Controversial penalties steal victory: Inside the drama of the Fuji World Endurance Championship

During Sunday’s riveting World Endurance Championship race at Fuji, controversy took center stage. Corvette Racing’s star drivers, Ben Keating and Nicky Catsburg, have voiced concerns over the penalties they were slapped with, asserting that these unexpected blows thwarted what should have been an effortless GTE Am victory.

From the onset, the Corvette was prominently in contention for the coveted victory. The team’s exceptional C8.R car dominated multiple stints after Keating superbly qualified it for the pole position.

However, the tide turned in the third hour. Keating was embroiled in a collision with the #54 AF Corse Ferrari piloted by Thomas Flohr. This led to an imperative pit stop for the Corvette to replace its right-hand side door. The aftermath? A 30-second stop/go penalty that sent the #33 Corvette plummeting down the ranks.

Yet, the #33 team was undeterred. By the fifth hour, they had managed to inch their way back to the lead. But just when victory seemed within grasp, silver-rated Nico Varrone was slapped with a 10-second penalty for pushing the #86 GR Racing Porsche off course. Although Keating, Varrone, and Catsburg valiantly finished third, they trailed 22 seconds behind the victorious #54 Ferrari. Fortuitously, they were later bumped up to second due to a penalty imposed on Ritomo Miyata for speeding during a full-course yellow phase.

While the stewards’ judgement was resolute – pinning the blame squarely on the Corvette drivers and even going as far as terming Keating’s driving as egregiously unsporting – the Corvette team begs to differ.

Nicky Catsburg was candid in his disappointment, labeling the penalties as “questionable”. He expressed, “It’s evident we should’ve clinched this race. Sans the penalties, our strategy was unbeatable. Kudos to Ben and Nico for their remarkable fuel-saving. While we’re grateful for the championship win, these races add a bitter taste.”

Keating’s altercation with Flohr at the Dunlop corner became a significant talking point. In the stewards’ eyes, Keating wrongly gauged his distance from the #54 Ferrari, resulting in avoidable contact. Keating, however, viewed it as a mere race incident, asserting, “It was mutual. I aimed to make his braking line tight. We collided, but it felt like just part of the race.”

Thomas Flohr and his team from #54 Ferrari weren’t just spectators. Emerging from a six-year victory drought at the same track, they showcased their racing mettle by clinching the win, despite the early setbacks. Flohr reminisced about the terrifying moment of impact with the Corvette, crediting his past rally experience for his skilled handling, “It was a close shave, but our relentless spirit won us the day. This victory in Japan is monumental.”

In a sport where milliseconds matter, and each decision can alter the course of history, the Fuji World Endurance Championship stands as a testament to the thrill, passion, and drama that embodies racing.