Toyota Gazoo Racing Team Director Rob Leupen says moving Jose Maria Lopez to the third Toyota TS050 Hybrid for the 24 Hours of Le Mans gives the Japanese manufacturer the opportunity to have the “best lineup” in stacking experienced drivers in its two lead LMP1 entries.
Lopez, who sustained a minor vertebrae fracture in an accident in April’s FIA World Endurance Championship season-opening Six Hours of Silverstone, was sidelined for the second round of the season at Spa last month, leaving the Argentinean with just four race laps of experience prior to Le Mans.
Lopez will be paired with Super Formula champion Yuji Kunimoto, who struggled in his LMP1 debut at Spa, and returnee Nicolas Lapierre. This has resulted in the three least experienced Toyota drivers sharing the No. 9 car.
Toyota’s reshuffle is completed by team veteran Stephane Sarrazin returning to the No. 7 car for Le Mans, to take Lopez’s place alongside Kamui Kobayashi and Mike Conway.
“With the third car, it gives us an opportunity to come with the best [overall] lineup,” Leupen told Sportscar365. “It’s not good if you have a car like No. 7 and Jose Maria in there, who has hardly any race mileage.
“The decision was to do it with Steph is a very strong one because Kamui and Mike drove with them last year. So it fits.
“A reason why you’re happy to have a third car is the flexibility in this respect, and it helped out a lot.”
While both drivers have extensive mileage in testing, with Lopez having served as an unofficial test driver last year, Sunday’s Le Mans Test Day will be vital for both Lopez and Kunimoto in getting more experience in race-like conditions.
The biggest learning curve, Leupen said, will be their coming to grips with traffic.
“Yuji and Jose Maria have a huge learning curve tomorrow,” he said. “I think that is the car to watch, on how they develop and come through the day.
“I think we are seeing it as a car you can experiment with, you can see it a car which you can improve your strategy with or anticipate.
“We have to give all three cars the best opportunity to see what their positions are.
“At certain times you reconsider what your options are. Then you maybe put different strategies to one or the other car.
“But I think from the beginning, we let them race, and control that, and then start to anticipate.”
While Lopez crashed the No. 9 Toyota during a two-day shakedown at Spa last month, at no fault of his own due to a brake balance issue, Leupen is confident in both Toyota newcomer’s abilities.
He said there was no consideration to replace either driver for Le Mans, despite their lack of experience.
“We are confident they are both good drivers but of course they haven’t done Le Mans and they haven’t done much [racing in] traffic,” Leupen said.
“Yuji came to Spa and we could see that he had to adapt himself to the track and it was not easy for him. He’s learned a lot. We went to Cologne and into the simulator.
“Jose has only done four laps in [race conditions] at Silverstone.
“So it’s a little bit of ‘let’s see what happens tomorrow’ but we have big confidence they are intelligent and quick drivers.
“Jose is a three-time WTCC champion. Yuji beat Kazuki [Nakajima] and Andre [Lotterer] in Super Formula. From that point of view, there are no worries about their speed.
“It’s the experience and you can only get it here.”