Toyota Gazoo Racing could be set to break the pole position lap record for the 24 Hours of Le Mans in qualifying and post a time in the high 3:15s, according to team director Rob Leupen.
The Japanese manufacturer has arrived at the Circuit de la Sarthe as the favorite after dominating proceedings at the pre-race test day, sweeping the top three positions and beating last year’s pole time, as well as finishing over three seconds clear of LMP1-H rival Porsche.
“We confirmed more or less what we saw in the simulations, a bit earlier than expected maybe,” Leupen told Sportscar365 when reflecting on Toyota’s test day showing.
“The drivers did well, team did well, car went well and went quick. We should find something more for qualifying. I think that we will get some [more speed]. You never show full pace.
“Although the lap of Kamui [Kobayashi] was quite impressive, it still was not a real qualy lap. We’ve done our program, we’re happy, but it still doesn’t say anything. We’ve seen it last year.”
When asked how fast Toyota could go, Leupen said: “I think something could be around 3:16, maybe a high 3:15.”
The existing Le Mans pole position record on the Circuit de la Sarthe’s current layout is a 3:16.887, set by Neel Jani for Porsche in 2015.
Kobayashi’s test day lap of 3:18.132 was less than 1.3 seconds off the pace, making a new record a target for Toyota.
“I think this is something which has been worked hard for, since we have been racing,” Leupen said.
“We are more or less beating our own simulations, so from that point of view we are quite content with the speed.
“At the moment we are happy about the situation, but nevertheless, we need to keep alert, we need to stay tuned and work hard the next couple of days to work out what is the best setup for the race, how the weather is doing, how the track is developing.
“The team is hugely motivated and looking forward to what is going on here, especially since last year. We see that we are the favorites based one what we have done in the two races before and the test day.”
Toyota will field three cars at Le Mans for the first time this weekend, entering the No. 9 car to join the full-season FIA World Endurance Championship entries.
As well as having a numbers advantage over Porsche, Leupen feels that the third car will give Toyota an opportunity to experiment more with setups to benefit its leading runners.
“I think we will use the car to find the best setup for all cars. You can do some more testing of course, and this is one of the benefits you see in the third car having it now,” he said.
“You play all the cards you have. Definitely the engineers are looking to this and you can test different tire compounds in a different way. That’s the added value of a third car, also for the race.
“If you can use the third car, whatever of the cars depending on the positions, then you can influence a bit, you can test a bit more, you can experiment there what’s required, so that is what we will do.”
Leupen also believes the third car will give Toyota greater flexibility when it comes to strategy in the race.
“For an example, if you want to go for 15 laps – which will not be the case, but as an example – you can try that on one car depending on where the position is,” he said.
“For the other two cars, maybe in a better position, you could do it. This is all looking in a crystal ball, we will find out during the race.
“There I think the real skills of our racing engineers will have to appear because you then have to manage and read the race as quick as possible.”
Leupen compared Toyota’s preparation for this year’s race to 2014, when it took pole position before seeing its victory hopes dashed by an on-track crash early on and a reliability issue later in the race.
“I think we are well-prepared,” Leupen said. “In ’14 we were very well prepared but it was with one car less. ’15, we knew that we would have a very hard time, ’16 it was a new car to develop.
“So yes, ’14 and ’17 we were very well prepared here. But I think here we are very determined and very motivated. The team has done a great job and is really focusing on that.
“It feels really good to be within this environment.”
John Dagys contributed to this report