TOYOTA GAZOO Racing’s challenge for home victory got underway with an intense and productive first day of practice for the 6 Hours of Fuji as the FIA World Endurance Championship (WEC) returned to Japan for the first time since 2019.
The GR010 HYBRID Hypercar made its Japanese debut during two 90-minute free practice sessions at Fuji Speedway, located just a few kilometres from Higashi-Fuji technical centre, where its four-wheel-drive hybrid powertrain is designed and developed.
World Champions Mike Conway, Kamui Kobayashi and José María López, in the #7 GR010 HYBRID, set the fastest time of the day, 1min 29.948secs, to signal TOYOTA GAZOO Racing’s determination to win for the eighth time in nine WEC races on home ground.
This year’s Le Mans 24 Hours winners Sébastien Buemi, Brendon Hartley and Ryo Hirakawa were also on the pace in their #8 GR010 HYBRID, ending the day in second, 0.225secs behind as World Championship endurance racing returned to Fuji Speedway following a three-year absence.
Enthusiastic local fans were already out in force for free practice and TOYOTA GAZOO Racing team members appreciated a warm welcome which ensures its long-awaited return to Japan is even more enjoyable.
First practice began under grey clouds after light morning rain, but a dry track and air temperatures of 23°C greeted Mike and Sébastien when they had the honour of completing the first laps of Fuji Speedway in the GR010 HYBRID to begin a busy programme.
The 4.563km circuit features a challenging mix of medium and slow-speed corners, combined with a 1.5km start-finish straight, so the team made full use of the session to compare different set-ups and optimise the GR010 HYBRID for the weekend ahead.
Sébastien set the fastest lap time in the #8, while Mike’s lap in the #7 was just 0.247secs behind in second. The two GR010 HYBRIDs completed a combined 101 laps and just over half a second separated the top four.
Adjustments to mechanical, aerodynamic and hybrid set-ups, as well as Michelin tyre evaluations, continued throughout second practice, which took place in the afternoon in similar weather conditions. This time Kamui, in the #7, set the fastest time of the session, while Brendon was at the wheel of the #8 for its best lap, just 0.225secs behind after another combined 101 laps.
With plenty of data available from 921km of running over the two sessions, drivers and engineers will work together to fine-tune set-ups before third practice on Saturday morning, the final opportunity to test different settings prior to qualifying, which takes place at 3pm local time, 8am CEST.
Kamui Kobayashi (Team Principal and driver, car #7): “I am really happy to return to Fuji Speedway with WEC after a three-year break. It’s our home track and we really enjoy meeting the Japanese fans again. The car already feels comfortable and the balance is quite good. We spent the two practice sessions adjusting the balance and learning more about the GR010 HYBRID here, because obviously it’s the first time here with the Hypercar. It looks good so far but the lap times are pretty close and it will be a tough race.”
Mike Conway (Driver, car #7): “I am pleased to be back here in Japan and to drive the GR010 HYBRID at Fuji Speedway for the first time. We made a decent start to the weekend, finishing both sessions one-two and going through quite a lot of set-up items. We made good progress. There are still some areas we can improve and we will be working hard to do that. Our competition looks strong and I am sure they will keep us on our toes. Tomorrow is another day and we will work to get the car dialled in for the race.”
José María López (Driver, car #7): “It has been a good day generally and it’s nice to see that both cars are competitive against the other Hypercars. It is only the start and we don’t know what programme the others are running, so we cannot take anything for granted. Over one lap the true situation will become clear in qualifying and I’m looking forward to seeing what happens. We still have work to do in terms of race pace and we expect a challenging weekend from our competition, but this has been a positive start.”
Sébastien Buemi (Driver, car #8): “We had a positive two sessions and achieved a lot of laps. It’s great to be back in Japan after three years away, and it was a pleasure to drive the Hypercar here for the first time. Luckily we didn’t have any rain during the sessions and I hope it will continue like that. Our programme ran smoothly and it was a good preparation for the rest of the weekend. The stint length is quite long in terms of laps so we have to take care of the tyre degradation. Let’s see how it all develops over the weekend.”
Brendon Hartley (Driver, car #8): “It’s cool to be back at Fuji Speedway and to already see our Japanese fans supporting us from the paddock and grandstands. We had a smooth day with no dramas. The feeling in the car was okay but we can still improve the balance, which is normal at the start of the weekend. It’s rare that we are completely satisfied after the first day, so we will work together to find improvements and be in the best possible shape for the race.”
Ryo Hirakawa (Driver, car #8): “So far it has gone quite well and we finished both sessions at the top without any issue. The GR010 HYBRID felt pretty good considering it is the first time to drive the car here. We are constantly fine-tuning the balance and finding improvements step by step, so we need to keep doing this. Tomorrow we will fight for pole position and it will be interesting to see how qualifying goes. Sunday is the most important target and the key is to manage our race pace; that’s what I am focusing on.”