Stephane Sarrazin says the lack of an assured drive with Toyota in the FIA World Endurance Championship this year played a role in his transition to SMP Racing.
The 42-year-old Frenchman confirmed his switch to the privateer Russian LMP1 outfit on Monday, ending six years of involvement with the Toyota factory program.
Sarrazin completed four full WEC campaigns with Toyota and was an original member of its LMP1 lineup when it debuted at Le Mans in 2012.
Last year he assumed a test and reserve role that also included two appearances in the manufacturer’s third Toyota TS050 Hybrid, as well as a third outing to replace Anthony Davidson at COTA.
However, various factors including Toyota’s decision to scale back its Le Mans entry from three to two cars in the wake of Porsche’s LMP1 exit meant Sarrazin was not guaranteed a race seat in 2018-19.
“I’m really happy to be back in a full-time WEC drive,” Sarrazin told Sportscar365. “When Toyota stopped the third car and signed Fernando Alonso, which no doubt is very good for Toyota and the championship, it put me on the side in terms of driving.
“I had a contract until 2018, so if the third car was going to Le Mans I would have been in there for sure. But with only two cars, it wouldn’t have been easy to stay.
“All the time I want to improve myself and the best way of doing that is to compete, so it was in my best interest to switch. It’s very important for me to keep racing and fighting for victory.
“I recently received this very good opportunity from SMP to experience a different challenge, and now I’m excited to discover the car and team.”
Sarrazin will turn his first laps behind the wheel of the new ART Grand Prix-run BR Engineering BR1 AER in the next two weeks.
He was not in Spain for the recent bout of LMP1 pre-season testing last month but is confident that despite having not seen the car, he will find the shift from hybrid to non-hybrid manageable.
Sarrazin noted his experience developing the Oreca 05 LMP2 car and racing the Oreca 07 Gibson at Daytona last year would ease his learning curve in the similarly configured BR1.
Results-wise, he believes challenging Toyota’s hybrid package will be a tall order, but also reckons SMP can have the measure of the non-hybrid field.
“We have to be realistic,” said Sarrazin. “Toyota is about to start its seventh season in a row, so it’s not only one of the most experienced teams, but also has a very fast car that could have won Le Mans last year.
“SMP, on the other hand, has a completely new car. ART is a very strong team and has lots of experience in Formula 2, but even with that expertise we will all need to learn about the car together.
“I think that if we win the category – not overall but best of the privateer cars – we would be happy.”
Fond Memories of “Incredible” Toyota Stint
Sarrazin said his time with Toyota will stand as an important part of his career.
Joining the Japanese manufacturer after five years at Peugeot, Sarrazin racked up three victories and 17 podiums, including two at Le Mans, out of 37 races contested.
In a spell full of memorable moments, Sarrazin considers his 2016 Mexico podium with Mike Conway and Kamui Kobayashi as a standout.
“I remember doing almost four hours in the car, driving in wet, drying and slick conditions,” he said.
“I had a crash during free practice. I think I only did five laps beforehand, so I started without knowing the track very well.
“We went on to have some great battles with Porsche and Audi – I think it was one of my best races with Toyota.”
Despite competing against his former employer this year, Sarrazin emphasizes that the off-track relationships he garnered at Toyota will continue.
“It will be strange to see the team from at another part of the pit lane,” he said. “But I had a great time with the whole crew and will remain friends with the engineers, mechanics and drivers.
“Toyota was an incredible period of my career that will remain very important to me.”