The center of Le Mans was taken over by the first day of scrutineering ahead of next weekend’s 87th running of the Le Mans 24 Hours, with 22 cars presented to the ACO’s technical team and the usual hoard of fans today.
In the prototype ranks, Toyota Gazoo Racing’s pair of TS050 hybrids and the team’s six drivers were the headliners, Fernando Alonso and his 2018 Le Mans-winning teammates Kazuki Nakajima and Sebastien Buemi attracting most of the attention from the media in attendance.
But the No. 7 crew of Mike Conway, Jose Maria Lopez and Kaumi Kobayashi were also on hand, and lest we forget, they are still in with a solid chance of winning Le Mans for the first time as well as the WEC drivers championship.
“It’s been an up and down season but we’ve done a good job to maximize performance this season,” Conway told RACER. “There’s a lot to play for — the win at Le Mans and the championship. The aim here is another 1-2; that would be ideal and we’ll push for it.
“Looks like the competition will be closer here. We need to push all the time; you can’t not push here because it’s so on edge that if you take it easy you’ll make mistakes. You just don’t need to risk everything through traffic. We’ll push each until the end.
“The privateers have made good strides,” Conway continued. “There’ve been rule changes, too. They’re looking quick, with high top speeds. Qualifying — they have a good shot of being on the front row.”
Rebellion Racing, arguably Toyota’s closest competition in the LMP1 ranks, was also present today. The Swiss team showed off its brand new liveries to the public for the first time: Both R-13s now sport a “paint-splattered look” as part of a tie-up with artist Tomyboy and his brand Rocketbyz.
The team’s garage, too, is also set to be dressed in a matching color scheme.
As for the race, Rebellion was encouraged by its new low-downforce aero kits, which it tried for the first time in last weekend’s Test Day. Neel Jani, though, doesn’t expect the new aero to bring the team much closer to the TS050 hybrids, which have dominated during the 2018/19 Super Season.
“Testing wasn’t bad in the end,” he said. “The new kit is a good improvement from last year. But is it enough? It’s not enough to beat Toyota, [and] SMP seems strong, so we’ll see. It’s not clear that we’re the first team behind Toyota now.
“It’s not too different though: Toyota is up front; they can beat themselves, hopefully. That’s our only chance. Between us and SMP, it will be a hard fight, but SMP will decide this race. We hope reliability will decide this race, and not just pace.”
Despite Conway’s outlook, Jani, who will stop racing in the FIA WEC after Le Mans to compete in Formula E with Porsche, believes that pole position for Rebellion is out of the question.
“Pole position will be impossible. This year has been strange. We’ve had bad luck with our car, so many times. It’s been a bad season but we’ll be hoping our luck turns around here.”
Many LMP2 teams also went through today, including Panic Barthez Competition, Cetilar Racing, Racing Team Nederland and Larbre Competition.
Championship hopefuls Jackie Chan DC Racing also went through, its pair of ORECAs sporting new liveries for this year’s Le Mans thanks to the addition of new backers. One of those is Wayne Taylor Racing’s prime sponsor, Konica Minolta, which now features on the side of the No. 37 07 Gibson as part of Acura Team Penske driver Ricky Taylor’s deal to race with the team alongside Jordan King and David Heinemeier Hansson.
“It’s obviously the same chassis for me that I race with the ARX-05, but it’s quite a contrast. It’s a learning curve coming from Detroit to Le Mans — two very different street tracks. It was my first time in the car at the test, but the guys do a good job here.
“I’m really excited for race week. This is the best chance I’ve had at a win in LMP2. It’s been my goal to drive with a team like this here.”