Toyota says Ferrari held back by driver inconsistency at WEC Fuji

Toyota believes its World Endurance Championship title rival Ferrari was held back by the inconsistency of its drivers in last weekend's Fuji round.

#51 Ferrari AF Corse Ferrari 499P: Alessandro Pier Guidi, James Calado, Antonio Giovinazzi

The Japanese marque's technical director Pascal Vasselon made the comment after wrapping up the 2023 manufacturers' title with a 1-2 finish on home turf, having overcome a stiff challenge from Porsche.

By contrast, the two Ferrari 499Ps finished a lap down in fourth and fifth on what was the Prancing Horse's least competitive showing since it stepped up to the top class of the WEC this year.

Vasselon pointed to the pace Antonio Fuoco was able to show in the #50 Ferrari LMH during the final two hours of the race, with the 27-year-old able to pass Alessandro Pier Guidi in the sister #51 car and then stretch out a 21-second advantage en route to fourth.

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“If you look at the laptimes, we are talking one or two tenths [between the manufacturers],” Vasselon told reporters post-race. “On the best 60 percent of laps we are within two tenths of Porsche.

“And if you look at Ferrari, Fuoco was really competitive. The first stint of Fuoco [was impressive]. 

“So I think at Ferrari, they have a little bit of a problem with the level of drivers because Fuoco was clearly competitive. I would think we have more consistent drivers.”

The Fuji result leaves Ferrari's hopes of winning the drivers' title hanging by a thread, with the #51 crew of Pier Guidi, James Calado and Antonio Giovinazzi now 31 points adrift of the leading #8 Toyota trio with only 39 points on offer in the Bahrain season finale.

Fuoco and his team-mates in the #50 car, Nicklas Nielsen and Miguel Molina, are a further five points behind in fourth.

#50 Ferrari AF Corse Ferrari 499P: Antonio Fuoco, Miguel Molina, Nicklas Nielsen

#50 Ferrari AF Corse Ferrari 499P: Antonio Fuoco, Miguel Molina, Nicklas Nielsen

Photo by: Andy Chan

Toyota driver/team principal Kamui Kobayashi echoed the remarks made by Vasselon, emphasising the need for drivers to adapt to changing conditions at Fuji following two days of practice and qualifying affected by rain.

“This was a race where the drivers had to tweak the balance in order to make the tyres last by adjusting the brakes and controlling the engine to suit their own driving style,” explained Kobayashi, who took victory in the #7 Toyota alongside Mike Conway and Jose Maria Lopez

“From that side, the key to the result was adapting quickly. We have an advantage with our experience, and our drivers are able to do that. 

“It wasn't like Ferrari was slow the entire time. They had some fast stints, and if you have to say why, it's because the drivers that could adapt were fast. 

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“At Toyota, every driver can do this. I think that's a product of all our years of experience.”

While Vasselon stressed that all six of Toyota's drivers have been performing at roughly the same level throughout the season, he felt that both Kobayashi and Ryo Hirakawa enjoyed an advantage at Fuji due to their extensive knowledge of the track, having already raced there twice this season in Super Formula.

Kobayashi impressed in qualifying by taking pole by six tenths and then took the #7 crew to victory by 39 seconds following a charging final stint in which he passed the sister car of Brendon Hartley for the lead.

Hirakawa, meanwhile, was responsible for putting Toyota ahead of Porsche in the first place, passing the 963 of Kevin Estre at the end of the fourth hour. He had been let through by Jose Maria Lopez after the Argentine spent the best part of an hour trying to find a way past the Porsche ace.

Podium: #7 Toyota Gazoo Racing Toyota GR010 - Hybrid: Mike Conway, Kamui Kobayashi, Jose Maria Lopez

Podium: #7 Toyota Gazoo Racing Toyota GR010 - Hybrid: Mike Conway, Kamui Kobayashi, Jose Maria Lopez

Photo by: JEP / Motorsport Images

“I think it's the special 'Kamui effect',” Vasselon said when asked about the #7 car's late pace, repeating what he said after the ex-Formula 1 driver scored pole on Saturday. “We see that he is one step above the other drivers. 

“Here, we see clearly that the guys who are used to racing here are one step above. Look at Ryo, how he passed Estre in two laps.

“When Jose, who is absolutely a top driver, was not finding a gap, Ryo did in two laps.

“It's a track that is technically quite difficult and the guys who are used to driving [there] have something on top of the others.”

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