TOYOTA GAZOO Racing’s 2022 FIA World Endurance Championship (WEC) season officially began at Sebring International Raceway with the two-day Prologue test at the legendary Florida venue.
The traditional test is a curtain-raiser for the first round of the 2022 season, when TOYOTA GAZOO Racing will begin the defence of its World Championships in the 1000 Miles of Sebring on Friday.
On a weekend when set-up development and data gathering were the priorities, neither GR010 HYBRID went in search of outright lap times as the team adjusted to the newly-implemented balance of performance, which includes a higher deployment speed for the hybrid motor. The #8 crew of Sébastien Buemi, Brendon Hartley and Ryo Hirakawa set the ninth fastest lap of the two days, 1min 49.101secs, while the reigning World Champions Mike Conway, Kamui Kobayashi and José María López, in the #7 car, were 15th, with a best time of 1min49.465s.
The team’s only previous visit to the birthplace of American endurance racing came in 2019, when it set a new lap record on its way to victory with the TS050 HYBRID. So the GR010 HYBRID Hypercar, which has been slightly modified for the 2022 season, made its debut at Sebring when testing began on Saturday morning.
Ryo was also making his Sebring debut, and his first official appearance as a TOYOTA GAZOO Racing WEC driver. He turned his first laps of the 6.019km circuit soon after the morning session started.
Sebring, built on a former airfield from the 1940s, is famous for its bumpy, concrete surface, so the team worked immediately to optimise suspension and aerodynamic settings on the GR010 HYBRID for this unique challenge.
A heavy storm interrupted the first morning and halted the test around an hour earlier than planned due to the conditions. Strong winds continued but the rain passed and the track dried quickly to allow the team’s intense programme of set-up and tyre comparisons to continue in the afternoon.
Sunday started bright but unusually cold for Florida, with temperatures as low as 10℃ in the morning. That allowed further testing of the various Michelin tyre compounds as well as further mechanical and aerodynamic set-up investigations.
A productive two days in terms of data gathered and understanding of how the GR010 HYBRID behaves around the Sebring circuit represents a positive end to pre-season preparations for TOYOTA GAZOO Racing. The season kicks off on Wednesday with first practice sessions for the 1000 Miles of Sebring, before qualifying on Thursday and the race itself on Friday evening, beginning at midday local time and ending in darkness at 8pm.
Mike Conway (Driver, car #7): “We have worked hard to find the sweet spot in the car and understand the tyres and how they work on short and long runs. We’ve learned a lot over these last two days, so it’s been a productive test for us. We look as though we are a little behind the competition at the moment, but we are just working on our own programme, and we will see what happens. It’s always nice to be back at Sebring and we’ve been looking forward to this for a while. We have a championship to retain and hopefully we can start the season well.”
Kamui Kobayashi (Driver, car #7): “This is an important test for us. We are trying to find the right balance and there is more work to do, but we still have time to make more adjustments to the set-up. To be back at Sebring is great, even with the massive bumps! It’s always exciting at the beginning of the season. Of course, we are the reigning champions, and we have won the title for the last two seasons, so we will do our best to win it again. We have the same driver line-up on car #7 but we have changed our engineer and made some other changes to the team, so we have to build and become stronger through 2022, which I believe we can do.”
José María López (Driver, car #7): “It’s good to be back and nice to be starting a fresh season with new challenges and new expectations. I’m also happy to be back at Sebring after a couple of years. It’s always a special place to start the season and I’m really enjoying it. I’m a bit surprised by the pace of some of our rivals, but it’s all part of the game. We will try to extract the maximum we can from our car and see what happens. It’s early days, but it looks like it is going to be a very tight race.”
Sébastien Buemi (Driver, car #8): “It’s been a good couple of days in terms of reliability. It’s such a bumpy track, so from that aspect I am happy to see how well the GR010 HYBRID coped with the circuit. It looks like it’s going to be tough to fight for victory because the LMP2s are very fast here. We will look at the data now and try to improve the car in every way we can. To be honest, I am quite happy with how things went, it’s just now we need to optimise what we have and go into the race weekend as prepared as we can. I am looking forward to going racing again, I must say.”
Brendon Hartley (Driver, car #8): “It’s been a fun couple of days back in the car. Sebring is a great track, old school, bumpy, it’s got character and it’s high risk and unforgiving if you make a mistake. It makes you feel alive to drive this car around here. We’ve had minimal dramas and no mechanical issues. It’s been pretty smooth operationally. We are going to have to put the perfect race together, from strategy, mechanics in the pitstops, drivers to try and win the race. It’s going to be a challenge but we will do our best.”
Ryo Hirakawa (Driver, car #8): “I am pleased with my first experiences of the GR010 HYBRID at Sebring. Everyone told me about the bumpy surface and it was just like I expected, so I was well prepared. The two days went well, even though the weather sometimes caused some difficulties, and we got a lot of information about the car. Now I am really looking forward to my first race weekend alongside Séb and Brendon as part of TOYOTA GAZOO Racing in WEC.”