TOYOTA GAZOO Racing leads the 87th Le Mans 24 Hours after the first quarter of the race, having set a new lap record in the opening stages of the 2018-2019 FIA World Endurance Championship (WEC) finale.
After six hours, the #7 TS050 HYBRID of Mike Conway, Kamui Kobayashi and José María López held a lead of less than half a minute over the World Championship-leading #8 car of Sébastien Buemi, Kazuki Nakajima and Fernando Alonso.
Mike took the start from pole position in the #7 TS050 HYBRID and kept the lead through the action-packed opening corners. With a clear track ahead, he set a new race lap record on the fourth lap, setting a time of 3mins 17.297secs as he set out to build an advantage over Sébastien in the #8.
Both TS050 HYBRID crews are able to win the drivers’ World Championship this weekend, but Sébastien, Kazuki and Fernando hold the upper hand with a 30-point lead with a maximum of 38 points still to be won.
Mike gradually increased his lead and, when he handed over to Kamui following four stints, with 43 laps completed on the same set of Michelin tyres, the #7 led by around 40 seconds. Fernando took over the #8 a lap later but soon the gap increased to a minute around a full course yellow.
As track conditions evolved, both cars took the chance to adjust their aerodynamic set-up by switching front ends at scheduled pit stops. The contest between the two was intense and Fernando gradually reduced Kamui’s lead, bringing it down to 45secs at the end of his stint.
When Fernando brought the #8 in for his scheduled stop to hand over to Kazuki, a safety car was brought out due to an LMP2 spin. A lap later Kamui also had to pit, swapping with José, and both cars lost time when they were held at the pit exit.
The #8 suffered most from that situation but soon recovered the lost time and more when another safety was brought out due to a GT accident. At the six-hour mark, the lead for the #8 was under half a minute from the #7, with the #17 SMP Racing in third, a lap down.
Mike Conway (#7 TS050 HYBRID): “It was a good first stint. The car felt good and I could push straight away. I kept it all clean on the first lap then pushed hard. I was able to pull away from the sister car and build a good gap. It can easily change but we will keep pushing and try to extend that gap.”
Kamui Kobayashi (#7 TS050 HYBRID): “Everything went fine for me. Mike did a good job to build up an advantage in his stint so I concentrated on maintaining a strong pace and keeping the car in one piece. It’s only a few hours into the race and the night is the challenging time at Le Mans.”
Sébastien Buemi (#8 TS050 HYBRID): “It was a difficult first stint for me and I lost a little bit of time to Mike, who did a good job. We are now trying to make up some of the time we lost and the car is behaving pretty well. There is a long way to go and we keep focused; let’s wait and see.”
Fernando Alonso (#8 TS050 HYBRID): “My stint went okay. We are still in the race; we are not out of contention. Last year we were two-and-a-half minutes behind and we won the race. It’s difficult to match the other car on pure pace but we will push. The race is long.”