Jose Maria Lopez says he feels prepared for his LMP1 debut at the Six Hours of Silverstone this weekend, as the touring car star joins Toyota Gazoo Racing in the FIA World Endurance Championship.
The 33-year-old Argentine has won the FIA World Touring Car Championship for the past three years with Citroen, but this year moves up to the top class of prototype racing, joining Mike Conway and Kamui Kobayashi in the No. 7 Toyota TS050 Hybrid.
Despite the considerable leap between categories, Lopez is feeling confident for the first race and excited for the new opportunity.
“It feels great, it’s just a dream come true for me,” he told Sportscar365. “Since a young age I’ve wanted to do Le Mans.
“The fact that you have this opportunity but in LMP1 straight away is just something very special, in such a big team like Toyota with great teammates. I’m really looking forward for the first race.”
Nevertheless, he does admit he is expecting endurance racing to be a challenge, especially given the competition increase over recent years.
“It’s a big step,” he said. “Today, endurance races are 100 percent push. There are very [few] situations where you have to manage things.
“Depending on the stints you have in the race, every single stint is a sprint race now. The cars are prepared 100 percent for that.
“Back a few years ago, winning Le Mans [was a case] of the car not having problems. Today, not having problems is not enough. You need to be really quick as well.”
It goes without saying that the Toyota LMP1 car is a very different machine to the Citroen C-Elysee that Lopez has become accustomed to in the WTCC, but he believes the driver changes could be the main difference.
“I think the biggest difference is just getting used to sharing the car, for the first time for me,” he admitted. “It’s not a big issue because I’m sharing the car with drivers who are even better.
“It’s just getting used to the aero, to 1000 bhp, to big tires. These are things that after ten years in touring cars, I’ve kind of lost that feeling.
“Physically, it’s much harder. In touring cars you only have to deal with the heat.
“I always liked to train and be prepared, but this is another level, and your neck suffers a lot more, and the heat because of the closed cockpit.
“You’re in the car for a lot of hours and many laps, so physically-speaking, you need to be an athlete. You need to be very well prepared.”
In addition to the nine-race WEC program, Lopez will also continue racing in the FIA Formula E Championship as teammate to fellow WEC driver Sam Bird at DS Virgin Racing.
He joins a long list of LMP1 and LMP2 drivers also racing in Formula E, including Toyota teammate Sebastien Buemi, with the hope that the dual program will keep him sharp.
“It’s a challenge in terms of timing, but the idea of racing more is good,” he said. “It keeps me sharp, because in the end I need to race and do as much as I can.
“The cars are very different, but it’s good to have the two programs because the two series today are very important and there is a very high level of teams and drivers here.”
With Audi dropping out of LMP1 for this season, Toyota is now the only competition to reigning champion Porsche, which puts a lot of pressure on the Japanese brand, especially after losing the 24 Hours of Le Mans victory with minutes to go last year.
Lopez said that the hunger for success is very apparent in the team, and that he has been impressed by his warm welcome at TMG.
“The atmosphere in a team is very important, especially when you do endurance racing,” he said. “You share and you spend a lot of time with the people in the team.
“The atmosphere seems great and TMG and the drivers, it all feels like a family. Straight away from the first day, I felt like I was in the group already, and they received me with arms open, so I have a very good feeling with all of them.
“They’re very motivated, especially with what happened last year. It was very hard for the team, but I think it still gave them more hunger.
“It’s always difficult, it’s a difficult championship with difficult cars, and we have very strong competition. But we’re ready for the challenge and we really hope we can do well.”
John Dagys contributed to this report