Le Mans rookie Jose Maria Lopez was offered a confidence boost by his strong showing for Toyota Gazoo Racing at last weekend’s test day, calling his first outing at the Circuit de la Sarthe “amazing.”
Three-time WTCC champion Lopez joined Toyota for this year’s FIA World Endurance Championship in tandem with his duties in Formula E for DS Virgin Racing, although has completed only six race laps in WEC action so far this season.
Lopez crashed out on debut at Silverstone and was forced to skip the WEC Six Hours of Spa-Francorchamps from a resulting minor back injury, prompting the Japanese manufacturer to move him into the No. 9 Toyota TS050 Hybrid, its third car, for the 24 Hours of Le Mans.
The Argentinean set the fourth-fastest time overall and finished as the quickest driver in the No. 9 car in the single-day test, as Toyota locked out the top three positions on the time sheets.
“I thought the times weren’t too bad for a rookie at Le Mans,” Lopez told Sportscar365.
“The most important thing is that the team performs well and the cars were quick as well, so we really hope we can keep up and be competitive as well in the race weekend because it’s a huge event for everyone.
“I think it’s always good for the confidence to be competitive straight away. But it doesn’t mean anything.
“I have very good teammates. Yuji [Kunimoto] did a very good job, Nico [Lapierre] is a great driver, and I think we have a good team. We are an inexperienced team, but I think as a third car we can achieve a good result as well.”
Lopez spoke warmly of his first experience driving at Le Mans, but feels there is plenty more that he needs to learn throughout practice next week before being fully at ease.
“It felt really amazing,” he said. “You can feel the circuit. LMP1 cars are made for Le Mans. You can see all the potential of this car there. It was amazing. The Porsche Curves, Indianapolis, everything, the braking of Arnage.
“There are still a few things I need to experience, at night, and a little bit more of the traffic, but it is a really hard race, you can see why. It’s special for everyone.
“The biggest challenge I think will be being able to do a smooth race. I don’t think the challenge is the speed.
“I think the challenge is trying not to do any mistakes or hit any GT or any car when you’re passing because it can be a bit unpredictable, and trying not to have any mechanical issues in a 24-hour race is very difficult.
“It’s very demanding. It’s a very cruel race. Everyone knows that. So we’ll see what happens.”
Toyota heads into next weekend’s race as favorites after showing a clear pace advantage over two-time and defending Le Mans winners Porsche, which struggled with its 2017-spec 919 Hybrid at the test day.