It isn’t often that an LMP1 factory driver makes an appearance in lower sports car racing categories, but Mike Conway did just that when he raced with Thiriet by TDS Racing last month.
The Toyota Gazoo Racing ace moved down a class to TDS’ Oreca 05 Nissan at the Four Hours of Le Castellet, as a ‘super sub’ for Ryo Hirakawa.
The decision paid off for the French squad, which took its third win in succession, as Conway joined Mathias Beche and Pierre Thiriet in the European Le Mans Series championship-leading entry.
“That was fun,” he told Sportscar365 upon his WEC return in Mexico City. “I love the LMP2 cars. That’s where my sports car career started.
“They’re still good and it was the first time I’ve driven the new Oreca 05. They’ve done a really good job from the 03, and it’s been quite a big update.
“It was a good race, and ELMS is quite a fun series, quite relaxed. TDS gave us a great car and [I had] fun teammates. Mathias and Pierre, they all did a solid job. It was fun, especially with them leading again.”
It was his first LMP2 appearance since 2013, and he was quick to praise the quality of the ELMS’ top class.
“There’s obviously some good drivers in there,” he said. “You’ve got [Nicolas] Lapierre, [Tristan] Gommendy, [Giedo] van der Garde, [Harry] Tincknell, all these guys.
“It’s a tough field. It’s a bit different with the LMP3s out there, but it was a fun drive, and I really enjoyed it.”
Despite this, there are no more LMP2 drives on Conway’s horizon, as this was simply a one-off appearance to replace Hirakawa. The TDS regular was busy that weekend racing in the Suzuka 1000 km.
In LMP1, a class much more familiar to the Brit, it has been a much more frustrating season.
After finding potentially race-winning pace at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, Toyota has thus far failed to repeat its performance at Nürburgring and Mexico City.
“It’s been a little bit frustrating after Le Mans that we haven’t been able to keep fighting for the front-running,” he admitted. “But we’ll just keep working at it.
“I think Austin might be similar to [Mexico], but we might just be a bit shy on downforce.
“When we go to places, like maybe Shanghai, Fuji and Bahrain, they seem to always be OK for us. With mixed conditions, anything can happen.
“Even last year, being quite far off, in mixed conditions we were up there at the front.”
The new-for-2016 Toyota TS050 Hybrid has proven itself to be a strong competitor at faster circuits that require low-downforce setups, hence the impressive performance at Le Mans.
For this reason, Conway is looking ahead to the later races on the schedule, with longer straights and fewer slow corners.
“Everyone’s got a new package this year,” he said. “When we first saw pictures of the Audi we were like ‘Oh God, it looks a bit scary!’ But it took them a long time to get on top of it and now they seem to be quite quick.
“Porsche, we knew they were quick from last year, and they have just been evolving their car.
“We’ve made huge strides from last year, but we’re just lacking a little bit in some areas. In places like Le Mans, we weren’t.
“Our package worked really well there, so it varies from circuit to circuit. But if there’s one track you want to be quick at, it’s that one.
“Hopefully we can close the gap a bit and definitely get some podiums towards the end of the year.”
John Dagys contributed to this report