.
Visibility is one of the most crucial things; if you lack that, and doing 250 km/h in 5th or 6th gear, and you suddenly find out of the spray that the road is blocked, it’s a mess.
We waited patiently for the start. The first few green laps were still a bit on the edge but once the prototypes started to move the spray off the track it got better and better.
It was crazy – I did 3 hours and 35 minutes with one set of Michelin tires! It wasn’t planned, but based on what I felt on the recon laps we made our choice and off we went. The normal sequence is that we each do around an hour or so in a stint and then come in and change driver and tires.
Luca, our engineer, was thinking on these lines – Toni out, Gimmi in for the next hour, then Toni again and so on, but I said on the radio, “Luca, what if I stay in the car?” He asked me for three corners if I was really sure!
So I ended up doing the second and third stints too and got in a good rhythm, feeling the track well as it changed from wet to dry.
I could see from our sister No. 71 Ferrari that they changed driver and tires each hour and were not improving the pace significantly. In our team, the information between us all never stops flowing and, as our pace remained good throughout, we decided not to change.
Porsche at that time was, I think, also splitting its strategy and we had a good fight with the Lietz car which had also not changed tires.
It took a long time for the track to dry – I was thinking it would happen 30-40 minutes earlier than it did. At the 3h30 mark I was beginning to struggle a little bit, even though I was doing my best laps, as the dry spots on the track were getting bigger and bigger.
When the full course yellow came out it was just the right time for us… we’d already seen an LMP1 Audi trying slicks 30 minutes earlier and that didn’t work for them.
When the track starts to dry it goes really quickly but, even as late as the last corner of my stint and pit entry we were unsure which tires to put on. I yelled at Luca, “I don’t know…go for slicks, slicks!” When I was helping him with his belts, I could see Gimmi’s eyes were on stalks and I was telling him which corners to be careful on and which were okay.
For his opening laps he was a bit worried, but went from 3 seconds down to one second, and then from his third lap he was fastest on the track so it was the right decision.
You make these decisions as a team and they can be right on the sweet spot or can go wrong, but this worked out and I’m really happy. The last two hours were really long! We had a 1 minute and 20-second lead and it felt like the clock was taking twice as long to work its way round.
At Petit Le Mans the weekend before this one there was too much water, you couldn’t drive and I needed a paddle instead of four wheels. But here I enjoyed the race and it was good fun.
So onwards now to Shanghai which isn’t the easiest track for anyone but at least we’re going in on a stronger footing. Bring it on!