TOYOTA GAZOO Racing’s challenge for a fifth consecutive Le Mans victory resumed with practice and qualifying sessions on Wednesday, as race week began at Circuit de la Sarthe.
Kamui Kobayashi set the fastest time of the day, a lap of 3mins 27.247secs recorded during qualifying, driving the #7 GR010 HYBRID he shares with fellow 2021 Le Mans winners Mike Conway and José María López.
Sébastien Buemi, Brendon Hartley and Ryo Hirakawa, in the #8 GR010 HYBRID, had a frustrating qualifying session, when the fastest laps of the day were set, and recorded the fourth quickest time.
This week’s preparations have already included victory for the #8 pit stop crew in the inaugural pit stop challenge, earning four team members a trophy and a visit to the famous Le Mans podium.
The focus returned to track activity on Wednesday when the day was split into three sessions, starting with a three-hour free practice in the early afternoon. That ran smoothly for both cars and finished with the #8 car on top, thanks to a lap from Brendon. Kamui’s lap put the #7 in fifth.
After completing more than 2,800km in Sunday’s official test, engineers and drivers have worked hard over the last two days to prepare the cars and set-ups. These were validated in first practice, when the team focused on optimising set-ups, with a particular focus on aerodynamic comparisons.
Qualifying took place in the evening to determine the six participants in each category who will participate in Thursday’s Hyperpole session. With five competitors in the Hypercar class, qualifying was effectively another practice session for the team to optimising aerodynamic, mechanical and control settings.
The session did not go entirely smoothly though. The #8 car lost part of the session when the right rear corner needed to be replaced and a red flag, for an accident involving a GT car, followed soon after to further interrupt proceedings.
When qualifying resumed, rain fell just as Brendon was ready to start his first flying lap, leaving the #8 car down in 29th when the chequered flag fell. In contrast, Kamui’s lap at the beginning of the session again put the #7 GR010 HYBRID at the top of the timing sheets.
The day’s action concluded in darkness with a two-hour second practice session ended. Drivers must complete a minimum of five laps at night to be eligible to participate in the race and all TOYOTA GAZOO Racing drivers achieved that target before the day’s running concluded at midnight.
A programme of tyre comparisons and further set-up adjustments finished with the #7 in second place following Kamui’s lap at the end of the session, while Brendon set the best lap for the #8 which ended second practice in third.
Thursday will see the starting grid for the 90th Le Mans 24 Hours decided during a 30-minute Hyperpole session, when the best individual lap time from one driver per car will determine the order.
The team targets a sixth consecutive pole position and a new entry in the Le Mans record books. Kamui goes for his fifth pole, which would equal a record set by the legendary Jacky Ickx, while TOYOTA GAZOO Racing could move level with Audi on eight poles, second in the all-time list.
Kamui Kobayashi (Driver, car #7): “It is nice to get started with race week and continue our preparations for the weekend. There was a lot of track time so we could check the car balance in different conditions and we managed to do a lot of laps, just like in the test. Everything went pretty well and it is nice to be fastest in qualifying, but we just did one lap and then focused on testing. Of course, we want to get pole position on Thursday but the target is to have a strong car for the race.”
Mike Conway (Driver, car #7): “It’s been a decent day and we got through a lot in terms of our programme. Qualifying was just about getting a clean lap and making sure we are in the fight for Hyperpole and that was achieved. Then we focused on getting comfortable with the car during night-time running. The car feels like it is working well and we seem to be in a good window in terms of set-up. We just need to fine tune little things and get it perfect for the weekend.”
José María López (Driver, car #7): “It went well on our car today and Kamui did a good lap in qualifying to get us into Hyperpole straight away and allow us to use the rest of the session for testing. First and second practice were very productive and we did a lot of useful work to get ready for the race. It was fun to drive again at night here; it is always a special experience. The lap times look very close in Hypercar but it is still early and the situation will evolve over the next few days.”
Sébastien Buemi (Driver, car #8): “It has been a hectic day for us with a lot of running. Things didn’t go exactly as planned in qualifying and we lost a bit of time there. We needed to make sure we put in a timed lap to reach Hyperpole but the rain came at the wrong time. So it wasn’t ideal for us and we have some work to do to improve the car for the race. We have done a lot of mileage and we will look at the data to find ways to come back stronger on Thursday.”
Brendon Hartley (Driver, car #8): “First practice went well but qualifying was a bit delayed on our car and when we went out there was a red flag. Then it started raining so we didn’t have time to do a representative lap time. At least we got one lap on the board, which qualifies us for Hyperpole. It was nice to drive at night, which is always fun around here; it gets the adrenaline flowing. We still have some improvements to make so we’ll be busy again on Thursday to improve the race set-up.”
Ryo Hirakawa (Driver, car #8): “The day has gone quite well and I enjoyed the night session. In testing we have driven at tracks which are much darker so I was happy to find that the light is quite okay here at night. The track feels different at night compared to the day sessions; it was good to experience that. On Thursday I want to do more mileage to become more familiar with the GR010 HYBRID at Le Mans so we are prepared for the race.”