Pre-race notebook for the Six Hours of Fuji

LIVE coverage of the Six Hours of Fuji begins at 10 p.m. ET Saturday night on FOX Sports GO, with TV coverage from 1-2 a.m. ET Sunday morning on FS2, and then from 2-4 a.m. ET on FS1. (Photo: Jakob Ebrey/LAT Photographic)
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***Thousands of fans have descended upon Fuji Speedway for today’s race. Two autograph sessions were held this weekend, due to the increased demand, along with a jam-packed pit walk this morning.

***Qualifying proved to be the closest of the season, with five of the six factory LMP1 hybrids separated by 0.286 seconds, and the quickest cars from all three manufacturers within less than two-tenths. Teams are predicting it could translate into one of the hardest-fought races of the season.

***Toyota’s Pascal Vasselon believes their biggest gain has come from its switch from supercapacitor to battery storage for this year, which has particularly benefited them at this track. “You need two big boosts, which until last year we weren’t able to do them with the capacitor. It was able to do many small boosts but not big ones,” Vasselon told Sportscar365.

***Toyota has a strong record on home ground, having won three consecutive races at Fuji Speedway from 2012-14, making it the team’s most successful circuit on the WEC calendar. The Japanese manufacturer has been on the podium four times this year but is searching for its first win since Bahrain 2014.

***2015 Le Mans winners Nick Tandy and Earl Bamber are the leading candidates to replace the retiring Mark Webber, according to Porsche LMP1 team principal Andreas Seidl, who reaffirmed their commitment to promoting exiting Porsche drivers rather than bringing someone in from the outside.

***Seidl said he still remains in contact with Juan Pablo Montoya but is unlikely to be in the frame for the seat. “Juan Pablo is a world class driver,” he said. “He was impressive what he did in the Bahrain test last year. For sure he’s an interesting guy to have in our car but I think the priority will be with the Porsche drivers we have on board first.”

***Head of Audi Motorsport Dr. Wolfgang Ullrich has given high marks on Antonio Giovanazzi, who has been selected to test the Audi R18 in next month’s WEC Rookie Test. “We know him; he’s already been working with us in DTM and we are quite convinced he’s really one of the big talents and it’s great if there’s a chance we can put him into our sports car,” he said.

***Ullrich said a decision on Rene Rast’s program for next year has not yet been made. The German ace is filling in for Mattias Ekstrom in this weekend’s DTM season finale, thus missing his first WEC race of the season. “He’s proved that wherever we put him he’s very fast. If it fits, we can have him race in any category.”

***Audi’s rumored exit from the FIA World Endurance Championship at the end of 2017 would not affect Toyota Gazoo Racing’s future commitment to LMP1, according to TMG Vice President Pascal Vasselon. “It would not impact our decision to stay or not,” he told Sportscar365. “For sure, it would weaken the series. But I don’t think they will do it because they’re fighting so hard for the 2018 regulations.”

***Toyota has shown a return to form this weekend, on home soil. Kazuki Nakajima’s pace-setting time from Free Practice 3 marked the first time the Japanese manufacturer led a session since Spa. Nakajima’s countryman, Kamui Kobayashi, recorded the quickest single lap in qualifying, a 1:23.239, but will roll off fourth based on the best two-lap average with co-driver Stephane Sarrazin.

***Ford claimed its first GTE-Pro class pole since the 24 Hours of Le Mans, and was the first for UK-based Chip Ganassi Racing squad. “That result has been a long time coming,” said WEC team principal George Howard-Chappell. “The car seems to be well suited to the Fuji track and the drivers all did an excellent job. Now what we need to do is convert this into a good result in the race tomorrow.”

***Six drivers: Ricky Taylor, Tor Graves, Oliver Jarvis, Nic Minassian, Jonny Kane and Kirill Ladygin, have been reprimanded for not slowing during a yellow in Free Practice 2, when the No.6 Toyota TS050 Hybrid stopped on track with hybrid failure.

***Paul Dalla Lana is poised to return to the WEC next year for his fifth season with Aston Martin Racing. The Canadian told Sportscar365 he plans to upgrade to a 2016-spec Vantage GTE for the GTE-Am class, which will be open to 2016 and 2015-spec machinery via Balance of Performance. He will kick off the season in the Rolex 24 at Daytona and will also make his Bathurst 12 Hour debut.

***Larbre Competition is continuing to work to field a Corvette C7.R in the GTE-Pro class next year, alongside a planned return to the GTE-Am class. The French squad has extended its deal with GM factory driver Ricky Taylor through the rest of the 2016 season, with Taylor reportedly an option for next year.

***The only clash between the WEC and IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship next year is in early May, with the Spa-Francorchamps round and the new IMSA headline weekend at Circuit of The Americas.

***Francois Perrodo recently tested Thiriet by TDS Racing’s Oreca 05 Nissan at Paul Ricard, with an eye to make the move up to LMP2 next year. The Frenchman currently leads the GTE-Am championship with Emmanuel Collard and Rui Aguas in a AF Corse Ferrari 458 Italia GT. “I will now have to make a decision for 2017, knowing the GTE-Am track is not ruled out in view of the Ferrari 488 GTE,” Perrodo told Endurance-Info.

***No decision has been made on Ford Chip Ganassi Racing’s driver lineup for next year. A team spokesperson told Sportscar365 the decision to drop Marino Franchitti from the No. 67 squad for the remainder of the season was influenced by a two-driver lineup working better than three.

***Franchitti remains contracted to Multimatic and is taking part in endurance and durability testing with the Ford GT road car, which is slated go into production by the end of the year.

***A decision has yet to be made on whether the LMP1 Privateer subclass will continue with its own classification and podium recognition next year if only a single car, the ByKolles Racing CLM P1/01 AER, takes part. “How can you make a classification for one car? It would look a bit strange. We will manage this when we know about the entries,” ACO Sporting Director Vincent Beaumesnil told Sportscar365.

***The WEC will limit teams to just one tire manufacturer change per season, following Tequila Patron ESM’s switch from Dunlops to Michelins and then back to Dunlops in the last four races. “It was not in the rules before because we never had the case of having somebody changing all the time. When we saw this could happen, we’ve adopted it for next year,” Beaumesnil told Sportscar365.

***LMP2 teams will be able to re-brand chassis next year in the new-look category, Beaumesnil said. The decision plays into the favor of Signatech-Alpine, which currently campaigns Oreca 05 Nissans branded as Alpine A460.

***Nelson Panciatici has remained contracted to Signatech-Alpine, despite having been replaced in the No. 36 Baxi DC Racing Alpine A460 Nissan by Paul-Loup Chatin for the rest of the season. “It’s not excluded that we will see him in the future, team principal Phillipe Sinault said. “He has other duties in parallel with WEC and it was difficult for him to combine the two.”

***2016-spec GTE-Pro cars will eligible for both GTE-Am and the European Le Mans Series GTE class next year. “We have the intention to reduce the performance of the new cars to keep the old cars competitive. So if you have the current Porsche or Aston Martin in Am, you’re not enforced to invest in a [upgrade] kit and spend money,” Beaumesnil said.

***Watch the Six Hours of Fuji on the FOX Sports family of networks. FOX Sports GO will cover the first three hours (Sat. 10 p.m. – Sun. 1 a.m. ET), with FS2 picking up coverage from 1-2 a.m. before switching to FS1 for the final two hours at 2-4 a.m.

Audi claims pole for Six Hours of Fuji