Toyota Gazoo Racing was “surprised” by differences in qualifying and race pace between its pair of cars and the AF Corse Ferrari 499Ps during Friday’s 1000 Miles of Sebring.
Mike Conway, Jose Maria Lopez and Kamui Kobayashi led home a dominant 1-2 for the Japanese manufacturer after Ferrari took pole position courtesy of Antonio Fuoco.
Fuoco’s pole time on Thursday was 0.2 seconds quicker than the best Toyota qualifying effort, while the quickest race lap set by Sebastien Buemi in the No. 8 Toyota beat Ferrari’s equivalent time by six-tenths.
Ferrari led the opening stages of the FIA World Endurance Championship season-opener, but the Toyotas took control after AF Corse pitted both of its 499Ps under an early safety car.
The No. 50 Ferrari also received a drive-through penalty when Fuoco overtook an Aston Martin Vantage GTE before the line at the end of the safety car period, but the Toyotas also laid down a strong pace over long runs as they set off towards a commanding win.
“Very clearly we have had different approaches to the race,” suggested Toyota technical director Pascal Vasselon.
“For us, quali is never a priority. We always develop the car for race pace. It’s not like F1 where your race is good only if you are [high on the grid]. We never have any quali setup.
“This probably explains this result. We have been surprised by the race pace difference.”
Ferrari’s head of GT and sports race cars Ferdinando Cannizzo said: “I think we prepared the car quite well for qualifying and probably we need to improve for the race.
“Of course what we found very difficult is being in traffic. It was very difficult so maybe something that we need to think [about] for the future. But this race gave us a lot of information, a lot of interesting stuff.
“Even in the mistakes, we know that we can [learn] from them and not repeat [them] in the future. Everything, in every area I think we have a lot of small things that we can improve and do better.”
Vasselon added that it was the “target” for Toyota to bank as many points as possible at Sebring considering several of its Hypercar competitors were new to the class.
Porsche Penske Motorsport and Cadillac team Chip Ganassi Racing were both fielding LMDh cars in the WEC for the first time, while the Ferrari 499P was making its global race debut.
“We are impressed by some of the newcomers,” Vasselon acknowledged.
“With Ferrari, they have had this car which has done eight hours without issues. Cadillac as well. It’s quite impressive. They will be very quickly close to us.”
Conway, who took an early points lead alongside Lopez and Kobayashi, indicated that Toyota used the opening stages of the race to see how it would stack up over the long runs.
“The first couple of stints were all about tire management and getting through the double stints and just seeing how we were going to fare to our competition,” he said.
“It went quite well, and we seemed to have the pace, especially when we needed to keep the tires, and that kind of gave us the advantage.
“Obviously, Ferrari went off-strategy, and it just didn’t go their way. And then [the aim] was to increase the lead with the stint pace we had.”
After breaking clear from the Ferraris, the Toyotas were closely matched for the rest of the race and only separated when Kobayashi was released ahead of Hartley just before halfway.
“When we hear that in past years we have had an easy life: absolutely not,” said Vasselon.
“Today again it has been a very stressful race. Our two cars have been flat-out, and it has been difficult to manage.
“It’s very difficult to elaborate because the two cars finished within three seconds after eight hours. It’s virtually equal.”