Toyota Gazoo Racing’s newest signee Brendon Hartley says he was pleased with his performance during his first race weekend with the LMP1 Hybrid team in the 2019/20 FIA WEC season opener at Silverstone.
The Kiwi, who is now racing in the seat filled by Fernando Alonso during the 2018-19 season, returned to LMP1 and narrowly missed out on victory in a 1-2 for the Japanese marque on Sunday. He was behind the wheel during the changeable conditions early in the race last weekend, led the race and battled hard with Kamui Kobayashi in the sister car before handing over to Kazuki Nakajima, who ultimately went on to finish second.
“It was an interesting first hour, racing in the wet on slick tires with no window wiper,” he noted wryly. “It was a good feeling for myself during the race and I feel I get on really well with Kaz (Nakjima) and Sebastien (Buemi). Both cars were evenly matched — we lost time under the safety car. We had to change the wiper too at a pit stop which cost us. But one of us had to cross the line first, and on this occasion we finished under two seconds behind.”
During the race Hartley was able to experience the new Silverstone track surface in the dry and wet. It proved to be smoother, grippier and as a result, faster, with all four class lap records shattered.
“The feeling on the circuit was good. It was good both in the dry and wet,” he said. “I’ve raced on newly laid surfaces before and had zero grip in the wet. That wasn’t the case here, even on slicks. It was fun to drive in an LMP1 hybrid.”
Hartley, a previous Le Mans winner and WEC champion with Porsche, says that the Toyota feels very different to the 919 Hybrid he competed with in the past. But he feels nearly up to speed already after a debut with the team at the Le Mans Test Day earlier this year and pre-season testing.
“It went really well. It’s been tricky getting up to speed with the TS050 HYBRID. The other drivers in the team have a lot of experience in the car. It’s quirky — you have to manage a few things with the energy, so coming into the race I wasn’t 100% sure how it would go and if I could put everything together. But I was happy with my pace and my performance. We ended up second but I have a feeling we’ll share more success in the future.”
As for the privateer competition, Hartley told RACER that he was impressed by the pace shown from both Rebellion Racing and Team LNT. With the new LMP1 success handicap system in place for this season — which increasingly penalizes individual cars throughout the season if they regularly win — Hartley looks forward to the prospect of a real challenge as the season wears on.
“The final result (which saw all four privateer LMP1s finish off the lead lap) doesn’t reflect how close they were. It’s obvious we have an advantage in traffic still. We can save energy in one place and use it in another; we’re lighter on tires. I know there were issues for some of them but in Free Practice they were strong. Just in the race they didn’t get anything together.
“The gap was a bit of a surprise, especially after what they showed in testing. But with the handicap in play, I think things could swing around quite quickly. The weight this weekend, when you put kilos in the car you lose pure lap time — it’s physics. There’s no hiding that the extra weight we had this weekend slowed us this weekend. But we still won the race, and still had the advantage in race pace.
“We all want wheel-to-wheel racing, tough battles and if that’s what we’ll get then I’m in favor (of this system). We need to let it play out over the year, this is a bit of a trial.”
Next up on the calendar is the WEC race at Fuji Speedway, a race which Hartley won back in 2015 with Porsche. A return to racing at Fuji after a year spent in Formula 1 last year, is something he is looking forward to as Toyota will be out to win its fourth straight WEC race on home soil.
“I’m very much looking forward to returning to Fuji, and race in front of Toyota’s home crowd. I’ve had some nice memories there in the past. So we’re looking forward to seeing what we can do this time.”