TOYOTA GAZOO Racing set another milestone in the Hypercar era during qualifying for the 89th Le Mans 24 Hours, the fourth round of the 2021 FIA World Endurance Championship (WEC).
Kamui Kobayashi, in the #7 GR010 HYBRID he shares with Mike Conway and José María López, set the fastest lap time yet for a Hypercar at the Circuit de la Sarthe. His time of 3min 26.279secs earned top spot in qualifying.
The #8 of Sébastien Buemi, Kazuki Nakajima and Brendon Hartley was third quickest with the #36 Alpine splitting the two GR010 HYBRIDs in second.
TOYOTA GAZOO Racing will fight for a fifth consecutive Le Mans pole position in Thursday’s Hyperpole session, when the fastest six qualifiers from each class do battle in a 30-minute session, starting at 9pm CEST.
Kamui and Brendon were given the task of setting flying laps at the very beginning of qualifying, using new tyres and with a low fuel load. Kamui had a clean lap and immediately took top spot. Brendon, despite traffic, moved into second, 1.392secs away.
With flying laps in the bank, the focus switched to preparation and tyre analysis. Each car is limited to only six sets of tyres for all free practice and qualifying sessions, 11 hours running time in total, so the remainder of the session was completed on old rubber.
TOYOTA GAZOO Racing’s Hypercar rivals attempted to overcome the GR010 HYBRID lap times over the remaining minutes. A combination of full course yellow and slow zones limited the opportunities for clean laps but the #36 Alpine took second late on.
Away from qualifying, Wednesday featured five hours of practice which gave engineers and drivers an important opportunity to validate set-up changes made following Sunday’s official test day.
With plenty of work to do, a red flag one minute into the three-hour first practice session was an unwelcome start. Two relatively clean hours of running followed, but an accident between an LMP2 and GT car caused a 23-minute red flag in the final hour, which was then disrupted by a full course yellow period.
Both cars compared aerodynamic and mechanical set-up options, and assessed different compounds of Michelin tyre. José set the quickest time of the session late on, 3mins 29.309secs, while Kazuki recorded the best time for the #8, third overall but just 0.087secs adrift.
Sébastien, who missed the test day due to other racing commitments, completed his first laps in the GR010 at La Sarthe during first practice before going fastest of all in the night time session.
That further two hours of free practice, which followed qualifying, gave the GR010 HYBRID Hypercars their first opportunity to run at night at Le Mans. All drivers, no matter their experience, must complete five laps in darkness to be eligible to race and that obligation was met comfortably in a smooth session.
Mike Conway (GR010 HYBRID #7): “It’s been a good day and a solid start to race week. The main target today was race preparation. We have been trying to get through more test items to follow up the work we did in the test day and have been pretty successful. The GR010 HYBRID handled very similar to the test, although the conditions were cooler today, which is a good sign for the race.”
Kamui Kobayashi (GR010 HYBRID #7): “It’s always nice to be fastest but it’s only qualifying, not even Hyperpole, so it was not something we focused on. I felt good in the car and everything ran smoothly, so it has been a positive start to race week. It’s a 24-hour race so we need to feel comfortable with the car and find consistency. That is what we have been working on and we will keep going like that on Thursday.”
José María López (GR010 HYBRID #7): “We are in the most important race of the year and with the sessions today Le Mans has officially started. The team has done a great job because we are getting a better feeling in the car in each session; we have a strong car. Of course we want to get the pole position but we know the most important thing is the race and that is when it really counts.”
Sébastien Buemi (GR010 HYBRID #8): “Having missed the test day, I have been trying to learn as much as I can. It’s a different car compared to what we are used to here so I needed to adapt to it and take a few laps to get up to speed. The car was feeling pretty good already, even better than I was expecting, and the track has more grip with every session. I am looking forward to making more progress in the next sessions.”
Kazuki Nakajima (GR010 HYBRID #8): “It was the first proper day of race week and, compared to the test, the track temperature was different. We tested different tyres and set-ups to suit the tyre compounds. At the same time, we were looking into the different control systems. Progress has been good but we still have a lot of things to work through on Thursday. It feels as if we lack some time to the sister car so we hope to change that for the Hyperpole.”
Brendon Hartley (GR010 HYBRID #8): “We had a pretty smooth day. The GR010 HYBRID has felt really nice to drive again. It really feels like the car was made for here and it feels at home. It has been quite different from test day with much colder track temperatures and a different wind direction. So we tried different tyre compounds to learn about the right crossover point for when the race goes into the night. Deciding the tyres and what set-up to use was a big part of the test programme and it all went well.”