Nearly two months after its podium finish at Monza, Alpine Elf Endurance Team returned to competition at Fuji Speedway for the penultimate round of the 2023 FIA WEC season.
Typhoon Yun-Yeung welcomed the field, but it developed into a tropical storm with no material damage and no postponement of the first sessions at the foot of Mount Fuji. The team began their test programme on Friday on a damp track to gather information before setting the second fastest time in the final session. Under overcast skies on Saturday evening, Matthieu Vaxiviere and Olli Caldwell took up the challenge of qualifying, where the competitors lowered their times on almost every lap. The Frenchman finished ninth, less than two-tenths of a second outside the top five, and two places ahead of his British team-mate.
On Sunday, Silver drivers Julien Canal and Memo Rojas started the race. The Le Mans native put in a superb drive to move up to fourth in the first lap whilst the Mexican found himself trapped before before the race's only caution period. They were the last to make their first pit stops and Julien Canal briefly led the category before the strategies of the two cars diverged.
With a deficit of performance with the #35, the team put Olli Caldwell in the car at the start of the second hour. The Briton put in a solid double stint, but slight contact broke his momentum, forcing the mechanics to change the Alpine A470's front bonnet. André Negrão followed him with a triple stint, aimed at closing the gap on their rivals and getting into contention for the top ten.
Meanwhile, Julien Canal handed over to Charles Milesi after an hour and a half. The youngest of the trio accelerated the #36's offensive with two fine stints, which put him in the lead of the LMP2 category at the halfway point of the race. Matthieu Vaxiviere then took over with two solid stints to keep the team in the leading group, thanks to excellent fuel consumption management and good pit-stop execution in a surprisingly straightforward race.
The strategies realigned in the final 90 minutes of the race when the team put Olli Caldwell and Charles Milesi back in the cars. Battling into the top five, the Frenchman was fourth after his final pitstop and in contention for the podium, but he eventually had to settle for fifth after giving all he had in a hard-fought duel with the #23 United Autosports car, running on much fresher tyres. Meanwhile, the #35 crossed the finish line eleventh.
Heading to the season's final round, the team remains fifth in the FIA Endurance LMP2 Trophy classification. Although the title is now out of its grasp, Alpine Elf Endurance Team will look to round off its rich LMP2 adventure in style at the 8 Hours of Bahrain (4 November) before switching its full focus to its future challenge in the Hypercar category.
André Negrão: "It was a tough race on our side of the garage. The car was quite balanced, but we just lacked performance compared to our direct competitors. However, we're not giving up, and we'll keep working as hard as we can to be competitive in the season's final race."
Olli Caldwell: “A frustrating weekend for us overall, we were managing some issues during the race. We were hoping for a safety car that could bring us back into contention but it never came. I’ve really enjoyed racing at such an iconic track. Our full focus is now coming back stronger in Bahrain, it’s a track I’ve raced at many times before in single seaters so looking forward to ending the season on a high”.
Memo Rojas: "We didn't have the pace we wanted or expected. The conditions were difficult in practice and we didn't have much time to get to know the track in the dry. In the race, the performances weren't there and I struggled to keep up with the pack, leaving us with no chance. We need to analyse the reasons for this so that we can come back stronger."
Matthieu Vaxiviere: "It's a solid result after a good race, even if it's still frustrating not to finish on the podium. We couldn't have done much more in terms of pace and consistency, not to mention Julien's superb start. We're now going to analyse everything in detail to find new areas for improvement and aim for a podium finish in Bahrain."
Charles Milesi: "It was a positive race and we gave it our all. A few setbacks such as the full course yellow and difficult traffic at Fuji prevented us from contending for another podium finish, but the result is still pretty decent, as was our pace, which was among the best in the category. Let’s work hard over the next two months to keep improving and finish the season on a high."
Julien Canal: "I was quite happy with my start as I seized every opportunity to move up from ninth to fourth. It was quite a rough start, with some contact, but the car was fine. My first stint was solid, but the second was tougher with all the Hypercars battling each other around us. However, this race confirms that we're still on the right track started on at the 24 Hours of Le Mans. We still need to fine-tune some tiny details, but we're so close to challenge for the podium, and that will be our goal in Bahrain."
Philippe Sinault, Alpine Elf Endurance Team Principal: "It was a good race and we can be satisfied. Qualifying went poorly, but we must congratulate Julien on his superb start, which put us back in the running. Although his solid pace against the Gold and Platinium drivers meant that his tyres wore out prematurely, the momentum continued with the excellent work of Charles and Matthieu, both among the fastest on track today. It enabled us to compete with the best in the category right up to the finish, which is always a positive. The weekend was more complicated for the #35, especially as Memo and Olli only had five laps each in the dry to get to grips with the track. At the start, Memo got blocked in and quickly found himself in trouble with his tyres. We decided to shorten his stint, but despite the best efforts of André and Olli, the gap was already there. We will draw all the lessons from this for Bahrain, where we'll have to be more aggressive, particularly in qualifying, if we want to be in the right group in this eight-hour race. The autumn promises to be intense with the development of the Hypercar, but we're all focused and keen to finish on a high with our two crews."
6 Hours of Fuji – LMP2
1. Team WRT n°41
2. United Autosports n°22
3. Team WRT n°31
5. Alpine Elf Endurance Team n°36
11. Alpine Elf Endurance Team n°35
FIA Endurance LMP2 Trophy
1. Team WRT n°41 – 135 points
2. Inter Europol Compétition – 102 points
3. United Autosports n°22 – 101 points
5. Alpine Elf Endurance Team n°36 – 74 points
11. Alpine Elf Endurance Team n°35 – 21 points